POINT OF VIEW: Time for Florida to take a closer look at charters

    Oct 18, 2017

Florida’s charter school movement had humble beginnings in the 1990s, as pioneers promised tailored programs. Along the way, the lucrative for-profit industry convinced Florida’s Legislature and governor, through House Bill 7069, that their privately owned facilities should be funded at equal levels to Florida’s 4,200 public schools. This comes despite research showing charters have the highest closure rate in the nation with over 300 closed charters, and worse academic performance than similar publicly run schools in Florida’s major cities.

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One glaring example of the lax accountability is the fact that a foreign company is able to run the largest charter chains in the nation while using our tax dollars to fund an international religious movement. Some will remember allegations that Turkish exile Fethullah Gulen helped back a failed government overthrow in his home country a year ago. Many quickly became concerned that a network of approximately 170 American charter schools operated by his followers, a dozen right here in Florida, could be involved.

Twelve Gulen schools here in Florida receive about $30 million in taxpayer funds to serve 4,500 students. Reports in the Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Bay Times, Florida Times-Union and open public records provide compelling evidence that much of this money is fraudulently misdirected.

The schools are run by Charter Educational Services & Resources, a company originally known as Grace Institute, which exited Georgia after rampant abuses were uncovered.

Florida’s Gulen charter schools follow a national pattern of excessive use of “specialty occupation” visas, although the roles filled by immigrants are far from specialized. From 2001 through 2016, Florida Gulen schools filed for at least 195 visas for such positions as principal, curriculum coordinator and business manager.

The jobs were given primarily to Turkish men, many of whom were still learning English when they arrived. Not only is this a slight to more qualified American teachers, Floridians may be spending up to $4,000 per application to fund this immigration.

Thanks to HB 7069 and other laws, Florida is unable to protect itself against a Ponzi scheme operating in our school system. Gulen schools are required to rent or buy property from other Gulenist interests and hire associated construction firms. To see how this works, consider the case of River City Science Academy in Jacksonville.

Gulenist Yazan Khatib purchased two properties under the auspices of River City Plaza LLC, one for $100 at a foreclosure auction and the other for $340,000. According to government records, Blue Ocean Construction, owned by a River City Plaza employee, was retained for renovations.

In the end, River City Plaza made a $10.5 million profit, Blue Ocean Construction earned nearly $2 million, and taxpayers spent nearly $30 million, including a public bond.

These financial practices will undoubtedly lead to even more charter school closures. Florida’s underfunded public school system will be left to pick up the slack. It’s time to protect taxpayers and children from potentially nefarious forces undermining the quality of our school choices.

PAMELA S. GOODMAN, TALLAHASSEE

Editor’s note: Pamela S. Goodman is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.