Florida must take a closer look at charter schools
Florida’s charter school movement had humble beginnings in the early 1990s as pioneers promised tailored, successful programs. Since then the movement exploded from a handful to just over 652 schools today.
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 all 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.
One glaring example of 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 accusations targeting Turkish exile Fethullah Gulen for backing 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.
Florida has one of the country’s larger Gulen education networks. Twelve schools here receive about $30 million in taxpayer funds to serve 4,500 students. Media reports and open public records provide compelling evidence that much of this money is fraudulently misdirected.
The schools are run by Charter Educational Services & Resources (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 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.
Due 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.
The real estate investors paid very little for improvements. Instead, River City Science Academy footed most of the bill, including the cost of a new gym, only to buy the properties later for $12.5 million. In bond statements used to finance the acquisition, no credit was given to the school for investing over $1 million in upgrades.
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. This cannot be considered anything but a terrible deal for Florida, yet Gulen charters are set up to avoid such unbiased scrutiny.
Georgia, however, exposed Gulen affiliates’ conflicts of interest, nepotism, fraud, and improper use of public funds. The plot was thwarted, and no Gulen charter schools remain in that state.
For other charter networks, fiscal irresponsibility is undermining the entire charter industry. It’s time to protect taxpayers and children from potentially nefarious forces undermining the quality of our school choices.