Flor­ida must take a closer look at char­ter schools

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - By Pamela Good­man Pamela Good­man is the pres­i­dent of the League of Women Vot­ers of Flor­ida.

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.

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