OPINION: Fund public schools, forget charters

With a history of money mismanagement and compromised education standards, charter schools have no place in Hillsborough County. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/Hillsborough County Schools

Mater Academy, Inc., a South Florida charter school company, was granted permission and funding by the Hillsborough County School Board on Sept. 21 to open an elementary and middle school in unspecified Hillsborough locations.

Hillsborough County shouldn’t build more charter schools, which often take advantage of taxpayer dollars to the deficit of students. It should instead focus on improvements to the Hillsborough public education system.

Charter schools were designed to be publicly funded schools, free from heavy oversight to encourage innovation in education. This system has often been taken advantage of by unreliable operators who disappear with hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of taxpayer dollars.

Florida law requires school districts to approve or deny new charters based on applications operators submit outlining their plans in instruction, mission and budget. The statutes don’t require criminal screenings nor a candidate’s financial or educational past.

Individuals with a history of failed schools, shaky personal finances or no experience running schools can open and operate charters.

As such, Broward County didn’t know of former Broward College Dean Winston Thompson’s history of payments to creditors, foreclosures and bankruptcy when it allotted him over $100,000 in 2013 to operate a charter school in its district, according to a 2014 Sun Sentinel investigation.

Thompson opened the College Bound Academy of Excellence, which reportedly had no textbooks nor buses to transport students. Several employees complained of bounced checks, and the school owed nearly $141,000 to its landlord. The academy shut down in October 2013 after two months of subpar education, displacing 60 students.

There have been cases across South Florida of charter schools opening and closing doors within a matter of months. Though Thompson denied keeping any of the money granted by the school district, the funds couldn’t be recovered. When charter schools fail, the funds meant to be refunded to the school district often disappear. 

A handful of South Florida charter schools that failed in the past few years owe over $1 million in taxpayer dollars to local school districts, according to the Sun Sentinel. Because of the lack of oversight granted to charters, school districts struggle to track spending.

Charter schools receive funds in monthly installments based on student enrollment. If a charter school overestimates its enrollment, or if money is unspent, it is required by law to be returned to school districts. Charter schools are required to submit financial reports, but some don’t file them or turn in unreliable paperwork, according to the Sun Sentinel. In a Florida public school, nearly every cent of taxpayer money is tracked and accounted for.

Management companies like Mater Academy make it even more difficult for school districts to track where money flows in charters. These companies provide services ranging from targeted assignments to wholesale management of schools and can receive anywhere from 10% to 97% of a school’s budget.

“They’re public schools in the front door, … for-profit closed entities in the back door,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of an Orlando-based education advocacy group, in a 2013 interview with the Sentinel. “There’s no transparency. The public has no ability to see where the profits are, how the money is spent.”

Whom these companies hire and how they spend tax money are out of public view. In the last decade, state investigators cited several of these management companies with misusing federal money under the guise of providing meals for low-income children in South Florida.

Hillsborough County School Board should not allot any taxpayer money to a management company for charter schools, which are unreliable in quality and spending practices. Instead, it should focus on improving the Hillsborough County public school system which has over 200,000 students. 

The funds for Mater Academy could be used to repair school buildings, provide school materials to low-income children or buy new books for public schools. 

Instead of shirking the responsibility of education onto unreliable third parties, the school board should funnel that money into improving the current school system which can be openly traced and held accountable for the education provided to students.