Thursday, July 19, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Newpoint's lesson in bad charter schools

There are those who believe our public school system is little more than a den of illiteracy, populated by hapless teachers, inept administrators and a curricula teaming with radical Marxist liberal ideas like evolution, climate change and unfounded claims the South lost the Civil War.

And it has been that antipathy toward a public school education that largely fueled the charter school movement as some sort of classroom Camelot.

In the eyes of the Florida Department of Education, once freed from "regulations created for traditional schools," the charters would be unleashed to innovate and create more effective programs for our kiddos. Or put another way, the advent of charter schools in Florida essentially created a two-tier education system across the state — one bound by more regulation and an insane and shifting system measuring (or not) student success. The other, not so much.

One of the beneficiaries of Florida's charter school scheme was Newpoint Education Partners, which managed five Pinellas County schools attended by 900 students funded by $6 million in public money.

But a recent indictment of Newpoint Education Partners over it mishandling of three Escambia County charter schools has brought greater scrutiny of the company's Pinellas operations. In Escambia, the company is accused of laundering money and fraudulently billing for supplies, equipment and services.

In Pinellas, school district audits of Newpoint have unearthed less Camelot and more … uh, cluster. Among the findings reported by the Tampa Bay Times are systemic lax paperwork, fast and loose spending practices, dirty classrooms, excessive teacher turnover, failure to pay vendors, patterns of conflict-of-interest and cronyism. Other than that, Newpoint is a veritable Mr. Chips factory.

Indeed, even after Newpoint ran away from its responsibilities to manage Windsor Preparatory Academy, East Windsor Middle Academy, Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Newpoint Pinellas High, effectively leaving behind the schools to fend for themselves, the company still shamelessly continued to collect its management fees. A fifth troubled charter, Enterprise High in Clearwater quietly delinked from Newpoint last year, but the company kept collecting its checks.

Are there some very good charter schools in Florida? Sure. But the Newpoint debacle serves as a prime object lesson for everything that is suspect about the charter school movement.

Newpoint had a horrible reputation in Florida, where six of 15 charter schools it operated have closed. And another seven schools, including the Pinellas County campuses, have either severed ties with Newpoint or are in the process of dumping the company.

In theory, school districts are supposed to monitor the charters. But the reality is stretched-thin school district administrators often only learn of a charter school's failing until it is too late. And with Newpoint it's always way too late. But the checks still get deposited.

Whatever their virtues, charter schools still drain away precious resources that could, and should, be directed at traditional public schools. Or put another way, why should public tax dollars be diverted to support a charter school that is used by a for-profit management company as a profit center? What would we call this? Socialized corporate educational welfare?

There is precious little evidence charter schools represent a renaissance of intellectual firepower. For example, of the four remaining schools still under Newpoint's stumblebum management until its executives ran away, one school had a state grade of B, one received a C and two others were D rated schools.

Here's a revolutionary concept. If a group of investors believes it has a successful educational concept, great. Go start your own private school without grifting tax dollars away from public classrooms. It's called capitalism. It's all the rage. They even teach it in economics classes, but not it would seem at any of Newpoint's schools.

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