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U.S.: State broke charter-school rules

The Florida Department of Education has mismanaged federal grants for charter schools, including how it awarded money and let local districts run the program, a federal education official said.

Florida awarded grant money to a few ineligible charter schools and improperly withheld it from others, said Dean Kern, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Charter School Program.

Some of the problems were even more basic, Kern said in an e-mail to the state. A list of charter school contacts provided by the state had out-of-date telephone numbers for disconnected lines.

In reviewing Florida's most recent grant application, Kern said the state has ceded administration of the grant program to the 67 local school districts, "causing major inconsistencies" in the how the grant's rules are interpreted.

Theresa Klebacha, executive director of Florida's school choice office, promised Kern by e-mail that she was working to improve the department she took over less than a year ago. She did not respond to Kern's detailed questions but said answers would be sent.

"Of course, the role and responsibility of our office regarding program oversight and administration must be enhanced to address observed current weaknesses," she wrote.

Charter schools were created in 1996 to let private groups and corporations get public money to run public schools free from many state and school district regulations. Florida has more than 304 charter schools.

Once they are open, charter schools' operating expenses are covered by the state. But the federal grant money is often critical to new charter schools, because it can be used to pay for startup expenses.

Nearly $23-million in federal grants is available to Florida charter schools this year. The state has received more than $87-million in grants since 1999.