Florida education board moves to weed out troubled charter school operators

Published June 25, 2015

TAMPA — The State Board of Education took steps Wednesday to prevent charter school applicants with poor past performance from opening new schools.

Saying the state should not "pass the trash" from one district to another, board members unanimously approved a rule to require applicants to disclose their past charter school affiliations for the most recent five years on their application forms.

"I just want to make sure that the school boards and the districts have a sense (of when) some guy starts a management company, shuts it down and starts another," said board member Michael Olenick, a lawyer who has worked with charter schools. "I want to flush that out. It's a huge problem."

The rule will make the process easier for school districts, which sometimes can miss background information when they review applications.

Recent reports by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other media have uncovered charter schools run by people or organizations that shut down, sometimes mid year, and then resurfaced seeking to open another.

Nearly 300 charter schools in Florida have closed their doors because of financial, management or academic problems since they first were permitted in the 1990s. At the same time, the number of charters has grown. The Florida Department of Education listed 646 of them at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. Six of those are no longer active.

State Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said that while parents deserve more school options, those choices should be good ones. Districts should have relevant information to help them evaluate whether to approve each charter application.

No board members disputed the need to change the state model application to request added background information, which already has been required for charter schools using management companies and for those seeking to replicate existing schools.

Rather, their biggest debate was whether to ask for five years of data rather than the recommended three.

"I watched the debacle of poor finances," he said. "This is the heart of it. If you don't have a good foundation for finances … you're to some degree leading districts in the wrong direction."

Adam Miller, executive director of the state office of parental choice, told the board that his office planned to create a searchable database, as well, to help districts find out the histories of their charter school aspirants, and whether they have the "capacity to open." It would apply to charter board members, as well as operators and management firms, he said.

"We want to provide additional transparency to districts," Miller said.

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego thanked the board for altering the system, saying it would help districts "tremendously."

"Superintendents are supportive of having A-rated charter schools come into our districts," Grego said.

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These provisions had appeared in bills during this year's legislative session, but they got pushed aside as lawmakers got caught up in budget battles. The board moved to enact the rule now so it can take effect for the next round of charter school applications this fall.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at