Romano: Is anyone surprised Florida has turned education into a money grab?

Published May 7, 2016

When it comes to providing a unique and innovative educational experience, it seems one charter school management company has been more creative than most.

I mean, how many schools have conversations about money laundering and aggravated white-collar crime in a child's take-home bulletin?

In case you missed it, Newpoint Education Partners, which operated four struggling schools in Pinellas and one shuttered school in Hills-borough, was indicted by a grand jury last week on grand theft and other charges relating to three Pensacola schools.

Millions of dollars in grants and state funds flowed through those schools, which begs an obvious question:

Who's responsible for this mess?

The simple answer is the management group. But that's a cop-out. When you give a for-profit company access to taxpayer funds with minimal oversight, should you really be shocked when money is missing? That's like blaming a shark for nipping at your rear.

So maybe you're tempted to blame local officials. After all, did no one see issues with a company that has since left a trail of broken and abandoned schools across the state? But, the truth is school districts are often caught between their best instincts and the state's habitual overreach.

That leaves Tallahassee.

And there's your real culprit.

Lawmakers have created an atmosphere that favors charter school operators above almost everyone else. And that's no exaggeration.

Policies and laws have been bent and misshapen to make it as effortless as possible for businesses to turn education into a for-profit industry.

There's a reason Florida is always near the top of the United States in charter school openings. And there's also a reason why Florida is always near the top in school closings.

When you take the Legislature's zeal for creating schools and combine it with a near-immoral lack of oversight, this is what you get.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools discovered that 3.4 percent of member schools that opened in 2013-14 did not survive beyond their first year.

Want to know what's worse?

The numbers in Florida.

We had a nation-high 9.3 percent of charters open — and then close — in the same academic year. Never let it be said that Florida doesn't lead the way on education.

This does not mean charter schools are the enemy. Quite the opposite. In some ways, charters are as much a victim of Florida policies as anyone.

There are dozens — or even hundreds — of exceptional charter schools in Florida. But because the state caters to so many bad apples, the entire industry ends up with a stain.

To be fair, Florida has gotten better in recent years with oversight. The Senate has put up roadblocks to slow down some of the House's more ridiculous charter giveaways.

But the scale is still tilted too far in the direction of business interests instead of taxpayers or, heaven forbid, students. Local districts need the authority for more oversight. They need greater access to the financial dealings of both nonprofit and for-profit charter groups.

Think of it as a simple business deal. The schools are supported financially by the state, so their books need to be available to districts. Right now it's too easy for management companies to play shell games with public funds.

Stockholders would never put up with that.

So why should taxpayers?