Romano: The topsy-turvy tale of charter schools and whom they really serve<p></p>

Published Feb. 14, 2016

Here is hell.

Here is a handbasket.

And here is your state Legislature continually packing Florida up like so many groceries ready for final delivery.

Granted, today's outrage is more sneaky than blatant. It's more sleazy than audacious. Still, it gets high marks for being both shameless and, in the long term, dangerous.

The subject itself — money for school construction — sounds like a bit of a snooze. But the devil, and his Tallahassee minions, is in the details.

Let's begin with the guy driving this mess.

Rep. Erik Fresen, a font of smiling insincerity, wants the state to turn most of its school construction and renovation funds over to companies that run charter schools.

Never mind that traditional schools outnumber charters about 6-to-1. Never mind that from 2009 to 2014, charters got $312 million in capital funds and traditional schools got a pat on the head. Never mind that practically 1 out of every 4 charters eventually closes and that taxpayer money is forever lost.

Nope, let's forget all of that for a minute and focus on Fresen, a Republican from Miami.

The guy the Miami Herald reports earns $150,000 a year consulting for an architecture firm that specializes in — I can't make this up — building charter schools. The guy whose sister and brother-in-law are executives with one of the state's largest charter operators.

Now, who thinks that might be a conflict of interest for a politician in charge of divvying up construction funds between charters and traditional schools?

But perhaps I'm being unfair.

After all, the original mission of charter schools in Florida was certainly admirable. Charters were considered cutting-edge education in the 1990s, and they were supposed to pick up the slack in areas where public schools were failing.

It was even spelled out in Florida's original charter school statute:

The schools were to have "special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as academically low achieving.''

That sounds like at-risk kids. Poor kids. Minority kids.

And yet, all these years later, that's not what's happened.

For instance, based on the data included in the Florida Department of Education's school grades released Friday, 68 percent of the students in traditional Hillsborough County schools are considered economically disadvantaged. And yet, in the county's three dozen charter schools, only 30 percent of the students are economically at-risk.

So maybe Hillsborough is an outlier. An aberration.

Except poor kids also are underrepresented at charter schools in Pinellas County. And Pasco. And Hernando.

In South Florida, where charters are everywhere, the numbers are truly disturbing. Let's look at the schools where more than 80 percent of the students come from low-income families. Can we agree those are the situations where charters might do the greatest good?

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Well, in Miami-Dade, more than 51 percent of traditional public schools fall into that category, and only 35 percent of charters. How about the reverse situation? Schools where less than 20 percent of the students come from low-income families? That would be 1 percent of the public schools, and 13 percent of the charters.

In other words, the numbers are opposite what they're supposed to be. Charters seem to be catering more to wealthy families and leaving the poor kids behind. And, as a bonus, the state keeps taking money away from those public schools to give to charters.

We've created a separate-but-(not necessarily)-equal school system.

This is not a knock on charters. Many are truly exceptional, and some are succeeding in situations where public schools failed.

Instead, this is a plea to parents. To taxpayers. To anyone who cares about public schools. Your Legislature has sold what remains of its dark soul to the growing industry of for-profit education. Lawmakers will talk fancy about being fiscal watchdogs, but it's all a ruse to cater to companies that see students as living, breathing profit margins.

This nonsense has to stop.

Someone has to stand up to the ideologues, to the scammers, to the lemmings in the state Legislature. Either that, or buckle in for our continued ride to the netherworld.