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Let Life Force be a lesson on risks of privatization

Published Apr. 8, 2012

Do not judge all charter schools by the mess that is Life Force Academy.

Instead, you should probably think of it more as an anomaly. Or maybe write it off as a poorly managed mistake.

Just as long as you also consider it a well-timed warning.

There is a lot of noise in Tallahassee these days about privatization. Prisons. Schools. Even highway toll roads are candidates to be turned over to private companies.

The governor seems infatuated with this idea, and a good chunk of the Legislature is also on board. The philosophy meshes well with their smaller government agenda, and they often defend it by explaining how private business breeds healthy competition.

But there is one tiny detail they continually overlook:

Businesses typically care only about the bottom line.

That means profits are more important than people. That means corners may be cut, missions may be compromised and promises may be forgotten.

That kind of cutthroat thinking may be tolerable in other segments of the business world, but it's hard to defend when you're talking about classrooms filled with children.

In the case of Life Force Arts and Technology Academy in Dunedin, that translated into discontinuing bus service, cutting off student supplies and paying educators about half of what a starting teacher typically makes in Pinellas County.

Meanwhile, the for-profit management company in charge used your tax dollars to pay itself almost double what it originally told a bankruptcy court it would charge, according to a revealing series of stories done by the Times' Drew Harwell.

Now it is important to point out that Pinellas County also has a lot of success stories among its growing number of charter schools. Not every board of directors rubber stamps decisions the way Life Force's appeared to do. And not every management company is quite so merciless in its approach to providing a quality classroom experience.

On the other hand, potential abuses do exist.

A lot of charter schools are simply online classes that don't provide amenities such as sports teams, bands, clubs or media centers, but still get funded like traditional schools.

Mavericks in Education, which is fronted by Vice President Joe Biden's brother Frank and has charter schools in Pinellas County, has been accused in three whistleblower lawsuits of inflating its enrollment in order to claim more state funding.

White Hat Management, one of the largest for-profit charter school companies in the nation, is being sued in Ohio for failure to invest in its schools. White Hat, which ran the failed Life Skills Center charter school in St. Petersburg, is now fighting a court order to open its books and reveal how much it is profiting from taxpayer funding.

"I'm sure there are wonderful for-profit companies that truly do care about the quality of education they deliver,'' said Mindy Gould, legislative chair for the Florida PTA. "But we have also seen instances that show what the students are actually learning is really not at the forefront of what these companies are doing. That's concerning because what we saw during the last legislative session was a strong push to increase the number of charter schools.

"It's not about empowering parents like it's been portrayed. It's about turning everything over to for-profit management companies.''

A cynic might point out that the concept of prison privatization got real popular around the same time that legislators started seeing heavy campaign contributions from for-profit prison companies. The charter school movement is now seeing similar cases.

White Hat founder David Brennan was the largest individual donor to the Republican Party in Ohio during 2009-10, giving nearly $400,000 to state legislators, according to a Columbus Dispatch story. Yet when a charter school law he was supporting was killed in the state Senate in 2011, Brennan opted not to donate a penny to Senate Republicans.

There is nothing inherently wrong with private-public partnerships. And there's certainly nothing wrong with turning a profit.

But there is something seriously wrong with turning over core services to companies that do not always have the public's best interests in mind.

And Florida residents may want to keep that in mind before the folks in Tallahassee sell us down the river.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

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