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Romano: Lawmakers need to tighten loopholes for charter schools

Published Oct. 27, 2012

No more excuses. No more self-serving propaganda.

If Florida Department of Education officials and lawmakers fail to slow expansion and tighten loopholes in charter school regulations, they should all be dismissed as hypocrites or fools.

That's not hyperbole, and it's not intended to shock. The simple truth is the current standards and policies have been exposed as a joke, and can no longer be ignored.

Case in point:

A charter high school in Orlando was recently closed due to poor performance. The principal, who was drawing a salary of $305,000, was handed a parting gift of more than $519,000 in taxpayer money, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.

The principal's overall pay in the last year was more than double the school's entire education budget.

Under charter school laws, this was perfectly legal.

Case in point:

A struggling charter in Manatee County recently ran a newspaper ad offering a free Nintendo handheld game system to any student who enrolled by a certain date.

This was a bargain since the Nintendo was worth $150 and the school would reap roughly $6,000 in taxpayer funding for every public school student it could entice before the state did a final head count.

This is also perfectly legal.

Case in point:

A charter school in Dunedin operated for more than two years and siphoned more $1.6 million in public funds while failing to provide basic class supplies and posting the worst standardized test scores in Pinellas County.

Turning a profit, however, was perfectly legal.

"We have some amazing charter schools. Schools doing exactly what charters are supposed to do, and that's provide a different style of education,'' said Christine Sket, regional director for Fund Education Now, which has sued the state over school funding.

"But what we're seeing with a lot of new charters is a cash grab: How can they teach the most children possible with the least amount of money?''

The state's response? Let's make an unscientific goal of doubling charters right away.

Legislators have promoted charters with reckless zeal and have shown zero willingness to regulate them. They allocated $55 million for new construction of charter schools last year and not one penny for public schools.

So what's the state getting for all this money?

Charter schools did receive state grades of A or B at a slightly higher percentage (72.1) than public schools (68.8) in elementary and middle school this year. On the other hand, charter schools have more than triple the rate of F grades, and that doesn't include dozens of at-risk charters the state didn't even bother to grade.

There are politicians who have made a career out of whining about public school accountability, yet see no problem giving charters absolute freedom.

The state is so eager to get in bed with for-profit charter companies it has completely abdicated its responsibility to education. And meanwhile public schools are being robbed of state funds.

You cannot bark about accountability in public schools and simultaneously give charters carte blanche with taxpayer money. It's dangerous and disingenuous.

So if state leaders do not provide more charter school oversight is it wrong to suggest they are either hypocrites or fools? Perhaps, I suppose.

After all, they could be both.

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