If Florida’s legislators are ever shamed into ending their charter school favoritism, Miami Herald reporters Kathleen McGrory and Scott Haisson will have played a role. The two investigative journalists were joined by colleague Shiaa Sen last weekend in a story which exposed the policy of double-dipping federal grant money by declaring two schools exist within the same facility
From the outside, it looks like a single school, with one main door, one security guard, one principal greeting students.
But on paper, the Charter School of Excellence at Tamarac is actually two schools in one — a bookkeeping strategy allowing the school to collect an extra $250,000 in grant money from the state.
The grant money is intended to help new charter schools get started. But several South Florida charter school operators have tapped into this money by creating new “schools” within existing schools. In many cases, the two schools are indistinguishable, sharing the same building, equipment and administrators.
The practice is perfectly legal, state and federal education officials say. But some critics say this allows existing schools to collect extra money instead of promoting new start-ups.
“That’s double-dipping,” said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who introduced legislation last year seeking to prohibit grants to schools within schools.
For years, state and local school officials have handed out these competitive grants with few strings attached and little oversight, a Miami Herald review has found. For example:
• State officials have approved grants to schools before they established a fixed location or even a name, records show. Some of these schools later ended up within existing schools — with no requirement to open a new, separate campus.
• Officials have also approved grants of as much as $275,000 to schools based on inflated enrollment projections. One grant-winning charter has only 26 students — though in its application the school claimed it would draw 900 kids, records show.
• Until recently, the Miami-Dade school district never monitored how charter schools spent this grant money, or checked to ensure the grants were spent according to state and federal rules.
The state’s loose definition of a charter school has caused other problems, too. In 2010, administrators overseeing two middle schools in the same Coral Springs building swapped students between the schools — without alerting the school district — helping an F-rated school raise its grade to a B on statewide performance tests.
Robert Haag is the superintendent the four south Florida Charter Schools of Excellence. Haag is closely associated with Academica boss Fernando Zulueta through the existence of The Florida Association of Public Charter Schools, Inc., Florida Charter School Network, Inc., Florida Association of Charter Schools, Inc. and Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, Inc. All with different identifying numbers, two of the corporations have the same Ft Lauderdale address. Zulueta, like Haag, has a number of schools which benefited from grants in a similar fashion.
When the founders of the Mater Academy High School for International Studies in Miami applied for a $225,000 grant in 2008, they said the school would house 495 students, records show. But as of last fall, the school had just 97 students — and it received the full $225,000, records show.
Organizers of the Integrated Science and Asian Culture Academy (known as ISAAC) said the school would have 900 students when they applied for a $225,000 grant in 2008, records show. Today, the school has just 26 students, records show. The school occupies space at the Somerset Academy in South Miami.
Because of the low enrollment, state officials reduced the grant to the one-room school to $110,000. The school planned to use the money for computer equipment, an electronic whiteboard, and material for its Chinese Mandarin curriculum, records show.
The Mater and ISAAC charters are all run by Academica, Florida’s largest charter-school management company. Academica’s president, Fernando Zulueta, said the deadlines for both charter approval and grant approval are close together, forcing schools to use the same enrollment estimates in both applications. But the final grant amount may be lowered based on lower enrollment, as in ISAAC’s case, he said.
Zulueta has long promoted “nesting” schools within schools to better gauge parent demand and find a facility that suits the size of the student body. A nested Academica school typically moves to its own campus after two to five years, he said.
“Too many schools have no choice but to open and operate in storefronts or other non-traditional settings. Many fail,” Zulueta said in an e-mail. “Nesting helps mitigate that uncertainty.”
It should come as no surprise that the state agency head who oversees charter schools has no trouble with double-dipping. Prior to moving to Tallahassee, Michael Kooi was the lobbyist for the same charter school organizations that Haag and Zulueta belong to.
“There’s nothing wrong with having more than one school at one location,” said Michael Kooi, director of charter school programs for the Florida Department of Education. “There are many other factors when determining if a school is a separate school.”
Can Kooi be considered credible? The conflict of interest is clear, especially when federal guidelines appear to state otherwise. Having Kooi in charge of oversight over his former bosses is to leave the fox in charge of the hen-house.
The distinction between schools is important: Federal guidelines discourage start-up grants to multiple schools “operated as one charter school.”
When determining if one school is truly separate from another, state officials are supposed to consider whether the schools have different facilities, staffs and administrators, among other factors.
The federal guidelines are clear that grants are not supposed to go to new schools that are “merely extensions of each other.”
Responding to questions from The Miami Herald, federal education officials said they let states exercise discretion in determining when schools are distinct. Last year, federal officials reviewed Florida’s grant program for charter schools and approved of it, records show.
State officials said these schools within schools each have separate charters with their local school boards, and they report academic and financial information separately, therefore qualifying as distinct schools.
Looks like Kooi, Haag and Zulueta have all they need to move forward. Right? Not if Kooi were the one who walked the feds through on their audit. There’s a disconnect between what federal guidelines are and the findings of the federal audit. Another look is in order.