Charter school advocates look to rein in unqualified operators

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Last week, a once-growing network of Florida charter schools shuttered with little warning.

As former students scramble to find schools for the final weeks of the school year, some of the state’s leading charter school advocates say the case of Acclaim Academy should strengthen their case for changes aimed at reining in charter operators who are not prepared to manage schools.

Acclaim's military-style charter schools attracted hundreds of middle and high school cadets; here, Duval students participate in a cadet promotion ceremony.
Acclaim’s military-style charter schools attracted hundreds of middle and high school cadets; here, Duval students participate in a promotion ceremony.

This year, state lawmakers had agreed on some changes to that effect. Their proposals ultimately fell by the wayside, along with a number of other bills, as the regular legislative session came to an unexpected early end.

State records and school district documents help shed light on Acclaim’s push for rapid growth, its ensuing implosion, and the debate over how to prevent similar episodes in the future.

In the fall of 2013, Acclaim Academy applied to open schools in half a dozen school districts across Florida. While some districts spotted red flags, two applications were approved. As a result, new schools in Orange and Palm Beach Counties were set to join existing ones in Osceola and Duval.

That year in December, roughly two months after districts considered those applications, Acclaim’s Osceola County school received its first state letter grade, an F.

The next year, its Duval school received its first grade, also an F. The Osceola school then received its second F, meaning it would be forced to close.

Soon after, early in the second semester of this school year, the budding Acclaim Academy network started to falter.

Orange County district officials wrote a letter in March to the school operating there. Among other things, they warned its academics didn’t appear up to snuff, and that it appeared to be hemorrhaging students, which would cause it to lose state funding.

Weeks later, they told the school it could be forced to close within 90 days. The school, they noted, appeared to have taken out a short-term loan to offset its funding decline. Around the same time, officials in Duval also began raising questions. But what happened next took many people by surprise.

On May 1, Acclaim withdrew a legal challenge of Orange County’s efforts to close its school. Days later, the school shut down suddenly, as Dennis Mope, its CEO, fled TV cameras in a parking lot. The next day, the Duval County school closed ahead of schedule, stunning parents and teachers. Acclaim informed the Palm Beach County district it no longer planned to open its fourth Florida school there.

In many ways, the collapse of a young charter school network, which at one point enrolled more than 1,000 students (and more than 400 when it shut down), is an outlier. Last year, for all the attention given to shuttered charter schools, the statewide closure rate declined. Mid-year implosions are rarer still.

Still, Acclaim’s case can serve as a cautionary tale, at a time when school districts, charter operators, and state lawmakers alike have agreed on the need to improve charter school authorizing.

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Some recent, vocal criticism of operators that fail has come from within Florida’s charter school

Acclaim screenshot
A screenshot of a cached copy of Acclaim Academy’s website, accessed May 6.

movement. Some say they intend to redouble their efforts to seek changes in the state’s charter school laws before next year’s legislative session.

Robert Haag, the president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said it’s also important to look at the role of school districts, which are tasked with reviewing charter school applications and keeping tabs on their finances.

One reason he and others want to rein in unqualified operators is that failed charter schools have helped create a pretext for some school districts and municipalities to propose new regulations on charters, or even outright moratoriums on new ones (actions he said may be illegal).

Since charters are intended to operate with more freedom but stronger accountability, Haag said he favors stronger vetting on the front end, when would-be charters apply to local school boards.

“In our opinion, we need to strengthen those guidelines to keep some people out of the charter school business,” he said.

Acclaim’s military-style charter schools drew high percentages of low-income and minority students. When he appeared before the state Board of Education to protest the closure of the double-F Osceola school, Mope, Acclaim’s CEO, said it had struggled to raise achievement among students who had come in behind academically. Attempts to reach Mope, both at be email and at one of his other companies, a business brokerage called Schools For Sale, were unsuccessful.

Experienced charter school hands raised questions about other aspects of Acclaim’s approach, including the fact that it applied to open schools in eight different districts, without first demonstrating a track record.

“That’s really not a wise thing,” Haag said. “How can you put up all those schools at one time?”

The question for school districts and policymakers is how to identify warning signs before schools open.

Acclaim’s growth plans would hardly appear striking to some of the state’s largest charter operators, which routinely open multiple schools in a year. But schools backed by big management companies are generally not the ones that fail suddenly. In some cases, their economies of scale may have helped them improve student achievement at schools that stumbled out of the gate.

Many see school district authorizing as the key to improving charter school quality. There are signs new charters have to clear a higher bar than they used to. The state Department of Education is working with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to help districts improve their oversight.

This year, lawmakers proposed further changes, like clarifying districts’ authority to look at the academic and financial histories of would-be charter school applicants, and creating a charter school institute that would help vet applications and improve oversight around the state. Those proposals died amid a legislative standoff over health care funding, but they are likely to return next year.

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Would those measures have prevented a failure like Acclaim’s?

Tim Kitts, the founder of the Bay Haven charter school network in North Florida, said they likely would have helped.

Kitts, who serves as policy chair of the charter school consortium, said further changes may be needed. This year, the group’s legislative platform proposed a requirement that new charter schools demonstrate they have access to a line of credit or other guaranteed funding worth at least $250,000.

The proposal, intended to ensure new charters have the financial strength to survive in the early going, had the support of school district leaders, like Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who takes part in annual meetings with the charter school organization.

However, it did not wind up in either the House or the Senate’s big charter school legislation. Key lawmakers said they were intent on stopping “fly-by-night” charter schools, but were also concerned the requirement would create barriers to entry for legitimate upstarts by parents and teachers who didn’t have big financial backers.

Erika Donalds is a member of the Collier County School Board, and worked with a group of parents to launch a charter school in Southwest Florida. She said even well-run charters can face a fiscal crunch in the early going. It takes years before they qualify for state facilities funding or lower administrative fees for academically high-performing schools.

At the same time, she can point to cases where her own district had good reason to step in and close a struggling charter school. The challenge, which some district officials faced with Acclaim, is learning to tell the difference between serious warning signs and the normal bumps in the road any new school will face.

The raft of applications Acclaim submitted points to another issue.

In 2013, when its applications were approved in Orange and Palm Beach Counties, it also withdrew applications in four other school districts, some of which raised concerns about its educational and financial plans. Application documents show officials in both Pinellas and Volusia Counties deemed its application lacking in multiple areas and recommended it be denied.

Both Haag and Kitts suggested districts should have the ability to compare notes on the charter applications they receive. One district may spot problems others miss. If Orange County officials knew what Volusia and Pinellas were looking at, would they have approved Acclaim? On the flip side, districts might feel more confident approving quality applications if they know their colleagues elsewhere were green-lighting the same organizations.

Kitts said startup charter operations should have to prove their mettle before they expand. Once they have a year under their belts, if their finances are sound and they can show they are making academic progress, he said, they could be allowed to open new schools in other districts.

If operators who can’t succeed in one location open multiple schools, he said, they risk harming students, and creating a black eye for the charter school movement.

“People can’t lose sight of the fact that if a school screws up, that’s a year out of the life of a child,” he said. “That is flat wrong.”