by Christopher Paslay
Principals serving as board members and overseeing management contracts. Discrimination against the poor and students with special needs. These are just some of the issues the Miami Herald tackles in their recent investigative series on charters.
“On a sun-drenched weekend in September, a group of South Florida charter school principals jetted off to a leadership retreat at The Cove, an exclusive enclave of the Atlantis resort. A Friday morning meeting gave way to champagne flutes, a dip in the pool and a trip down a waterslide. The evening ended at the casino.
Leading the toast by the pool: Fernando Zulueta, the CEO of Academica Corp., which manages the principals’ schools.
Zulueta had reason to cheer. During the past 15 years, Zulueta and his brother, Ignacio, have built Academica into Florida’s largest and richest for-profit charter school management company, and one of the largest in the country. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Academica runs more than 60 schools with $158 million in total annual revenue and more than 20,000 students — more pupils than 38 Florida school districts, records show. . . .
But the Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.
These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.
Academica has fostered a close-knit culture among its schools, recruiting principals and teachers who rarely leave the ranks and are often promoted from one Academica school to another — though the staffers technically work for their respective schools, not for the management company.
But the principals play another crucial role: Several also serve as board members at other Academica schools, where they approve and oversee Academica’s management contracts and the real-estate leases — including the leases with the Zulueta companies. . . .”
This is an excerpt from the story “Academica: Florida’s richest charter management firm,” one of nearly a dozen recent investigative pieces in the Miami Herald’s Cashing in on Kids series. Other articles in the series include:
- “South Florida charter schools admit few special needs children” (underrepresented at South Florida charter schools: Children with the most intense support needs)
- “Charter schools enrolling low number of poor students” (demographic imbalances between charter schools and traditional public schools have led experts to ask if charter schools are open to all students)
- “Academica cultivates links to law makers” (Academica has powerful friends in Tallahassee, including Rep. Erik Fresen—the brother of the CEO’s wife)
- “Florida charter schools: Big money, little oversight” (Florida’s charter school movement has grown into a $400-million-a-year powerhouse backed by real estate developers and promoted by politicians, but with little oversight)
Interestingly, the abuses mentioned in the above articles are not limited to Florida. This kind of behavior is widespread, and anyone interested in keeping education fair and equitable—especially to the poor and disadvantaged—should take note.
These articles are also a must read for the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, who recently agreed to sign over 50,000 seats—or 25 percent of District schools—to charter operators as a part of “The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact,” all in exchange for millions of Bill Gates’ dollars.