At the risk of sounding like Johnny One-Note, let me go back over my concerns one more time about the charter school constitutional amendment bill in the state Senate that may or may not have been passed by the time this gets to you. (My deadlines and legislative deadlines don't always coincide.)
I don't have a problem with charter schools. In concept, charter schools are fine. My problem is that nobody seems to be talking about for-profit charter schools. That is a different matter.
Call me cynical, but you have to wonder why all the enthusiasm by legislators to promote charter schools while continuing to cut public school budgets and furlough teachers, particularly when the State Department of Education recently released a report saying that charter schools in Georgia don't perform as well as traditional public schools and their graduation rates are no better.
Legislators have gotten downright threatening with reluctant colleagues about charter schools and that just hasn't made much sense to me. If charter school performance is not that much better than that of their public school cousins, why the urgency?
Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader who suggested I might want to see what is happening in Florida with their charter schools, I think I have broken the code. It's not about the kids. It is about money, politics and influence peddling. Now things are beginning to make sense.
The Miami Herald did an in-depth study on charter school operations in Florida in December and says that charter schools are a $400 million business and have turned into one of the region's fastest-growing industries, "backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians" and "rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest."
The Herald says state lawmakers in Florida have chipped away at local school districts' ability to monitor the activities of charter school managers until they are virtually without any government oversight, though the state donates $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled.
As for the mantra that "parents will be in control," in many cases it is the management companies that are firmly in control in Florida. The paper says that some charter school managers have rendered governing boards "irrelevant" by ignoring their recommendations.
In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Herald says about 2 in 3 charter schools are run by management companies, which charge fees ranging from 5 to 18 percent of a school's income and can exceed $1 million a year in income.
Further, the paper says, many management companies also control the land and buildings used by the schools and collect as much as 25 percent of a school's revenue in lease payments. Think that can't happen in Georgia?
Let's take a look at Cherokee County. The board of education had the temerity to turn down a charter school application from for-profit Charter Schools USA headquartered in — you guessed it — Florida. The petition sounds eerily like some of the deals reported in the Miami Herald.
The petition proposed that Red Apple Development, a corporation affiliated with CSUSA, purchase the school facility, then lease it back to CSUSA. The for-profit charter school would use tax funds to pay debt service and maintenance on the property and Red Apple would retain all the benefits of ownership. That is what you call your basic sweet deal.
The board's rejection didn't sit well with the local legislative delegation. In redrawing school districts as mandated every 10 years, the delegation seems intent on placing two incumbent school board members in districts with two other incumbents, though the guidelines suggest not doing that. It so happens that the two were vocal opponents of the charter school petition.
A coincidence? I think not.
It is interesting to note than none of the Cherokee County legislators, including State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, have their children in Cherokee's public schools, though the system is one of the best in the state.
It is also interesting to note that the delegation has allowed the Cherokee County school system funding to be slashed by $118 million over the past seven years. Do you see where this is going?
I'm not against charter schools in principle, but don't be surprised if powerful for-profit charter management companies come in and dominate the business with a little help and encouragement from certain politicians.
This isn't about the children. It is about money and political influence and special interests. Why am I not surprised?
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.