Just as the Indiana State Board of Education is about to decide whether to turn over under-achieving schools to Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based school operator is under fire in its home state.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that Rep. Dwight Bullard, the ranking Democrat on the Florida House Education Committee, is calling for a state investigation regarding a rally that Charter Schools USA helped stage recently in Orlando.
The for-profit company, which manages 25 Florida charter schools, bused 2,000 teachers, administrators and staff from across the state to the charter-schools rally. Speakers included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Bullard objected that the company appeared to be using taxpayer money to promote a political agenda. A spokesperson for Charter Schools USA said the expenses were paid by the company and didn’t come from the publicly funded budgets of charter schools. But she declined to reveal the cost.
Officials with Florida public school districts said there’s no way, given current funding cuts, that they could afford to bus teachers to a political rally. And imagine the outrage from Republicans and self-styled taxpayer advocates if they did. For certain, they wouldn’t be able to hide what they were spending on such an event the way Charter Schools USA could.
Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, is an old hand at Republican politics. He was a speechwriter for the first President George Bush, worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, and served (with Rhee) on Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team.
Three months ago, Charter Schools USA bused students from some of its charter schools to a budget-signing ceremony and political rally for Scott. “Now, other public schools have all kinds of policies about not participating in political activities, so I guess this is another one of the freedoms that have been granted to taxpayer-financed charter schools,” the Sentinel’s Dave Weber wrote on the newspaper’s education blog, Sentinel School Zone.
A Charter Schools USA representative said the governor invited the students, and they attended to learn about the political process. The lesson for the day, though, was about realpolitik – Democrats who tried to attend the rally were removed by sheriff’s deputies.
The news from Florida brings to mind the March 30 “education reform” rally staged in Indianapolis by a coalition of groups advocating charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay, etc. – also with Michelle Rhee as a featured speaker. The rally took place at mid-day on a Wednesday, but kids from charter schools and/or private schools were at the Statehouse to provide the visuals while Rhee and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett declared that the reform agenda is all about students.
Again, imagine the outrage if regular public schools gave their kids a day off to rally at the Statehouse for, say, raising state taxes to fund education or protecting collective bargaining for teachers.
Bennett will announce recommended interventions today for seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. One option: turning some or all of the schools over to turnaround operators – Charter Schools USA, EdisonLearning or Indianapolis-based EdPower. The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet Monday to decide which interventions to adopt.