When people begin a story about how to fix America, they often start with education, and they often start in communities like Liberty City, Fla. Liberty City lies to the west of Miami Beach, across the Biscayne Bay and away from the sun-washed beaches and sparkling towers of the "Magic City.”
According to Wikipedia, Liberty City started out as the first public housing project in the American South when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of the Liberty Square housing development during the Great Depression. Now the area is known as Miami's roughest neighborhood, a place where riots broke out in 1980 after Miami cops beat an unarmed black man to death.
If that incident reminds you of recent events, that’s because Liberty City — like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland — is another place where perpetual harms done to a community manifest themselves in poorly performing schools with high dropout rates and low student achievement. What’s supposed to fix places like Liberty City, we’re often told, is a "big change" — one that has to come right away, and is usually prescribed by people who don’t live in the community.
In 1996, Liberty City was the place Jeb Bush chose to introduce his big change — charter schools, the privately managed, publicly funded schools that operate outside the oversight of democratically governed school systems. Bush created Florida’s first charter school in Liberty City in an attempt to salvage a faltering political image by building credibility on both the education and civil rights fronts. But Liberty City Charter School proved to be much more than a campaign prop, sparking as it did a bushfire of charter school startups across Florida that continues to this day. Now there are over 600 charter schools in the state, and Florida's policies for charter school governance – ranked in the nation's top 10 by charter industry advocates — are touted as models for the rest of the nation.
But what kind of change did Bush's new plans for charter schools bring to Liberty City and the rest of the Sunshine State? It’s not hard to find out. Scratch just beneath the surface and what you find is that as the ranks of Florida charter schools have swollen, the pathway out of poverty these schools were supposed to provide now looks more like a detour to exploitation and profit-making. In fact, the big change Jeb Bush promised is not so much a model for other states to adopt as it is a glaring warning sign for them to heed.
The Movement Jeb Built
Jeb Bush's road to charter school cheerleading may have started with a disastrous political faux pas. As Kathleen McGrory reports for the Tampa Bay Times, in the mid-'90s Bush was on the hunt for a way to recover from a "bruising defeat” in the 1994 Florida gubernatorial election. As McGrory writes, his electoral defeat was haunted by a memorable gaffe in a televised debate when he and his opponent, incumbent governor and eventual victor Lawton Chiles, were asked what they would do for black voters. Bush replied, "Probably nothing."
As the words "'probably nothing,’ echoed across the state," McGrory writes, after his defeat Bush started his image recovery program by creating a "privately funded conservative research institute" called Foundation for Florida's Future.
"Running the foundation allowed Bush to keep his public profile high, shape legislation in Tallahassee and cultivate a vibrant state and national network of financial backers," reported the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. Although FFF was not required to disclose its financial contributors, the St. Petersburg reporters traced the organization's money sources to influential industries, business leaders and Republican Party supporters.
From the beginning, McGrory notes, "the foundation devoted much of its resources to a new concept in education: charter schools."
Beginning in the 1990s, conservatives increasingly looked to charter schools as tools to impose competition in local school systems and instill a market-based philosophy in public education.
As charter schools began to pop up here and there around the country, there’s no doubt Bush was aware of the trend. In fact, according to a recent article by Alec MacGillis in the New Yorker, the same year Bush founded his own advocacy group, he also "joined the board of the Heritage Foundation, which was generating papers and proposals to break up what it viewed as the government-run monopoly of the public-school system through free-market competition, with charters and private-school vouchers."
Bush also undoubtedly understood how charter schools could provide him with a politically advantageous space to appear concerned about black children and families while advancing a conservative idea.
There was just one problem. Charter schools weren’t yet legal in Florida. So Bush found a way to change that. He leveraged his friendship with Miami civil rights activist T. Willard Fair, who had long advocated for direct interventions in the city's troubled schools. According to the New Yorker article, Bush approached Fair and asked, “‘Why don’t you start a charter school?’ ‘What’s a charter school?’ Fair replied.”
Over a 90-minute discussion, Bush planted the ideal of charter schools firmly in Fair's mind, according to MacGillis, and the two began to promote a new state law authorizing charter schools.
This combination of conservative clout and the "credibility" (McGrory’s word) brought by working with Fair propelled a two-year lobbying effort that resulted in a new bipartisan law legalizing charter schools in 1996. And the Liberty City charter Bush quickly founded after that law "paved the way for hundreds of others," McGrory explains. Since then, Bush has traveled the country unabashedly "champion[ing] the growth of charter schools," according to The Huffington Post. Yet the very charter school he founded in Florida, the one that was the start of so much “big change,” has, like so many others, quietly failed.
As recently reported in the New York Times, Liberty City Charter School is now nothing more than "a ruin baking in the Miami sun." Despite the strong hand Bush had in creating the school and supporting it during his governorship and after, the school had chronic academic and financial problems, the Times notes, until the Miami school board finally canceled its contract in 2008.
Despite that telling failure, Bush continues to promote his education bona fides on the presidential campaign trail. In an op-ed published in the New York Post, he crowed, "During my governorship, we… nearly tripled the number of charter schools.” And in a recent campaign speech to the National Urban League, Bush invoked the memory of building the Liberty City Charter School to "start something new and hopeful for people who shouldn’t have to wait for a real opportunity."
Without mentioning that the school has since closed, Bush declared, “The day that school opened was one of the happiest, proudest moments of my life … That experience still shapes the way I see the deep-seated challenges facing people in urban communities today."
So have charter schools delivered the big change Bush believes urban communities in Florida need to overcome deep-seated challenges?
'Band-Aid on a Sore Spot'
Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard represents District 39, which covers a good chunk of Miami, including Liberty City. He was elected to the Florida House in 2008 and won his Senate seat four years later. As a career classroom teacher, he should know a thing or two about education. Bullard doesn't mince words in his assessment of Jeb Bush's legacy and the expansion of charter schools in Florida: he calls it “hogwash.”
Speaking in a face-to-face interview, Bullard tags Bush for introducing a "plethora of bad ideas" to Florida's education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an "F" label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding.
“What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools," Bullard argues. "Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down. Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most."
Bullard recalls all too well Bush's declaration to do "nothing" for African Americans and believes his role in starting Liberty City Charter was politically motivated. “[He] kinda had to do a patch job … you know, put a Band-Aid on a sore spot."
According to Bullard, charter school expansion did more harm than good in Liberty City. As charter schools chipped away student populations from the neighborhood schools, the local elementary school struggled to keep its enrollment up, and the middle school eventually closed as lower student populations drained the schools’ resources.
In Bullard’s view, charter schools also help create an unhealthy revolving door, where kids cycle from public schools to charters, and then back into the public schools when charters close down. As schools open and close, the better-prepared students tend to find spots in other new charters, while the lowest performing kids get kicked back into struggling, underfunded public schools.
"Under Bush,” Bullard argues, “the talking point became: If we can’t move the test scores, then let's move the kids."
Bullard believes charters have to present some clear advantage to justify their creation. And right now, he's not seeing any advantages.
Catalyst for Charter School Growth
When Bush's charter school experiment was confined to isolated schools in enclaves like Liberty City, it was easy to maintain a narrative about the schools being door openers for disadvantaged children.
A report on the first 10 years of Florida charter school growth, compiled by the state's department of education in 2006, showcased 15 "successful" charter schools (Liberty City Charter among them), lauding some academic factors as well as the fact that they served large populations of minority students, low-income students, or limited-English-speaking students.
But after that 10-year maturation period, the charter-baby Jeb Bush helped birth began to grow into an omnipresent and overbearing adolescent. The number of charter schools grew substantially, as advocacy for them by Bush became more focused on lobbying. And the nature of charters changed as well, from isolated one-offs to large charter chain operations.
Between 2000 to 2010, a report from the Civil Right Project finds, the number of charter schools in Florida more than doubled, with concentrations in the most urbanized corridors of the state, especially in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, in neighboring Broward County.
Meanwhile, the nature of the influence of Bush and his foundation was changing, as well. In 2009, Bush used the resources and network of his Foundation for Florida's Future to create a sister organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. FEE was created "in response to requests for assistance from lawmakers and policymakers who were interested in advancing reforms," according to its website — in other words, to lead a more robust and focused effort to advance specific education legislation through direct lobbying and electoral activity.
The new mission Bush and his foundation embraced brought with it the added legal requirement to reveal his effort's financial backers. Among the most prominent of those funders was the Walton Foundation, the private financial behemoth connected to the family founders of Walmart.
As a 2012 investigation by the Center for Media in Democracy found, Bush's new organization received contributions from numerous prominent businesses and private foundations, including those of Bill and Melinda Gates, Lynde and Harry Bradley, Charles and Helen Schwab, and Eli and Edyth Broad. But the Walton Family Foundation appears to be one of the few designated as "Vanguard level" from the beginning, ponying up $600,000 in 2009 and $1,692,000 in 2010.
Walton would again reward FEE with over $1.5 million in 2011, according to education journalist Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.
The Walton foundation’s strategy in donating to FEE is clear, Strauss wrote. "It is funding organizations that it thinks can help scale charter schools quickly and rapidly."
The emergence of a more robust charter school industry guided by more potent funders resulted in an increased clout in lobbying for the charter school industry in the Florida state legislature.
Reporters for the Florida Times Union noticed this emergence in 2013, reporting a "growing cadre of influential lobbyists" hired by the charter school industry, and increased spending by those lobbyists to influence lawmakers "at a time of rapid enrollment growth, a host of key policy wins, and the redirection of state construction funding away from traditional public schools" to new charter schools.
Then from 2010 to 2015, charter school proliferation exploded again, according to a report from charter school advocacy group RefinedED. Report authors noted, "Since the state has emerged from the Great Recession, charters have accounted for nearly all the total growth in public schools."
During these days of rapid growth, the face of charters changed as well, from one-off standalones such as Liberty City Charter to many more charters being run by management organizations that operate a number of charter schools, like retail chain stores, across the state.
As Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker documents on his personal blog site, charter school chain operators — such as White Hat, Academica (Florida's largest), Imagine, Mavericks, and Charter Schools USA — now dominate the charter school landscape in the state.
The Wilding of Florida Charter Schools
One person who has paid close attention to the spread of charter schools in Florida is Sue Legg. As a public school teacher, college professor and an administrator of state school assessment contracts at the University of Florida for over 30 years, Legg has had a ringside seat to the Florida charter school circus. In a series of reports produced for the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, Legg revealed the many ways charter schools in Florida spread political corruption and financial opportunism while doing little to improve the academic performance of their students.
Her year-long 2014 study, conducted in 28 Florida counties, found a 20 percent closure rate for charters due to financial problems or poor academic performance — a closure rate that has now increased to over 40 percent. The charter schools studied generally did not perform better than public schools, and tended to be more racially segregated. A significant number of these charters operated for-profit and operated in church related facilities.
In a phone conversation with Legg, she described how charter school expansions are being driven by a state legislature with numerous connections to the charter school industry. “States get around local control by using a statewide contract for charters,” she explained. And whenever a local board rejects a new charter school or threatens a charter school with closure, the school can appeal to the state. “The appeals process overturns about half of district denials of charter operation,” Legg contends.
The conflicts of interest among charter schools and Florida state legislators was raised to national prominence by an article in Esquire written by Charlie Pierce. Pierce quoted from a 2013 Florida newspaper article:
"A growing number of lawmakers have personal ties to charter schools. Sen. John Legg [no relation to Sue Legg], who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is co-founder and business administrator of Dayspring Academy in Port Richey. Anne Corcoran, wife of future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plans to open a classics-themed charter school in Pasco County. House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel is on the board of the McKeel Academy Schools in Polk County. In addition, the brother-in-law of House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen runs the state's largest charter management firm, Academica Corp. And Sen. Anitere Flores, also of Miami, is the president of an Academica-managed charter college in Doral."
Sue Legg also believes there is a lack of government oversight of charter schools in Florida. She describes a regulatory function that is understaffed and poorly funded. “Florida doesn’t even have accurate lists of how charter schools have spent federal dollars,” she says.
But even if agencies were fully staffed and resourced, they couldn’t enforce the rules, Legg insists. "If there is nepotism, conflicts of interest, ignoring open meeting rules, there's little school districts can do" to the offending charter organizations, she argues. “Even those legislators who are found at fault of overlooking rules are fined so little they don't care.”
The combination of corrupt leadership and lack of regulation Legg found in charter school industry governance inevitably led to numerous scandals that local media sources soon began reporting around the state.
Schools of Scandals
The Miami Herald was one of the first press outlets to take a serious look at what charter school proliferation was actually spreading. In 2011, the news outlet reported,
“Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords — one and the same, in many cases — and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest. That’s because Florida’s charter school laws — considered among the nation’s most charter school friendly — are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules.”
In a more recent series of investigative articles, from 2014, the Sun Sentinel found, “Unchecked charter-school operators are exploiting South Florida’s public school system, collecting taxpayer dollars for schools that quickly shut down … virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity.”
Examples cited in the series include a man who received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first one collapsed. The schools closed in seven weeks. Another example: A man with “a history of foreclosures, court-ordered payments, and bankruptcy received $100,000 to start a charter school.” It closed in two months.
Sun Sentinel reporters found an elementary charter school that “sometimes had no toilet paper, soap or paper towels in the student bathrooms … Students sometimes ate hours after their designated lunchtimes, often from fast-food restaurants.”
According to the Sentinel's report, school districts have little to no recourse when charters fail to submit financial reports; apparently, “some don’t file them or turn in unreliable paperwork.” And management companies that run two-thirds of South Florida’s charter schools add to the problems of transparency and financial disclosure by hiding fees, executive pay and contracts from public scrutiny.
Yet despite these problems, the paper reports, charter schools continue to “pop up within blocks of each other — or in the same building — offering similar programs as neighboring schools."
Florida state officials have responded to the mayhem caused by charter schools by passing new requirements for charter school applicants to reveal their prior successes and failures running charter schools. Now, applicants for charter schools will have to disclose their association with other charter operations going back five years. But according to local school officials from both Palm Beach and Broward Counties, where charter school growth has been particularly rampant, these newly approved requirements do not go nearly far enough.
Jeb Bush’s Real Education Legacy
When charter school industry advocates like Jeb Bush are confronted with evidence of the chaos and corruption their favored cause has helped spread, they are often quick to pivot to an argument about "results."
In Florida, charter proponents like to point to charter chains that are "high performing," a designation from the state that by and large refers to a school's ability to maintain high scores on state standardized tests and stay out of "financial emergency." But because charter schools are allowed to forego many requirements imposed on public school — including requirements governing personnel, physical plant, transportation and geographic location — they are also afforded more ample leeway to game the system in ways that ensure they maintain high test scores without necessarily improving educational practices.
Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center has documented 12 ways charter schools influence their student enrollments in ways that ensure their test scores remain high. Among the methods Welner cites are charter schools using their application processes, geographic location, and student retention practices to ensure they serve fewer at-risk and special-needs students.
Furthermore, any discussion about charter school results needs to consider whether the purpose of charter schools is to obtain better results for a few students or whether the purpose of charter schools is to help improve the public education system overall, so all students are doing better.
No doubt there are examples of good charter schools and students who have benefitted from attending them. But any argument that Florida's whole education system been improved by introducing more charter schools is tenuous at best.
"Florida's growing penchant for funneling public money into charter schools hasn't universally translated into better performance," the St. Petersburg Tribune reported in 2013, well after charter schools in the state had many years to work their supposed magic.
"Florida students in traditional public schools, on average, read at a higher level than those in charter schools and do just as well in math," the same article states.
“I don't see Jeb Bush did anything to improve schools," says Latha Krishnaiyer, former president of the Broward County PTA and Florida PTA. (Krishnaiyer’s comments reflect her own opinion and are not to be considered official positions of the Broward County PTA.)
In an interview with AlterNet, Krishnaiyer said she sees Bush’s impact as not so much a perfection of the charter school model but a perversion of it. The original concept of charter schools, Krishnaiyer maintains, was to promote innovation and provide specialization, but she blames Bush and his supporters for throwing that out of the game in Florida. “Now it's like a parallel school system with the current legislature treating it as a favored child,” she says.
"Bush is not a friend of public education," she asserts. "As an immigrant, I take it very personally to live in a country where everyone has access to public education," says Krishnaiyer, who along with her husband, emigrated to the U.S. from India. "We have a public school system we should be very proud of. Why aren't we investing in that?"
And on the issue of verifiable “good” coming from Bush and his education agenda as whole, there are plenty of education scholars who continue to question his effectiveness.
In 2015, education journalist Valerie Strauss asked Sherman Dorn, a former University of South Florida professor, for a summary of the Bush education legacy in Florida — not just regarding charter schools but in terms of the overall accomplishment. In a Q&A with Strauss, Dorn explained,
“Governor Bush and his allies generally point to fourth-grade reading as the most important story, and that is where one can see large increases in average scale scores” from the National Assessment of Education Progress (known as the "Nation’s Report Card”).
“The picture is less optimistic when you look at reading in eighth grade or math at either fourth or eighth grade… The bottom line: Bush is correct that Florida’s children benefited from his time in office if children graduated high school at the end of fourth grade, and only evidence of general reading skills mattered. For most other independent test-score measures, the picture is less impressive.”
Further, Dorn noted, those impressive reading scores may have been caused by a significant increase in funding to reading instruction in the state — a policy, it is worth noting, Bush no longer supports.
What Ground-Up Change Looks Like
Since introducing Florida's first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as "the Florida Miracle," and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign. Charter schools are now the fastest growing segment of America's public education system, and large charter management organizations, instead of community-based charters, currently dominate the industry. The Walton Foundation now provides start-up capital to one out of every four charter schools in America. And what was once the rationale for charter schools — that they are a necessary force for civil rights — has since evolved into an argument they are essential for consumer choice.
In the meantime, back in Liberty City, the "big change" Bush promised the charter movement would bring that community is being replaced by something much different — less about white politicians and big-money corporate foundations, and more about using public resources to directly benefit people on the ground level.
Charles Drew Elementary School is the public school Senator Bullard said has had increased difficulties with student enrollment and financing since the introduction of charter schools into the Miami-Dade district. Near Drew Elementary is a colorful, hand-painted sign with a series of painted arrows; one points the way to "Georgetown University," one points to "Columbia University," and another leads to Miami Children's Initiative, where Chiana Williams has worked since 2014 as a family advocate, a career she’s been active in for over 20 years.
Williams directs a corps of staff, both paid and volunteer, all recruited from the surrounding community, to support families in the housing blocks around Drew Elementary. She and her staff provide education and recreation programs, help coordinate the delivery of health services to children and youth, and generally look after the welfare of the community’s kids.
Throughout the week, Williams and five other family advocates make sure children are in school and have a safe place to go when they aren't. She monitors 22 children and takes in other kids until they can be assigned to the other advocates.
In the afternoons, MCI provides tutorial services to the youngest children and career and job counseling to the older ones. If a student is in trouble at school, the kid’s advocate is likely to know it. If a student has an Individual Education Plan due to a learning disability, chances are someone at MCI will take steps to make sure the school is following it. If a student has a family member who has recently died or been thrown in jail, someone at MCI knows to ask the kid how things are going.
Inside is a reading area for after-school and summer use and upstairs is the computer lab. Outside sits a rack of brightly painted bicycles available for kids to rent. "Not one bike has been stolen or vandalized," Williams says.
During the school year, MCI provides medical services — including ear, eye and dental — to the neighborhood kids. In the summer months, MCI operates a recreational program for children aged seven to 16 that will soon expand to include three- to five-year-olds.
The strategy is to go block-by-block throughout the neighborhood, gradually expanding MCI’s reach to more children and families. Rather than the “big change” the charter school industry and its enablers, like Jeb Bush, promote, MCI and its funders are undertaking an approach that builds from the ground-up.
"When you change the environment, you change attitudes," Williams explains. In the short amount of time she has been at MCI she has seen less trash on the ground, fewer kids wandering aimlessly and unsupervised in the streets, and older kids volunteering to play ball with the younger kids or help with their homework rather than hang out on corners. "It's the small things that count," Williams says.
Out on the street, a young black man dressed in a blue MCI T-shirt is working on the sign, changing the way the arrows point. "The first guy to do this sign didn't study his geography too well,” he says with a laugh. “Look where Columbia University is pointing to, out in the ocean somewhere. I don't think you can get there going that direction."