November 25, 2014

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Jonathan Hage

This year's Floridian of the Year has parlayed his experience as an education policy wonk into one of the fastest-growing for-profit charter school management companies in the nation, Charter Schools USA.

Lilly Rockwell | 12/26/2012

Turnaround: Amid failure by the local district, the state of Indiana essentially confiscated three schools in Indianapolis considered the state’s worst and turned them over to Charter Schools USA. Emma Donnan Middle School, the lowest-performing middle school in the state, was the subject of a lengthy series in the Indianapolis Star newspaper last year that documented non-stop violence and chaos at Donnan. Already, the school has made dramatic improvements, says Indianapolis Star reporter Robert King. For the first several weeks, teachers focused almost exclusively on discipline, teaching students how to stand in line, ask questions and make polite requests. “We flooded the zone,” Hage says, hiring an entire new staff and principal, looking especially for highly motivated new teachers that come from programs like Teach For America.

Charters remain controversial, dogged by allegations of lax state oversight and insider deals. Opponents of charters point to high-visibility cases of mismanagement and failure. One headline: The principal of a charter high school in Orange County that failed was paid more than $500,000 as the school closed.

Charter Schools USA navigates closely near the legal line that requires the non-profit boards that start a school to be nonprofit. The law is meant to ensure that the boards remain focused on the school’s financial health and students’ progress — and can hold the companies hired to run the schools accountable.

The board responsible for Governor’s Charter Academy in Tallahassee, for example, is composed of five people who live in south Florida and operate under the name Renaissance Charter School Inc. They share the same mailing address as Charter Schools USA and have the same attorney listed on their business registration papers.

Ken Haiko, chair of the Governor’s Charter Academy board, also sits on the board of 29 other Charter Schools USA schools, according to the company’s website. He insists Renaissance Charter makes decisions independently. “We understand our roles,” Haiko says. “Our responsibility is to the school and to the students.” Still, Haiko says Renaissance Charter hasn’t worked with other charter school management companies, and it hasn’t ever received offers from other charter school operators.

This close association is “unfortunately too common,” says Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter school management companies. It violates the intent of the law, he says. “The board ends up being very dependent on the management company,” Miron says, making it difficult to hold them accountable.

Edward Pozzuoli, the attorney for Charter Schools USA, says there is “no direct or indirect connection at all” between the boards and the company. The relationship between Renaissance and Charter Schools USA has been “fully vetted” by tax lawyers, Pozzuoli says. The shared mailing address is a “small office for mail purposes.”

Hage says his company lobbies for measures requiring more accountability by charter schools. And he acknowledges his own firm’s failures. In its early years, the company shut down a school in north Miami after the building became too expensive to maintain at a level that would ensure student safety. His company also turned over another high school in Broward County to a different management company after failing to improve student achievement levels.

Sometimes, the company says, charter operators come under criticism simply because they make a profit from operating a public school. Hage counters that many companies, including textbook publishers, profit from doing business with school districts. “I don’t think profit is a four-letter word. It shouldn’t be scary,” he says. His own profit margins are in the “low-single digits,” he says.

Some of those profits go into lobbying to sustain the charter school momentum. This year, Hage donated more than $200,000 to legislative campaigns, looking for support for measures friendly to charters. Hage says he is giving more money to Democrats than ever before. “I see the landscape changing,” he says. Democrats “need to know if they give up the teacher’s union support, there will be someone else to support them.”

Hage says he “can’t stand” lobbying and political donations, but “there’s more at risk … and more folks fighting us than there used to be.” Combined, the teachers union and other traditional-school advocates spend more than charter school supporters, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald.

Hage’s chief goal in the Legislature is to expand charters’ ability to get funding for school construction — “at least, but not more than, 90% of the same funding as traditional public schools,” he says, rather than the roughly 30% difference in funding now. Extra funding would help pay for construction and more competitive wages, he says. Hage also says he supports tougher charter school regulations to prevent disasters like the Life Force Arts and Technology school in Pinellas County that shut down after declaring bankruptcy. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the school’s management company steered funds toward private business accounts. “I think charter schools have to step up,” says Hage, who “totally supports” letting traditional schools operate more like charters.

The future of charters? Hage’s company runs one online charter school, but he believes that “95% of the kids in this country will always go to bricks-and-mortar schools. My experience with … the 40,000 kids we educate is that kids do best when they are in social settings that help the whole child.”

Hage says charter schools remain the best way both to give parents a choice and to goose traditional public schools to improve by making them compete for students — and treat parents and students like customers. “I believe charter schools will help save traditional public schools,” he says.

Key features of how the company runs schools:

» Strong emphasis is placed on classroom discipline, especially in struggling schools. Elementary-age students are on a color-coded behavioral warning system.

» Parents are required to volunteer 20 hours a year at the school.

» Hage says a majority of his schools provide bus transportation, but at some schools, parents arrange for transportation.

» Students wear uniforms.

» To get their students enrolled, parents fill out an application and are entered into a lottery system in which children are selected at random.

» Electronic records track student progress daily and individualized goals are set for each student.

» At struggling schools, students stay in school longer each day and even go to school on Saturdays. These schools have mentorship programs and reading programs for parents to help improve their literacy. “We’re trying to give tools to them they didn’t have before,” Hage says. “We give books to parents.”

» Companywide, the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:16, smaller than most public schools.

» The company markets to parents with TV and radio advertisements and direct mailers.

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