By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
In the press room Tornillo spouted his resigned frustration. "It was interesting to see Manty's reason. “I'm not going to approve one of my schools,'" he parodies. "There's no question this board is opposed to conversion charters. We will still appeal [to the state]. I don't know if the appeal will change anything." Then an inscrutable smile appeared on his broad face. After 40 years of fighting the system, he's been around long enough to know this is just the first round. Even though the union and Chancellor lost this one, they still may win in the long run. A largely pro-charter legislature may sympathize enough to pass laws making it harder for the school board to block such conversions in the future.
The fight over Snapper Creek is just the newest version of a rapidly mutating local education system -- an evolution that could radically alter how, where, and by whom Miami's children will be taught in the next decade. Charter schools, seen as the compromise between an underperforming public system and wholesale privatization, will be the main tool of the social engineers. This is because an unprecedented amount of business and political muscle is now making it happen.
Charter schools have been around for more than five years in Florida, but haven't yet made much of a dent in Miami-Dade County's mammoth school system, which has 370,000 children, more than 40,000 employees, and a $4-billion annual budget -- as large as some major cities. In this context 18 charter schools with a total of 5500 students barely register. (Ten more are expected to open next year.)
In the beginning years many observers, including the teachers union and the school system itself, believed charter schools were a fad that would go the way of so many other educational crazes. So went the conventional wisdom, says Ron Book, a prominent legislative lobbyist for both Miami-Dade and Broward counties and a number of South Florida municipalities. "I thought initially that charter schools were going to be a short-run solution to the school problem, but I think they are here to stay," he reflects. "This is a hot issue."
So hot it just may help Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas revive his Elian-derailed political career. In early February Penelas made county-run charter schools a top priority in his State of the County address, along with universal education for preschool-age children. The next week the county commission voted against Penelas's request to initiate a study on whether the county should open charter schools. However, expect the issue to come back. Penelas's staff says constituent polls show that overcrowded public schools are a big issue for county residents. "We could have told him that years ago," Book laughs.
But the political climate is ripe right now for the county, cities, a teachers union, or the management companies to grab a bit of the very large education pie. The public-school system under new superintendent Merrett Stierheim is fighting on many fronts -- to deal with huge revenue shortfalls and a shrinking budget, massive overcrowding, and a deeply entrenched bureaucratic culture blamed for egregious waste, corruption, and mass stupidity.
In the past two years, the school district's problems have been high-profile: media reports of sex scandals, sweetheart land deals, overpaid administrators, firetrap schools, board member Demetrio Perez cheating poor old ladies out of rent money -- and none of this has inspired confidence in the system. The sacking of former superintendent Roger Cuevas in September and the demotion of most of his inner circle among top administrators in February are only the beginning of a convalescence that will take years to fully heal the district and its public image.
In a December survey ordered by Stierheim, well over 80 percent of Miami-Dade school principals offered the opinion that the administrative ranks of the bureaucracy were filled with deadwood, people promoted because of social or political connections rather than competency. As a result of this organizational culture, many parents and teachers felt disenfranchised. All this on top of the system's legitimate challenges of trying to educate children affected by widespread poverty, and the thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants who flood into the system each year much faster than schools can be built to receive them.
In Tallahassee a strong Republican state legislature under reformist Gov. Jeb Bush has been sharply critical of the district, a position that neatly dovetails with Republican arguments for privatizing many public services. Last year legislative auditors released a report revealing costly problems with the district's land-buying and school-siting programs. Those findings caused the legislature to impose an oversight committee to literally look over the district's shoulder before certain state monies could be released to it. Another report issued early this year found widespread inefficiencies in the district's food service, maintenance, and transportation departments -- meaning that millions of dollars are wasted that could be going into classrooms.
With all this going on, the charter schools are starting to look really good. The seeds of change, initially planted by Bush and other Republicans in 1996 by opening Florida's first charter school in Liberty City, have sprouted. The predominantly black Liberty City facility was both a peace offering to black voters Bush had offended in his first gubernatorial run in 1994, and a platform on which he could build credibility as an education reformer for his successful run in 1998. Once in office the Bush team created a new state test (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) that grades schools based on student performance.