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The Oklahoman found more than a dozen charter school applications in Florida, California, and Arizona that blur the line between the for-profit Advanced Academics Inc. and the nonprofit boards that will govern the proposed schools.
Most states' laws require that only nonprofit groups open and govern charter schools. The role Advanced Academics, a subsidiary of DeVry University, has played in helping establish and run schools on the taxpayer dime has raised concerns among education officials.
Almost all of the charter school applications are for virtual middle and high schools that contract exclusively with Advanced Academics for online curriculum, online teachers and in some cases school management. Virtual schools mainly provide online courses that students can take at home.
A draft copy of the contract between Advanced Academics and the Pivot Charter School set to open in 2011 in Lee County, Fla., was for 90 to 97 percent of the charter school's funding.
That state per-pupil revenue was estimated at $900,000 the first year of operation and $8 million in year five.
The contract also called for Advanced Academics to receive any startup grants the school received.
One of the charter schools has already been awarded a $250,000 startup grant from the state of California.
Ben Harris, a paid consultant and former president of Advanced Academics, is behind these applications.
The Oklahoma City resident resigned from his job at the Florida Department of Children and Families six years ago amid an investigation into questionable contracts. No charges were filed.
Harris said he introduces people who are passionate about education and who go on to found the schools. He helps draft the applications, lobbies the local school districts for approval and testifies in appeals. He does it all while being paid by Advanced Academics.
Harris said his influence is limited.
"I haven't founded boards. This is just giving me way too much credit," Harris said. "If I meet people who are interested in charter schools, I, sort of, am a matchmaker to a certain extent."
Jeff Elliott, president of Advanced Academics, said there is nothing inappropriate about the role Harris plays in working with charter schools to set up online programs.
"Every charter school that we work with is independently governed and makes its own decisions," Elliott said. "The newly started charter schools are a very small part of what Advanced Academics does."
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are usually operated by private groups.
In most states, a public entity such as a school district or a university must approve a charter application, and in every state except Arizona, charter schools must be governed by nonprofit groups.
With the proliferation of charter schools has come growth in a market of for-profit groups that make a living running charter schools known as "education management organizations."
Advanced Academics is considered an education management organization for the proposed charter schools.
"It's not, per se, a bad thing, but I think it's crucially important that the charter school be managed by an independent board that can in fact fire the management company," said Chester Finn, president of the education policy think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "If they are puppets of the management company, then you have a potentially corrupt situation."
The Oklahoman has found the following ties between Ben Harris and the two nonprofit boards that have applied for 11 charter schools in three states: Roads Education Inc. and Pivot Education Inc.:
Harris said volunteers sit on the nonprofit boards out of a passion for online education. He said that of the five-founding board members in California, he had known only two of them before the schools were started, and in Florida he said he only knew VanAcker previously — one out of three.
"It's a time-intensive and laborious effort and unless people have a passion for it, they aren't going to spend tens of hours a month on a charter school board," Harris said. "There is absolutely no evidence that they are not capable of an oversight position on a board of directors. It's insulting."
Pivot Charter Schools
Harris worked to get Pivot Online Charter School approved in Chico Unified School district in California. The school is enrolling students for this school year.
Jan Reed, president of the School Board in Chico, said she found the Pivot Charter School application that Harris presented to her board "scary."
"This is totally a business opportunity, and that's a really difficult thing in education because the premise is not that this is a moneymaking operation. This is a right of our youth to have this compulsory education," Reed said.
However, Reed said she voted for the application because of state laws limiting the reasons a charter school can be denied.
The school will receive a charter school startup grant of $250,000 from the state of California. "This is ... for a school that has no buildings, no custodians, no nurse, no gym, no utilities, no heat, no water," she said. "Do you see why this is so lucrative?"
The school can enroll students from any of the six adjoining counties.
Meanwhile, in Sonoma County, Calif., Oak Grove Superintendent Noel Buehler is excited about the Pivot Online Charter School that has been open for a year, offering students in his district access to online courses through Advanced Academics.
"We are hopeful that Pivot Online Charter will provide students who like to accelerate their path to college," Buehler said.
In fact, he sought out a virtual school component for his district and was directed to Advanced Academics by the company's stellar reputation for top-notch curriculum and online teachers. He was introduced to Harris.
"Ben steered me in the direction of this particular board that is the overseeing entity of this particular school," Buehler said.
Elliott said his company is simply selling a product to the charter schools, a business deal that is completely above board and commonplace for schools that purchase curriculum, whether it's textbooks or online courses.
"Though I disagree ... I can understand how you might interpret this assistance as Advanced Academics playing a key role in setting up charter schools," Elliott wrote in an e-mail to The Oklahoman. "Let me be clear: We are in the business of providing online education and will continue working with traditional districts, individual schools or charter schools in order to do so."
What's the difference?
Education institutions that teach courses entirely or predominately online. There are several virtual schools in Oklahoma where companies have partnered with schools to provide online curriculum and teachers. The company K12 has virtual schools through the White Oak and Wynona school districts. Advanced Academics offers virtual school through ASTEC Charter School, Crutcho, Graham, Hanna, Pittsburg, Stidham and Stringtown school districts. Charter schools
Private entities usually run these publicly funded schools. They are free for students and open to anyone. The schools fall somewhere between the autonomy of private schools and the extremely regulated public schools. There are 18 charter schools in the state of Oklahoma. Almost all of the schools have been approved by Tulsa and Oklahoma City school boards, however, three of the schools used a recent addendum to state law and were chartered through higher education institutions.