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Is an Oklahoma City company creating for-profit public schools?

A for-profit company based in Bricktown has played an integral role in the founding of publicly funded virtual schools across the nation that are supposed to be nonprofits.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND Published: September 5, 2010

© Copyright 2010, The Oklahoman

An Oklahoma City-based company is working on a network of charter schools across the nation that if approved will bring millions in taxpayer money back to the for-profit business.

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."

For-profit schools

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."

See how Ben Harris is connected to for-profit schools

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What's the difference?

Virtual schools
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.


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