The DoE/Jefferson County scandal: understand the difference between a "charter school" and an "external operator"
Florida's first charter "School of Hope" is, utterly predictably, abandoning all "hope" in Jefferson after just 5 years. External Operator grifters, including DoE employees, are free to fill the void.
This one will be fairly short. But it’s important context for my coverage so far — and what’s to come — on the burgeoning, multi-faceted Florida Department of Education/Jefferson County scandal.
Here is part 1: “Florida’s state education leadership is rotten”
Here is part 1.5: “Why was politically-connected MGT of America on the RFQ template?”
Here’s the macro political and education scandal of Jefferson County — which the petty personal corruption scandal fits within like a nesting doll.
Jefferson County’s public school system is tiny — about 800 kids. Its test scores are historically the lowest of Florida counties. This made it a showcase for Richard Corcoran’s “Schools of Hope” charter law, which was designed to convert zoned public schools with low test scores into unzoned charter schools. The Jefferson experiment predates the “Schools of Hope” law. But when the state seized Jefferson’s three-in-one school campus and converted it into a charter school run by the Somerset company, it was touted as the first “School of Hope.”
Two years into Jefferson County’s transformation, the still-unproven charter-district “experiment” is being used to justify a potentially massive expansion of charter schools in the state’s poorest communities. A state law dubbed “schools of hope,” first passed in 2017 and broadened this year, offers millions of dollars to charter schools that open near traditional public schools that have struggled for years. Jefferson County is home to the first charter “schools of hope.” Neighborhoods in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville are next.
Five years later, Somerset is straight-up abandoning the kids and community of Jefferson County without explanation. They’re abandoning the “schools of hope” project.
And no other charter “schools of hope” seem willing to tackle the Jefferson challenge. They apparently see no “hope,” as an industry.
So Richard Corcoran’s DoE is admitting abject failure and converting the Jefferson School back to nominal district control — under the direction of what’s called an “external operator.” In some cases, Richard Corcoran’s DoE and Board of Education also saw personal opportunity to make a buck in that transition away from Schools of Hope.
Bidding for that “external operator” role — for the transition and presumably beyond — is what led to the scandal that saw DoE Vice Chancellor Melissa Ramsey and state Board of Education Member Andy Tuck resign in grifty disgrace. You can read my deep dives on the scandal in parts 1 and 1.5., linked above.
Yes, that’s all pretty gross.
A charter is a full school staff; an external operator is a handful of consultants who do ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
To grasp the full meaning of past and future reporting about DoE/Jefferson, you need to understand that a “charter school” and an “external operator” are wildly different things.
A charter school is just a “public school” run by a private company or non-profit. It is not subject to meaningful direction or oversight by any elected School Board or Superintendent. But it’s a school — with a leader and full staff of employees who deliver schooling to kids directly. Every teacher delivering education at the Jefferson schools works directly for Somerset.
An external operator is not a school. It’s at best a handful of management or specialized coaching (sometimes in ESE, for instance) consultants. It works with — and/or directs or critiques — actual school employees doing the actual work with kids. External operators do not have or provide the scale of resources to do much work directly with kids. This is why Andy Tuck and Melissa Ramsey could corruptly bid on the external operator work at Jefferson County with a straight face, even to themselves. Their paper company did not need to ramp up to staff up and run full 800-kid school. “External operator” is a misnomer. A more correct term would be “imposed consultant.”
The same law that created “schools of hope” in 2017 created a lucrative captive marketplace for external operators. The Schools of Hope law imposed a “turnaround” choice for local districts and School Boards when local zoned neighborhood schools did not produce high enough aggregate test scores. You could 1) close the school (super-ironic now, looking back on it from the COVID-era 2) turn it over to a charter operator 3) or continue to run the school under supervision of an “external operator.”
As a Polk School Board member, I faced several of these choices. Our then Superintendent Jackie Byrd recommended working with an EO called “Educational Directions.” The information she provided us showed ED was cheaper and less intrusive than other external operators. I even noted, approvingly, back in 2017 or 2018 that our external operator plan seemed to somewhat defy DoE’s heavy-handed direction. That’s why I voted for it.
Because “external operators” are actually experienced by people at real schools as “one or two people with power over me” their usefulness depends almost entirely on the personal quality of the individual consultants. And like most such human work functions, quality varies widely.
Did Educational Directions help actual Polk schools? It depends on who you ask and who ED sent to work with them.
I’ll probably be writing a bit more about Educational Directions and its sometimes controversial tenure with Polk schools in the future — but not today.
Different entities, different grifts
Charter companies and external operators do not always grift; but when they do, which is often, they do so in different ways.
Charter schools, as shown yet again in Jefferson, pick and curate the kids they want to serve. They don’t do ESE, generally, unless it’s a special ESE charter. Charters routinely cut-and-run from any child who does not easily throw off an acceptable contribution to a charters’ aggregate test scores. In Somerset’s case, it’s cutting-and-running from an entire community, which it swaggered into boasting about “hope.” This was entirely predictable. I predicted it; basically everyone who pays any real attention predicted it. I generally referred to “schools of hope” as “schools of fraud” back in 2017. I was right.
External operators, if they’re sorry or lazy, just skim public money off the top of a school to add nothing but boring professional development power points and “critical observations” and “data analysis.” In Polk, under the orders of legislators like Kelli Stargel and Colleen Burton, the taxpayers have fed these people millions of dollars of your money. The external operator grift is just attaching yourself to a giant flow of free money and tick-sucking it. External operators do no operating. They bring no scale because they have none.
And if you want judge the external operator potential for grifting, check out PPP loans. It’s like the grifter Rosetta Stone.
MGT, the politically-connected external operator connected to the Jefferson County scandal, got $2.26 million in forgivable free money. This is odd because the schools it was supposed to serve never stopped operating. Did MGT use that $2.26 million to buy a Zoom subscription?
In fairness, MGT Consulting does not limit itself to its “Education Solutions,” as a peek at its website will show. Perhaps that explains the massive infusion of free government money while schools were operating.
Stuck in the middle with us
Standing in the breach between these two quintessentially Florida grifts presents a giant problem for the people and kids of Jefferson County.
When Somerset pulls out, with its employees, how many of those employees will switch employers back to Jefferson? Who, exactly, will staff those schools?
Moreover, what Jefferson County shows, unequivocally, is that Florida’s state-run school system is utterly shameless scam. It grifts kids and people coming and going. Jefferson County is a metaphor and a coal mine canary for the rest of the state — for your district, too.
That’s why you should care about what happens in Jefferson, even if you’re indifferent to its people, which I am not.
Your kids are next. The COVID and grift-accelerated capacity-erosion is coming for everyone unless we reverse it — including charter and private schools, as I’ll explain later.
Fortunately, I see a lot of possibility for the future in the abject, corrupt, discrediting of the Florida Model that Jefferson County provides. When I finally get to part 2, it’s going to focus on how Jefferson County can actually lead us out of Schools of Fraud and into real Schools of Hope.