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The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina reports that Chinese investors put up $3 million to start up a new charter school, which is now struggling for survival.
Is a foreign-financed charter school a public school?
They did it in exchange for green cards,
Chinese investors provided $3 million in startup money for Thunderbird Preparatory Academy, a Cornelius charter school that’s fighting for survival.
That’s one of the insights that emerged from last week’s state review of the school’s finances, governance and facilities.
Thunderbird’s network of investors and lenders left Charter School Advisory Board members shaking their heads and palming their faces. “A spider web,” one member dubbed it. “Exceedingly messy and complex,” said board Chair Alex Quigley.
But as North Carolina has opened itself to rapid charter school expansion, a growing number of startup schools are turning to charter-school finance companies to pay for facilities. Some also tap a network of companies and consultants to help them run the schools. That means tax money from North Carolina is flowing across the country and around the globe to repay debts and cover outsourced services.
Lee Teague, executive director of the N.C. Charter Schools Association, said he had never heard of the Chinese investment in charter schools. But because charter schools don’t get public money for facilities – and because schools must begin paying bills before the first state check arrives – it’s common to see new schools taking out loans, he said.
Thunderbird, which opened in 2014, got its $3 million through the EB-5 program, which provides green cards to foreign investors who create U.S. jobs. Although charter school salaries are paid with public money, an Arizona-based company called Education Fund of America offers the opportunity to invest in charter schools, claim the job-creation visa benefit and rely on government support of such schools to secure the investment.
Parents at the Thunderbird Charter School are angry, and they have called for the removal of the principal and the chair of the charter board. The school opened in 2014 and has struggled with staff, rodents, finances, and academics.
After probing topics ranging from rodent infestation to high-interest loans, a state charter panel Thursday backed away from a call to close Thunderbird Preparatory Academy in Cornelius.
But the Charter School Advisory Board voted unanimously to demand intense scrutiny in the coming year.
“I think you have a very short period of time to right this ship,” board Chairman Alex Quigley told school leaders.
The advisory board called Thursday’s special meeting after voting June 14 to recommend closing the school when Thunderbird leaders missed a regular meeting where they had been summoned to discuss financial, academic and health/safety concerns.
Thunderbird board Chair Peter Mojica said Thursday that bad publicity has damaged recruitment for the coming year, with enrollment dropping from 500 at the start of last year to 432 enrolled for 2016-17. The school has also lost 11 of the 23 teachers it had last year.
But Mojica said the board and the school’s recently hired principal are committed to fixing problems and reviving the school.
“We have a great school that is not absent of its problems,” he said. “We are well aware of them and are trying to address them.”
Thunderbird, which opened in 2014, has struggled to find and pay for a building, establish leadership and show academic gains – challenges that face many new charter schools. The problems have been compounded by spring flooding and a bitter rift dividing board members, faculty and families.
The school has had three principals in three years. Some parents vow to return to the public schools. Others say they are satisfied. The state has gotten more complaints about this charter than any other.
The Chinese investors have their green cards, so they are not complaining.