Mavericks High Schools Hope to Profit From Education – But at What Cost?

Page 4 of 8

A year later, in November 2004, Biden was arrested for a third time in Juno Beach. He pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license. Rather than spend 30 days in jail, the judge allowed Biden to check into The Watershed rehab center in Delray Beach, where he stayed for three months in 2005.

Today, Biden says he's recovering from his addiction and has been "sober for a long time." "I was an alcoholic. I'm a sober person. I'm very proud of that fact."

By the fall of 2009, Biden was back on his feet, seeking investors for a country club development in Costa Rica that promises to include more than 1,200 homes. Press releases for the project call Biden the "co-developer" and show him smiling beside golf legend Jack Nicklaus, whose name will be on the golf course. Biden says he and his partners own the land, but are still seeking investors.

Meanwhile, back home in South Florida, Biden says he got involved with Mavericks after a simple chance meeting. He says he happened to meet Mark Rodberg in a coffee shop, and the developer told him about Mavericks.

At first blush, Rodberg's litigation record might give a potential business partner pause. He has had 49 civil cases filed against him in Palm Beach Circuit Civil Court in the past two decades. Most of the cases have been resolved, but one pending case, filed in June, alleges he stopped payment on a $4,000 rent check. (Rodberg could not be reached for comment. His only listed phone number is disconnected. When New Times asked Biden about speaking to Rodberg, he said questions should be directed to Hollander instead.)

According to Biden, Rodberg isn't the kind of guy who charms politicians; he's a guy who spits chewing tobacco into a cup. "But he does it eloquently."

After the coffee shop meeting, Rodberg invited Biden to visit a Mavericks school, and Biden says he was hooked. He began flying around the state in a private jet, lobbying school officials and local politicians to support the charters.

He calls himself president and director of development for Mavericks, but his name did not appear on any corporate documents filed with the Florida Secretary of State until New Times began questioning him about it. On December 5, he was listed as president of the company. Frank Attkisson, a former state representative who once ran a state commission designed to approve charter schools that were rejected by local school boards, is vice president. Biden and Attkisson are also both registered lobbyist for Mavericks in Tallahassee.

"I'm a salesman," Biden says. "I'm nothing but a P.T. Barnum for these kids."

With the vice president's brother stumping for Mavericks, the charter school company this year began winning over wary district officials throughout Florida. It joined a booming business. This year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported there were 462 publicly funded, privately run charters in Florida. And 348 more have applied to open next year, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Many of these schools are designed to earn money. Only Michigan has more charter schools run by for-profit companies than Florida, according to a 2010 study published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. Last year, there were 145 schools in Florida run by companies such as Mavericks.

Plenty of government grants help charters grow. Reports submitted to the state by Mavericks show their schools each receive about $250,000 a year in federal grants. And schools that use online curricula are about to get a windfall. This spring, the Florida Legislature, with the enthusiastic support of Gov. Rick Scott, passed a "Digital Learning Now" bill that establishes virtual charter schools and encourages charters to combine traditional classroom instruction with virtual courses, as Mavericks already does. There's even a state grant available for charters to start an "online learning community."

But opening a charter school is far easier than sustaining one. In Florida, at least 192 charters have merged or shut down since 1996. Kids at one charter school in Miami were taught in a tool shed; another school turned into a nightclub after hours. A recent Miami Herald investigation found many schools have high rents and management fees designed to pad the pockets of their owners.

Often these schools struggle academically or financially, yet their management companies are allowed to keep opening new campuses. Gary Miron, a charter school expert and education professor at Western Michigan University, says these problems are worst in states like Florida, with a large number of charters run by for-profit companies. "The problem, as I see it, is that policy makers and legislators have not put in place the right incentives, funding mechanisms and safeguards to ensure that these companies serve the public good," Miron says.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab