Academica, Inc.

The for-profit Educational Maintenance Organization

The first Florida charter school statute was approved in 1996, opening the door for the creation of charter schools as part of the state’s public education system, where they would operate independently. Since that time the race has been on, with Florida, along with other states such as Arizona, Louisiana and Texas, becoming the fasting growing charter school environments in the United States (Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools Website).

One of the first players to jump into the foray of for-profit EMO’s in the quickly transforming charter school climate in Florida, was Academica, Inc., a private corporation founded by entrepreneur and attorney, Fernando Zulueta. Originated in 1999, Academica’s website describes itself as: Academica is one of the nation’s longest-serving and most successful charter school service and support organizations.

The Company was founded in 1999 on the principle that each charter school is a unique educational environment governed by an independent Board of Directors that best knows the right path for its school, and Academica’s mission is to facilitate that Governing Board’s vision. Academica has a proven track-record developing growing networks of high performing charter schools (Academica Schools Website). In speaking about its business plan, the website goes on to claim: Academica’s winning business formula has played a major role in the success of Mater Academy and all charter schools under their management. Academica takes care of administrative duties such as payroll, budgeting, accounting and facility maintenance, which allow school principals and teachers to focus on providing top-notch education for their students Academica is a charter school service and support organization that works with schools in Florida, Utah and Texas. It was founded in 1999 on the principle that each charter school is a unique educational environment governed by an independent board of directors that best knows the right path for its school.

Academica’s goal is to facilitate the governing board’s vision (ibid) So, with this in mind Academica’s philosophy, like most for-profit EMOs, was geared to the notion that independent boards of directors would now decide school policy — forget about school boards, public hearings and community input. This is due to the fact that charter schools, managed by their own governing and oversight boards, are legally independent entities. Eleven states grant them outright independence, according to educational researchers Corwin and Schneider, while eight others permit them to be independent. Corwin and Schneider report that:

The thirteen states that curiously require their charters to operate as part of a school district account for only 12% of the nation’s 3,400 charter schools. Their legal status not withstanding, charter schools as conceived, are supposed to operate autonomously, although their actual freedom varies widely in practice (Corwin and Schneider 2007).

Much like the changes in the Ohio law that allowed David Brennan to cash in on the EMO wave that hit the state, Fernando Zulueta the owner of Academica Inc. himself got started early in the movement around 1996 with the initial passage of the Florida charter school law. At the time, Zulueta was a Miami-based Excel Development Corporation president. By 1996, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis, Zulueta had managed to have the biggest influence on charter school development in the state of Florida.

Today, nearly 300 charter schools are open in Florida. . Zulueta was an innovative if not a clever businessman. In 1997 for example, seeing the tremendous opportunities in the charter school ‘business’, Zulueta was the first Florida builder to put a charter school in a housing development. He then went on to build two 50-student facilities, each costing $300,000. And as The National Center for Policy Analysis noted, he now he owns a retail chain of charter schools across the state (Georgiou 2005). At the time his plan was certainly pioneering in using housing developers and community-based organizations to assist charter schools by leasing, renovating or building new facilities for a profit. Zulueta understood that charter schools contained within housing subdivisions would make the housing developments more appealing to prospective buyers and lenders, thereby increasing housing sales, revenues and profits to his company. Instead of offering a ‘club house’ or golf course, why not offer a charter school? And if a management company could be established or found that could manage the day to day operations of the housing subdivision charter school, well that would represent another golden opportunity for business.

Now, thanks to the politicians in Florida and the first steps made by Zulueta, the recent passage of a new Florida law in 2004 allows housing developers to steer impact fees that would otherwise have gone to school districts to charter schools in their own housing developments. Supporters of the idea claimed at the time of passage that this would encourage developers to build new schools by donating land or money for construction (Ibid). However, many would ague that this is just an example of how neo-liberalism disinvests in the public sector, steering public funds to private interests through legislation favorable to capital, leaving decaying infrastructure in its stead as public financing dries up for traditional public schools.

Similar to David Brennan, Fernando Zulueta established his political connections the old fashioned way, with large campaign contributions to primarily Republicans on both the state and federal level. For example, in the first quarter of 2004 Zulueta gave $2,000 to the campaign of George W. Bush for president, as did Zulueta’s wife. In the first quarter of 2008, according to the Huffington Post, Zulueta gave $2,300 to the campaign of Lincoln Diaz Balart for Congress, and the same amount to the campaign of Rudy Giuliani (Huffington Post Website 2008).

It is no coincidence that these politicians also happen to support the privatization of education. Zulueta has also been quick to ingratiate himself and rub shoulders with influential people in the conservative Florida political establishment and immerse himself into charter school ‘oversight’ committees and charter school ‘fraternities and organizations’, in general. This is too represents no surprise as the marketing of charter schools, Mosaica comes to mind, is a necessity if the schools are to exist and then be managed for a profit – the more charter schools, the more for-profit opportunities for EMOs like Academica, Inc. Also serving on public boards and organizations allows Academica to monitor its business opportunities as well as steer politicians to legislation favorable to their business plans.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sketches a brief biography of Fernando Zulueta: Fernando Zulueta is the president of Academica Corporation, a successful charter school service and support organization founded in 1999. He is Chairman of the Florida Charter School Review Panel and founding Board Member of the Florida Consortium of Charter Schools. Zulueta has helped establish numerous high performing charter schools that have been recognized on local, state, and national levels for their achievements. In 2005, Zulueta received the “Cervantes Award” sponsored by Nova Southeastern University for his contributions toward excellence in the education of Hispanic students (The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools Website).

As early back as in 1996 Governor of Florida when Governor Jeb Bush signed House Bill 135 into law, a bill that created the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, a state-level charter school authorizer that the governor said would improve school quality and accountability in the state, not surprisingly, Zulueta was appointed to the commission by the governor. The Commission, according to the pro-charter Center for Education Reform:

allows municipalities and universities to share in the chartering responsibility to help bring into existence new, quality charter schools. Legislators in Florida told CER “we couldn’t have done it without you,” when they successfully passed legislation, and CER has been called on to continue that leading role in working with legislators and charter leaders in the ongoing development of the Commission (Center for Education Reform 2006).

As noted in their website, Academica, Inc. has schools in three states:

Florida, Utah and Texas. In Florida, it operates ten schools, among them the Mater Academy we looked at in chapter four. Academica also operates seven schools in Miami-Dade County and three schools in Broward County. Calling itself, Academica West, the company also operates The Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, a college preparatory school in Texas, as well as schools in Utah (Brooks Academy Website 2009).

At their Academica West website, the company describes in detail the stages, products and services they offer charter schools, all for a tidy profit, of course:

PRIOR TO CHARTER APPROVAL • Completing the Charter Application • Training and assistance through the Application Process • Corporate establishment and administration • Budget forecasting • Financial reporting • Bookkeeping and records management

CONSTRUCTION MANAGEMENT • Site selection and school design • Land use approvals • Site acquisition and development • Construction contractor selection and supervision

SCHOOL SET-UP • Setting up a Lunch Program • Setting up a Student Information System • Student Registration Assistance • Recruiting of Staff • Human Resource Management • Payroll • Governmental Compliance

TRAINING • Computer Training • Board Training • Teacher and Staff training • Special Education Compliance REPORT SUBMISSION (including, but not limited to) • Financial Reporting • October 1 Count Assistance • Economically Disadvantaged Report Assistance • CACTUS Report Submission • Immunization Report Assistance • December 1 Count Assistance • End of Year Report • Grant writing (Academica West Website).

With the recent 2007 expansion of Academica in Utah, according to the Enterprise Business Newspaper Inc. of Utah, Academica West, as it is called, now has its fingers in four different charter schools along the Wasatch Front, a large region in the state. Academica West also provides ‘business services’ to the North Star Academy in Bluffdale, Utah (Moon 2005). Quoting Academica West’s Vice President for the company, Sheldon Killpack:

The main goal is to make sure the principal is freed up do what he does best, which is work with teachers to make sure effective instruction is taking place (ibid).

What Utah found is what many charter schools are finding across the nation, which is why they are calling in firms like Academica West: that they must also acquire start-up funding from investors because money from the government is allocated according to specific grant specifications that usually deal with the day-to-day operations of the school, such as paving for utilities and buying textbooks.

Whether it is Academica, Inc. in Florida or its offshoot, Academica West in Utah and Arizona, the market decision of the company is to expand their EMO services and charter schools to as many states as they possibly can. In fact, one of their company public relations strategies is to attend ‘town hall’ astro-turf like meetings with parents, community leaders and businesses to speak up about charter schools and what they might be able to offer any organization, individuals or groups seeking charter status.

In Magic Valley, Utah for example, where Academica West has been expanding and is now managing ten schools, such a public session was held in September of 2007 at the Twin Falls Board of Realtors and featured speaker Jed Stevensen, head of Academica West. Although Stevensen said he was visiting as only an ‘adviser’ and that he was “also eager to meet those who show up to the meeting and see what the odds are of a school starting up in the Magic Valley”, the real odds are that his presence at the meeting was more than a simple display of altruism, but rather part of a well heeled and cleverly designed public relations campaign to gain charter school contracts.

Again, one thinks of the shoulder rubbing and ‘networking’ done by Mosaica that Wilson alluded to in the company’s launching its successful endeavors. (Poppino 2007). The fact that Academica West as well as other EMOs work with local groups and help sponsor meetings by organizations and individuals seeking to open charter schools is simply because it is part of their marketing campaign – for without charter schools there is no outlet for their ‘products and services’.

Every charter school that opens is another invitation to Academica, or to be fair to any other EMO, to manage the school’s business for profit and sell them instructional ‘kits’ and ‘educational materials’, which is why Academica has been a strong player in encouraging the opening of charter school after charter school in such town hall meetings or quasi-public events. What is not known is if at these public sessions Academica West, or other educational sales entities for EMOs for that matter, tout these companies ability to add innovation through competition to the traditional public schools to improve their services, for after all traditional public schools were supposed to be the beneficiaries of new and exciting practices and curriculum development created by the charter school movement and its for-profit managers, the EMOs.

The answer to the question is doubtful, it is simply not part of these company’s business plans, plans which are clearly built on the creation of ever more independent public charter schools as eventual sites for contractual relationships involving the for-profit management of their day to day operations.

Danny Weil is the author of Charter Schools, an 800 page tome on charter schools  published by Grey Publishing Company