Introduction Academica operates charter schools in five states with the majority located in Florida. The company, founded in 1999, is led by CEO Fernando Zulueta, and is one of the largest charter operators in the Sunshine state. Zulueta also serves on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
PoliticalConnections Academica benefits greatly from political connections in the Florida legislature. For instance, Erik Fresen, the brother-in-law of the company’s CEO, not only has financial connections to the charter operator through his architectural firm, but also chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Previously, Fresen worked as a lobbyist for Academica in the state. Fresen isn’t the only Florida legislator with ties to the company. State Senator Anitere Flores is the CEO of Doral College, a private college affiliated with a charter school run by Academica. The company’s owners curry additional favor through campaign donations. In a 2011 investigation, the Miami Herald noted: Academica’s owners, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, have steered $150,000 in campaign donations to Tallahassee lawmakers and political committees through real-estate companies they control since 2007, state election records show. The Zulueta family has donated a further $75,000 in the past five years, and Academica executives and school contractors donated a further $54,000, records show. During that time, the Legislature relaxed rules limiting the size of charter school networks, and passed a law promoting “high performing” charter school systems — reforms that could benefit Academica as the company expands.
Real Estate Zulueta and his brother own many of the facilities used by the Academica schools. According to the Miami Herald: But the Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show. These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show. Previously, a Florida school district accused the company of overcharging schools to rent facilities owned by the brothers. The district also cited concerns about school employees sitting on the boards of schools run by Academica.
Selective Enrollment A 2009 Miami-Dade school district report questioned if Academica was “creaming” high-performing students: The report also found that advanced students were nearly twice as likely to transfer to schools in the Mater and Doral networks of schools [run by Academica] as to continue in their home schools. “It is unlikely that the effects seen for these particular schools can be explained by direct marketing techniques, which are typically ineffective, given that these effects are not seen in other charter schools,” the report concluded. “This raises the possibility that specific students were targeted in some way.”
Other Academica was criticized for trying to open schools in an academically successful Florida school district. The company gained attention in 2013 for partnering with rapper Pitbull to open a Miami charter school focused on sports leadership.