It's been a turbulent period for charter schools in the United States, with financial analysts raising concerns about their stability and regulators in several states shutting down schools for poor performance.
The volatility has made it tough for startup schools to get financing.
But an unlikely source of new capital has emerged to fill the gap: foreign investors.
Wealthy individuals from as far away as China, Nigeria, Russia and Australia are spending tens of millions of dollars to build classrooms, libraries, basketball courts and science labs for American charter schools.
And in Florida, state business development officials say foreign investment in charter schools is poised to triple next year, to $90 million.
The reason? Under a federal program known as EB-5, wealthy foreigners can in effect buy U.S. immigration visas for themselves and their families by investing at least $500,000 in certain development projects. In the past two decades, much of the investment has gone into commercial real-estate projects, like luxury hotels, ski resorts and even gas stations.
Lately, however, enterprising brokers have seen a golden opportunity to match cash-starved charter schools with cash-flush foreigners in investment deals that benefit both.
Last month, Fitch Ratings warned it was likely to downgrade bonds backed by charter schools because the sector is volatile and the schools are highly leveraged. Such risks mean charter-school debt is typically considered speculative, rather than investment grade, said Eric Kim, a director at Fitch Ratings.
Meanwhile, the IRS has signaled it plans closer scrutiny of charter schools' tax-exempt status if they rely on for-profit management companies to provide their classroom space and run their academic programs, Hall said. He sent his clients a long memo this summer warning that the stepped-up IRS oversight could put some at "significant risk."
If that weren't enough to make investors wary, several well-known charter schools have run into significant legal and fiscal hurdles in recent months.
All told, about 15 percent of the 6,700 charter schools that have been launched in the United States in the past two decades have since closed, primarily because of financial troubles, according to the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools.
An investor forum in China last spring, for instance, touted U.S. charter schools as a nearly fool-proof investment because they can count on a steady stream of government funding to stay afloat, according to a transcript posted on a Chinese website.