New US visa rush: Build school, get green card
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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.
In Buffalo, New York, foreign funds paid for the Health Sciences Charter School to renovate a 19th-century orphanage into modern classrooms and computer labs. In Florence, Arizona, overseas investment is expected to finance a sixth campus for the booming chain of American Leadership Academy 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.
The demand is massive - massive - on the school side, said Greg Wing, an investment advisor. On the investor side, it's massive, too.
Two years ago, Wing set up a venture called the Education Fund of America specifically to connect international investors with charter schools. He is currently arranging EB-5 funding for 11 schools across North Carolina, Utah and Arizona and says he has four more deals in the works.
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