Charter schools were designed to allow founders the freedom to design and run schools as they wish outside the traditional school system bureaucracy. Here’s a case for why some of that freedom needs to be reined in. This was written by Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and the owner of a marketing and communications consultancy that serves numerous organizations including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He writes extensively about public education policy at The Education Opportunity Network, where this appeared. Follow Jeff on Twitter: jeffbcdm
By Jeff Bryant
There are undoubtedly wonderful charter schools in existence, and Americans generally have a favorable opinion of charters, but hardly a week goes by without news of a scandal or a study tarnishing their image.
With schools reopening everywhere across the country, the past week or so was no exception in exposing new problems with an idea that was once thought of as a collaborative endeavor between teacher unions and school administrators aimed at serving struggling students, but has now become a heavily funded, well-marketed movement designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools.
Leading off the charter scandal parade was Pennsylvania where an auditor general found that the state’s largest charter school pocketed $1.2 million “in improper lease-reimbursement payments.” The scheme the school was running has become all too familiar to anyone following the nefariousness of some charter school operators.
First, you take a building, “previously owned by one of the charter school’s founders,” according to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, and use municipal bonds to sell it – in this case, for $50.7 million – at very favorable terms to a “related nonprofit organization ‘established for the sole purpose of supporting’ the charter school.” Then “the same individual who was once the charter’s landlord” creates a for-profit management company to run the school. And voila, what was once a public endeavor focused on educating children for the sole purpose of raising the well being of the community becomes a financial bonanza for a few well-placed individuals – one of whom, in this case, just happens to be “a Republican fund-raiser” who served on the governor’s “transition team.”
This Pennsylvania charter was no lone outlaw, as the state auditor noted. “His office had found similar problems at six other charter schools,” the Inquirer story said.
The Aspira Trifecta Scandal
The litany of charter school scandals doesn’t stop there. Philadelphia, a city that is closing neighborhood schools and leaving school children bereft of art and music teachers due to a miserly state budget, is throwing millions – a projected $729 million – at charter schools. A recent report from Philadelphia City Paper revealed that not all of that money spent on charters goes to educating kids.
Once again, a “non-profit,” Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, set up to serve the interests of charter schools is playing a shell game with taxpayer money so a few folks get rich. Similar to other charter schemes, “millions of dollars have moved between the network of charter schools, their parent nonprofit, and two property-management entities.”
Four charter schools in the Aspira chain loaned $3.3 million to Aspira “in addition to $1.5 million in lease payments to Aspira and Aspira-controlled property-management entities ACE and ACE/Dougherty, and $6.3 million in administrative fees paid to Aspira in 2012.” What seems pretty clear is that Aspira has used funds from it charters to acquire real estate: The network’s combined real-estate holdings increased from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012. But “in the event of a default on that loan,” according to the article, those real estate assets are not “at risk.” Convenient, no?
Where is the school district in this affair? “We cannot conduct even limited financial audits of the parent organization,” according to a district spokesperson quoted in the report. And where is the state? Noted reporter Daniel Denvir in the Philadelphia CityPaper: “The state Auditor General, which has seen its staff reduced by 24 percent in recent years, doesn’t have the capacity to audit all the new charter schools that have opened in the past five years. Only three Philadelphia charter schools have been audited since 2008. Aspira’s five charters are not among them.”
Even when there’s not real estate involved, charter schools in Pennsylvania find a way to make a buck at the expense of school kids. According to an article at The Raw Story, the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest “cyber charter,” that operates exclusively over the internet, “was charged with fraud, for funneling $8 million of the school’s funds into his personal companies and holdings.” The operator, Nicholas Trombetta, “allegedly used the tax payer money to purchase a plane, houses for his mother and girlfriend, and a million dollar Florida condo.”
Looking deeper into the indictment, Crook’s and Liars blogger Karoli found that Trombetta not only headed the Pennsylvania online charter, called PA Cyber, but also set himself up as the CEO of an organization that provided curriculum and other services to online charter schools, including PA Cyber, and he created a “management group” to advise the organization he was CEO of. That’s quite a trifecta.
The list or recent charter school scandals isn’t confined to the Keystone State.
In Texas, a charter school located in Houston was recently accused of funneling of $5.3 million in federal funds to questionable destinations, including ” hotels, cruises and travel packages,” six-figure salaries, and, again, a real estate scheme involving a management company and the charter school.
“Zero Tolerance” For Struggling Students
A scandal of a different kind recently enveloped another charter chain operating in New York City. In an article in the Daily News, reporter Juan Gonzales revealed, “Success Academy, the charter school chain that boasts sky-high student scores on annual state tests, has for years used a “zero tolerance” disciplinary policy to suspend, push out, discharge or demote the very pupils who might lower those scores – children with special needs or behavior problems.”
One school in the Success chain, an elementary school, suspended 22 percent of its students at least once during the 2010-11 school year – “far above the 3% average” of other elementary schools in the district.
According to Gonzales, Success Academy Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz claimed that higher suspension rates helped achieve “order and civility in the classroom.”
But high suspension rates invariably produce more school dropouts, and many states are now changing school discipline policies to reduce suspensions. Yet charter schools are often left free to determine their own discipline policies, despite the students they push out or drop out become the responsibility of other schools – or the criminal justice system.
One charter chain operating in Connecticut, Achievement First, had such high suspension rates – including “shocking numbers” of kindergartners – that a state board is now reviewing the schools’ practices.
Another charter chain, Democracy Prep, has been condemned by parents of former students for its “zero tolerance” discipline policies.
Innovation For Innovation’s Sake
What’s apparent from all these charter school scandals is that these schools need way more scrutiny and, yes, government regulation. But the charter movement and its ardent backers in state legislatures are adamantly against that. Charters, we’ve been told, “need to be free to innovate.”
Yet for all the “freedom to innovate” that charter schools have, the results of these schools generally fall far short of being, well, innovative.
In Ohio, a state thick with charter school “innovation” for 16 years, “charters statewide performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to reform,” according to an article in The Columbus Dispatch. “And when it comes to graduating seniors after four years of high school,” traditional public schools in Ohio’s urban communities “performed better.”
The article, written by Bill Bush, continues, “What started as an experiment in fixing urban education through free-market innovation is now a large part of the problem. Almost 84,000 Ohio students – 87 percent of the state’s charter-school students – attend a charter ranking D or F in meeting state performance standards.”
A National Scandal
Nationwide, the statistics on charter school “innovation” aren’t much better. The most recent comparison of charter school performance to traditional public schools nationwide found that more charter schools are doing better. But a careful analysis of the study showed only “a tiny real impact on the part of charter schools.”
Taken into context – being freed from regulation, having the ability to select the most desirable students, implementing programs designed for test taking, having friends in high places to game the system – charter schools should be kicking the tails of traditional public schools, not barley eking out gains after years of promises and bluster.
Nevertheless, the myth of charter school magic is hard to crack.
In Louisiana, when charter schools recently failed and were closed by the state, they were replaced with … more charter schools. In Tennessee, the worst performing school in the state is a charter … protected by lobbyists. And cyber charters and other online providers in the K-12 sphere notoriously under perform traditional schools … but are being ramped up by policy makers in many states.
All of which denies the ‘first law of the hole’ that the charter movement keeps digging itself – and our nation’s school children – into.
What is the first law of the hole? If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.