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New report cites $100 million-plus in waste, fraud in charter school industry

A new report  by two groups that oppose reforms that are privatizing public education finds fraud and waste totaling more than $100 million of taxpayer funds in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools.

The report, titled “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, & Abuse,” and released by the nonprofit organizations Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy, cites news reports and criminal complaints from around the country that detail how some charter school operators have illegally used public money. It also makes policy recommendations, including a call for stopping charter expansion until oversight of charter operators is improved. Released during National Charter School Week, it notes that despite rapid growth in the charter industry, there is no agency at the federal or state level that has the resources to provide sufficient oversight.

The Obama administration has supported the spread of charter schools but has also called for better oversight. Proponents of charter schools say they provide choices for parents and competition for traditional public schools, but critics note that most don\\\’t perform any better — and some of them worse — than traditional public schools and take resources away from school districts. Some critics see the expansion of charter schools as part of an effort by some school reformers to privatize public education.

The report details cases from state after state, among them:

*In Washington D.C.:

In the fall of 2008, the U.S. attorney’s office issued a subpoena for school financial records related to L. Lawrence Riccio’s “alleged criminal activities” at the School for Arts in Learning (SAIL). Known internationally for his work in the education of youth with disabilities, Riccio founded the Washington, DC charter school in 1998, but by 2007, a memo by a financial consultant to SAIL’s former chief financial officer describes complete disarray of financial matters. Though grant money had been flowing in, staff members were not allowed to purchase supplies, rent went unpaid, and funds from one Riccio-led organization paid expenses for another. Financial statements showed that SAIL and sister organizations paid a $4,854 credit card bill to cover Mr. Riccio’s travel -related expenses in Scotland, as well as membership dues and dinner tabs at the University Club, a premier private club. SAIL covered expenses for travel to Boston, Denver, Houston and New Orleans; grocery stores, drugstores, wine and liquor stores and flower shops, cafes and restaurants, a salon and spa, Victoria’s Secret and at a glass, paint and wallpaper shop in France, where Mr. Riccio and his wife maintain a private residence.


Former leaders of Options Public Charter School are under Federal investigation for possible Medicaid fraud and other abuses. They are accused of exaggerating the needs of the disabled students, bilking the federal government for Medicaid funds to support their care, and creating a contracting scheme to divert more than $3 million from the schools for their own companies, including a transportation company that billed the Federal government for transporting students to the school, but apparently offered gift cards to students to increase ridership on the buses. Additionally, a senior official at the D.C. Public Charter School Board allegedly received $150,000 to help them evade oversight.

*In Ohio:

Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost, speaking about nearly $3 million in unsubstantiated expenses amassed by the Weems Charter School, said: “This is a heck of a mess…Closed or not, the leadership of this school must be held responsible, and the money must be returned to the people of Ohio.”

* In Wisconsin:

In 2008, Rosella Tucker, founder and director of the now-closed New Hope Institute of Science and Technology charter school in Milwaukee, was convicted in federal court of embezzling $300,000 in public money and sentenced to two years in prison. Tucker acknowledged taking U.S. Department of Education money intended for the school, which she started through a charter agreement with Milwaukee Public Schools. She spent about $200,000 on personal expenses, including cars, funeral arrangements and home improvement, according to court documents. Tucker has argued that the remainder of the money she received was legitimate reimbursement for school-related expenses. Tucker embezzled the $300,000 from 2003 to 2005. The Milwaukee School Board voted to close New Hope Institute of Science and Technology in February 2006, amid problems that included unpaid bills and lack of appropriate teacher licensure.

* In California:

Steven A. Bolden pleaded guilty on January 2, 2014 to stealing more than $7.2 million worth of computers from a government program. Between 2007 and 2012, Bolden invented more than a dozen education non-profits, including fake charter schools, to benefit from a General Services Administration program that gives surplus computer equipment to public schools and non-profits. In July 2012, a GSA undercover investigator was contacted by Palmdale Educational Development Schools, one of Bolden’s organizations, and sent Bolden 9 laptop computers, which Bolden sold via Craigslist.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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