The charter school sector has grown over the past few decades amid a debate about its virtues and drawbacks — and even whether the publicly funded schools are actually public. Some charters do a great job, but even some advocates (though not all) are finally admitting that too many states allowed charters to open and operate without sufficient oversight.
Ohio and Utah have vied for the distinction of having the most troubled charter sector, along with Arizona, where there are no laws against conflicts of interest and for-profit charters do not have to open their books to the public. There’s also Michigan, where 80 percent of the charters are for-profit. And Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently issued a report and declared his state’s charter school law the “worst” in the nation. It’s a race to the bottom.
California, called the charter Wild West, deserves special attention. I have been posting a series of four reports on the state’s charter sector. This is the third.
The state has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state in the nation. One billionaire even came up with a secret plan to “charterize” half of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Among the problems:
* A report released recently by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group, found that more than 20 percent of all California charter schools have enrollment policies that violate state and federal law.
* In some places, charter schools open without mentioning their existence to the traditional school district in which they reside, prompting lawsuits by the districts. The Grossmont Union High School District, for example, sued to shut down two charters operating in Grossmont under agreements signed by another school district. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Scott Patterson, Grossmont’s deputy superintendent of business services, as saying, “It’s been described as the Wild West out there.”
*A Mercury News investigation published in April revealed that the state’s online charter schools run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter operator in the country, have “a dismal record of academic achievement” but have won more than $310 million in state funding over the past dozen years.
* One charter school principal doubled as a National Basketball Association scout, traveling first class to basketball games across the country — and charged his travel expenses to his charter school.
* One charter school closed in 2014 after state auditors found a number of problems, including indications that administrators funneled millions of dollars in state funds to the schools’ operator and her family and friends. As the Los Angeles Times reported, some of the allegations against the school operator were downright “bizarre.” Auditors questioned the use of school funds to pay a more than $500,000 settlement to a former teacher who sued, claiming she had been wrongly terminated after she was ordered by the school director to travel to Nigeria and marry the director’s brother-in-law so that he could become a U.S. citizen. The operator’s penalty? She paid “a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings,” the LA Times said.
What these reveal is a state charter law that allows the schools to operate loosely, with little if any accountability or transparency to the public. The charter lobby in California has successfully fought off legislative efforts to bring more accountability to the charter sector. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently vetoed a measure passed by the state legislature that would require more accountability and transparency from the state’s charters schools. Brown has been a supporter of charter schools and started two charters when he was mayor of Oakland. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have banned for-profit charters.
Here’s the third of four parts on California charters, written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. The series will be part of an extended national report on charter schools that will be published by the Network for Public Education in 2017.
The Wise Academy is tucked away on a Girl Scout camp on the Bothin Youth Center in Fairfax, Calif. Its students attend classes in yurts and barns. Wise, which stands for Waldorf-Inspired School of Excellence, follows the curriculum taught in Waldorf private schools — its students garden, enjoy a games class, and celebrate All Souls Day and Michaelmas.
Students must apply to attend, and its preliminary application makes it clear that parents are supposed to pony up cash. The full application demands that families provide all sources of income. The school’s donate button has a default donation of $2,000. A cash-strapped parent would quickly infer that their family “need not apply.”
How many students attend Wise Academy and how well do they achieve? For the taxpaying public, that is a mystery.
You cannot find this K-6 charter school, which has been in operation for three years, on the state’s Education Department website. Rick Bagley, the superintendent of the Ross Valley School District in which Wise is located, was never informed of its presence as required by law.
No one really seems to be wise to Wise — except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project.
The California STEAM Sonoma charter, was authorized in March 2016 by the Liberty Elementary School District, a tiny district that serves 216 students in its schools. Wise is not within Liberty’s boundaries; it is located in the Ross Valley School District in Marin County. Liberty approved the charter in order to receive funds as an authorizer, knowing that it would neither lose students nor revenue to the school.
But Wise did not just begin last March. The school began three years ago with a different authorizer, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a different authorizing district. The Academy of Arts and Sciences, like California Steam, is an online charter school based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. It uses the K12 curriculum and the FUEL curriculum, both owned by the for-profit corporation K12, founded by former banker Ronald J. Packard and located in Herdon, Va.
Wise is not an online school, nor a storefront resource center. Its website describes a classroom-based program, with regular school day classroom hours, Monday through Thursday. The former Academy of Arts and Sciences CEO Sean McManus, described Wise as “a boutique program that people usually have to pay for, so to be part of a free charter school appeals to a lot of people in the area.” Wise and the state funding it brings left the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so did Sean McManus, who is now listed as the CEO of a new corporation — California STEAM Sonoma.
Despite its classroom schedule, Wise refers to itself as a “learning-based resource center.” This classification allows California STEAM Sonoma to sponsor the program, and the Liberty School District to acquire the cash cow.
California STEAM Sonoma is bigger than just Wise. There are four recently authorized STEAM charters listed on the California State Education Department website. None have a corporation name listed, and none have “not for profit” status checked. Eli Johnson is the lead petitioner for the establishment of all four charters. His contact information is listed as firstname.lastname@example.org.
California Preparatory Academy, which lists Johnson as an employee, is a not-for-profit charter school that runs two charter schools also associated with the for-profit K12. If you call the California Preparatory Academy phone number to get enrollment information, you will speak with a representative of K12, who will match you with any K12 charter in the state.
California STEAM charters, like the Academy of Arts and Sciences, buy their curriculum, instruction and administrative services from K12 or from K12’s Fuel Education. California STEAM is also associated with Summit Academy, another online home school, whose mission statement is blank, but whose vendor list is ample.
Type in a California Zip code on the K12 site, and these nonprofit schools appear.
Last spring, Jessica Calefati of the Bay Area’s Mercury News did an excellent, in-depth series on K12 — explaining how the connected nonprofits produce dismal results for students but big profits for K12 and the authorizers. California Virtual Academy (CAVA), the largest nonprofit connected with K12, recently settled with the state of California for $8.5 million, although it does not admit doing anything wrong.
Unlike the connections between the charter schools and K12, the connection between petitioner Eli Johnson and the four STEAM charters is less clear.
Johnson is listed as a staff member on the California Prep website with no picture, no title and no contact information. I asked a representative of K12 if she knew what Johnson’s position was with California Prep, and she said she thought he might be the principal. I asked the Liberty Elementary District who he was and the person with whom I spoke knew him but was unsure of his role. Johnson made the pitch for the charter to their board. Finally I decided to ask Johnson himself.
The tangled web connecting the nontransparent and elite Wise Academy to a for-profit corporation located in Virginia is one more consequence of lax and loose charter laws that divert taxpayer dollars along a pipeline that siphons dollars away from educating kids.
It is unknown how many other charter schools operate like Wise in California.