OurFuture.org: Charter Schools Do Bad Stuff Because They Can

Charter schools have become a fetish of both Democratic and Republican political establishments, but local news reports continue to drip, drip a constant stream of stories of charter schools doing bad stuff that our tax dollars fund.

Keys Gate Charter School, Homestead, FL. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

An independent news outlet in New Orleans, where the school district is nearly 100 percent charter, reports that two homeless children were kept out of class for a month because they didn’t have monogrammed uniforms.

In Oakland, California, a state-based news outlet reports charter school enrollment practices ensure charter schools get an advantage over district schools when academic performance comparisons are made. The advantage comes from charters being able to enroll students who are more “academically prepared” than students who attend district-run schools.

Oakland charters, when compared to public schools, also tend to enroll fewer students with special needs and fewer students who enter the school year late and are, thus, often academically behind.

In Arizona, which has a higher percentage of students enrolled in charter schools than any other state, the demographic characteristics of charter school students don’t resemble anything close to what characterize public schools in the state. According to a state based news outlet, “enrollment data show the schools don’t match the school-age demographics of the state and, in many cases, their neighborhoods. White – and especially Asian – students attend charter schools at a higher rate than Hispanics, who now make up the greatest portion of Arizona’s school-age population.”

In Florida, local newspapers tell of an operator of a chain of charter schools who is charged with racketeering in a scheme to use public education money from the charter operation for his own personal gain.

The charter operator allegedly used more than $1 million for “personal expenses and to purchase residential and business properties.” The charges include falsely marking up bills for school supplies, inflating student enrollments in grant applications, spending public funds on companies affiliated with the owner, and using school money to pay for plastic surgery and cruises and trips to the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Next up, a Philadelphia news outlet reports a charter school, unable to pay employee and other expenses due to a dispute with the district over $370,578 in missed payments to the teacher pension system, simply closed shop over the weekend. It’s unclear how parents would have found out about the closure, and teachers weren’t told until late Monday afternoon, in an email, that students would not be returning.

In Michigan, a charter school recently closed before the school year ended because of a dispute over $640,000 owed to the financial firm supporting the school. Even though the school is closing, it will still get state school aid payments through August.

A news report from Arkansas tells of a charter school that has been in operation for nine years and has never met proficiency standards established by the state.

And here’s a California charter school chain that “misappropriated public funds, including a tax-exempt bond totaling $67 million” and “failed to disclose numerous conflict-of-interest relationships.” The charter operator was able to divert $2.7 million of public charter school funds without any supporting documents. Eight different entities the charter operator was associated with benefited from doing business with the schools.

Public schools are occasionally plagued with similar scandals, but there is an important distinction to be made from public school scandals and what happens in the charter school industry.

As University of Connecticut professor Preston Green explains to me in an email, much of the malfeasance of charter schools comes from the entities that manage them. Called education management organizations (EMOs) or charter management organizations (CMOs), these outfits “create an agency issue with charter school governing boards that generally does not occur in traditional public schools,” Green explains.

“Public schools do not sign over operations to EMOS,” Green states. “By contrast, EMOs operate 35-40 percent of all charter schools.” And while nonprofit boards governing charters may want to ensure their schools are operating in a fiscally sound manner, the EMOs running the show “have the incentive to increase their revenues or cut expenses,” says Green.

Those incentives can lead to numerous bad acts including engaging in conflicts of interest or cherry picking students.

Where is the regulatory function that could intervene in these cases and ensure public tax money is being appropriately spent?

In the case of the NOLA charter impeding the education of homeless students, a federal law requiring schools to accommodate homeless students was the basis for any grievances. But the state’s charter school regulations consider such treatment of students a breach of contract that warrants the school to only provide the students with the opportunity for make-up work or tutoring. In other words, the consequences are more of a burden for the student than they are for the school.

In the case of the Oakland charters gaining an edge over public schools because of their enrollment practices, the report that outs the malfeasance notes that state “revenue policies” incentivize charter schools’ bad behavior.

Charter school closings like we see occurring in Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are a feature of charter schools, not a bug. An analysis by the National Education Association finds that “among charter schools that opened in the year 2000, 5 percent closed within the first year, 21 percent closed within the first five years, and 33 percent closed within the first ten years.”

Charter school scandals of the sort we see in Florida and California have become routine occurrences, yet a national organization that ranks state laws governing the charter industry rates Florida in the top ten of its annual assessment of states with the best charter school laws. And efforts to rein in the abuses committed by California charters have been routinely turned back by the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland.

As for that Arkansas charter school that was able to stay in business despite poor performance, the school has “powerful friends,” according to the reporter. “The Walton Family Foundation, [the charity operated by the heirs of the Walmart fortune,] provided cash infusion to fix [the school’s] red-ink-bathed books. The money was passed through an opaque, unaccountable charter management corporation,” and lobbyists in the state legislature “put the cherry on this hot mess sundae” in support of the school.

Whenever I write a post about charter school malfeasance like this I get accused of writing “screeds” that cherry pick negative anecdotes. But these news reports I cite above occurred within just the past two weeks.

Carol Burris, an award-winning former public school principal and the current executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes in a piece for the Washington Post, “Proponents of charter schools promised that in exchange for freedom from regulations, charters would be more accountable and held to higher standards. Twenty-five years later, however, we find that freedom from the safeguards that regulations provide has too often resulted in theft, mismanagement, fraud, and less transparency.”

The freedom granted to charters to hire third party contractors like EMOs is proving to be especially problematic.

“EMOs have taken advantage of poorly trained governing boards” Green explains, “and the lack of coordination between governing boards and authorizing bodies” ends up benefiting the interests of charter management groups “at the expense of charter schools” themselves and the students who attend them.

I have been reporting the bad stuff done by charter schools since 2009. Most recently, my reporting on the shadowy business of the charter school industry was cited by media watchdog Project Censored as one of the top 25 most under-reported news stories of 2016.

This is the second time I’ve won this award. The first time was for a piece in 2014 on charter schools that Salon published.

When do you think the malfeasance committed by charters won’t be “under reported”?

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...