In state after state, charter schools are proving that it is downright risky to turn public money over to deregulated corporations and unqualified individuals to run schools. The Detroit Free Press series on the scams, frauds, and corruption in many Michigan charters was an eye-opener for all those who are not part of the charter movement. The exposé of similar frauds in Florida by the League of Women Voters in Florida was enlightening to anyone other than free market ideologues. The same level of corruption–actually, even worse–exists in Ohio’s charter sector, where a small number of charter founders have become multi-millionaires, run low-performing schools, and are never held accountable.
One of the most colorful charter scandals occurred when a Cleveland charter operator was tried for funneling over $1million to his church and other businesses. The charter founder was a pastor, not an educator. His attorney said ““his client had good intentions when opening the school on East 55th Street but then got greedy when he saw easy opportunities to make money….”
The leader of California’s most celebrated charter school, with outstanding test scores, stepped down when an audit revealed that nearly $4 million had been diverted to his other businesses.
In Arizona, the Arizona Republic exposed charters that were family businesses, giving contracts to family members and board members.
In Chicago, the head of the city’s largest charter chain resigned after the media reported large contracts given to family members of school leaders and other conflicts of interest and misuse of public funds.
Last week, one of Connecticut’s most celebrated charter organizations was at the center of the latest scandal. Its CEO was revealed to have a criminal past and a falsified résumé. Two top executives immediately resigned, and legislators and journalists began to ask questions. No background checks? Accountability? Transparency?
Colin McEnroe wrote in the Hartford Courant’s blog that hustlers were cashing in on the charter school craze. Not just in Connecticut, but in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California, Ohio, Arizona, on and on.
“The message is always the same: The essential concept behind the charter school movement is that, freed from the three Rs — restraints, rules and regulations — these schools could innovate and get the kinds of results that calcified, logy public schools could only dream about. And they do … sometimes.
“But handing out uncountable millions to operators who would be given a free hand was also like putting a big sign out by the highway that says “Welcome Charlatans, Grifters, Credential-Fakers, Cherry-Pickers, Stat-Jukers, Cult of Personality Freaks and People Who Have No Business Running a Dairy Queen, Much Less a School.” And they’ve all showed up. This is the Promised Land: lots of cash and a mission statement that implicitly rejects the notion of oversight…..
“What else goes with those big bubbling pots of money? A new layer of lobbyists and donation-bundlers. The Free Press documented the way a lawmaker who dared to make a peep of protest against charter schools getting whatever they want suddenly found himself in a race against a challenger heavily funded by the Great Lakes Education Project, the “powerhouse lobby” of the Michigan charter movement. Jon Lender of The Courant recently showed how one family of charter school advocates had crammed $90,000 into Connecticut Democratic Party coffers.”
If there were more investigations, more charter scandals would be disclosed.
When will public officials call a halt to the scams, conflicts of interest, self-dealing, nepotism, and corruption?
There is one defensible role for charter schools and that is to do what public schools can’t do. There is no reason to create a dual school system, with one free to choose its students and to cherry pick the best students, while the other must take all students. There is no reason to give charters to non-educators. There is no reason to allow charter operators to pocket taxpayer dollars for their own enrichment while refusing to be fully accountable for how public money is spent. Where public money goes, public accountability must follow.