Ruth Conniff of “The Progressive” reports that the FBI is becoming more assertive in its investigation of criminal behavior by charter schools. Charter schools receive millions of dollars of public money with minimal accountability. In some states, they have gone to court to fight public audits, claiming that the schools are public but the organization running them is a private corporation.
Conniff reports: “From Pittsburgh to Baton Rouge, from Hartford to Cincinnati to Albuquerque, FBI agents have been busting into schools, carting off documents, and making arrests leading to high-profile indictments.”
“Charter schools are such a racket, across the nation they are attracting special attention from the FBI, which is working with the Department of Education’s inspector general to look into allegations of charter-school fraud.
“One target, covered in an August 12 story in The Atlantic, is the secretive Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who runs the largest charter-school chain in the United States.
“The Atlantic felt compelled to note, repeatedly, that it would be xenophobic to single out the Gulen schools and their mysterious Muslim founder for lack of transparency and the misuse of public funds.
“It isn’t the Gulen movement that makes Gulen charters so secretive,” writes The Atlantic’s Scott Beauchamp, “it’s the charter movement itself.”
“Kristen Buras, associate professor of education policies at Georgia State University, agrees.
“Originally, charter schools were conceived as a way to improve public education,” Buras says. “Over time, however, the charter school movement has developed into a money-making venture.”
“Over the last decade, the charter school movement has morphed from a small, community-based effort to foster alternative education into a national push to privatize public schools, pushed by free-market foundations and big education-management companies. This transformation opened the door to profit-seekers looking for a way to cash in on public funds.”
“”Education entrepreneurs and private charter school operators could care less about innovation,” says Buras. “Instead, they divert public monies to pay their six-figure salaries; hire uncertified, transient, non-unionized teachers on-the-cheap; and do not admit (or fail to appropriately serve) students who are costly, such as those with disabilities.”
“Rebecca Fox Blair, a teacher who helped to found a small, alternative high school program in Monona, Wisconsin, says she was struck by the massive change in the charter school movement when she attended a national charter school conference recently.
“It’s all these huge operators, and they look down on schools like ours,” she says. “They call us the ‘mom and pop’ schools.”
“There are now more than 6,000 publicly funded charter schools in the United States — a more than 50 percent increase since 2008.
“Over that same period, “nearly 4,000 traditional public schools have closed,” writes Stan Karp, an editor of Rethinking Schools. “This represents a huge transfer of resources and students from our public education system to the publicly funded but privately managed charter sector.”
“And all that money has attracted some unscrupulous operators.”
One big-time operator is K12, whose CEO was paid over $4 million last year. K12 is active in the corporate-advocacy group ALEC. The corporation, listed on the New York stock exchange, was founded by the Milken brothers.
“ALEC added K12 to its corporate board of directors just before its national convention in Dallas at the end of July.
At the Dallas meeting, ALEC also trumpeted the launch of a new charter school working group. Among the measures the group discussed:
* Legislation to exempt charter school teachers from state teacher certification requirements, and allow for charter schools to be their own local education authority.
* A bill to give charter schools the right of first refusal to purchase or lease all or part of unused public school properties at or below market value, and avoid taxes and fees.
* A controversial measure proposed by Scott Walker in Wisconsin to create a statewide charter school authorizing board, bypassing local authority over charter schools, even as charters drain funds from local districts.”
In addition to the investigations cited by Conniff, the FBI raided the offices of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, whose CEO was eventually indicted for numerous violations of the law.
Also, June Brown, the founder of the Agora charter school in Pennsylvania, was investigated by the FBI, indicted, and charged along with other executives for the theft of $6.7 million from three charter schools. When she was tried, the jury cleared her on some counts, deadlocked on others, and federal prosecutors vowed to retry her. A local newspaper reported on the trial:
“Two of Brown’s co-defendants pleaded guilty before the trial, while two others were acquitted…..
“The case is the fifth federal prosecution of local charter school operators in seven years, raising questions about the regulation of the growing charter school movement.
“Before 2008, Brown collected full-time salaries as the chief executive officer of three charter schools she founded. In addition, two management firms she owned collected millions in fees for services to the Agora Cyber Charter School, which she also established.
“Prosecutors charged that Brown provided little or no services to Agora in return for the money.
“Neither Brown nor her co-defendants testified in the case. Defense attorneys argued that the charter schools achieved excellent outcomes for students and that Brown’s compensation, while perhaps generous, was not illegal. They also argued that prosecutors had not proved that June and other officials had falsified documents to cover up financial fraud.
“Several witnesses testified that forged signatures and fabricated documents were used to support Brown’s claims for compensation.”