Over the past few years, the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, California, was celebrated again and again for its achievements.
Journalists, pundits, and television commentators fawned over its founder Ben Chavis. His school (he actually has three schools, but the middle school is the one that gets the plaudits) became the poster school for the charter movement in California and even a national model.
Chavis, said his admirers, had accomplished the impossible. His no-excuses school enrolled poor kids and they got very high test scores. The secret to his success, he claimed and his admirers agreed, was tough rules and harsh discipline.
True, the school has very few American Indian students; true, the largest group is Asian-American (86%, according to this article). But it was also true that its test scores made it one of the highest performing middle schools in the state, perhaps the highest performing in the state.
Conservative commentators saw the Chavis model as the antidote to the ills of a too-permissive public school system. It was the ultimate vindication of the no-frills, tough-minded approach to schooling. It was proof positive that a school that cracked down on students and teachers could overcome all obstacles to get high test scores, which after all, is the only measure of success these days.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2009:
Not many schools in California recruit teachers with language like this: “We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.”
That, it turns out, is just the beginning of the ways in which American Indian Public Charter and its two sibling schools spit in the eye of mainstream education. These small, no-frills, independent public schools in the hardscrabble flats of Oakland sometimes seem like creations of television’s “Colbert Report.” They mock liberal orthodoxy with such zeal that it can seem like a parody.
School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the same warmth accorded “self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort,” to quote the school’s website.
Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys’ restroom as punishment.
But, whoa, everything came crashing down this week.
In response to whistle-blower complaints by parents and former teachers, the Oakland school board launched an independent audit of the charter’s finances. The audit reported that $3.7 million dollars were wrongly spent on businesses owned by Chavis and his wife. The audit, reported here, was bad news for Chavis’ reputation and for all those who hailed the magic of unregulated charters. Wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, “The founder and governing board of three controversial Oakland charter schools could face a criminal investigation into allegations of fraud, misappropriation of funds and other illegal activities outlined in an official audit report released Wednesday.”
With full knowledge that the audit was underway and was likely to raise questions about financial mismanagement, the Oakland Unified school board renewed Chavis’s charter only two months ago, by a vote of 4-3. The schools’ superintendent recommended against renewal, but the board majority decided that the ethical and financial issues of the school’s leaders should not prevent the school from getting a renewal, in light of its stellar test scores.
The preliminary findings reported:
— $350,000 to Chavis’ wife, who was paid wages as the school’s financial administrator as well as additional fees to her private accounting firm.
— $355,000 to Chavis for administering a summer school program, one that violated state law by requiring students to attend and pay the charter school $50 for each day missed.
— $348,000 in payments to companies owned by Chavis for unauthorized construction projects.
None of this was known to the many journalists and pundits who lionized Chavis and his school.
Chavis was interviewed by Jonathan Alter, then at Newsweek, on MSNBC, where Chavis recommended the elimination of school boards. Now we know why. School boards are responsible for oversight and audits. When I looked for the interview, it had been taken down by Youtube (the description remains, but the video was gone). But keep trying, you never know. (Addendum: A reader informs me that the interview is back, please watch.)
In another interview, Chavis said that he preferred the Ku Klux Klan to teachers’ unions. Now we know why. It’s easier to fire compliant teachers when they have no representation.
NBC, the home of Education Nation, featured the strict discipline of the school. It showed how quickly students were subject to harsh measures and kicked out if they did not conform.
The audit left a lot of journalists with egg on their collective faces.
With so many questions raised about the mismanagement of money, how could anyone trust the schools’ test scores?