In this post, journalist Stephen Rosenfeld explains how charter operates make a profit. He has only scratched the surface. Some make profits through clever real estate deals, where they buy or lease a space, renovate it at public expense, then charge the state exorbitant rental fees. Some embezzle. Some use their school credit card like an ATM. Some set up “related companies” and divert funds to those companies, which they happen to own. Some hire contractors and get kickbacks. There is no end to ingenuity when no one is watching.

Rosenfeld begins with the interesting question: In what way is Enron like the charter industry? (One of the major funders of charter schools is John Arnold of Texas, who made his fortune as an Enron trader, before it imploded).

On the surface, Enron was in the energy business. But behind closed doors, it was engaged in an array of dubious investments and transactions that helped its top executives amass wealth. The charter schools cited in their report similarly present a public face of being alternative public schools. But their founders also used an array of financial tactics, especially involving school real estate deals, to become rich by diverting millions from their classrooms.

Nationwide, 43 states and the District of Columbia have 6,800 charters serving 2.9 million students. They comprise 6 percent of K-12 public school enrollment, which has increased six-fold in the last 15 years. When states approved the first charters in the 1990s, the idea was to nurture locally accountable experimental schools. However, since then a K-12 privatization industry has emerged that is dominated by companies seeking to create regional or national brands, akin to any other corporate franchise. These larger charter operations tend to have non-profit and for-profit arms, which can mask an array of complicated financial relationships.

The charter industry’s largest operations often are run by what’s called educational management organizations, EMOs, which “now control 35-to-40 percent of the industry with an estimated 45 percent of charter students,” the scholars said. These sophisticated operations can attract private investors because they can use their status as schools to get large tax breaks, which, in turn, are applied to a range of profit-making ventures that have nothing to do with educating under-served communities.

“Charter schools attract investors because of the potential for new revenue streams,” the authors said. “For instance, the New Market Tax Credits (NMTC) program provides investors the opportunity to make profits from charter-school real estate transactions. Enacted as a component of the Community Relief Tax Credit Act of 2000, the NMTC was designed to encourage investment in low-income communities. The NMTC accomplishes this goal by providing investors in a community development entity (CDE) a 39% tax credit over a seven-year period.”

But the biggest way to grab seven-figure sums in the privatized education sphere was through shady real estate transactions, they said, saying their for-profit arms can “obtain revenue from charter schools through lease payments for the use of the facilities.” The authors them gave five stunning examples, where the school’s founders could not stop themselves from grabbing millions.

Read about his five examples.