Anna Phillips of the Los Angeles Times has written a powerful expose of California’s “Wild West” charter industry. This is the first of three articles.

The article is titled:

“How a couple worked charter school regulations to make millions”

The article begins:

“The warning signs appeared soon after Denise Kawamoto accepted a job at Today’s Fresh Start Charter School in South Los Angeles.

“Though she was fresh out of college, she was pretty sure it wasn’t normal for the school to churn so quickly through teachers or to mount surveillance cameras in each classroom. Old computers were lying around, but the campus had no internet access. Pay was low and supplies scarce — she wasn’t given books for her students.

“She struggled to reconcile the school’s conditions with what little she knew about its wealthy founders, Clark and Jeanette Parker of Beverly Hills.

When Kawamoto saw their late-model Mercedes-Benz outside the school, she would think: “Look at your school, then look at what you drive.”

“That didn’t sit well with us teachers,” she said.

“The Parkers have cast themselves as selfless philanthropists, telling the California Board of Education that they have “devoted all of our lives to the education of other people’s children, committed many millions of our own dollars directly to that particular purpose, with no gain directly to us.”

“But the couple have, in fact, made millions from their charter schools. Financial records show the Parkers’ schools have paid more than $800,000 annually to rent buildings the couple own. The charters have contracted out services to the Parkers’ nonprofits and companies and paid Clark Parker generous consulting fees, all with taxpayer money, a Times investigation found.

”Presented with The Times’ findings, the Parkers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“How the Parkers have stayed in business, surviving years of allegations of financial and academic wrongdoing, illustrates glaring flaws in the way California oversees its growing number of charter schools.

“Many of the people responsible for regulating the couple’s schools, including school board members and state elected officials, had accepted thousands of dollars from the Parkers in campaign contributions.

“Like other charter operators who have run into trouble, the Parkers were able to appeal to the state Board of Education when they faced the threat of being shut down; the panel is known for overturning local regulators’ decisions. A Times analysis of the state board’s decisions has found that, over the last five years, it has sided with charters over local school districts or county offices of education in about 70% of appeals.

“California law also enables troubled charter operators to escape sanction or scrutiny by moving to school districts more willing to accept them. The Parkers have used this to their advantage, keeping one step ahead of the regulators.”

The Parkers live in a 7,700 foot mansion in Beverley Hills, valued at more than $15 million.

The city and county have repeatedly tried to close down their charter schools, only to be overridden by the state. Their scores swing wildly from the lowest in the state to among the highest, then down again. The Parkers contributed to the then superintendent’s campaign fund. He recommended renewal. The state board agreed. Soon after the renewal, a teacher at the school wrote county and state officials to complain about malfeasance and neglect at the school, so bad that students were endangered. Children were sometimes served food that was spoiled or undercooked. Supplies were scarce.He was fired.

Mrs. Parker, who receives a salary of $285,000 as superintendent of her charter chain, gave Mr. Parker a contract for $575,000 to manage construction of their new school in Inglewood.

Last year, Governor Jerry Brown reluctantly signed legislation banning for-profit charters (reluctantly, because he had previously vetoed similar legislation), but that has no effect on this charter chain, which is technically not for profit.

Phillips describes the law, how it was written to “unleash creativity” by deregulating charters and by requiring them to get approvals by local, then county, then state officials. California has 330 different authorizers, compared to only 18 in Texas. Oversight is patchy, slipshod, sometimes nonexistent. As the Parkers realized, campaign contributions to school board members can ease the way to approval.

The Parkers are adept at shopping for friendly authorizers. They opened a charter in distressed Compton and generously contributed to the campaign funds of board members, including the board President.

When the school came up for renewal, district staff warned of deficiencies, noting that “Jeanette Parker had not disclosed who was on her organization’s board or whom her charter was doing business with.”

“Please note that the petition is generally vague and inconsistent regarding the details of the programs outlined in the petition,” the report said.

“Still, district officials recommended renewal. They had been assured, Brawley said, “that the deficiencies identified in the petition would be rectified.”

“When the charter’s renewal came up in December, Compton school board members did not discuss the charter’s academic performance. They did not question the Parkers, who sat before them in the audience.

“What they did was a foregone conclusion.

“The board took less than a minute to vote unanimously to renew Today’s Fresh Start until June 2023.”