Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider interview Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris about the charter school scandals in Arizona, the “wild west” of charters.

Harris was a member of the investigative team that won the prestigious George Polk Award for its coverage of charter schools in their state.

You can listen here.

Or, you can read the interview here. 

Here is a small excerpt, where they begin to interview Craig Harris:

Craig Harris​: It started about a year ago on two fronts. One, there was a relatively prominent charter school, a notorious charter school that abruptly closed on the west side of Phoenix in a town called Goodyear. And the reason that school had gained some notoriety is because a few years earlier, one of the students had gone missing and died. And what happened, now we’re finding out later, is that the school was being fraudulent on its attendance in order to keep it running because people had left the school because of the tragedy. And so the school got shut down. And that piqued our interest.

And then I live on the east side of Phoenix in town called Gilbert, which is kind of like ground zero of where charter schools are. They’re very, very popular out in my neck of the woods. And part of the reason is that a lot of the operators that run the charter schools belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They’re Mormons. And so a lot of them have developed charter schools and they’ve been able to grow because they have pretty good academics, but they also focus on morality and wholesomeness and things like, so that, that gets a lot of parents to enroll their kids at those schools.

Berkshire​: Well, we are obviously here to talk about some of the less wholesome aspects of Arizona’s charter school industry over the last year. You’ve written one unbelievable exposé after another about the edupreneurs, as I like to call them, who are getting rich off of running charter schools. I know it’s hard to choose, but I want you to pick your favorite scandal for us and just sort of break down for us the nature of the scam.

Craig Harris​: Well, Arizona, depending on how you look at it—if you’re a charter organizer Arizona is considered one of the best states in the country for charter schools because it has some of the fewest and weakest oversight and regulations of any of the 44 states that have charter schools. And so one of the stories I wrote about was a guy named Eddie Farnsworth. And coincidentally Eddie is my state senator. We actually live within two miles of each other. And he ran a series of charter schools called Benjamin Franklin Charter Schools. They built them from the ground up. So what happened is that Mr. Farnsworth, who’s also a legislator who’s been in the office for like two decades, created a nonprofit company with three friends of his, two of whom were lobbyists who got votes from him to favor their clients to buy his schools, and they paid top dollar for those schools.

And he made about $14 million in profit on the sale of his schools, which were privately owned, to a nonprofit company that he set up. And then that nonprofit hired him as a consultant and then also agreed to lease buildings from him and agreed to hire his brother as the chief executive. And so he has gotten extremely rich from this. And then during his time when he was in the legislature, we went back and look and he repeatedly voted on bills that increased funding for charter schools. And at the same time he blocked bills that would have brought more restrictions and oversight on charter schools.

The legislature responded to the series of exposes in the Arizona Republic by promising to pass a law reining in the wrongdoing. But, here’s the catch: the charter lobbyists wrote the “reform” legislation!

Harris said:

The Charter Association, which is a nonprofit business that represents the 500 plus charter schools, their lobbyists wrote most of the bill. And so what happened when the lobbyist for the Charter Association or basically the charter industry wrote most of the bill is the legislation is what critics call window dressing. It doesn’t stop any of the self dealing. It doesn’t stop organizations like another one wrote about, which is an online school called Primavera. Their CEO, he paid himself $10 million over the last year and a half, while having incredibly high dropout rates and very low test scores.

The bill also doesn’t stop self dealing from giving no-bid management contracts that are worth tens of millions of dollars.