Archives for category: Scandals

Carol Burris reviews here the five biggest charter scandals of 2019. 

There were many to choose from.

Numero uno, of course, was the giant charter scam in California:

1. A3 Education: Eleven are indicted over their involvement in a charter scheme that defrauded California taxpayers of more than $50 million.

In May, the California Superior Court for the County of San Diego indicted 11 people on charges that they helped defraud California taxpayers out of $50 million via an elaborate scheme to create phony attendance records to increase revenue to an online charter chain known as A3. You can find a summary of the story with its elaborate kickbacks and fraud schemes here.

The alleged theft took place over the course of several years. In 2016, Jason Schrock and Sean McManus reportedly purchased Mosaica Online learning, which got its start with a $100,000 grant from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). They eventually renamed the online schools Valiant. Schrock and McManus managed the schools through the nonprofit Academic, Arts and Action (A3) Charter Academy. Eli Johnson would reportedly approach small, cash-strapped school districts to enlist them as authorizers, for which they would receive an authorizer fee.

In addition to Valiant Academy charter schools, A3 expanded by starting CA STEAM Academies throughout the state. Using the 19 resulting charter schools that enrolled thousands of students, they put their scheme in place. Thousands of summer school students would enroll, some unwittingly, and never take any classes. Meanwhile, according to the indictment, the money flowed into Schrock and McManus’s real estate ventures, bank accounts and the kitty they created for payoffs.

In 2016, I exposed the mysterious growth of the CA STEAM Academies and other charters in which Johnson and McManus were involved here on The Answer Sheet. As part of my investigation, I spoke with Johnson on the phone. He claimed he did not know the name of the company he worked for or who signed his paycheck.

The CA STEAM empire extended into Ohio. Whether it has been investigated in that state is unknown. The A3 investigation and prosecutions continue as they hunt for McManus, who has disappeared.

Read on to learn about the other four members of the Dishonor Roll.

I had the odd experience of meeting McManus a year ago. I happened to be at breakfast in a hotel in Newport Beach, California. My companion and I were seated next to a table where a man was in harmonious discussion with two or three others. He spoke in a loud voice and I heard references to “schools,” “sports,” “$5 a head,” etc.

When their party broke up, I stopped and asked him I’m if he was “in the charter industry.” Yes, he answered, and told me proudly he owned many corporations.

That was Sean McManus, now on the lam.

In case the story is behind a paywall, number 2 was the decision by the board of Texas-based IDEA charter chain IDEA to lease a private jet for $2 million a year. The board reversed the decision in response to public reaction. Now the executives and their wives fly first class.

Number 3 is a small California Charter Chain whose owners somehow became multimillionaires, although their charters are “nonprofit.”

”4. A nonprofit operator of migrant shelters, Southwest Key, coordinated with its for-profit organizations to bleed its charter schools into rat-infested classrooms.

A Texas charter school named East Austin College Prep made national news in 2019 when the New York Times reported complaints of raccoons and rats invading classrooms, rain pouring in through a leaky roof, and furniture occasionally falling through rickety floors. Yet, according to the story, the charter high school pays almost $900,000 in annual rent to its landlord, Southwest Key Programs.

The school, which received a CSP grant of $450,900, is owned by Southwest Key Programs, the nation’s largest provider of shelters for migrant children who’ve been separated from their families at the border….

5.The North Jersey Record uncovered hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds going to buildings owned by private interests, with charter schools paying inflated rents that far exceed building debt.

A 2019 five-part series written by a team of reporters from the North Jersey Record exposed the shady dealings hidden from the public eye that allow developers to cash in on public money and tax breaks by providing real estate to charter schools. The reporters found that information was buried so deeply in documents, it was difficult in many cases to find out who was making the profit.

The report resulted in a federal grand jury subpoena issued to the Thomas P. Marion Charter School in Newark. Its nonprofit “Friends of” organization purchased two public school buildings and flipped them for a profit of nearly $10 million.

I left out the details. Burris’ article includes them. Read it in full if you can. The details are shocking.

 

 

 

 

A Corporate Reform group in Tennessee released its own poll claiming that most voters in the state approve of annual testing.

The group called SCORE was created in 2009 by former Republican Senator Bill Frist to promote the Common Core State Standards. Being fast to accept CCSS before they were finished or even released put Tennessee in an advantageous spot for Race to the Top funding. The state won $500 million from Arne Duncan’s competition. $100 Million was set aside for the Achievement School District, which gathered the state’s lowest performing schools, located mostly in Memphis and Nashville, and handed them over to charter operators. The ASD promised to raise the state’s lowest-performing schools into the top 20%. The ASD was a complete failure. It did not raise any low-performing schools into the top 20%. Most made no progress at all.

Tennesse’s SCORE is a member of the rightwing network called PIE (Policy Innovators in Education), created by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to connect groups that were disrupting and privatizing public education. Like other members of PIE, SCORE favors charter schools.

The board of SCORE is loaded with millionaires and billionaires who should be supporting the state’s public schools, which enroll nearly 90% of the state’s children, but prefer to disrupt and privatize them.

Five years ago, a public school parent blogger called out SCORE for making money off Common Core products. Open this link to see some eye-popping financial transactions, where RTTT money goes into the coffers of corporations owned by board members, who in turn make campaign contributions to Republican Governor BillHaslam. (Former Governor Haslam is now on the board of Teach for America.) The Gates Foundation helped to fund SCORE.

In addition to the oligarchs identified in the preceding post, the SCORE boards includes these super-wealthy Tennesseans:

Pitt Hyde of the Memphis Hyde Family Foundation. Owns AutoZone and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Hyde Family Foundation is the largest funder of the Tennessee Charter School Center.
 
Janet Ayers of the Ayers Foundation, also a funder of Common Core. 
 
Dee Haslam, married to the former governor’s brother. They own Pilot gas stations and the Cleveland Browns. Worth $1.8 billion, according to Wikipedia.
 
Orrin Ingram of the local billionaire family that has pushed charter schools.

Apparently the only plan that SCORE has for Tennessee’s public school students is to inflict Common Core and standardized testing.

SCORE has lots of money, but no imagination and no sense of the public good.

It is committed to charter schools, privatization, and accountability (but only for public schools).

 

 

 

 

 

The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a fascinating story about a  young woman who worked in the development office at MIT when the institution was seeking Jeffrey Epstein’s money. She knew it was wrong, but she was young, a newcomer, and who would care what she thought.

Development support staff are rarely in the limelight, even within their own organizations. But Signe Swenson has had a whirlwind of a week. The former development associate at the MIT Media Lab helped inform New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow’s exposé about the center’s financial ties with the late Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender.

In previous interviews, Swenson recalled her and her colleagues’ concern that young women who accompanied Epstein on a campus visit and looked like models may have been victims of trafficking. “We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they’re not there by choice, we could maybe help them,” she told NPR. Employees even checked the trash for any pleas for help scribbled on napkins and discarded. Among the lab’s staff, she told Farrow, “All of us women made it a point to be super nice to them.”

Swenson was in her mid-20s at the time and left the lab in 2016. Now director of marketing and operations at an education nonprofit, she spoke with me about what happened when she initially raised concerns to leaders and why she felt like she was one of the only people who could blow the whistle on Epstein’s relationship with the institution. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What follows is a Q and A. Here is one answer:

I expressed that I was aware of Epstein’s conviction and that I thought working with him was a terrible idea. I remember learning that if I chose to take the job, this was not going to be my choice, or necessarily Peter’s [Peter Cohen, director of development and strategy]. I did say that I guess it would be OK as long as I’m never in a room with Epstein. I sort of was drawing a line in that moment, but it’s interesting looking back. Clearly, I wanted the job very badly and did speak up, but it does feel as if I was just tested to see how confidential I could be. This was five years ago, and I was less confident than I should have been about my beliefs of what was unethical.

When it comes to fund-raising, there are no ethical standards in higher education or in the museum or library sectors. When robber barons or pedophiles have millions to cleanse their reputation, the institutions will take their  money.

The biggest battle in the fight against privatization has been to persuade the Democratic Party that it had been hoaxed by Republicans into adopting the Republican agenda. According to this article in The Washington Post, Democratic support for charter schools has evaporated, at least among the candidates.

The title of the article is “Democrats abandon charter schools as ‘reform’ agenda falls from favor.” No one has more egg on their faces than the editorial board of the Washington Post, which loves charter schools and defends them at every turn.

Until 1993, Democrats supported equity and federal funding for public schools, while Republicans supported choice, testing, competition, and accountability.

Then Bill Clinton embraced charter schools, testing, standards, and accountability. Then came NCLB and it was endorsed by Ted Kennedy and the entire Democratic Party.

Then the Obama Race to the Top gave total support to the Bush NCLB approach of charters, testing, and harsh accountability, and Arne Duncan spent seven years parroting the Republican line that the best way to improve schools was to get tough on teachers, make tests harder, and open more charter schools.

According to the Washington Post, the Democratic love affair with charters is over. 

The steady drumbeat of scandals and the vivid advocacy of Betsy DeVos have killed the Democrats’ charter love. 

Suddenly, the Democratic candidates for president  seem to have realized that school choice is a Republican issue. Supporting the public schools that nearly 90% of all students attend is a Democratic issue.

This is awkward for Democrats like Governor Jared Polis of Governor and Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, all fans of charters.

Democrats have long backed charter schools as a politically safe way to give kids at low-performing schools more options. Many supported merit pay for the best teachers and holding schools accountable for test scores.

The presidential contest is proof that’s no longer the case.

If the candidates say anything about charter schools, it’s negative. Education initiatives boosted by the Bush and Obama administrations are nowhere to be found in candidate platforms.

Instead, the Democratic candidates are pitching billions of dollars in new federal spending for schools and higher pay for teachers, with few of the strings attached that marked the Obama-era approach to education.

It adds up to a sea change in Democratic thinking on education, back to a more traditional Democratic approach emphasizing funding for education and support for teachers and local schools. Mostly gone is the assumption that teachers and schools are not doing enough to serve low-performing children and that government must tighten requirements and impose consequences if results do not improve.

As a senator, Joe Biden said private school vouchers might help improve public schools. As vice president, he was atop an administration that made support for charter schools a requirement to access federal grant funding. But when asked about charters — privately run, publicly funded schools — during a recent forum with the American Federation of Teachers, Biden sounded a negative note.

“The bottom line is it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble,” he said….

Bernie Sanders thus far is the only candidate to call for an end to federal funding of charter schools. The safe position for Democrats is to oppose “for-profit” charters, while ignoring the fact that many “nonprofit charters” are operated by for-profit management corporations.

The story continues:

It’s an unsettling development for advocates of the structural changes that have fallen out of favor, and a sharp turn from where many Democrats were just a few years ago. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had pushed a bipartisan drive for accountability, and charter schools were the answer for Democrats who opposed private school vouchers but wanted to offer other options to children — often children of color from low-income families — assigned to low-performing schools. They were important to some civil rights leaders and became a central plank in the drive for school accountability….

The American Federation of Teachers has been hosting candidate forums throughout the country, inviting contenders to spend a day with teachers and then answering questions town hall-style.

At the town hall with Biden last month, AFT President Randi Weingarten was so warm and complimentary that it left some with the impression she was laying the groundwork for an endorsement.

“Vice President Joe Biden was our north star in the last administration,” she said. “We didn’t always get along with the Obama administration positions on education, but we had a go-to guy who always listened to us.” She added: “He’s with us because he is us.”

During the Obama administration, the National Education Association was so angry it called forEducation Secretary Arne Duncan to resign, and the other big teachers union, the AFT, came close…

The shift underway has Democrats who support charter schools and related policies nervous. Democrats for Education Reform is circulating results of a poll that show support for charter schools is higher among African American Democrats than whites. But overall, the poll found just 37 percent of Democratic primary voters have a favorable view of charters.

Some like-minded Democrats are working on something they call the Kids New Deal, hoping to find a candidate to support it. The centerpiece of the proposal is to make children a “protected class” under the law, which would make it easier for them to file lawsuits challenging, for instance, tenure for teachers, on the grounds that it hurts children.

“The goal here is to outflank the teachers unions from the left and not from the right,” said Ben Austin, a longtime education restructuring advocate.

DFER is the hedge fund managers group created to persuade Democrats to act like Republicans and support privatization. It offered big money for candidates who swallowed their line. DFER was condemned by the state Democratic Party in both California and Colorado as a front for Wall Street and corporate interests.

 Ben Austin is one of California’s most aggressive charter school proponents, having run the faux Parent Revolution, whose goal was to convert public schools to charter schools. He spent millions of dollars from Gates, Waltons, and other billionaires, but converted only one or two public schools. If he is behind the “Kids New Deal,”’it is probably another billionaire-funded privatization vehicle.

The great news in this article is that those who have warned Democrats to return to their roots and stop acting like Republicans have won the debate.

 

Peter Greene has a rapier sharp wit, which he wields so deftly that the object of his attention has been beheaded without knowing what happened. If you want to see him at his best, read this mystery: Who is murdering Charter Schools? 

Teachers?

Unions?

Lobbyists?

If you live in the real world, the people fighting privatization are heroic defenders of the commonweal, protecting the public interest against the Waltons, the Koch brothers, DeVos, and other private interests.

 

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.

 

 

It’s about time. A story in the Los Angeles Times notes that those Democratic candidates who supported charters (and still do) are facing a backlash by their party’s voters. The wave of teachers’ strikes have brought into sharp relief the fact that most families enroll their children in public schools, not charter schools; that charter schools are a priority for Republicans, Wall Street, and far-right libertarians like Betsy DeVos; and that support for public schools is a bedrock principle of the Democratic Party.

The candidate who was most outspoken as a supporter of both charters and vouchers was Cory Booker. He worked in alliancewith anti-union Governor Chris Christie to bring chartersto Newark. He worked closely with Betsy Dezvos and gave a speech to her organization. He was honored by the rightwing Manhattan Institute for supporting school choice. He wanted to turn Newark into the New Orleans of the North, with no public schools and no teachers’ union. He still defends that record.

Michael Bloomberg was a big supporter of charters in New York City and favored them over the public schools he took control of. He’s now out of the race, so no need to worry other than that he will find a Democratic DeVos to fund. He despises public schools.

Michael Bennett of Colorado supported charters when he was superintendent of schools in Denver. Governor Hickenlooper appointed Bennett to the Senate.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State did not stand up to Bill Gates after the Washington State Supreme Court decided that charter schools and not entitled to receive public money. Gates persuaded his friends in the legislature to give lottery money to charters, and Gov. Inslee neither signed nor vetoed the law, allowing Gates to get state funding. Not a profilein courage.

The election of 2020 will be a deciding moment, when Democratic candidates are asked to declare whether they support the public schools, or the privately-managed, scandal-ridden charters that enroll 6% of the nation’s students.

 

 

 

 

 

Cybercharters, especially the for-profit kind, have proven to be a huge scam. The largest in the nation, ECOT (the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) in Ohio, went bankrupt last year, not because it wasn’t making money buy because the state uncharacteristically insisted on counting and getting refunds for phantom students.

Cybercharters produce poor results for students, no matter which measure you use, yet they are very profitable. The corporation gets full tuition without the overhead of brick-and-mortar schools.

Great business, lousy schools, with lots of money for advertising and lobbying.

No state has been worse than Pennsylvania when it comes to opening cybercharters and ignoring their poor performance and even criminality. The owner of the state’s largest cyber school, Nicholas Trombetta, was convicted of tax evasion when $8 million went missing but not held liable for the diversion of funds meant for educating students.

The state has authorized some 15 or 16 such virtual schools and none has ever met state standards. Real schools that had such dismal results would have been shuttered long ago. But those millions for lobbying legislators….

peter Greene says there is some hope that the reign of the failing cybercharters may be coming to an end. Maybe.

Ten of the state’s cybers are operating with expired charters.

Amazingly, a Bill was introduced in the legislature to end the scam.

“Several lawmakers in Harrisburg would like to put a stop to that.

”Senate Bill 34‘s prime sponsor is Judith Schwank of Berks County, a former dean at Delaware Valley College who’s been in the Senate since 2011. Her bill’s principle is pretty simple– if a district has its own in-house virtual school, it does not have to pay for a student to attend an outside cyber. If a family pulls a student from Hypothetical High and decides that instead of Hypothetical’s own cyber school they want to send Junior to, say, K12 cyber school, then the family has to pay the bill– not the school district.

““It’s crazy,” said State Sen. Schwank, of the fees districts pay to cyber charters. “It’s not based on actual delivery of educational programming.””

Operators of cybercharters say it’s unfair to hold them accountable for actually delivering educational services. Why not let the scam continue?

We willlearn soon enough whether the Pennsylvania legislature dares to hold the cybercharters accountable. Sadly that probably depends on the operators’ generosity to members of the legislature.

 

The Langston Hughes Academy for Art and Technology, a Tulsa charter school, will close by the end of June.

The school has been caught up in a series of scandals. Grade tampering. Sexual misconduct. Declining enrollments. Chaos. Mismanagement. A deputy reported: “a general lack of structure and order at the school, unfilled teacher vacancies and even faculty meetings held during the day left students unsupervised to the point that there were physical assaults, drug usage, medications kept in the school’s main office being dispensed and consumed without adult supervision, and students freely leaving campus.”

The school wants more time, but is not likely to get it.

https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/local/education/new-issues-keep-popping-up-langston-hughes-academy-ordered-to/article_fe7f1cea-da34-52fb-9b96-c41f9c200a93.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=user-share via @tulsaworld

 

The recommendation to yank the school’s state accreditation came after state accreditation officers reportedly raised new questions about the truthfulness of the school’s student counts, its compliance with federal laws that dictate how special education students must be served and corroboration of some of the Tulsa deputy’s claims about the school not completing required criminal background checks on employees.

“If we do not see the kind of improvement and corrective action plans that have not been met after being agreed to, we as a state are going to have to answer to the Office of Inspector General and U.S. Department of Education for what we allowed to happen,” Hofmeister said. “This is not about intention. It is about capacity and what this charter school board stood before us and told us they would do — and did not do.”

School leaders, their attorney, and even state Sen. Kevin Matthews, who represents the part of Tulsa where Langston Hughes Academy is located, pleaded for more time.

Libby Adjei, who was hired as Langston Hughes’ new superintendent in early September, told the board that she had secured assistance and training for the school’s employees from wherever she could find it, including the charter’s authorizer, Langston University, and the state Department of Education.

And Langston Hughes Board President Carmen Pettie questioned why the sheriff’s office had not shared the school resource officer’s concerns with school leaders — or even made arrests based on some of the described activities.

But state board members said the documented issues were too numerous and too serious.

“What is distressing is the students have spoken with their feet,” said board member Bill Price, pointing to declining enrollment figures at the school, which has added one grade each year since it opened in 2015-16 for only freshmen. “And I know so much of the blame is deserved by the previous administration and they managed to hide it very effectively and I know it seems unfair now that this has been brought to light and it is so difficult to turn around. But I just basically don’t have confidence that the whole team is going to be able to run a school effectively.”

Board member Lee Baxter said, “Every board meeting has given Langston Hughes exactly what they wanted — more time. More time, more time, more time.”

Reports of turmoil at the four-year-old school began in April, when Rodney Clark, the founder and then-superintendent and three other staff members were suspended by the school’s governing board amid allegations of grade tampering.

The school made headlines again in October when a bus driver and football coach at the academy was charged in Tulsa County District Court with second-degree rape and making a lewd or indecent proposal to students at the school.

Richard Phelps is a testing expert. In this post, he asks why the College Board gets public subsidies when it is able to pay its executives seven-figure salaries.

He says its CEO, David Coleman, garnered more than $1 million in 2016.

Phelps summarizes a shocking number of scandals, turbulence, and staff upheaval at the College Board.

And to think this insular institution is the gatekeeper for higher education.