Monday, May 30, 2011

Charter School Scandals


Philadelphia is the site of nearly a dozen recent charter school scandals. Is the City of Brotherly Love just particularly fertile ground for such corruption? Or is this sort of thing common?

There are only 5,400 charter schools in the entire United States. But if we google “charter school fraud” it yields an astonishing 1,080,000 results. “Charter school scandal” triggers another 519,000 and “charter school corruption” 480,000.

Further investigation reveals a broad and deeply troubling nationwide pattern of charter school scandals. And we’re not talking about stealing chump change either. Well over $12 billion was spent on charter schooling in 2010; and a lot of larcenous people are wetting their beaks.

Here are a few examples of what's going on. In Houston Texas the Prepared Table Charter School had its charter revoked and four administrators  (a pastor and three relatives) indicted on 26 counts including the embezzlement of millions of dollars in federal and Texas funds. Apparently the table was a little too well prepared in this case.


The Jesse Jackson Academy (with campuses in both Houston and Fort Worth) closed in 2008 when it was charged that school officials had misappropriated $3.2 million in federal funds.


 In April the founder of the now defunct California Charter Academy, a chain of 60 charter schools serving 10,000 students around the state, faced 113 felony charges related to misappropriating $23 million in state and federal funds.  The charges include 56 counts of grand theft, 56 counts of misappropriating public funds and 1 count of failing to file a tax return. He faces a possible 64 years in prison.


Another California Charter Academy official, who also is a California city councilman, faces 15 counts of grand theft, 15 counts of misappropriating public funds,  counts of failing to file a state tax return and one count of filing a false a false tax return


An Islamic movement also has been charged with using their nationwide chain of charter schools to illegally finance the teachings of Turkish Islamic leader Tehuyllah Gulen with US taxpayers money. The FBI is investigating the GUlen schools for illegal use of education funds, criminal conspiracy, extortion and violation of immigration laws.”  It is alleged that they have been laundering money  through generous “consulting contracts” with Gulen front companies and sending it back to Turkey.  The scheme is alleged to also feature prearranged salary kickbacks to the movement by 1,851.

This is just a representative sample of a nationwide Niagara of charter school corruption that is receiving insufficient attention. Most of it is a consequence of weak federal, state and local oversight. Greg Richmond, the President & CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — an organization made up of the agencies that approve charter schools — testified to the House Committee on Education and Labor in February 2010 that:

 “Over the past fifteen years, the federal government has allocated $2 billion to support the creation of new charter schools. … Yet during that same time, the federal government has invested almost nothing, less than $2 million, or one-tenth of one percent, to ensure that those schools are held to high standards and properly monitored by a competent authorizing agency. It is as if the federal government had spent billions for new highway construction, but nothing to put up guardrails along the sides of those highways.” 

How has this slapdash approach to supervision come to pass? It has its primary origin with ideologically exuberant politicians who uncritically embrace the self-perpetuating worldview that free market economics is the only possible salvation for allegedly lousy “government” schools and everything else. Their conservative political beliefs have evolved into a self-sealing worldview that has its own gods, heroes, and myths. The central idea is that the cleansing fire of free enterprise, unfettered by regulations, is all that is needed to keep things in order. 

Admittedly, an unknown number of these free market politicians aren’t really true believers. They just pretend to be to get the votes of those who are. But this doesn’t make any difference when it comes to casting their votes for the unregulated, prone to corruption, free market approach.

It's time to  get back to reality. Let's cool the free market hype and crack down on charter school thieves by setting and enforcing high standards. And this should begin with the Obama administration. They too have fallen uncritically in love with charters. But they had better get the regulatory equivalent of a condom in place before they get too intimate. 

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