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Charter School Corruption Is Changing Education Policy And Politics

After years of credible reporting on the rampant corruption in the charter school industry, the schools are now drawing more scrutiny from state lawmakers and regulators, and political candidates are making negative stories about charters a contentious issue in the upcoming November midterm elections.

Government officials from California to New York are increasingly considering, proposing, or passing new regulatory restraint on these privately operated, publicly funded schools, and in electoral contests from Arizona to Ohio, Democratic challengers are challenging Republican incumbents to defend their lax governance that has allowed charter schools to run amuck, costing the taxpayers millions and undermining the financial stability of public education.

As scandalous news stories and scathing reviews of the charter industry continue to emerge, the negative impacts these schools have on families and communities will prompt more to question the wisdom of expanding these schools and draw more attention to the need to ratchet up regulations for the charters already in existence.

Charter Scandals Continue

With the new school year barely underway, negative news headlines about charter schools abound. Among the hits so far:

  • A Dallas charter school leader who suddenly quit after local reporters obtained statements from a school-issued credit card showing charges for air travel, accommodation at ritzy hotels, and meals at high-end restaurants.
  • Parents and students from a North Carolina charter school complaining to a local news outlet that when experienced teachers leave their school, the administrator fills in with substitutes and low-grade online courses, even in core subjects such as math and reading.
  • A South Carolina charter school that may close one month into the new school year because, while the school was approved for 380 students, budgeted for 180, and claimed 150 enrolled, only 50 students showed up and 32 attend currently.
  • New school A-F ratings issued by Ohio that show among Dayton’s 22 charter schools, there are no A-rated schools, only two rate B, five are C-rated, and the rest are D and F schools.
  • An Arizona Republican lawmaker who’ is set make as much as $30 million after selling his for-profit charter school chain, largely funded by taxpayers, to a non-profit company with the same name operated by a board of his close associates.

In Florida, a state-based watchdog group monitoring corruption in government issued a new report saying charters in the Sunshine State waste taxpayer money and too often give rise to conflicts of interest in which for-profit management companies reap millions from the state. The study showed how Florida’s elected officials are frequently influenced by the money in charter school development and operations. Since its start in 1998, the charter school industry has spent more than $13 million to influence state education policy in Florida through contributions to political campaigns. The report recommended more financial transparency and tighter regulations on how charters use public money, especially when for-profit management companies are involved.

A ‘Backlash’ to For-Profit Charters

As a consequence of the seemingly endless scandals in the charter school industry there is what Education Week’s charter school reporter Arianna Prothero calls, “a growing political backlash to for-profit charter schools.”

Prothero points to a new law passed in California, a charter-friendly state that hosts more charter schools and more charter school students than any other state, that prohibits for-profit companies from running schools. That law “strikes a major blow to for-profit charter schools” says Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor, because it not only bars for-profit charters from receiving a contract to operate in the state; it also prohibits non-profit charters from transferring responsibility and management to a for-profit entity.

Those arrangements that partner nonprofit charters with for-profit management groups have been a major source of corruption and self-dealing, Black argues, in which taxpayer money intended to educate students gets turned over to private companies that divert much of the funding to management fees, administrator salaries, and lucrative real estate deals, much of which is technically legal but ethically corrupt nevertheless.

Prothero reports that three other states – Maine, Mississippi, and Washington – have passed laws that either outright or in part prohibit for-profit companies from running charter schools since 2010 and another four states – New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, and Rhode Island – that have some kind of ban on companies running charter schools.

In addition to enacting its new law banning for-profit charters, California is planning to “update” its charter school law, according to the outgoing state superintendent, and both candidates running for that office support a review of charter regulations, although they disagree on the role charters have in the system.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, the state auditor has decried charter school laws that allow charter schools and their allied organizations to use a legal loophole “to keep the public in a dark” about financial dealings that divert public funds intended for education to private pockets through school construction and land deals. “The law needs to be changed,” he declared.

And in New York, the state body governing education has revised criteria for evaluating charter school performance to align with how public schools are evaluated. While the new evaluation process being considered does nothing to address charter school corruption in the state, the trend to govern privately-operated charters on a comparable level to public schools runs counter to the charter industry’s desires to advance regulatory-free enterprises.

Changing Charter Politics

Changing attitudes about charters are affecting electoral politics too.

As EdWeek’s Prothero points out, Ohio’s upcoming election for governor is to a significant extent becoming a contest between who will be tougher on the state’s charter school industry. While Democratic candidate Richard Cordray is calling for an outright ban on for-profit companies running charter schools, she reports, Republican nominee, Mike DeWine, has “stopped short of advocating for a prohibition on for-profit charter operators” and proposed more accountability for the online sector of these schools.

The failure of Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic School of Tomorrow, and the state’s ongoing attempts to recover nearly $80 million in student enrollment overpayments have become one of the most contentious issues in the state’s midterm elections, and Democrats have been successful at pinning the blame for the charter fiasco on Republicans.

Similarly, in Arizona, Democratic challengers in the upcoming midterm election are nailing Republican incumbents for their lax governance of the state’s charter schools – Arizona has the highest percentage of students attending charters in the nation.

In the contest for governor, challenger David Garcia has succeeded in pushing incumbent Doug Ducey into advocating for financial reform of the charter industry. “In 4 years Ducey’s done absolutely nothing to stop [charter school] shams,” Garcia tweeted. “As governor I’ll hold charter schools accountable and insist on one set of rules for all schools receiving public dollars.”

Additionally, Republican Arizona  State Senator Kate Brophy McGee has become a vocal advocate for increased oversight of the conflicts of interest and nepotism rife in the state’s charter schools and Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has called on lawmakers to pass tougher charter-school laws.

Brophy McGee faces Democratic challenger Christine Marsh, an Arizona high school teacher, who Brophy McGee sudden conversion to tighter charter oversight. She noted, “The Democrats have been yelling into the wind for a very long time for some degree of charter accountability … I don’t understand why this would become an issue for [Brophy McGee] when it hasn’t been for the last eight years.”

“The political landscape in Arizona is changing, with politicians from both parties seeking charter-school reforms,” declared a recent article in the Arizona Republic, due in part to that news outlet’s recent investigations into charter-school finances. The series of articles “has been a ‘PR nightmare’ for Republicans, who have long supported charter schools as part of a broad school-choice agenda,” the reporter noted.

Welcome News

While charter school skeptics should appreciate the changing attitude toward these school, they should not be too quick to celebrate.

The new ban on for-profit charters in California, for instance, “will not shut down California’s for-profit schools anytime soon,” warns Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy group. “Whether they are for-profit or nonprofit, there will still be ample opportunity in the charter sector for profiteers to take advantage of the public treasure and trust.,” she argues.

“While it’s easy to prohibit a for-profit corporation from chartering a school, it’s trickier to ban a for-profit corporation from controlling the operation of a nonprofit charter school,” observes John Fensterwald, a reporter for the California-based news outlet EdSource.

Nevertheless, the rapid expansion of the charter school industry started with a few pioneering schools, with perhaps good intentions, that eventually grew into a huge industry conservatives use to impose competition in local school systems and instill a market-based philosophy in public education. That the slippery slope propelling these schools might be finally tilting in the other direction is welcome news.

(Photo credit: Derek Bridges, Flickr Creative Commons)

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