Education Opportunity Network

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Charter Schools For Scandals

There are undoubtedly wonderful charter schools in existence, and Americans generally have a favorable opinion of charters, but hardly a week goes by without news of a scandal or a study tarnishing their image.

With schools reopening everywhere across the country, the past week was no exception in exposing new problems with an idea that was once thought of as a collaborative endeavor between teacher unions and school administrators aimed at serving struggling students, but has now become a heavily funded, well-marketed movement designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools.

Leading off the charter scandal parade was Pennsylvania, where an auditor general found that the state’s largest charter school pocketed $1.2 million “in improper lease-reimbursement payments.” The scheme the school was running has become all too familiar to anyone following charter school nefariousness.

First, you take a building, “previously owned by one of the charter school’s founders,” and use municipal bonds to sell it – in this case, for $50.7 million – at very favorable terms to a “related nonprofit organization ‘established for the sole purpose of supporting’ the charter school.” Then “the same individual who was once the charter’s landlord” creates a for-profit management company to run the school. And voila, what was once a public endeavor focused on educating children for the sole purpose of raising the well being of the community becomes a financial bonanza for a few well-placed individuals – one of whom, in this case, just happens to be “a Republican fund-raiser” who served on the governor’s “transition team.”

This Pennsylvania charter was no lone outlaw, as the state auditor noted. “His office had found similar problems at six other charter schools.”

The Aspira Trifecta Scandal

The litany of charter school scandals doesn’t stop there – even just in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, a city that is closing neighborhood schools and leaving school children bereft of art and music teachers due to a miserly state budget, is throwing millions – a projected $729 million – at charter schools. A recent report from Philadelphia City Paper revealed that not all of that money spent on charters goes to educating children.

Once again, a “nonprofit,” Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, set up to serve the interests of charter schools is playing a shell game with taxpayer money so a few folks get rich. Similar to other charter schemes, “millions of dollars have moved between the network of charter schools, their parent nonprofit, and two property-management entities.”

Four charter schools in the Aspira chain loaned $3.3 million to Aspira “in addition to $1.5 million in lease payments to Aspira and Aspira-controlled property-management entities ACE and ACE/Dougherty, and $6.3 million in administrative fees paid to Aspira in 2012.” What seems pretty clear is that Aspira has used funds from it charters to acquire real estate: The network’s combined real-estate holdings increased from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012. But “in the event of a default on that loan,” according to the article, those real estate assets are not “at risk.” Convenient, no?

Where is the school district in this affair? “We cannot conduct even limited financial audits of the parent organization,” according to a district spokesperson quoted in the report. And where is the state? Noted reporter Daniel Denvir, “The state Auditor General, which has seen its staff reduced by 24 percent in recent years, doesn’t have the capacity to audit all the new charter schools that have opened in the past five years. Only three Philadelphia charter schools have been audited since 2008. Aspira’s five charters are not among them.”

Cyber Scandals

Even when there’s not real estate involved, charter schools in Pennsylvania find a way to make a buck at the expense of school kids. According to an article at The Raw Story, the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest “cyber charter,” that operates exclusively over the internet, “was charged with fraud, for funneling $8 million of the school’s funds into his personal companies and holdings.” The operator, Nicholas Trombetta, “allegedly used the tax payer money to purchase a plane, houses for his mother and girlfriend, and a million dollar Florida condo.”

Looking deeper into the indictment, Crooks and Liars blogger Karoli found that Trombetta not only headed the Pennsylvania online charter, called PA Cyber, he also set himself up as the CEO of an organization that provided curriculum and other services to online charter schools, including PA Cyber, and he created a “management group” to advise the organization he was CEO of. That’s quite a trifecta.

The list or recent charter school scandals isn’t confined to the Keystone State.

In Texas, a charter school located in Houston was recently accused of funneling $5.3 million in federal funds to questionable destinations, including “hotels, cruises and travel packages,” six-figure salaries, and, again, a real estate scheme involving a management company and the charter school.

“Zero Tolerance” For Struggling Students

A scandal of a different kind recently enveloped another charter chain operating in New York City. In an article in The Daily News, reporter Juan Gonzales revealed, “Success Academy, the charter school chain that boasts sky-high student scores on annual state tests, has for years used a “zero tolerance” disciplinary policy to suspend, push out, discharge or demote the very pupils who might lower those scores – children with special needs or behavior problems.”

One school in the Success chain, an elementary school, suspended 22 percent of its students at least once during the 2010-11 school year – “far above the 3% average” of other elementary schools in the district.

According to Gonzales, Success Academy Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz claimed that higher suspension rates helped achieve “order and civility in the classroom.”

But high suspension rates invariably produce more school dropouts, and many states are now changing school discipline policies to reduce suspensions. Yet charter schools are often left free to determine their own discipline policies, despite the students they push out or drop out become the responsibility of other schools – or the criminal justice system.

One charter chain operating in Connecticut, Achievement First, had such high suspension rates – including “shocking numbers” of kindergartners – that a state board is now reviewing the schools’ practices.

Another charter chain, Democracy Prep, has been condemned by parents of former students for its “zero tolerance” discipline policies.

Innovation For Innovation’s Sake

What’s apparent from all these charter school scandals is that these schools need way more scrutiny and, yes, government regulation. But the charter movement and its ardent backers in state legislatures are adamantly against that. Charters, we’ve been told, “need to be free to innovate.”

Yet for all the “freedom to innovate” that charter schools have, the results of these schools generally fall far short of being, well, innovative.

In Ohio, a state thick with charter school “innovation” for 16 years, “charters statewide performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to reform,” according to an article in The Columbus Dispatch. “And when it comes to graduating seniors after four years of high school,” traditional public schools in Ohio’s urban communities “performed better.”

The article, written by Bill Bush, continues, “What started as an experiment in fixing urban education through free-market innovation is now a large part of the problem. Almost 84,000 Ohio students – 87 percent of the state’s charter-school students – attend a charter ranking D or F in meeting state performance standards.”

A National Scandal

Nationwide, the statistics on charter school “innovation” aren’t much better. The most recent comparison of charter school performance to traditional public schools nationwide found that more charter schools are doing better. But a careful analysis of the study showed only “a tiny real impact on the part of charter schools.”

Taken into context –  being freed from regulation, having the ability to select the most desirable students, implementing programs designed for test taking, having friends in high places to game the system – charter schools should be kicking the tails of traditional public schools, not barley eking out gains after years of promises and bluster.

Nevertheless, the myth of charter school magic is hard to crack.

In Louisiana, when charter schools recently failed and were closed by the state, they were replaced with … more charter schools. In Tennessee, the worst performing school in the state is a charter … protected by lobbyists. And cyber charters and other online providers in the K-12 sphere notoriously underperform traditional schools … but are being ramped up by policy makers in many states.

All of which denies the first law of the hole that the charter movement keeps digging itself – and our nation’s school children – into.

  • Joe Nathan says:

    Jeff, in most large cities, there are public schools with admissions tests, that screen out youngsters who can not score highly. These are highly selective “magnet” schools. They frustrate many families and are part of the reason the charter movement was created.

    IN most states, charters are not allowed to use any form of academic admissions test.

    Why no concern about these selective admissions magnet schools?
    Here’s a law suit filed earlier this year about the NYC practice of “concentrating minority students in schools packed with high needs students.”
    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/suit-high-school-admissions-racially-biased-article-1.1348628
    “City high schools admit students on the basis of academic records, state test scores, attendance, student preference, available space and other factors.”

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/suit-high-school-admissions-racially-biased-article-1.1348628#ixzz2dqIltJ9V

    Did you cover that? Have you ever criticized selective admissions “public” schools?

    They use admissions tests in Chicago selective public schools:
    http://cpsoae.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=72696&type=d&termREC_ID=&pREC_ID=123085

    Here’s info about one of Cincinnati’s selective admissions high schools – they only look at you if you are in the top 30% on standardized tests:
    http://www.walnuthillseagles.com/about-entrance-exam-information.asp

    Also, all over the country charter advocates are working hard to refine and improve accountability systems for charters – and for district schools.

    Have you ever expressed concerns about selective admissions magnet schools? Or are those ok with you?

    FYI – our organization works with both district & charter public schools – and we oppose admissions tests for any k-12 public school, district or charter.

    Joe Nathan

    September 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Joe, if you clicked through the link I provided about charter schools selecting out the most desirable students, you would have seen that what I’m referring to isn’t confined to “academic admission tests.” The reporter, Stephanie Simon, found a substantial array of “barriers” that charters frequently employ to screen out students who would be most apt to struggle – and they do this despite what state and local laws demand. Regarding the analogy of charter schools to magnets, I don’t think it holds. Magnets have to operate transparently to the degree demanded of other schools in the district. Some of the charters I refer are headed by boards that aren’t even in the same state where the charter school buildings are located. And as I’ve written, the operations of some of these charters are not at all under the purview of any local control. That said, I do sometimes find the policies governing magnets and other select-admission public schools problematic. But I don’t see waves of bills written by ALEC sweeping though state houses across the country calling for rapidly increasing the numbers of magnet schools and turning the oversight of magnet schools over to unaccountable committees stocked with friends of the “magnet school movement.” So yes, I’ve chosen my priorities.

      September 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm
    • Franz Kitzberger, New Ulm, Minnesota says:

      Charter schools are thinly disguised private schools, plain and simple. The “movement” was never anything but a cruel scam, a ruse, to make up for the failure of the right-wing corporatist, union-bashing, anything-”public”-hating (especially public education), tax-dodging, “privileged” and
      “entitled” to establish and codify such stupid ideas as voucher-systems, school-choice schemes, school-prayer(Christian only), and the privatization of a for-profit meritocracy. It’s a bizarre bazaar out there! And, Mr. Nathan, I’ve been following you with admiration for years, but don’t you think it’s time you got back in the trenches to lead a movement that will actually FIX our PUBLIC education system? We know what’s wrong, and it has to do with social and economic justice for ALL. Thank you.

      September 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm
  • Marian Cruz says:

    I am not in favor of Charter Schools and did not support the proposition that was passed that allowed them. I feel it’s a way to conquer and divide. The emphasis should be on funding schools in order to provide for smaller class size, art, music, drama and school counselors and nurses at each school.

    September 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm
    • R.E. Fichter says:

      Marian has it right! Another BIG reason charters were created, besides siphoning off tax money to profit-making entitites, was to destroy teachers unions. I don’t care how good a charter is, if it isn’t paying the same salaries as the local unionized schools, providing the same benefits, and reasonable job protection, then it is NO GOOD! I know of charters where good/superior teachers leave for decent wages because they haven’t gotten a raise in years, and there is NO one to advocate for THEM with the “owners,” and also where good teachers are let go (because they serve “at will” and can be) so a friend of the adminstration can be hired or so lower-wage inexperienced newbies can replace them. Charters get the SAME tax-money/pupil, after all, as the local REAL public schools and are NOT worth supporting if they are just blood-sucking, anti-labor corporations.

      September 3, 2013 at 5:33 pm
  • eric wynne taylor says:

    To make Government Schools more competitive, you need to adopt the teaching of Algebra for K through 8 nationwide like they have done for the last generation in foreign countries that have passed us in mathematics & science, and this would also make Government Schools more competitive with Charter Schools; Why do we have a Federal Department of Education if they cannot set standards high enough to keep up with the Global Market Place in Education?

    September 3, 2013 at 5:03 pm
    • Ed Ciaccio says:

      I taught in public schools for more than 32 years. Raising standards alone will merely further frustrate students, parents, and teachers, and give more erroneous ammunition to craven political hacks who blame public schools for all the problems these same hacks refuse to face. A study released today confirms that poverty lowers I.Q. [Researchers: Poverty Lowers IQ http://www.mintpressnews.com/researchers-poverty-lowers-iq/168174/.

      Only when the U.S. faces the fact that economic inequality is at the root of our educational failings, then significantly decreases that inequality, will true change occur. Read The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

      Given the forces which run our nation – the Plundering Class or top 5% – I expect huge economic inequality and suffering public schools to persist for decades, until more of our citizens wake up.

      September 3, 2013 at 9:15 pm
      • Denise says:

        Ed Ciaccio has it right!! I am a registered nurse working full-time in a program for first-time, low income mothers and babies from early in their pregnancy until the child’s second birthday. Our goal is to break the cycle of poverty and empower these mothers and families to become self-sufficient as well as be the best mothers they can be. Our job has grown increasingly difficult over the past years given the downturn of our economy. As Ed points out, poverty and economic inequality is at the root of our educational failings and makes it near impossible for these families to move forward and rise up from their level of poverty creating a generational problem! To blame teachers and public education for this issue is preposterous and I, too, believe this economic inequality will continue affecting our public schools, our work force, the health and well-being of our society and most of all our strength as a nation. We, the people, need to WAKE UP and demand change!!! We are ALL affected unless you are fortunate enough to be at the top 1%!!

        September 4, 2013 at 4:02 am
  • Chart says:

    Marian you are correct. They are unjust and what I have witnessed, are just an implementation of Social Reproduction to the Nth degree. “Showing them (the students) what they will not have…”

    September 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm
  • Lorenzo says:

    Charter Schools are the urban setting precursors to pick the pieces of the destruction of public school education. Suburban public schools are geared toward those parents that can afford private education.

    September 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm
  • Joe Nathan says:

    Jeff – Glad to hear that we agree it’s a bad idea to allow schools to use admissions test. Sorry that Jeff and others here haven’t done much to question those “elite” magnet schools.

    Our 3 children all attended and graduated from urban (non-selective) public schools. How about others who commented?

    Having helped write charter legislation here and in a number of other states, I can tell you that frustration with elite magnet schools is one of the reasons that charter laws passed – 10 years before ALEC got involved. Rosa Parks was involved, for example, during the last decade of her life.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/30/us/rights-hero-presses-plan-for-school-in-detroit.html

    All over the country, inner city families whose kids couldn’t get into elite magnet schools have sought out charters.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/28/nyregion/charter-schools-gaining-support.html

    As to reasons for suburban charters – sometimes it is because parents are deeply frustrated by large suburban secondary schools that are not healthy places for lots of kids.

    Jeff, please cite the evidence that charters “frequently” use the barriers you describe? I’ve visited more than 800 charters in the last 15 years and seen what is described in a handful of cases. When the reporter wrote, “thousands of charters don’t provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty…” this will come as major news to the almost a million charter students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
    http://dashboard.publiccharters.org/dashboard/students/page/lunch/year/2013
    As of 2010-11, more than half of the students attending charters were eligible for free/reduced lunch.

    In fact, some charter opponents criticize charters for enrolling too many low income students and youngsters of color.

    As you note, Jeff, everyone has to set priorities. Seems like you have chosen to ignored urban magnet schools that screen out students, teacher union scandals, and district financial scandals.

    Fortunately, the American people, as noted by Gallup/PDK, continue to support the charter idea. And many people are working hard to improve district & charters – recognizing that both have something to offer.

    September 3, 2013 at 8:04 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Joe, I’ve acknowledged that there are worthy charter schools. I’ve expressed no strong intent to attack charter schools per se. And I’m the one with a bias problem?

      September 3, 2013 at 9:37 pm
      • Joe Nathan says:

        Jeff, I didn’t say you had a “bias” problem. I said it seemed like you’ve chosen to ignore some other issues that many parents and teachers see as problems.

        September 3, 2013 at 10:34 pm
        • Jeff Bryant says:

          Joe, I wrote a very factual account of recent issues with charter schools. That my account did not conform to what you would prefer I post is simply not a valid argument that I’ve “chosen to ignore some other issues.” Sorry. But thank you for reading and commenting. I really think that charter schools may have some place in our public system of education. I just don’t see the current ideology driving the charter school movement getting us where we need to go. I understand that you may differ.

          September 4, 2013 at 1:15 am
          • Joe Nathan says:

            Jeff, what you and I think is less important that what millions of Americans have decided – that charters are a good place for their kids.

            Are there some problems with some charters – absolutely. You describe some of them.

            But having read your notes regularly, I see you as opposed to rather than promoting opportunity. When did you write a post criticizing elite private magnets?
            When did you write a post criticizing teachers who abuse students?
            When did you write a post criticizing some unions that have been corrupt (squandering teachers dollars)?

            You quote a journalist who says that “Thousands” of charters are out of reach for students from low income families and I pointed out that about half the kids going to charters are from low income families (and by the way, there are only about 3,000 charters in existence). Where is the proof of this broad journalistic’s assertion?

            You have written a number of columns critical of charters.

            Where are the columns describing outstanding things that some charters are doing? Where are the columns critical of the way that some district schools restrict opportunity if you can’t pass the standardized tests you often criticize?

            September 4, 2013 at 3:56 am
  • Jim Mordecai says:

    Charter schools create employees and parents that are legally second class to public school employees and parents. Courts have ruled that charters are not agents of the state and therefore as privately managed schools the rights a public school provides does not transfer to a charter school.

    September 3, 2013 at 9:06 pm
  • paulpnasuti says:

    Reading through the discourse above, it seems clear that we are generally bound to seeking balance, improving what all care about immensely, by looking to the edges of our wisdom. Human nature must be why we fight these endless fights, even as gaining the improvement we all believe is needed, remains out of touch. The state-of-the-art reflects moving in circles and going nowhere, though education’s ultimate place is to engender hope.

    But humankind does move forward on occasion, when education properly guides us. The Victorian model, relating all success to bottom line measurement, needs be abandonded to a 21st Century model reflective of all we’ve learned since building empires and acquiring colonies determined appropriate, communal behavior. Of special value is a broad understanding of man’s place within an ecosystem into which he and his intelligence has evolved, where symbiotic relationships most often supercede value beyond that aspect of our nature that is competitive.

    Institutional Education needs adopt an Earth based education model establishing: example as the first order in its process, an inclusion of our complete intellectual heritage into the process, support for development of the whole child and the opportunity to better seek solutions from the core center of the bell shaped curve that represents the heart of democratic thinking. Even as the Earth’s human population is reaching in the direction of lemming example, the fight continues to demand growth. Sustainability, a value that has allowed Homo sapiens an inter-related place on our planet, represents win/win solutions we all may be intelligent enough to value.

    Jeff, this context seeks your support to gain inclusion into the dialogue for the kind of change we all want for our childrens’ futures.

    September 4, 2013 at 6:23 am
  • Ed Murray says:

    If all charter schools were 1) required to be non-profit, and 2) charter school administrators’ salaries were tied to those of the teachers they employ–let’s say 15% higher–most charter schools would disappear tomorrow. Exception: the religious nutcase charter schools that aim to prove the Bible is factually correct in all matters under the sun.

    September 5, 2013 at 1:35 am
    • Estelle Dahl says:

      Ed Murray has it right! Charter schools mainly exist to make a profit on the backs of their students and teachers. And they don’t need admissions tests to be selective. Just requiring busy parents to fill out special applications is enough.

      September 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm
  • sbrooks says:

    I help my daughter homeschool 4 of her children via the K 12 tnva in Tennessee. The public school they attended was a disgrace. Two of the children have learning disabilities and trying to get their I.E.P.s honored was impossible. We were told there were no special ed teachers available. They refused to acknowledge the younger ones dyslexia despite the fact that it was well documented. When we finally got the principal and teacher to agree to a meeting to discuss his educational goals and the best way to achieve them we were told that his low test scores didn’t matter because they would”just pass him anyway”. Through K12 we have the chance to make sure their educational needs are being met. The I.E.P.s are finally being honored and both are receiving the extra help they need. Best of all, they are passing because they have mastered the lesson. At least they will grow up with the knowledge they need to become contributing members of society.

    September 5, 2013 at 3:46 am