by Félix Pérez
Wasteful spending, conflicts of interest, corruption, insider dealing, cheating on exams, retaliation against teachers, FBI raids, poor academic performance, and lack of oversight and transparency with taxpayer dollars. These are just some of the troubling descriptions surfacing recently about some charter schools in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, New Mexico and Connecticut.
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While operators of errant charter schools in those states are not alone in their questionable, if not legally suspect, conduct and practices, a common denominator throughout is the inaction of governors such as Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Florida’s Rick Scott and Ohio’s John Kasich to put in place standards and accountability that protect students and taxpayers.
Steve Cook, a former classroom paraprofessional and president of the Michigan Education Association, faults Gov. Snyder and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature for lifting the cap on the number of charter schools without addressing troubling academic and financial irregularities.
“Charter school management companies are notoriously secretive with regard to their financial dealings. Although publicly funded, corporate executives of Michigan charter schools fight the disclosure of even basic financial information,” wrote Cook.
“In a number of charter schools across the state, board members of charters were forced off the board when they demanded financial information from their management company. If a traditional public school district withheld financial information, the state would immediately halt their funding — but not so for charter schools.”
Cook’s editorial came on the heels of a yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press into Michigan’ charter schools. Among the newspaper’s findings:
- Michigan spends $1 billion each year on charter schools, “often with little transparency”
- Most of the worst-ranked charter schools have been open 10 years or longer
- State law does not prevent “insider dealing and self-enrichment” by charter school operators.
- There are more for-profit charter schools in Michigan than in any other state.
John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Michigan, likewise blames state elected officials for failing to enact laws that correct charter school abuses. He told the Free Press: “When you say, ‘Line up here and you can scam the state,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if people line up and scam the state.”
In Ohio, public education advocates rallied last week at the statehouse to demand that Gov. Kasich, the state superintendent and the state school board hold charter schools accountable for the nearly $1 billion they receive in public money.
Ohio made news last month when four former teachers at the Horizon Science Academy testified before the state Board of Education about alleged sexual misconduct and test tampering at the charter school operated by the Concept charter management company. Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association, said it was “appalling” that a Department of Education spokesman described the teachers’ testimony as an “orchestrated political stunt.”
Maureen Reedy, 2002 Ohio Teacher of the Year and co-founder of Central Ohio Friends of Public Education, criticized Kasich and Superintendent Richard Ross for supporting what she called a “failed free market promise.” Reedy, who attended last week’s rally, said 9 out of every 10 charter school students, or 87 percent, attend a charter school with a D or F rating.
“After 20 years, a mountain of data proves that ‘turning a profit’ has turned into an ‘empty promise’ of innovation and success for our kids,” Reedy told the political blog Plunderbund.
An Orlando Sun Sentinel newspaper investigation concluded that Florida charter school operators were “exploiting South Florida’s public school system, collecting taxpayer dollars for schools that quickly shut down.”
In the past five years, 56 south Florida charter schools have closed, often leaving students no place to go and failing to return taxpayer funding.
The newspaper wrote:
Florida requires local school districts to oversee charter schools but gives them limited power to intervene when cash is mismanaged or students are deprived of basic supplies — even classrooms. Once schools close, the newspaper found, districts struggle to retrieve public money not spent on students.
Gov. Scott and state lawmakers have declined to pass stiffer charter-school regulations, despite calls from educators and parents.