Earlier this week, tracking an extraordinary investigative series on charter schools by the Detroit Free Press (still ongoing today) , this blog commented: “Although the federal government has been creating huge incentives for states to expand rapidly the number of charter schools—by making the removal of statutory caps on the authorization of new charters a condition for a state even to submit an application for a Race to the Top grant and by making available additional federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has left the oversight and regulation of charters up to the fifty state legislatures.” The Free Press series is titled, “How Michigan Spends $1 Billion but Fails to Hold Schools Accountable.”
Yesterday Jeff Bryant, in his weekly column at the Education Opportunity Network, raised the same concern: Will Anyone Stop Charter School Corruption? Bryant examines the Free Press‘s expose on Michigan’s charter schools and also looks at theft of tax money by unscrupulous charter operators in three additional states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. He notes that, “The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed controversial legislation to expand federal funds for more charter schools without placing any substantial new regulations on those schools.” “And in Washington, DC, that House legislation that would expand federal funding to these sorts of schools has been joined by a Senate version that is now steaming toward bipartisan consideration.”
In Ohio, Bryant examines Akron Beacon-Journal coverage of David Brennan’s for-profit White Hat Management Company, whose charter schools have “enjoyed such carte blanche operation that Ohio lawmakers approved additional funding for about 77 of those schools and exempted them from ‘full accountability until at least 2017.'”
In Pennsylvania, Bryant describes a quirk in state law that pays charter schools for providing special education for students who qualify but does not require the charter schools actually to provide the special education services for which the state reimburses them. Charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to Bryant, “collected $350,562,878 last year for special education funding and spent $156,003,034 for special education.” Describing Philadelphia, a school district mired in a dismal financial crisis that involves local money being siphoned by charter schools, Bryant quotes the Philadelphia School Notebook: “Philadelphia charter schools received more than $175 million last year to educate special education students, but spent only about $77 million for that purpose….”
In Florida, Bryant reports on unscrupulous operators collecting funds for charters that are opened and then quickly closed. “Examples… include a man who received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first collapsed. The schools closed in seven weeks.” Bryant quotes an Orlando Sun Sentinel report: “With such wild growth, district officials say, many new charters no longer fill a niche or offer innovation. Yet Florida lawmakers repeatedly have declined to tighten charter school regulations.”
In Michigan, Bryant directs readers to the ongoing investigation by the Detroit Free Press, in which Thursday morning’s installment examines not the financial fraud but instead the academic performance of Michigan’s charters, an education sector that, in Michigan, now has an academic record spanning two decades. “And, reflecting Michigan’s loose oversight of charter schools, a majority of the lowest-performing charters have been around for 10 years or more—despite research that shows the success of a charter school can be determined in the first three years of existence.” The Free Press calls attention to two for-profit chains that not only run individual schools but have also been hired in Michigan to manage whole school districts. In 2012, the Highland Park School District was turned over to the national Leona Group, “often criticized for poor-performing schools. The company runs 14 charters in Michigan and 43 in four other states. Leona’s Michigan schools have an average percentile ranking of 19 (on the state’s school rating formula).” “That same year, the emergency manager for the Muskegon Heights School District turned its schools over to Mosaica Education, a for-profit company with an average ranking of 16.” The Muskegon Heights-Mosaica contract was dissolved mutually by the state and the corporation in April 2014, however, when Mosaica was not only unable to manage the district without a deficit: as a for-profit company, it was also unable to turn a profit.
Advocates for charter schools have railed against traditional public schools because, they allege, school district bureaucracy stifles innovation. Others would value the kind of regulation built into traditional public school districts: public oversight of the tax dollars invested and the protection of the educational rights and the safety of the children enrolled. I agree with Jeff Bryant who concludes his column this week with a plea for increased regulation of what has become a colossal charter school rip-off across many states: “Certainly, faced with such a growing calamity, it’s not being ‘negative’ or ‘oppositional’ or a ‘status-quo defender’ to stand in the pathway and yell ‘Stop!'”