Another Study Finds Unaccountable Charter Schools Dogged by Corruption

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Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

In today’s Washington Post, Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, writes about the promises that were first offered by advocates of the charter school industry:

When former President Bill Clinton recently meandered onto the topic of charter schools, he mentioned something about an “original bargain” that charters were, according to the reporter for The Huffington Post, “supposed to do a better job of educating students.”

A writer at Salon called the remark “stunning” because it brought to light the fact that the overwhelming majority of charter schools do no better than traditional public schools. Yet… charter schools are rarely shuttered for low academic performance….

In a real “bargaining process,” those who bear the consequences of the deal have some say-so on the terms, the deal-makers have to represent themselves honestly (or the deal is off and the negotiating ends), and there are measures in place to ensure everyone involved is held accountable after the deal has been struck.

But that’s not what’s happening in the great charter industry rollout transpiring across the country. Rather than a negotiation over terms, charters are being imposed on communities – either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns. Many charter school operators keep their practices hidden or have been found to be blatantly corrupt. And no one seems to be doing anything to ensure real accountability for these rapidly expanding school operations.

But in May, looked at a report issued by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy — two groups that oppose school privatization. The study examined charter schools’ performance in 15 states, and revealed $136 million in fraud, waste and abuse in those states. The authors of that study wrote that, “where there is little oversight, and lots of public dollars available, there are incentives for ethically challenged charter operators to charge for services that were never provided.”

Last week, they released a follow-up study of charter schools in Pennsylvania. It found that “charter school officials have defrauded at least $30 million intended for Pennsylvania school children since 1997.”

Yet every year virtually all of the state’s charter schools are found to be financially sound. While the state has complex, multi-layered systems of oversight of the charter system, this history of financial fraud makes it clear that these systems are not effectively detecting or preventing fraud. Indeed, the vast majority of fraud was uncovered by whistleblowers and media exposés, not by the state’s oversight agencies.

The authors found that while the auditing techniques used by Pennsylvania regulators could identify inefficiencies, oversight agencies don’t use tools “specifically designed to uncover fraud.” It also found that oversight agencies were understaffed and underfunded. “With too few qualified people on staff, and too little training, agencies are unable to uncover clues that might lead to fuller investigations and the discovery of fraud,” write the report’s authors.

They also noted that their findings weren’t unique:

Numerous government entities have raised the flag about the risk of fraud nationally and in Pennsylvania. Reporting in 2010 on the lack of charter-school oversight in states throughout the
country, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education raised concerns that state-level education departments were failing “to provide adequate oversight needed to ensure that Federal funds [were] properly used and accounted for.” Also in 2010 in Philadelphia (which educates 50 percent of all Pennsylvania charter-school students), the Office of the Controller performed a “fraud vulnerability assessment” of the city’s oversight of charter schools and reported that the Charter School Office… made the city’s more than $290 million paid to charter schools “extremely vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.” A 2014 follow-up report found that the School District of Philadelphia continues to provide “minimal oversight over charter schools except during the charter renewal process.”

You can download the entire report on Pennsylvania charter schools at The Center for Popular Democracy.

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Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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