Charter schools are here to make a few people rich not to educate our children.

From
the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, By Jeff Bryant

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 or so was no
exception in exposing new problems with an idea that was once thought of as acollaborative 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 states 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 the nefariousness of some charter
school operators.

First,
you take a building, “previously owned by one of the charter school’s
founders,” according to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, 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 Inquirer
story said.

The Aspira Trifecta Scandal
The
litany of charter school scandals doesn’t stop there. 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 kids.

Once
again, a “non-profit,” 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 in the Philadelphia
CityPaper: “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, Crook’s and Liars blogger Karoli found that Trombetta not only headed the
Pennsylvania online charter, called PA Cyber, but 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 of $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 boardis 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 Innovations 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, weve 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 studyshowed 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 under perform 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.

What
is the first law of the hole? If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.


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