Charter schools enroll more than 2.5 million students in the U.S. But as these publicly funded, privately run schools have spread across the country, so have reports of corruption and waste bred by a lack of accountability.
A recent study published by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy, entitled “The Tip of the Iceberg,” found $203 million lost to fraud, corruption and mismanagement in charter schools, with a projected $1.4 billion in losses in 2015 alone. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is concerned as well: It has investigated schools in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Connecticut, Arizona, Ohio, Massachusetts, Indiana and Illinois.
Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform released a report detailing the standards that should be required to raise the charter sector to the level of equity and transparency that public schools must meet. Such reforms are popular: A 2015 poll showed that 89 percent of respondents favored making charter board meetings publicly accessible, 88 percent supported routine audits of their finances and 86 percent desired transparent budgets.
Whether or not one thinks that charter schools are a good thing, we should be able to agree that greater accountability strengthens our school system. However, many charter advocates have stood in the way of reform.
In California, four long-overdue bills that would bring a higher level of accountability to the state’s 1,100 charter schools were introduced last March. A 2015 report from the Center for Popular Democracy documented how charter schools in California have lost $81 million in public funds to fraud and abuse. Over the last 10 years California’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team revealed multi-million dollar scams in Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Ana, to name a few cities, as well as rampant abuse in what was the state’s largest charter operator.
Instead of supporting common-sense reform, the state’s charter industry, represented by the California Charter School Association, has fiercely opposed the bills. “We believe current laws address these concerns and these proposals are unnecessary,” the lobbying group wrote in a press release.
California, the state with the largest number of charter schools, should lead the way for reform. But progress is slow going: There is little indication that any of the bills will make progress in Sacramento this year.
In Connecticut, it took a scandal to spur this kind of reform. A 2014 study from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers ranked Connecticut as the seventh-lowest state with regard to charter accountability. In response, the state passed a law in July that makes all charter school records a matter of public record subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It also requires charter schools to have anti-nepotism and conflict of interest policies, and it empowers the state’s Department of Education to post each school’s certified audit statement on its website.
The reform was spurred by a massive scandal around a prominent charter school figure named Michael Sharpe. For years Sharpe led a chain of schools called the Jumoke Academy and advocated for unfettered charter expansion. Yet, in early 2015, in the midst of an FBI investigation and after more than six months of relentless investigative reporting by the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s Department of Education found Sharpe’s network riddled with “rampant nepotism.” Its report also revealed that Sharpe had ordered “expensive and ornate modifications” to an apartment owned by his company, which he then rented for his own use.
In the aftermath of these revelations, Connecticut’s reform law was approved in May by a 35 to 1 vote in the state Senate and 142 to 3 in the state Assembly. While this is a positive development, other states should not have to wait for a scandal of this magnitude before demanding greater accountability.
Charter reform can be a bipartisan cause. In Ohio, Republican State Senator Peggy Lehner began pushing for laws to require greater disclosure of how public funds are spent after, she says, seeing “story after story” about charter school scandals. A recent investigation by the Akron Beacon Journal found that of the 300 charter schools reporters contacted, only a fourth provided basic information like board members’ names. Meanwhile, 87 percent of charters got Ds or Fs on the most recent state report cards.
Major charter advocates spoke to the need for reform. “Charter schools are public schools, and there should not be a veil of secrecy,” said Chad Aldis, vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors 11 charter schools in the state. “We need to have transparency.”
In June, a bill that passed the state Senate that would require Ohio to annually audit all charter school operators to monitor the use of public funds. Charter schools would also have to obey open records laws and other transparency standards that are already the norm in public schools.
Such changes should be no-brainers. And yet the bill has stalled in the General Assembly. With much of the debate going on behind closed doors, the public has thus far not been able to get a clear sense for the cause of the delay.
Sunshine advocates fear that the inaction of the Ohio House bodes ill for the bill’s future. “It appears that the poor-performing charter school sector has again won the day,” argues Stephen Dyer, former legislator and Education Policy Fellow at the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio.
Rather than standing in the way of greater accountability, lawmakers should view the current bill as a first step. Not only should the measures be passed, they should be strengthened. Communications and overhead costs would not have to be disclosed under the state Senate’s bill, casualties of the charter industry’s lobbying.
Moreover, Ohio’s bizarre system of charter approval would remain largely unchanged under the bill. Instead of having a few authorizing agencies to approve charter schools, Ohio allows dozens of groups, including non-profits, to sponsor and approve charter schools. These authorizers receive payments from the schools and rarely close them as a result.
The public deserves better — in Ohio and beyond. If charter schools are to become a permanent and respected part of public education in America, their champions will need to clean up their sector and let the sunshine in.