By Doug Porter
Ignore those school board races on your 2016 primary ballot at your own peril. The County Board of Education, with its half-billion-dollar budget and influence over the 42 school districts in San Diego, is the target of Republicans reportedly funded by charter school businesses.
Now I don’t have a problem with the concept of charter schools as an option for parents seeking differing educational approaches. I do have a problem with the charter school industry, which all-too-often has hidden financial malfeasance and an exploitive working environment behind the banners of “choice” and “opportunity.”
Most of all, I believe that a robust public education system is fundamental to democracy. Public education has been the primary battleground for a cultural war going back decades and now it has become fair game for hedge fund operators and profiteering. Constraints of time and space don’t allow me to go into the roots of so-called modern day education reform movements today but suffice it to say the very idea of charter schools was born out of racist despair over court-ordered desegregation.
The Ugly Underside of Charters
There is overwhelming national support for reining in the least accountable and most harmful aspects of charter schools. Yet there are four candidates for seats on the County Board of Education backed by groups opposed to rigorous oversight of these institutions.
The Lincoln Club of San Diego is promoting on Facebook a Voice of San Diego article on the County Board contests that (IMO) downplays these public concerns. These challengers are simply seeking a ‘fair review’ when charters petition to open a school, according to the California Charter Schools Association.
Don’t be fooled by this ploy. The Charter School “industry” is a veritable cauldron of corruption, cronyism, and financial malfeasance. The last thing they need at his point is less supervision, as I’ll show repeatedly in this column.
As is true with any institution, not all the players are evil/bad/greedy/racist. But it’s the Wild West Era in the for-profit side of education these days, and the demands of investors for high rates of returns are antithetical to the concept of creating the educated populace needed to sustain a democracy. There is a non-profit side to the Charter School equation and many of them are being tarred by the abuses of the for-profit operators.
Companies are poaching state financial backing from larger school districts by setting up schools chartered by rural districts.
From the Los Angeles Times:
San Diego Unified sued to shut down the Endeavor Academy, which operated in a Clairemont church under a charter with the Alpine Union School District. Endeavor’s corporate headquarters is 150 miles away in Santa Clarita…
… Since then, San Diego Unified and several other districts have sued charters and their far-flung authorizing districts. The litigation has added to the growing divide between charters and districts, perhaps fueling efforts to find alternate routes to authorization…
…A few small East County districts have approved dozens of charters to operate in other districts because they can receive a portion of the charter’s revenue without any threat to their own enrollment or attendance funds.
From the 2015 report, Risking Public Money: California Charter School Fraud, emphasis mine:
Chartering entities, county superintendents, and the State Controller have primary financial oversight responsibility over charter schools.
As a result of an amendment to the Charter Schools Act in 2006, county superintendents who suspect fraud or mismanagement at charter schools may request an “extraordinary audit” from the Financial Crisis and Management Team (FCMAT), a state agency charged with helping local educational agencies fulfill their financial and management responsibilities. Serious fraud has been uncovered by FCMAT and whistleblowers; however, the state’s financial oversight system is reactionary by design and none of the state’s oversight bodies proactively monitor for fraud, waste, mismanagement or abuse. FCMAT only conducts audits when requested to do so by county superintendents and chartering entities, county superintendents, and the State Controller does not conduct regularly scheduled audits. California has experienced $81,400,000 in known charter school fraud, waste, and mismanagement.
Given the reactive oversight approach in the state, the true figure is likely significantly larger. Using the methodology employed by the Association for Certified Fraud Examiners 2014 Report to Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse, we estimate California’s charter schools will experience more than $100 million in fraud in 2015 alone.
The autonomy granted to charter schools has been repeatedly abused. Reduced oversight (compared to public schools) enables greedy operators to move vast amounts of public funds into private hands.
From a Center for Media and Democracy report published on October 2015:
Nearly 200 charters have closed in California, nearly one of every five that have opened. Their failures have included stunning tales of financial fraud, skimming of retirement funds, and financial mismanagement, material violations of the law, massive debt, unsafe school conditions, lack of teacher credentials, failure to conduct background checks, terrible academic performance, and test results, and insufficient enrollment.
A nationwide network of charter schools (including locations in California and San Diego) is alleged to be serving as a funding mechanism for a cult-like movement based in Turkey. Part of that mechanism involves getting HB1 visas for Turkish teachers, who then sign over a portion of their paychecks back to the parent organization.
A complaint filed with the California Department of Education is urging a full investigation into the financial practices of the Magnolia Public Schools charter school network, which currently operates 11 active charter schools in California.
There are allegations about Magnolia’s connection to the global organization of charter schools and businesses headed by Turkish national Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive Islamic cleric.
The complaint filed earlier this year in California cites a 2015 California State Auditor review of the groups, saying:
“The State Auditor was unable to verify the propriety of a staggering 69% of financial transactions from a sampling at the Magnolia schools, but it did identify large contracts from Magnolia to affiliated vendors, and revealed that Magnolia has improperly spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on immigration lawyers to import teachers from Turkey,”
The Virtual Charter Scam
Perhaps the most egregious of the scandals surround the operation of charter schools in California concerns the operations of so-called Virtual Academies. These schools have no classrooms, no buildings and no routine face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. Teachers sign on mostly from home and connect to students over the Internet.
Since funding is tied to attendance, studies have shown students getting credit for logging in for as little as one minute per day. It came as no surprise to critics when a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, found that most online charter students across the country had far weaker academic growth than their peers in brick-and-mortar public schools.
Just a few weeks ago The Mercury News published a series of articles looking into these entities.
Fewer than half of the students who enroll in the online high schools earn diplomas, and almost none of them are qualified to attend the state’s public universities…
…An investigation of K12-run charter schools by this newspaper also reveals that teachers have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.
Launched with fanfare and promise, online schools such as K12 are compiling a spotty record nationwide, but highly motivated students with strong parental support can succeed in them. In California, however, those students make up a tiny fraction of K12’s enrollment. The result — according to an extensive review of complaints, company records, tax filings and state education data — is that children and taxpayers are being cheated as the company takes advantage of a systemic breakdown in oversight by local school districts and state bureaucrats.
At the same time, K12’s heavily marketed school model has been lucrative, helping the company rake in more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years, as well as enriching sponsoring school districts, which have little stake in whether the students succeed.
Far from being a superior educational choice, the newspaper found that about half of the schools’ students are not proficient in reading, and only a third are proficient in math — levels far below statewide averages.
Most importantly, they found the school districts supposedly overseeing these schools had a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to problems: They get a cut of the academies’ revenue, which largely comes from state coffers.
K12, to nobody’s surprise, has issued a statement denying all the allegations and blaming them on rumors spread by teachers unions. I, for one, find it highly unlikely that all the disappointed parents and students quoted in the series are under the command of ‘union thugs.’
So Do We Really Need Weaker Standards?
There can be no doubt that the San Diego County Board of Education has set a high bar for charters. They agreed with recommendations of staff members on applications by denying six of the seven charters reviewed since 2011.
My argument, given the realities settling in around charter schools (which I’ll say again can be a good thing), is that any arguments for “more fairness” and “less regulation” need to be looked at with a skeptical eye.
At the root of all this discussion is usually a desire to see the best education possible. I’ll leave you with this quote from the introduction to This American Life podcast as food for thought about the larger issues involved:
Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.
Education Board Races in San Diego, June 2016
This is an excerpt from a draft version of the San Diego Free Press Progressive Voters Guide, to be published in the next couple of weeks. The final version will include endorsements in many contests. And yes, it’s proudly biased.
The links embedded in each candidate’s name will take you to websites with additional information about them. The candidates being funded by Charter School advocates in the County race are all the Republicans. (Shocking! I Know.) In some cases, you’ll see the Democrats endorsed multiple candidates as ‘acceptable.’
Endorsement Codes Key: Republicans 💀, Democrats ‡, Labor Θ, Run Women Run ∞
San Diego County Board of Education
Gregg Robinson (D, Incumbent) ‡ Θ
Mark Powell [R] 💀
Guadalupe Gonzalez (D, Incumbent) ‡ Θ
Jerry Rindone [R] 💀
Mark Anderson (D, Incumbent) ‡ Θ
Paulette Donnellon [R] 💀
Rick Shea (D, Incumbent) ‡ Θ
Mark Wyland [R] 💀
Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Board
Elena Adams (D) ‡ Θ
Timothy Caruthers 💀
San Diego Community College Board
Bernie Rhinerson (D, Incumbent) ‡ Θ
Mary Graham (D, Incumbent) ∞ ‡ Θ
Alyce Pipkin-Allen ‡
San Diego Unified School Board
John Lee Evans (D, Incumbent) ‡
Richard Barrera (D, Incumbent)‡ Θ
LaShae Collins ‡
Sharon Whitehurst-Payne (D, Incumbent) Θ
On This Day: 1837 – The first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was held on this date in New York City. Attendees included women of color, the wives and daughters of slaveholders, and women of low economic status. 1960 – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for sale an oral birth-control pill for the first time. 1961 – Jim Gentile (Baltimore Orioles) set a major league baseball record when he hit a grand slam home run in two consecutive innings. The game was against the Minnesota Twins.
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bob dorn says
Charter school fraud totalling at least $81 Million in 2014 and estimated to rise beyond $100 Million when this year’s national report comes in. Do they charge kids for water? Are they registered offshore? These are crooks making money from education fees and calling teachers lazy. Vote, people. Use the vote.
Doug Porter says
Nope, they’re not charging kids for water. Those are YOUR tax dollars.
bob dorn says
But, Doug, are you SURE they aren’t charging for the water?
John Lawrence says
The charter folks by and large are in it for the money just like they are at the college level. When money is part of the consideration, it corrupts the whole educational process. Unpaid Boards of Education and Parent Teacher Associations are the best watchdogs for their childrens’ education. The over emphasis on testing is not constructive. Also all schools regardless of location should receive the same funding. Right now richer districts get more money than poorer districts because local property taxes fund most schools.
Sharon Kramer says
Too much tax dollars being given to “nonprofits” which influence the direction of public services — purposed toward the benefit of special interests. It’s not just the schools. It’s also the prison systems, healthcare, court systems and virtually every aspect of public policies being impacted. And although the Republicans seem more brazen about it, it’s not just a one party problem. Too much special interest money going into too many political campaigns.
Francine Busby says
Doug, Thank you for this well-researched article on issues that have arisen around the Charter School Industry. It is the wild west out there. Not to say that all Charters are bad schools, but the lack of oversight, risk of abuse of tax dollars for profit and drain on public school revenues are all real issues that require close scrutiny.
Rebecca N says
Thank you for writing this piece. So many people are STILL unaware of how charter schools are killing our public school system and taking funds from the students who need them the most in favor of those who are easiest to educate. CCSA is brilliant at marketing and pretending they’re somehow the advocate of the plucky little upstart “alternative” schools, when nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve been researching charter schools for years and have found that once I’ve looked into a single aspect of ANY charter school the irregularities, illegalities and the WTF questions are never ending. It is time to stop this failed experiment and keep public schools public. I am now of the belief that there is no such thing as a “good” charter school even if they have strong academics. First and foremost, if they have a private school board, they are not “public” at all and may very well be unconstitutional in CA (hoping there will be a legal challenge to this soon). It is very easy for a non-profit to move money around in a labyrinth of entities, inflate admin salaries, turn and burn teachers, hide money in “foundations” etc. Bringing attention to these school board races is so important as the County Board has been one place that has stopped some of these charlatans from setting up shop and misusing our tax dollars. The State Board is stacked with charter advocates, so it is fairly easy for a charter to get passed by them.