Editor’s note: This blog series examines common narratives about charter schools, separates fact from fiction, and highlights legitimate issues that must be addressed. The full series is available here.
Earlier this year, respected journalist John Merrow assembled diverse evidence from newspapers and court cases to conclude that “the charter school industry is rife with scandal.” A newspaper also headlined a recent series, “Millions of your tax dollars have disappeared into NJ’s flawed charter school experiment.”
Are these charges true, or do they blow a few carefully chosen cases out of proportion? Clarity is hard to come by. We lack any representative survey. There are no clear definitions that separate corrupt diversions of funds from activities that individual authors consider ineffective and therefore wasteful, or a reliable baseline for comparison (such as the rate of corruption in school districts).
There are well documented examples of financial abuses, disproportionately among online charter schools. But corruption has also been found in some brick and mortar schools where individuals diverted public funds to enrich themselves. It is hard to say whether charter schools writ large are an egregiously corrupt or a relatively clean public enterprise. Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds. This creates a hopeless muddle and doesn’t answer our questions.
Merrow, for example, cites examples ranging from clear theft of funds to low performance (taking public funds and not doing a very good job educating kids), to mismanaging a building project, to paying a CEO (who raises vast amounts from donations and is paid partly from these sources) more than the local superintendent. Merrow identifies some stupidity and a lot of negative visuals, but fewer clear instances of corruption.
The debate gets even cloudier at times, with charter critics complaining about charter schools spending money in the same way school districts do: buying books and materials, signing bus contracts, renting buildings and paying for construction. Why shouldn’t charter schools spend money—even private donations—on these things?
So let’s look at the center of this issue: Is corruption more frequent or more financially harmful at charter schools than at traditional public schools? Unfortunately, no good data exists to give a decisive picture, but there are some clues.
Recent prosecutions of superintendents in Chicago and Atlanta and dozens of other districts raise the baseline question, as does a neglected book from the early 2000s, which shows the myriad ways public funds are diverted from kids and toward adults in traditional school districts.
People who run public schools, whether in districts or via chartering, have opportunities to divert funds to their own benefit, whether by arranging sinecures and sweetheart contracts for their friends or family members, falsifying time sheets, misuse of school equipment in private business, faking attendance reports and test scores to get money, and just plain stealing and absconding.
Chartering opens up some opportunities for corruption not present in district-run schools, but it closes others—for example, the opportunity to build voter support via patronage, and arrange kickback schemes on multi-million dollar teacher professional development contracts. Such things shouldn’t happen, ever, and the fact that some charter and district leaders have stolen or diverted public funds is a disgrace and a challenge to all supporters of public education.
No one has any idea how widespread charter corruption is, but it is clear there are serious instances. These demand action by authorizers and supportive philanthropies to close loopholes. Charter boards must refer miscreants for prosecution. And local officials must go after offenders, including those with reputations as warm and fuzzy educators.
Policy improvements can help prevent the most egregious abuses. For example, the founders of a charter school in California face criminal prosecution for improperly billing taxpayers for tens of millions of dollars using fraudulent student records, creating a black eye for the charter school movement and giving fresh ammunition to critics.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the advocacy group 50CAN called for reforms that could have prevented the scandal, such as preventing “authorizer shopping,” in which online charter schools get approval from small districts that might not have the resources to oversee them, and then enroll students from other districts.
Likewise, we at CRPE have proposed a policy framework that would improve oversight of online schools, and make it harder for them to claim public funding fraudulently.
Ensuring charter schools have equitable access to public school facilities, which are owned by the public, would help prevent a raft of other headlines about charters using public funds to lease or buy real estate.
School districts have seen their share of problems when it comes to overseeing virtual learning providers, regulating construction contracts, and arranging contractor kickbacks. Mud slung in one direction is likely to come right back. Although we really can’t definitively answer the question posed in this blog post, the only intelligent line of action is to increase vigilance to protect taxpayers and preserve kids’ opportunities, instead of hyping scandals to “get” one set of schools or another.