BY TONY WEST/Â Last week the FBI charged one of the pioneers of the charter-school movement, June Hairston Brown, and four colleagues with defrauding $6.5 million from three Philadelphia schools she had founded: Agora Cyber Charter School, Planet Abacus Charter School and Laboratory Charter School of Communication & Language â€“ all taxpayersâ€™ money.
In April, the School Reform Commission terminated the charters of three more city schools â€“ Truebright Science Academy, Arise Academy and Hope Charter School â€“ citing poor academic performance and unqualified personnel. One of them, TrueÂbright Science Academy, turned out to be a disguised unit in a national chain of charter schools run by a secretive Turkish Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen, whose â€œscienceâ€ teachings include creationism.
Trouble was brewing in other charter schools even earlier â€“ literally, in the case of the Harambee Institute of Science & Technology Charter School, which in 2010 was caught running an after-hours club in the school cafeteria.
Last Friday, the School Districtâ€™s overseer of charter schools Thomas Darden was forced out after a steamy School Reform Commission meeting — a move the School District kept secret for three days.
The time has come to start asking hard questions about an educational revolution which may have gone sour.
Fifteen years ago, Act 22 authorized charter schools in Pennsylvania. Its goal was to shake up staid, creaky, monolithic school districts whose pupils were underperforming by allowing independent schools to open shop on the public dime.
It was driven by deep frustration with the School District of Philadelphia in particular, whose outcomes had been dismal for generations. Many people were looking for a halfway step toward breaking up the government school monopoly, since tuition vouchers for independent schools were not in reach politically at that time. School-district money would fund these new charter schools; but they would be free of its cumbersome central bureaucracy and rigid teaching rules, subject only to minimal oversight. Charter schools would experiment and innovate; they would find new ways to reach deprived students which the public-school system could never think of. Let a hundred flowers bloomâ€¦.
Bloom they did: 142 in Pennsylvania, of which 80 are in Philadelphia. But itâ€™s clear now they donâ€™t all smell like roses.
In case after case, â€œfreedomâ€ has meant the freedom to skim taxpayersâ€™ money and run scams. That hasnâ€™t stopped school reformers from pushing to spread charter schools even farther.
This winter the SRC, newly reconstituted after a clean sweep by Gov. Tom Corbettâ€™s Administration, gave a $2.7 million contract to the Boston Consulting Group for advice on how to slash costs.Â (The money came from the United Way and the William Penn Foundation, not from public funds.) BCG is a top-drawer management-consulting agency where Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, among many other leaders, cut their teeth as youngsters. When it comes to school systems, its chief tool is privatization. Subcontracting troubled urban schools to private managers, many of them working for profit, is one favorite move of BCGâ€™s. Charter schools are another.
Today, 25,872 tax-supported students attend Philadelphia charter schools, as opposed to 184,560 in the public-school system. Thatâ€™s 14% of the cityâ€™s government-funded students. But the cityâ€™s elite, trained by SRCâ€™s consultants, now aims to push that figure up to 43% by 2017.
Critics of charter schools are plentiful at both national and local levels. Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University, who supported charter schools when the idea was first being floated, has changed her mind after seeing them in action and wages a relentless campaign against them
In town, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, led by its President Jerry Jordan, is skeptical and bitter about the charter-school movement as a whole. PFT believes most charters short-change teachers as part of their business model (although it has organized three of them in this city, to be sure).
kThis week, Jordan called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which he said are a destructive drain on the school budget. â€œWe have seen overwhelming evidence this money is not being well spent in too many cases,â€ he said. Jordan said across-the-board cutbacks in school nurses, arts and music programs and world languages have been caused by the diversion of funds to charters.
But SRC is sticking to its guns, particularly when it comes to BCGâ€™s advice. Its consultants have â€œidentified $122 million in savings for us,â€ its Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said. â€œWe could not have found these savings ourselves.â€ Knudsen, a turnaround specialist who took PGW and made that notorious sowâ€™s ear into a silk purse, has good judgement. And BCG was one of the first places he turned to when he took the job in February. (He will step down when the new Superintendant William Hite takes over.) As long as charters are seen as a budget-balancer, their growth will be baked into SRC policies for the coming school year.
But whose budget do they balance, really â€“ the publicâ€™s or their own? This is a question other people with good judgement are starting to ask.
This June, Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner released a study arguing taxpayers were being rooked of $365 million a year by sloppy budgeting at the state Education Dept. level. He charged Keystone State charter schools were being overpaid hugely for school plants, pension costs and cyber programs. This is a lot of money. And since charter schools, although a state idea, are primarily for Philadelphia, itâ€™s a lot of money lost to Philadelphia schoolchildren if true. The cityâ€™s share of this could be near $207 million. Remember the School District deficit, now hovering around $282 million? The deficit that the AVI property tax was being rushed to pay for this year, until City Council deep-sixed it? If state monies are being spent recklessly on little-scrutinized charter operations, they are the chief cause of this deficit.
Wagner was preceded another auditor, City Controller Alan Butkovitz. In April 2011 he released a scathing audit of the School Districtâ€™s oversight of 63 charter schools. It is patchy, to say the least. Most files are incomplete, lacking big things like articles of incorporation or proof of insurance. The Controller also found pervasive habits that point to fraud. The unlucky Brownâ€™s behavior was among them, leading shortly after to her indictment. Stinky real-estate deals abounded. School founders were being compensated like royalty. Shady interlocking nonprofit corporations were set up to make schools hard to scrutinize.
All might yet be forgiven, if charter schools were producing better students. But theyâ€™re not. After a dozen years of experiment upon experiment, itâ€™s not clear charter schools are in fact delivering positive educational outcomes. In 2011, 40 out of 73 city charter schools (55%) made Adequate Yearly Progress on state tests. Thatâ€™s better than city public schools, of whom 110 of 258 (42%) made AYP; but is it $207 million worth of great? Bear in mind, charter-school families are self-selected. They have the motivation to seek out educational alternatives and apply for them. They should be above average. Itâ€™s disappointing to many reformers that charter-school test scores have beenlackluster in Pennsylvania.
The problem is not just here. Across the nation, charter schools have struggled to produce results which are believably better than their Board of Education competitors. Meanwhile, problems with corruption and fraud are rife. And no wonder. If you put a pot of government money on the sidewalk, while ordering the government not to oversee its spending, because government canâ€™t possibly know what itâ€™s doing â€“ then donâ€™t be surprised if a lot of that money walks off.
According to a March 2010 report, the US Dept. of Education Office of Inspector General has seen a steady increase in charter-school fraud complaints. Since January 2005, the OIG opened more than 40 charter-school criminal investigations resulting in 18 indictments and 15 convictions and $4.3 million in criminal restitution, and it continues to pursue criminal prosecutions in 24 cases, gen- (Cont. Page 17) (Cont. From Page 9 erally against multiple subjects in each case. Remember how loud was the outcry when Superintendant Arlene Ackermanâ€™s salary cracked $500,000 and her golden parachute topped $600,000? Yet she was running more than 200 schools, whereas her charter colleague Hairston Brown was running just four â€“ for about the same money. Whatâ€™s more, Ackermanâ€™s pay, while obnoxious to many, was at least legal. Charter-school scandals reek of lawlessness.
Fourteen other Philadelphia charter schools have been under federal investigation in recent years. Officials of two charter schools have been sentenced to prison. DEPâ€™s OIG only investigates when there are allegations of misused federal funds, rather than just state or local funds, and additional scandals have come to light since the report, so these numbers may just be the tip of the iceberg. They certainly have been growing in Philadelphia. It is time to ask if an educational model that seems tailor-made for private skimming operations is the best way to lead our children to the light.