Our children are too precious, and education funding too scarce, to risk turning either over to unscrupulous or incompetent organizations. That’s why charter schools were originally supposed to be something akin to a small, controlled experiment: public school laboratories intended to encourage new ways to educate students. That way, if something turned out not to work, the risk to students, educators and communities could be contained.
Unfortunately, the modest educators and community members of the charter school movement’s early days have been eclipsed by members of the charter school industry: an industry rife with fraud, waste and abuse. Yet advocates, particularly among elected officials, have been unwilling to confront this fact and deal accordingly.
Fraud and abuse is rampant in the charter sector. Last week, our organizations issued a new report detailing how charter operators wasted or stole more than $100 million in taxpayer dollars. That number only reflects cases that have been reported in 15 states; it boggles the mind to consider what an examination of all states would uncover.
We found examples of operators embezzling millions in public funds for years before being detected, spending public funds on vacation homes instead of textbooks. In one case, someone bought a private airplane; in another egregious example, they used the money for visits to a strip club. In other cases, unfit operators just plain lost vast amounts of taxpayer money.
Sadly, H.R. 10, the charter schools bill recently approved by the House, fails to address the corruption within this poorly regulated industry.
Ignoring several representatives who offered common-sense amendments, the House passed a bill that fails to call for even basic protections like conflict-of-interest guidelines. It “requires” annual audits, yet allows states to waive the requirement, making it easier for fraudulent actors to hide their theft. It does not extend open meetings laws to charters, nor does it require charter operators to include community representation on their boards.
The bill further erodes community input and oversight by awarding priority status to states that allow entities that are not local education agencies (LEA) to be charter authorizers. Not only will this make it harder for local communities to control access to our tax dollars, it will also erode the quality and consistency of children’s education. For example, 17 charters abruptly closed in Columbus, Ohio, last year alone. In most cases, their non-LEA authorizers’ slipshod vetting processes missed red flags that would have allowed them to thwart fraud and mismanagement.
Disturbingly, the bill awards priority to states that don’t have charter caps, encouraging states to further accelerate charter growth before they’ve established the protections that could prevent the aforementioned abuses. States already struggle to monitor the charter schools they have; it is simply reckless to incentivize them to open more before establishing necessary protections.
H.R. 10 ignores many of the most pressing community concerns about charters. Any new funding for charter schools must encourage more, not less, oversight and involvement by local taxpayers and families. Specifically, a new bill should ban the practice of requiring parent contracts, one of many practices that charter operators use to avoid serving the neediest students.
Charter operators should also be required to collect and publicly report information on student attrition, mobility, and transfer before coming back to the public till. This crucial information will ensure that public funding stays with the students it’s intended to benefit. It will also allow families and policymakers to make informed comparisons between charter and public schools.
If our senators want to ensure success and opportunity through quality public schools, they should create legislative protections that promote quality, and mandate the transparency and accountability that make a school public. H.R. 10 does none of this. Children and taxpayers deserve better.
Kyle Serrette is the director of Education Justice Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy. Sabrina Joy Stevens is the executive director of Integrity in Education.