Scandals and Shaky Academic Performance among Charter Schools

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September 3, 2013; Education Opportunity Network

The NPQ Newswire keeps a regular watch on charter schools because despite their public school status, they are often managed and run by nonprofits that advocate education reform policies such as school choice and are frequently funded (or given supplementary funding) by charter school-promoting foundations such as Gates and Walton. However, charter schools do have their critics.

Writing for the Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Campaign for America’s Future, a politically progressive think tank and activist center, Jeff Bryant suggests that charter schools have “now become a heavily funded, well-marketed movement designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools.” 

The “siphoning” Bryant highlights is a litany of charter school financial scandals:  in Pennsylvania, the state’s largest charter school took $1.2 million in improper lease-reimbursement payments; in Philadelphia, four charter schools loaned the nonprofit Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania $3.3 million and made payments of $1.5 million in leasing costs and $6.3 million in administrative fees which Aspira used, according to Bryant, to increase its real estate holdings from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012; the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest “cyber charter” faces charges of taking $8 million in school funds for personal expenses including the purchase of an airplane and houses for his mother and girlfriend; and a Houston, Texas charter faces accusations of using $5.3 million in taxpayer funds for hotels, cruises, travel packages, and real estate purchase involving the school’s management company.

Bryant also remarked about New York City’s highly publicized “Success Academy,” known for “sky-high student scores on annual state tests,” apparently achieves those results by suspending or demoting pupils whose academic performance might lower the scores. (“Success” and others that follow a similar policy say that these suspensions and expulsions are due to behavioral problems, not academic performance, though the end result is that these pupils get tossed back into traditional public schools or the criminal justice system.) What’s more, statistics on charter school performance increasingly suggest that despite “Success”-types of policies, charter schools aren’t performing much better or in some cases even up to par with traditional public schools. 

Critics of Bryant’s analysis might suggest that the Campaign for America’s Future and the Education Opportunity Network lean to the left and toward unions. On the board of the Campaign are well known progressives such as Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute and Van Jones, the former advisor to President Obama and now co-host of “Crossfire” on CNN; the board of the Institute for America’s Future includes actor Warren Beatty, progressive activist and Barbra Streisand’s philanthropic advisor Margery Tabankin, Scott Wallace of the Wallace Global Fund, and Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation.

The left, however, is hardly unanimously against charter schools. Witness the openness toward charter schools from much of the Democratic Party establishment, including the Center for American Progress and candidates such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker. From the unions, the Institute’s board includes John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO and the Campaign’s board has Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers as a member. But does the presence of progressives and union-supporters in the governance structure of the Network and the Campaign mean that Bryant’s critique of the “myth of charter school magic” is not valid? —Rick Cohen

  • Stephen Gill

    The question shouldn’t be, “How does the average charter school compare to the average public school?” The question should be, “What can we learn from the best charter schools?” There are charter schools in Detroit, Michigan that draw from the same population of youth as the public schools but graduate over 90% of their students and over 90% go on to post-secondary education. And you can find similar results in the KIPP network, YES Prep in Houston, and many other high quality charter schools. Of course, there are poorly run charter school management companies, maybe even corrupt companies. We need to correct those problems. But charter schools have proven to be a successful alternative in communities in which the public schools have failed to educate all children.

  • Sharon Charters

    It seem to me that the problem is not so much about corruption but rather that the very fact that charter schools exists drains resources away from the public school system. If there was as much interest, commitment and financial resources going into the public school system as there currently is in the charter school system, the situation would be quite different. For a start there needs to be an amalgamation of school districts in many states which helps level out the funding base for schools.

  • Danie

    This is a ridiculous attack on a genuinely good school. I’m sure people have opened charter schools in other states with a different agenda of exploiting the state of funds (but in every aspect of life when it comes to money there will be that one person with dishonorable intent). However, I truly do not believe this to be the case. My son started pre-k in the public school system… and learned absolutely nothing. Before that he was in day care and when I decided to put him in the school system, he was more advanced than the children already a half a year into the school year. He is now a Success Academy scholar (I am more than proud to say) and within the TWO acclamation period weeks… he had already learned everything he missed within the SIX MONTHS he didn’t in public school. I commend their core ethics and their driven believes. They want EVERY child to succeed (with parental help meaning taking a stand againt violence and bullying and being more proactive in their school work) they drive not only the students but the parents to want MORE for their children. Where as public schools barely keeps parents in the loop of their child’s academic progress. I myself am a product of the catholic school system, even my college career was spent in catholic school and even back then we excelled pass the public school system expectations. Now the shocker…that was the 90s. Does my written word convey the ignorance of a 20 something? No but I digress. I cannot speak for all charter schools but I can speak from my expierence with them. They aim for success and as a parent who cares about my child’s intellectual well being. I want that success just as badly. My son loves that school and I can see the growth in him. In his speech, in his thinking and analyzing abilities, and surprisingly his networking skills. School should be about the children, we should keep it that way. Stop this bureaucracy nonsense. Who cares about the “bad apple” schools, they are a disgrace and should see the full extent of the law for exploiting the state and our children. However, we should be applauding the schools that are doing right by our children. I would gladly choose the succes of a school (bad ones could close and collect dust for all i care) my son can excell to the next President of the United States or my daughter the next Maya Angelou. Wouldn’t you do anything to see that in your child as well?

  • Elena

    Actually, the whole education system isn’t perfect and it’s not fair to throw stones at charter school. American education system should be reformed and that’s a fact. Some formal schools stunt tremendously such qualities as curiosity, creativity, wonder, and intrinsic motivation. Futhermore schools started to resemble prisons as children are cut from society and now social media is banned. Students are more eager to search for essay or phd thesis writing help online, as teachers aren’t too interested to help them. Too many teachers are too eager to jump into programs that have no proven results, but “seem to fit their world-view better”. Charter school isn’t the best option, but it is the education to be changed.