COVER STORY/Bill Berkowitz

Chartering a Shipwreck

Underperforming Schools are Handed Over to Unaccountable Corporations

Over the past ten years, charter schools have become a popular alternative to public schools. While many of them are performing well, recent news reports have highlighted some of the major problems facing charter schools: Poor performance, lack of accountability, misappropriated funds, teachers without credentials, and sleight-of-hand educational programs.

Nowhere have these difficulties manifested themselves more than in California. San Francisco Chronicle education reporter Nanette Asimov has filed a series of stories detailing major problems with the state's charter schools.

"Charters are independent public schools, free of many state regulations," Asimov writes. "But they must still follow basic laws. They cannot charge tuition, teach religion or convert from a private school. They must also give state exams and hire credentialed teachers." According to Education Week on the Web, there are around 2,500 independent schools operating in 38 states.

School boards approving a charter school must "monitor it for legal compliance and can take a 3% fee," writes Asimov, but given the sloppiness of the law and school boards' lack of resources to track performance, the monitoring process is often minimal or not done at all. And the problems multiply when school districts "grant [the charter] to agencies that run many schools --the satellites --often hundreds of miles away. That boosts enrollment, and with it, per pupil funding from the state."

That also increases the possibility of major-league shenanigans. And that's what Asimov reported on in a late-January Chronicle piece headlined "Charter schools' free ride: With little oversight, some satellite campuses push bounds of state law."

According to Asimov: "Some California public schools teach creationism. Others teach Islam. Several shortchange on teaching time, and many have no professional teachers at all. One has even charged tuition." And if you think this litany of problems are unique to California, think again. There are reports of charter school abuses across the country.

In mid-February, the Washington Times reported that a California charter school with suspected ties to the terrorist al-Fuqra network, "was raided last month by state law enforcement authorities, who left with 60 computers and 100 boxes of documents and letters." The GateWay Academy Public Charter School is located on a 1,800-acre commune in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The GateWay is chartered by Fresno Unified School District, which revoked the charter Jan. 16. Jill Marmolejo, a spokeswoman for the Fresno school district, said: "They had a $1.3 million deficit when their whole budget was $2.6 million. An accounting was due Dec. 1, then we gave them an extension and they missed that. They just haven't been forthcoming. And the more we dug, the more we found." The Times also points out: "Grievances against GateWay also include teaching of the Koran in one of the schools and failure to conduct proper criminal background checks on 88 employees."

In one of the most bizarre charter school fiascoes, Chronicle reporters discovered that a San Diego County school called the Chula Vista Learning Center is being claimed by two charter school operators. Both One Step Up, with contracts in Fresno, and the California Charter Academy, who has a deal with the Oro Grande Elementary School District in San Bernadino, are claiming the Chula Vista school and collecting revenues from it.

Eileen Cubanski of the California Department of Education told the Chronicle that charters are so poorly monitored and oversight so rare that the state often only finds out about these conflicts purely by chance, or in this case through enterprising reporters.

Problems with charter schools, however, are not confined to California.

• In Ohio, according to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a state audit recommended that elected officials should "consider stripping the Department of Education" of its authority over charter schools if the department doesn't show substantial progress in fixing problems within 60 days."

• The principal of the Academy of Lithonia, a Georgia charter school, recently resigned over a series of controversies. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported DeKalb County school officials "are considering taking steps to close the school, which has been plagued by high staff turnover, poor maintenance and funding problems."

• Education Minnesota, a union group, has begun a campaign to convince legislators to scale back the number of charter schools in the state. "There's been some problems in Minnesota with the financial history and the financial responsibility" of some of the groups sponsoring charter schools, said Doug Dooher, the union spokesman.

• The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that "faced with multiplying lawsuits, dwindling funds and mounting complaints, Teach --the Einstein Academy Charter School --is struggling to continue providing online education to 2,200 Pennsylvania students in their own homes."

• In late March, Education Week on the Web reported that in Massachusetts "charter supporters are attempting to fend off legislation that essentially would place a moratorium on charter schools, which currently number 42 in the Bay State. Several bills … would limit the growth of charter schools. One plan would require the state auditor's approval before any charter school could open or expand."

Currently, there is no unified call for an end to the charter school experiment. However, due to the rampant abuses and financial crises charter schools have experienced, lawmakers are looking for ways to insure that those who apply for charters are scrutinized more thoroughly and have solid financial plans.

California "has made itself so vulnerable," Fresno county schools chief Pete Mehas told the Chronicle. "The honest charter folks play by the rules, but there are no safeguards against rogue charters. Millions of dollars of state money have not been spent appropriately."

In California, a state with a budget crisis that has the governor scrambling to make huge cuts in spending for social programs, the loss of millions of dollars to corrupt charter schools has sent up a huge red flag.

Legislators, who previously felt pressure to keep hands off, are gearing up to consider laws that would set standards and regulate charter schools. That of course, is one of the greatest fears of charter school supporters who claim that tighter state guidelines and greater regulation will smother creativity and effectiveness. We've seen some of the operators' "creativity." Now, the public is demanding accountability as well.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based free-lance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements. Contact him at This originally appeared at

Philly Schools Privatized

(Staff and wire reports)

In what was believed to be the largest experiment in privatization mounted by a US school district, a Pennsylvania state panel on April 17 transferred control of 42 city schools in Philadelphia to seven outside managers, including the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and three universities. The three members of the School Reform Commission appointed by Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker voted for the plan while the two members appointed by Mayor John Street voted against it, the New York Times reported April 18.

Over the past decade Edison has gone from operating a handful of public schools to 136 in 22 states. Other organizations awarded schools include Temple University, which was assigned five schools; the University of Pennsylvania, which received three schools; Drexel University, with four schools; and four other companies with various degrees of school administrative experience: Chancellor Beacon Academies Inc., a for-profit company based in Florida that operates public and private schools (assigned five schools); Foundations Inc., a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that offers after-school programs (four schools); Victory Schools Inc., a New York-based company that opened the state's first charter school (three schools); and Universal Companies, a new venture begun by the record producer Kenny Gamble (two schools).

After the meeting, Jerry Jordan, a vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the Times he regretted that the panel had said so little about how the schools would be redesigned by the outsiders. "They didn't spell anything out," Jordan said. "It's like, 'Let's see what works.' It shows a total lack of respect."

After the roll was called, several dozen student protesters, who have long argued that it was undemocratic for a for-profit company to operate a public school, chanted, "Shame!" and "I am not for sale!"

Schweiker assumed control of the city school system after more than half of the district's nearly 200,000 students had failed to achieve minimum proficiency on state reading and math tests. The governor had once argued that Edison should assume control of the system's central administration. Later, Schweiker retreated in the face of opposition from many parents and students, as well as the teachers' union and other labor groups representing school employees. They questioned Edison's academic and financial record.

The largest previous privatization plan was believed to have been in Hartford, Conn., where all 32 schools in the district were given over to the company Education Alternatives Inc. for less than two years in the mid-1990s. But after the Hartford experience failed, the Times noted, other districts have embarked on more modest experiments. Edison now operating nine schools in Chester-Upland, Pa., outside Philadelphia, and seven in Clark County, Nev. (the Las Vegas district).

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