Charter Schools: Now Complete With ALEC Members and FBI Raids!

In “The Con Artistry of Charter Schools,” an incredible piece by In These Times writer Ruth Conniff, the burgeoning private education industry is given a thorough scolding for its inability to deliver on promises made to students and families. Excess and wrongdoing, Conniff explains, call the character of all charter schools into question.  

In recent months there has been a flood of FBI raids on charter schools across the country and the unregulated nature of these schools is finally being openly debated by the public. What were once small operations are now cogs in a big business cartel complete with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) memberships for the largest players.  

Conniff looks at the scandal-plagued K12, a major company whose CEO Ronald Packard took home a $4.1 million salary in 2013:

K12 has been charged with attempting to falsify records, using unqualified teachers, and booking classes of more than 100 students by state investigators in Florida.

Education reporter Jennifer Berkshire, aka EduShyster, shared Morningstar data on her blog showing that between 2012 and 2013, executive compensation at K12 grew by $11,399,514. In 2012, executives at K12 earned a total of $9,971,984 in compensation. Last year that figure jumped to $21,371,498.

“According to a lawsuit filed in US district court this spring,” Berkshire writes, “Packard knowingly inflated the value of K12 stock by making *overly positive statements* about the company, its performance and its prospects, then cashed out, causing his personal numbers to add up to the tune of $6.4 million large.”

As a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), K12 has helped pushed legislation to replace bricks and mortar classrooms with computers and replace actual teachers with “virtual” teachers, generating enormous profits from its taxpayer-financed schools.

ALEC added K12 to its corporate board of directors just before its national convention in Dallas at the end of July.

ALEC has shifted intense focus to privatizing education, and created a new “charter school working group,” according to Conniff:

Among the measures the group discussed:

• Legislation to exempt charter school teachers from state teacher certification requirements, and allow for charter schools to be their own local education authority.
• A bill to gives charter schools the right of first refusal to purchase or lease all or part of unused public school properties at or below market value, and avoid taxes and fees.
• A controversial measure proposed by Scott Walker in Wisconsin to create a statewide charter school authorizing board, bypassing local authority over charter schools, even as charters drain funds from local districts.

Select charter schools perform a vital function in underserved communities where public school have suffered beyond repair. But a striking number have become the inevitable byproduct of a shady industry where the interest in profits far outweight student and taxpayer concerns.  Conniff uses Michigan as an example of how the charter school industry is making a bad situation worse through mismanagement and greed:

In Detroit, another seat of school privatization and austerity, charter schools have also meant lucrative contracts for private operators, and austerity for teachers and kids, says Tom Pedroni, associate professor in the college of education at Wayne State University.

The Detroit Free Press published a series of articles on waste of tax dollars and questionable financial dealings by charter school officials and boards.

“One school bought useless wetlands. Others overpaid—by a lot—for their school property. And another gave its administrator a severance worth more than a half million dollars,” the Free Press reported on June 22.

Michigan’s largest charter-school management company charges jaw-dropping rents to its schools, the Free Press reported—as much as $1 million a year for schools in financially strapped Detroit. Two-thirds of the National Heritage Academy schools across the state “pay as much in rent as tenants in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, with its expansive views of the Detroit River,” the paper found.

The tight grip of business-minded, education-ignorant leadership makes for an unscrupulous situation where checks and balances are off the table:

“In Michigan, 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit educational management organizations,” says Pedroni. “Charter school authorizers—typically universities, community colleges, and public school districts—build very close and financially lucrative relationships with these organizations.”

“Whistleblowing, or even mildly questioning, board members typically are quickly dismissed by the charter authorizers,” says Pedroni. “In the end, private interests and authorizers do quite well.  Children, their communities, and teachers do not.”

Read Conniff’s important piece here.

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Chaz Bolte
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