Friday, September 17, 2021

IL charters get slammed in a new report


A report, “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, & Abuse,” released earlier this month by two organizations that oppose charter schools, says Illinois charters have used school revenue illegally to support other businesses that have no real connection to education and have used charter school funds for personal gain.

Did your tax dollars buy things like this in Chicago?

Over all, the report says fraud and waste have added up to more than $100 million of taxpayer funds in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools. In Illinois, it’s fraud, not waste, that is being reported.

First, according to the report and based on a story in the Chicago Sun-Times, Gov Pat Quinn in October froze the last $15 million of a state school construction grant to United Neighborhood Organization, the largest charter school operator in Illinois. The freeze came after the federal Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating UNO in connection with $37.5 million the organization raised by selling off state-backed bonds and two brothers of one of UNO’s top executives were reportedly paid $8.5 million in grant funds.

And second, Helen Hawkins, head of Chicago’s now-closed Triumphant Charter School, was found guilty in 2001 of using the school’s credit card to make personal purchases, such as jewelry, hair care, and cosmetic products, of more than $250,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Coach, Louis Vuitton, and Tommy Hilfiger. This finding was based on a report in the Huffington Post, here.

How charter schools should stop fraud and waste

The two nonprofits who issued the report, Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy, say it shows how charter school operators have illegally used public money. Some of the policy recommendations include:

  • Stop charter expansion until it can be controlled
  • Enable better oversight, and give those in charge the right and resources to stop bad actors among charter schools
  • Establish better transparency on the part of charter schools by conducting regular audits and requiring full compliance with open-meetings laws

Charter schools can, if done right, provide options for certain students who are not well served by traditional public neighborhood schools. I just don’t think that class of students is as big as the Obama administration thinks it is.

Many charter operators also claim that simply by providing competition for public schools, those public schools will get better. This has not played out in the decade-long charter school expansion across America. I doubt we will ever see this hypothesis proved, and that is likely due to the fact that competition does not advance standards-based learning in any way. It causes kids to score more points in athletics, but when it comes to trig or history, competition is too artificial and contrived to have any real effect.

But what we have in charter schools is, too frequently, the diversion of public funds for the personal and private gain of the charter school operators. This is the antithesis of public education in the US.

Maryland has fewer charter schools than Illinois and escaped any reference in the report. But the report didn’t spare Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, or Wisconsin.

Suggest all the policy you want. Here’s what Congress is doing:

Two similar bills have been introduced in Washington that could boost charter schools. The proposed legislation seems to have enough bipartisan support to pass in the current session. The bills would consolidate existing federal grant programs that help charter schools afford suitable buildings and could create hundreds of new charter schools in the US every year, the Washington Post reports.

If the bills become law, charter-school funding would increase from the $250 million budgeted in fiscal 2014 to $300 million, although the Senate version of the bill would set aside more money to replicate successful schools instead of creating brand new schools.

The House bill’s sponsors include Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who thinks the legislation would spur about 500 charter schools every year in the US; Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado; Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois; and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and the ranking member of the Senate’s education committee.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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