More than 2.5 million students attend an estimated 6,400 charter schools in 42 states, with the number of these “independent public schools” — as President Barack Obama called them in his National Charter Schools Week proclamation last year — increasing dramatically. For the 2013-14 school year, more than 600 new charter schools opened their doors nationwide, while 70 more are slated to open in North Carolina alone.
But as the charter school model of education grows, so does the likelihood for fraud and mismanagement. In just the past 18 months, operators of charter schools in at least 10 states were charged with embezzling funds, failing to report suspected child abuse, and committing fraud through such practices as having staff enter lunch codes for meals not eaten. At one New Jersey charter school, it was discovered that only 25 percent of employees had undergone the federal criminal background checks required to work with schoolchildren, while another failed to provide the special education services state and federal law require. Another charter school in Florida charged the state $101,000 for students who never attended. This past fall, the New Mexico State Auditor’s office discovered that two Albuquerque charter schools paid more than $1 million to a private company owned by the schools’ top administrator and another school official.
“This is not the first time an industry has outgrown its regulatory safety nets or realized it was operating without the regulations needed for true public accountability.”
—Preston Green, John and Carla Klein Professor
of Urban Education, Neag School of Education
Charter school proponents have argued that these and similar ethical and criminal violations are isolated issues of mismanagement performed by “rogue” operators who do not represent a systemic problem. However, recent research indicates incidents of charter school failure, deceit, and misconduct may be more common than people think. For naysayers, the “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse” report issued last spring by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education well illustrates how waste, fraud, and dangerous conditions have led to charter schools losing or misusing more than $100 million in taxpayer money.
Charter school reform must become part of the overall education reform efforts taking place in our country right now. It is the only way to ensure that all students, in all schools, are being provided with the academics, atmosphere, and opportunities needed for their future success.
This is not to suggest that charter schools should not exist. There is a real need in education for the type of innovation and progress that well-conceptualized and well-managed charter schools can provide. Their design to serve as a place for educators to explore new teaching methods that could one day be used to improve public schools is also a good one.
It also makes sense that, as hybrids, charter schools should be allowed some flexibility and differentiation regarding oversight and regulations. But they should not be allowed to be public for funding, but private for reporting purposes. The establishment of regulations that require financial transparency and oversight by state government bodies independent from the education management organization running a charter school should be non-negotiable.
Independent charter school boards and charter school authorizers should also be required to receive the training needed to review charter contracts effectively. This will give them the ability to act as watchdogs against fraud and mismanagement, preventing the kind of scathing reports of poor academic performance and misuse use of funds.
This is not the first time an industry has outgrown its regulatory safety nets or realized it was operating without the regulations needed for true public accountability. The banking industry is still struggling with accountability issues. So perhaps it is not surprising that the reaction to the charter school fraud and mismanagement uncovered thus far has also been slow, unsystematic, and reactive.
Families and communities should not have to wait until more students have been harmed, or millions more in taxpayer dollars stolen or lost, before these regulatory problems are addressed. Increased transparency, monitoring of services, standards for school operators, and public reporting requirements are all overdue.
The public deserves common-sense laws that protect their children and tax dollars from incompetent or unscrupulous charter operators. Debate taking place in legislative halls should not be whether or not to regulate the industry, but how, and how soon.
Preston Green, JD, Ed.D., whose research has focused on legal issues related to charter schools, is the John and Carla Klein Professor of Urban Education at UConn’s Neag School of Education, as well as a professor of educational leadership and law.