Imagine for a moment that you’re in a California television studio and Alex Trebek turns to you and two other contestants in a Final Jeopardy! segment. The famed host asks: “Name the five most commonly used words uttered about the charter school industry.”
If you answered “Will the defendant please rise?” you might have the potential to be a Jeopardy! champion. On the other hand, you may not have to be a Jeopardy! high-performer to know that as scandals in the for-profit education world continue to pile up, the number of charter school industry culprits and defendants continues to grow, as sure as there is stink on…
Well, gentle readers, since we are all in polite company, perhaps that simile can be completed privately. But yes, malodorous conditions aside, it’s quite clear that there are plenty of defendants in the proliferating, malodorous charter school industry. Plenty.
As we saw recently, there’s something about voodoo accounting that seems to be part of the DNA of charters. Here in Ohio and across the country, stories abound of treasurers mishandling millions of Ohio tax dollars, and management companies buying property and issuing leases to the school at exorbitant rates, with one Columbus school paying 81% of its state aid in rent. Add to this the sad tale about board members and school leaders of a Cleveland charter school that were indicted for payments to shell companies set up to be the repositories of state funds.
All the while, charter school scandals and corruption continue unabated. Everywhere.
In one of the latest outrages, a charter operator in North Carolina was indicted a few weeks ago, claiming that 366 students were on the rolls, when only 189 were in attendance. And this week, a news report from Florida told the story of the collapse of three charter schools due to voodoo accounting and phony invoicing practices by Newport Education Partners, a charter management company.
“I’ve prosecuted charter schools before, but not this particular type of scheme … “I’ve prosecuted people involved with charter schools for committing theft of funds and prosecuted people for misusing children to work off campus during school, but this is the first time prosecuting a managing company,” said Assistant State Attorney Russell Edgar.
Hmm – the words “charter schools” and “scheme” appear in the same sentence. The Florida official said it’s the first time he’s prosecuted a for-profit management company, but residents of the Buckeye State should be eager to learn more about what’s uncovered in the Newport Education Partners investigation.
According to one report, Newport happens to be “a Florida company run by former White Hat Management employees carrying on the White Hat tradition of poor performance and incompetent school management.”
That one sentence speaks volumes.
Yes, White Hat, the management company founded by Ohio Republican Party mega-contributor David Brennan, appears to be a model for charter operations elsewhere – particularly in Florida – where Jeb Bush served as the godfather of the fledgling charter operation. The very mention of White Hat injects a sense of unease and foreboding in those familiar with the brand.
“O horrible! O horrible! Most Horrible!” the ghost said in Hamlet. It makes you wonder if that ghost saw the future, in the form of charterdom, foretelling the stench spreading across the country emanating from White Hat and other charter operators, a spectre of White Hat-trained clones floating out from Ohio, ready to infect and thus damage public education in other states.
Dream? Nightmare? No, reality. O horrible, most horrible.
As a result of so much waste, fraud, theft, and abuse, of voodoo accounting in the for-profit charter school industry, of explosions and implosions in Ohio and elsewhere, and of indictments of treasurers, management companies, and board members, it looked like there would be some hope of relief offered by the legislature, in the wake of the recent Provost Academy and other e-school voodoo enrollment issues. “This isn’t one of those cases where you missed one, two, or even five students, and you say ‘ OK, a mistake was made,’ but to this extent — this is criminal,” said Tom Gunlock, Ohio Board of Education president,” about Provost owing the state nearly $800,000 as a result of overpayments caused by voodoo enrollment numbers.
Those were serious words spoken by Gunlock. But they are deserved, for we are speaking about the for-profit, ethically challenged charter school industry.
The state board president’s observation has driven more discussion among online charter school observers. It is also clear that in spite of good intentions and any action (or lack thereof) by the legislature, if you follow the money, would voodoo accounting and lax student attendance reporting etch a trail that might inevitably lead back to a much larger target? Perhaps a high-profile target like ECOT and its founder, William Lager, yet another Ohio Republican Party mega-contributor? And others, like national online charter chains that operate in the state?
Yes, help looked like it was on its way in March, starting with Sen. Joe Schiavoni’s SB 298, which aims to add more stringent reporting requirements for e-schools, as they receive state aid consistent with their student enrollment. Schiavoni submitted his e-school attendance reform bill with the understanding that the process would start with hearings on the bill in the Education Committee. Instead, it has been sidetracked to the Senate Finance Committee, where some seasoned Statehouse observers believe it may die a slow death. Never mind that according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, 66% of Ohioans recognize the need for more charter school accountability.
What is it about Ohio and its legislature that it serves as the Black Hole for charter school reform, where needed legislation that might prevent waste, fraud, theft, and abuse of public funds and shortchanging students of a free and appropriate public education dies of a thousand cuts inflicted by lobbyists, shills of the for-profit education “reform” industry?
If you go to the above link for SB 298, read the summary provided by the Legislative Services Commission and believe that Sen. Schiavoni’s bill is reasonable, based upon its attempt to stem the continuing abuse of state education aid funds, you might want to contact the members of the Senate Finance Committee and urge them to act on this bill. Hearings are still underway as of this writing. Contact information is found at the link.
But if, as predicted by those long-in-the-tooth Statehouse watchers, nothing happens to SB 298, think about these seeming abstractions: Voodoo accounting. David Brennan. Campaign contributions. William Lager. Election year. But when you put abstractions together, you still might be able to discern a concrete, yet nebulous, image.
A black hole.
Once all of that is absorbed, think again about Alex Trebek and that ghost. Only this time, change the answer to the plural.
Will the defendants please rise? “O horrible! O horrible! Most Horrible”!
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.