This piece originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily, April 3, 2018.
It’s a question every donor to charter schools wants to know: how do I know my grants are being used responsibly? How do I know my money isn’t being wasted?
When charter schools were created, the answer advocates provided was that the market would reward good schools and punish bad ones. Parents in failing schools, advocates argued, could easily switch from poor schools to better ones.
Rachel M. Cohen, in this piece from the Washington City Paper, shows that, at least in Washington, charter schools are easy to create and hard to close. They also don’t have much oversight if they choose to squander their budgets.
In the District of Columbia, 46 percent of students attend 120 charter schools. That’s a high enough percentage that some school observers have speculated that Washington may be one of the first cities not to be able to offer every student living in the city a free public school education. (Educators call this a “by-right” education.) According to budget analyst Mary Levy, the market share of charter schools is increasing by about one percent a year.
Washington’s charter schools are overseen by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. This entity can also accept grants, and, since 2003, has gotten about $10 million in donations from the Dell and Walton Family Foundations and the DC Chamber of Commerce.
The District of Columbia city government has some oversight over the Public Charter School Board, but how much is uncertain. “Lines of responsibility within that (school) ecosystem are often unclear,” she writes. The head of the Public Charter School Board reports to the deputy mayor for education, but the deputy mayor says she has a “dotted-line” relationship with the charter school board and doesn’t control it.
This relationship ensures that charter schools are largely free of public school bureaucracy. They can open across the street from a public school, which elicits many complaints from the public school side.
But what Cohen shows is that the Public Charter School Board isn’t doing a good job dealing with schools run by crooks.
In 2013 District of Columbia attorney general Irvin Nathan sued three people who were associated with Options Public Charter School saying they laundered $3 million from the school into two for-profit companies they owned. In September 2017, the three people agreed to provide $575,000 in restitution.
In 2014 Nathan filed a second suit, which is ongoing, charging the founder of Community Academy Public Charter for diverting $13 million of the school’s budget into a shell management company.
Both Options and Community Academy passed financial inspections. In the District of Columbia, the Public Charter School Board is considered a government agency and is subject to the city’s Freedom of Information Act, but the charter schools are considered private and their finances don’t have to be disclosed.
Cohen shows that the Public Charter School Board is a fairly lenient regulator, so when they crack down on a school operator, people notice.
In April 2017, DC Preparatory Academy, which has five campuses in Washington, applied to open a new campus for elementary and middle school students. The charter school board, however, noted that on one DC Prep middle school campus, 27.5 percent of its students had received suspensions overall, including 45 percent of the special education students. Public Charter School Board chairman Darren Woodruff noted that DC Prep had suspended a substantial number of five-year-olds with disabilities, and “I am struggling mightily to understand the logic behind suspending out-of-school 5-year olds.”
The Public Charter School Board voted 4-3 against the DC Prep expansion. Six weeks later, the board reversed itself, but had failed to announce the re-vote in advance. The D.C. Office of Open Government said that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act, but said there was nothing they could do and let the re-vote stand.
There are lots of groups in Washington interested in charters—the 21st Century School Fund, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, Education Forward DC. But “these advocacy organizations are not considered impartial overseers for the public interest.”
If donors want to make charter schools better, they might want to create a nonprofit that would act as an “impartial overseer.”
Such a nonprofit would commission reporting on the schools, and produce a guide that could assist parents in determining which school to choose. Schools wanting to compete for parents could voluntarily submit information, and if a school chose to keep its financials hidden, that would send a strong warning sign to parents that the school had something to hide.
Parents and students looking for the best colleges have a wide variety of guides to choose from. Parents searching out charter schools in cities like Washington or New Orleans with a wide variety of options ought to have a trusted guide offering information parents can use to pick schools.
Perhaps donors ought to take some of the money they would use to create schools and use it to help parents evaluate which charter school would be best for their child.