If I showed you the headline "Weak Charter School Laws Enable Scams, Insider Dealing," you'd probably assume it's the latest shoe to drop in the unfurling scandal of FUSE, the punch-drunk charter school group attempting to run schools in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and ? coming this fall! ? Baton Rouge, where folks are getting nervous reading all those Connecticut stories.
But relax. It's not FUSE. That headline is from the Detroit Free Press, and it chronicles patterns of double-dealing by Michigan charter school companies, like the one where two insiders from one charter company bought a parcel of land and sold it to their own school for $50,000 more, pocketing the difference.
But it could just as easily have been from Pennsylvania, home of at least three massive charter school scandals including the story of two charter school executives who diverted $860,000 from the school to prop up other private projects while the school went without textbooks and paychecks bounced.
Or Minnesota, where a charter school executive embezzled $1.3 million over five years to pay for a lavish lifestyle while the school canceled field trips and ran out of supplies.
Or California, Ohio, Arizona. This stuff is happening everywhere. The best master document is "Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse," by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education -- but the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education issued a similar report, and the Free Press just published a multi-part series documenting rip-offs and under-performance in Michigan charter schools.
The message is always the same: The essential concept behind the charter school movement is that, freed from the three Rs--restraints, rules and regulations--these schools could innovate and get the kinds of results that calcified, logy public schools could only dream about. And they do ... sometimes.
But handing out uncountable millions to operators who would be given a free hand was also like putting a big sign out by the highway that says "Welcome Charlatans, Grifters, Credential-Fakers, Cherry-Pickers, Stat-Jukers, Cult of Personality Freaks and People Who Have No Business Running a Dairy Queen, Much Less a School." And they've all showed up. This is the Promised Land: lots of cash and a mission statement that implicitly rejects the notion of oversight.
It's currently harder to advance to the next round of "America's Got Talent" than it is to get charter school money. Howard Stern asks tougher questions than education regulators, and Heidi Klum is better at spotting poseurs.
What else goes with those big bubbling pots of money? A new layer of lobbyists and donation-bundlers. The Free Press documented the way a lawmaker who dared to make a peep of protest against charter schools getting whatever they want suddenly found himself in a race against a challenger heavily funded by the Great Lakes Education Project, the "powerhouse lobby" of the Michigan charter movement. Jon Lender of The Courant recently showed how one family of charter school advocates had crammed $90,000 into Connecticut Democratic Party coffers.
Connecticut is slightly unusual in the Democratic (read Dan Malloy) tilt toward charter schools, which are primarily darlings of the Republican Party. In Congress, Democratic efforts to add oversight to charter school funding have been met with snarling from House Republicans.
But we are all complicit. The idea of charter schools has a 70 percent approval rating in polls. I mean, it sounds great if you stay on the low-information side of the line.
Here in Connecticut, FUSE is staggering like a prizefighter begging for the bell. Three executives abruptly left, including the one with a criminal past and a chimerical doctorate. A charter school in New Haven--led by unqualified people who paired up with FUSE to (insert chortle) enhance their qualifications--broke up with FUSE last week and went into an illegal secret session to discuss a new marriage partner. (Because, really, why follow any rules, when you get right down to it?)
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor's response? It's time to do background checks on charter school people. Time to investigate FUSE, too! And who knows what else? "Today's actions may not be the limit of what we undertake," Pryor said. Hear that, you rascals? Better late than never!