Between 2003 and 2008, a Minnesota charter school executive named Joel Pourier embezzled more than $1.3 million from his school, the Oh Day Aki Charter School. While students at Oh Day Aki went without field trips and supplies for lack of funds, Pourier bought houses and cars and tossed bills at strippers. Because his school received federal funding—charter schools are privately run but many receive significant public financing—taxpayers were, in effect, subsidizing his lavish lifestyle.
Pourier’s case is just one of many collected in a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education that documents shocking misuses of the federal funds being funneled into the poorly regulated charter industry. The report examined fifteen states with large networks of charter schools and found that more than $100 million in public money had been lost to fraud, waste and other abuse. “Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry, no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee it,” the report says. “Given this inadequate oversight, we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.”
On Friday, lawmakers in the House largely missed an opportunity to strengthen oversight of charter schools, passing a bill to encourage charter school growth by boosting federal funding without including several amendments that were offered to increase transparency and accountability. The bill, called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, increases federal funding for charters from $250 million to $300 million. The bill received wide bipartisan support—it passed by a overwhelming 360-45— although it is being championed by GOP leaders, who tout charter expansion and “school choice” as a central part of their anti-poverty agenda. “This legislation is about upwards mobility,” said majority leader Eric Cantor, who also took the opportunity to bash New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for his position on charter school co-locations.
Very few Democrats pushed back on the legislation, in part because it includes a few provisions sought by charter critics, including allowing charters to prioritize special-needs students and English language learners in the admissions process. Still, this is the first reauthorization of the federal charter program since 2001, and the charter sector has vastly changed and expanded since then. The fact that Democrats did not rally around bids for better oversight indicates how murky the party’s education platform has grown. Charter advocates are increasingly vocal on the left, helping to secure new federal resources; meanwhile, financial and political support for traditional public schools is quietly eroding.
“We’ve essentially agreed to almost all of the elements that were in the original Republican bill and made almost no effort to level the playing field” between charters and traditional public schools, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva told me on Wednesday. Grijalva was one of the three Democrats who voted against the charter bill in committee. “Incrementally, more and more of the resources are going to the public charters. There are no additional resources going to the traditional public schools. They’re getting poorer and darker, in terms of the complexion of the kids that are going there.”