Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dealing with corruption in DC's charter schools: moving towards a solution

The ANC6A e-list is discussing the allegations of corruption--misuse of funds--at the Options Charter School, a school that focuses on the education of special education students. The amount of money provided to educate special education students is much higher than the per student payments for regular students, providing a significant revenue stream subject to abuse.  See "Options Public Charter School officials diverted millions" from the Washington Post.

Charter schools were created in the mid-1990s by Congress, then controlled by Republicans, who saw DC as a great place to reshape and somewhat privatize the local public school landscape.

DC couldn't really do much about it, and frankly, a goodly number of people thought that the charter school option was potentially a good thing, because of the general dysfunction of the DC Public School system, especially its central administration, while the "Growth Machine" thought charter schools would be a good thing too, to help retain as residents those families who had the option of "voting with their feet" and moving out of the city to have better schooling options (The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies).

Others did raise the scepter of privatization and the potential for abuse, but mostly it was believed that the people who would get involved in charter schools would have honorable motives.

Back then I too thought that charter schools were worth considering, because of the problems with the traditional schools.  The DC Public Charter School Board was created to oversee charter schools,  and an advocacy group, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, was created to support them, provide training to people interested in opening schools, etc.

However, given the general failure of the "reform" efforts at DCPS--despite how much conservative educational organizations and the Washington Post editorial page argue to the contrary--I don't criticize any of those parents who choose charter schools because they want the best for their children.

But now I am no longer in favor of charter schools, because they dissipate social and community capital, and consign the traditional public school system to failure except for the students from middle and upper income areas of the city. 

The "success" of charter schools is dependent on the continued failures of DCPS, especially the central administration, which continues to make decisions that wreck local schools.  If there wasn't a parallel charter system, all the parents and stakeholders would be united on righting that sinking ship.

Still, with regard to the Options debacle,what is more fascinating is that corruption continues to happen.   After the abuse in the 1990s, the DC School Board gave up its authority to approve charters, leaving the function solely to the PCSB.

Apparently the leader of the school was making over $200,000/year, which is more than a Congressman and more than any DC school principal, and approaches the amount paid to the Chancellor (an amount that is too much as it is because DC's school system is so small).

The PCSB doesn't provide much oversight, and in fact, the former CFO of the PCSB jumped ship to work at Options, as clearly it was a better financial opportunity.

Other misuse of authority occurs, but it isn't illegal, because there are inadequate controls and regulations about self-dealing.  For example, I am aware of a charter school whose transportation needs are met by a for profit business that happens to be owned by the leader of the school. But such a practice should be barred by ethics guidelines and other controls. Etc.

This is a general problem with privatization, the opportunity for financial abuse and misuse, and the fraction (admittedly, it is not everyone) who avail themselves of the opportunity that is presented.

Just as I have argued that the city could support ANCs better by providing what I call networked services, such as financial accounting and disbursement, I think there is an easy way to stop the abuse.

Since the bulk of charter schools budgets are paid for by the city, accounting and disbursement systems for charter schools should be run through the city's financial and accounting system (although that has problems too, as we all know). 

• There should be limits on how much administrators can be paid. 
• There should be restrictions on opportunities for administrators and/or board members from being able to sell services to the school through separate corporations that they control.
• There should be a review procedure for contracts to ensure that there isn't self-dealing or other impropriety.

All of these kinds of controls exist for DC Public Schools.  Charter schools should be subject to the same controls.

Either they are public schools or they aren't.

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