5 things to know about new charter school fraud report


By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org

HMM: A new report warns of $30 million in charter school fraud, but leaves out district fraud.

Protesters from Action United, a union-backed grassroots group, rallied outside of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s office Thursday after a report claimed charter schools ripped off Pennsylvania taxpayers $30 million due to fraud.

The group demanded that charter schools should stop being approved and funded by the state, in light of the misspent funds detailed in a report compiled by Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education and Action United, the New Pittsburgh Courier reported.

While the report brings to light instances of abuse, it also leaves out a few details.

Here are five things to know when reading the report:

1. Both the Center for Popular Democracy and Action United have strong ties to teachers unions.

One of the organization’s board members is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The organization also partners with AFT and the National Education Association, the two largest teachers unions in the United States.

2. Teachers unions, including the NEA, have publicly opposed charter school expansion in Pennsylvania, particularly with the potential charter takeover of York district schools.

Despite the organizations’ connections to these teachers unions, the Center for Popular Democracy says its report was done independently from its interests.

“No funding from teachers unions was used to fund the study,” Alison Park, communications director for the center, told Watchdog.org.

3. Both the NEA and AFT are planning to spend upwards of a combined $60 million in the upcoming election cycle. These funds will be primarily focused on gubernatorial races in states including Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, the money will be spent trying to oust Corbett from office by supporting his Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, Weingarten told the Huffington Post.

The NEA is the largest teachers union in the country, with roughly double the membership of AFT, which is planning to spend more this year than any other election cycle.

4. Critics say the research itself is one-sided.

The report only addresses charter schools that fraudulently spent taxpayer dollars while ignoring fraud in district schools.

“The report draws sweeping conclusions about the entire charter sector based on only 11 cited incidents in the course of almost 20 years,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, of the 186 charters in the state. The report ignores “numerous alleged and actual fraud and fiscal mismanagement in the districts over that same time period,” he said.

The amount of fraudulent spending in districts remains an unknown figure.

In response to Watchdog.org’s request for how much district schools defrauded tax dollars, Susan Woods, a staff member of the auditor general’s office said: “We do not aggregate such information — to do so back to 1997 would involve going through probably thousands of audit reports.”

5. Charter schools and district schools adhere to the same auditing standards.

“(Charter schools) have to submit identical levels of paperwork as traditional districts,” said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCan, part of 50Can, a national organization aimed at expanding education opportunities. “If in fact those annual reports aren’t being reviewed, that’s a fault of the auditor or authorizer, not charter schools.”

While these allegations of fraud ought to be taken seriously, continually pouring money into failing schools is a bigger money problem, Cetel said.

“The 30 million in fraud is pennies to the billions that is going to schools that are chronically failing. Every dollar that goes to a school where kids aren’t learning is a dollar wasted.”

Bre can be reached at bpayton@watchdog.org, or follow her on Twitter @bre_payton.