The legislature lacks courage for real charter reform, despite outcry




The office of Primavera Online High School in Chandler. Photo via Glassdoor.com

I hate to say I told you so. But I told you so.

Before the legislative session began, I predicted all the outrage over charter school owners turning taxpayer-funded schools into personal piggy banks would result in a reform bill heavy on pomp and light on substance.

And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Sen. Kate Brophy-McGee, with the help of a charter industry lobbyist, is pushing a bill that makes minor tweaks in transparency and governance but avoids any type of reform that would end the epidemic of self-dealing or address outrageous administrative overhead or multimillion-dollar compensation packages.   

It seems the charter school industry is far too powerful and legislators are far too chicken to seriously consider real charter school reform.

It’s likely that Brophy-McGee’s bill, Senate Bill 1394, is the best piece of legislation she could push through a GOP-dominated Legislature with little appetite for charter oversight. But let’s not hoodwink voters into believing this bill is anything more than a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to avoid consequential reform.

The heart of SB1394 requires charter schools to provide training for governing board members on issues such as open meeting law and student discipline. They would also have to comply with basic IRS standards for 501(c)(3) nonprofits – standards such as having a minimum of three governing board members, allowing no more than two family members to serve on the board at the same time and providing financial information commonly found in the IRS Form 990 on a public website.

That’s great and all, but why were charters ever exempt from such basic requirements in the first place? And why has it taken more than two decades to fix this?

Though some are claiming this is a major step forward in fiscal transparency, others who have been covering financial abuse at charters strongly disagree.

One of those watchdogs is Jim Hall, founder of Arizonans for Charter School Accountability. He told me the new board regulations will “do nothing” to address fiscal transparency because the regulations fail to mandate which individuals are responsible for purchasing decisions.

This poses a problem because charters, unlike district schools, have corporate boards in addition to school governing boards. The school governing boards set policy, but it’s the corporate boards that deal with financial issues such as salaries, contracts and curriculum. Because these corporate boards are private entities, meetings can be held behind closed doors, preventing parents or community members any opportunity to monitor or weigh in on those decisions.

Hall told me this omission is likely not an oversight, but rather “a clear effort to hide where decisions are being made.” And it means the legislation will not prevent any of the outrageous profiteering or fraud recently uncovered by reporters.

This exercise in continued obscurity was bound to happen when legislators decided to depend on the charter industry, not the whistleblowers, for help in crafting so-called reform legislation.

For years, charter advocates have vigorously rejected efforts to increase regulations, claiming parents, not the Legislature, are the arbitrators of accountability. They argue that, if a charter school isn’t up to par, parents will pull their kids from the school and only the outstanding charters will remain.

Interestingly enough, these same individuals do not apply that philosophy to district schools, which happen to educate significantly more students than charters. Apparently, the parents who choose district schools are somehow less trustworthy or are ill-informed about their child’s school, and efforts to contain fraud or mismanagement, while acceptable for districts, are unwarranted for charters.

I say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and if a district superintendent can be fired or jailed for insider deals, then so, too, should charter administrators and CEO’s.   

Brophy-McGee’s bill is a baby step in the right direction, but I’ll reserve applause until legislators do what we entrust them to do: provide oversight of taxpayer monies. Right now, the Legislature is failing this test when it comes to public charter schools, and they do not deserve kudos for continuing to fleece our dollars.  

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Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.

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