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The accountability cloud over the charter school explosion

Chris Fitzsimon NC Policy Watch

January 16, 2014

By the fall of 2015 more than 200 charter schools may be operating in North Carolina, responsible for the education of thousands of children across the state.


Most charter school advocates see that as something to celebrate, more options for parents and students. There’s plenty of vigorous debate about charters and their effect on traditional public schools and whether or not they actually improve student achievement overall (the evidence shows they don’t.)


But there’s part of the charter explosion in North Carolina that has received far too little attention, the accountability question – or lack of it.


One charter school in Winston-Salem – Quality Education Academy – seems as much a basketball factory as a public school, literally recruiting players from around the world.


An investigative report last year by Sarah Ovaska with NC Policy Watch revealed that the school came to the attention of the Department of Public Instruction in January 2010 when three Serbian students at QEA emailed DPI for help. That’s right, Serbian students.


School officials were reclassifying the students without their permission from seniors to juniors to keep them on campus and on the team but the students wanted to leave and were ready to graduate and head to college.


They were attending the school on a scholarship but had each paid $4,000 to a shady nonprofit run by the school’s basketball coach, a man who had served prison time less than ten years before for robbery. That all certainly seems to be on the up and up.


DPI sent an investigator to the school but not much has happened since then. Ovaska’s report also uncovered questionable financial practices at QEA, including the fact that the school’s CEO Simon Johnson owns a house where some of the players live.


The mother of a former player said her son lived in a house near the school with other teenage students without adult supervision and attended only one or two classes a semester. All this at a public charter school supported by the taxpayers of North Carolina.


Not only is the school still open, the State Board of Education granted a charter for another school to Simon Johnson last year, two years after first learning of the shocking problems at QEA.


How many more charter schools are operating in questionable ways? It is a safe bet that state education officials have no idea.


Until recently there were only three full time employees in the Office of Charter Schools. Last year’s budget added a few positions, but the office is still woefully understaffed considering the dramatic increase in the number of charters.


Then there are the ethical questions about the charter explosion, specifically the involvement of people who are making millions of dollars off charter schools participating in the process that determines which charters the state will allow to open.


One of the 26 charters approved by the State board last week that will open next fall was South Brunswick Charter School, which will be run by Baker A. Mitchell, Jr. who just happens to sit on the Charter School Advisory Board which screens charter applications.


South Brunswick will be the fourth charter run by Mitchell and he doesn’t just run them, he makes millions for doing it in management fees and by renting property he owns to the schools.


Mitchell’s not the only one making a lot of money off of “public education.” Many of the new charters and many ones already open in North Carolina are operated by for-profit out of state corporations.


There are apparently no regulations about out-of-state companies profiting off taxpayer-funded charters and nothing apparently improper about charter profiteers helping decide which schools open.


And there is even nothing wrong with our money supporting a shady basketball factory for foreign students in the name of providing North Carolina parents more educational options.


Is this what the folks who wanted to lift the cap on the number of charter schools had in mind?


Fitzsimon is the executive director of NC Policy Watch. For more information, visit www.ncpolicywatch.com.