States have taken a variety of approaches to the business of replacing public schools with publicly funded private charters. In states like Florida and North Carolina, the focus has been on tearing down the public system to make room for the charters. But in Pennsylvania, the emphasis has been on making charters so easily lucrative that edu-preneurs find getting rich easier than printing money.
PA Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has made charter law one of his regular talking points, and charter operators have provided him with ample fodder.
For instance, back in August Nicholas Trombetta finally pled guilty to a tax conspiracy charge that he had fought for three years, a charge that he had defrauded taxpayers to the tune of $8 million. These were federal charges brought by a US Attorney in federal court; in other words, the state of Pennsylvania was continuing to let this guy do business as usual.
After the guilty plea, DePasquale took a look at Trombetta's business dealings. Trombetta is the founder-operator of PA Cyber Charter School (until 2012, just before the fertilizer met the fan) and also the founder of Lincoln Performing Arts Center School and some other charter-related businesses. DePasquale found a number of issues, including hiring family members for big-money jobs, and funneling giant gouts of money to a no-oversight management company. All shady and costing the taxpayers millions of dollars, but also, as DePasquale notes, perfectly legal under Pennsylvania charter law. Trombetta was brought to justice in a federal court; the state of Pennsylvania was never going to so much as bother him because, by PA charter law, he was perfectly within his rights to hire a computer company that was co-owned by a trustee (board member).
Or take the Chester Community Charter School, where federal auditors found that, among other things, the owner had written an $11 million check to himself. CCCS uses one of teh oldest dodges in the charter rule book-- the school is listed as a non-profit, but it hires the for-profit corporation CSMI to run all operations. That company is run by Vahan Gureghian, one of the most rapacious edu-preneurs in the state, who has made tens of millions in the charter biz, but apparently has friends in Harrisburg who manage to get him perks, like the time his school was charged with cheating and was then allowed to investigate itself.
This was the same federal report we mentioned earlier this week, in which the auditors noted that the US Department of Education is failing to have any sorts of checks or safeguards against fraud or waste in the charter sector. CCCS made the list as an exemplar of just how open to fraud and waste the system is. So, yay, Pennsylvania.
DePasquale responded to the auditor's report by noting, again, that PA charter law stinks, and that there is little oversight required or even allowed by the laws.
“I have been your Auditor General for a little over three years and in
that time we’ve found over $300 million dollars in money that’s
basically been wasted in Harrisburg or related state government
interests,” said DePasquale, a first-term Democrat. “Absolutely
unbelievable. Some of the biggest waste we’ve found has been on the
charter school side of it.”
The ability of any Democratic official to get changes made in the GOP-run legislature is-- well, it would be a break from a fairly well-established tradition. But at least DePasquale is busy telling anyone who will listen that Pennsylvania is not protecting the interests of its taxpayers when it comes to tax dollars spent on charter schools. Let's hope somebody will listen.