Illustration from wikimedia.org graphic
The Arizona Republic's thorough, ground-breaking stories about charter school corruption and profiteering have received scarce press coverage in southern Arizona from anyone but your faithful education blogger. That's a serious omission. Though the stories tend to be based in Phoenix-area charter schools, they speak to statewide problems stemming from the lack of adequate charter regulation and oversight. One of the bad actors discussed in the series, for example, is state representative Eddie Farnsworth, who is making millions by selling his for-profit charters, which run on taxpayer dollars, to a non-profit company. That piece of news is definitely relevant everywhere in Arizona.
Also nearly absent in local reporting (I can't say it hasn't been reported, but I haven't seen it) is the team of reporters who put together the articles that won the prestigious Polk Award in Journalism.
So let me be [among] the first in the southern Arizona news media to congratulate reporters Craig Harris, Anne Ryman, Alden Woods and Justin Price for sharing the honor, as well as the investigative editor Michael Squires.
The reporters received the Polk Education Reporting award, one of 14 Polk awards given in 2018, for:
"disclosing insider deals, no-bid contracts and political chicanery that provided windfall profits for investors in a number of prominent Arizona charter schools, often at the expense of underfunded public schools that educate all but 30,000 of Arizona’s 1.1 million students."
This is one of those series that demonstrates the power of the press.
Governor Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich expressed outrage about the corruption and self dealing when the stories were published during the 2018 campaign season. Partially in response, Ducey put money to hire 10 new staff for the Charter School Board into his budget proposal, which would increase the board's ability to spot problems and remedy them.
Republican Senator Kate Brophy McGee eked out a slim win over her Democratic opponent by promising she would work to clean up charter school corruption. She was the sponsor of a charter reform bill, which is a good thing, but it included a loophole letting the biggest charter chains off the hook. After complaints from Brnovich, some legislators, citizens and the media, she closed the loophole. The bill is still weaker than it should be, but it's hard to imagine it would even be considered if it wasn't for the fuss the Republic journalists raised.
If you're interested in looking back on some of the charter school investigative reporting, the Republic article about the award links to many of the articles
The reporters aren't resting on their laurels. In the past week, the paper published a story about the abuse of the "alternative school" label
by charters claiming to be working in the best interest of at-risk students. According to the article, some of the schools aren't living up to their name. Friday's follow-up article details spending by the founder
of one of the "alternative schools," StarShine Academy, for "a Hawaiian vacation, a trip to Europe and 'numerous other trips around the country,'" as well as Uber rides and groceries.
A "You-And-The-Republic-Are-Charter-Bashers" Note:
The charter corruption and profiteering pointed out by the Republic, along with stories I've done over the years, aren't charter bashing. They put a spotlight on correctable problems. It's the Wild West of Charter Schools here in Arizona — by design of the people who set up the regulations and policies That leaves too much room for people to use the schools and our taxpayer money as their personal piggy banks at the expense of their students. More and better oversight and regulation would help curb the excesses of bad actors and get rid of charter schools which don't have their students' best interests at heart.