Let's imagine there is a state government agency that, by definition, is operating on taxpayer money. The head of the department is Sam, who seems to be a decent-enough fellow, efficient and all. That is, until an investigation shows that when Sam's department needs widgets, he sees to it that they're only bought (at taxpayer expense) from a company that is owned by his brother-in-law, and is done so on a no-bid basis.
One might think that red flags would be going up all over the place, causing concern among taxpayer groups, fiscal conservatives and the appropriate legislative body in charge of overseeing this spending. One might think that, but, alas, in this case, one would be wrong.
As it turns out, right here in Arizona, dozens of publicly funded charter schools are operating those types of operations, and the response, across the board, has been only the sound of crickets. What's most troubling is that even if a group of legislators wanted to do something about financial irregularities among charter schools, they probably wouldn't be able to because of the shoddy way the system was initially set up, and the stunning lack of accountability that was built in—all supposedly in the name of cutting down on bureaucracy.
Charter schools were introduced in Arizona as a poorly disguised "screw you" to the public-school teachers' unions that Republican legislators absolutely despise. (Charter-school teachers aren't unionized, are paid considerably less and can be fired if they show up at school wearing the wrong color of blouse. Wow, where do I sign up for a gig like that?!)
In the early days of the charter-school "movement," it was open season for scammers and ne'er-do-wells. Somebody would take out a short-term lease on an abandoned Circle K; fill out some paperwork for the state, making sure to use the words "excellence" and/or "honors" in the name of the (ahem) school; and wait for the dollars to start rolling in. Many, many people took the initial outlay of cash and skipped town.
What's rather annoying is that nobody knows exactly how many people took advantage of that scheme, because when the legis-haters originally put the charter-school system in place, they conveniently forgot to include anything about oversight or enforcement. No one knows how much money the state lost to scammers and fly-by-night operations. It's almost certainly in the tens of millions of dollars.
Here's another interesting tidbit: No one in state government can tell you exactly how many charter schools have come into existence since the law was passed.
What should be the most troubling thing about this entire mess is that, after 20 years, the average charter school (both nationally and in Arizona) still significantly underperforms the nearest public school. Of this, there is no dispute, yet when confronted with this information, charter-school backers repeatedly cite the same handful of success stories. It's like shoving the pretty girl out front when taking a group photo of knuckleheads.
Now that the blatant scammers have been run off (or have run off voluntarily, with bagfuls of Arizona taxpayers' loot), a new form of money-grabbing has become widespread in charter schools. It's at the very least unethical and, in my opinion, should be illegal.
According to a report in The Arizona Republic, "about 40 nonprofit charter schools paid $70 million to companies run by the schools' board members, executives or their relatives." It gave as one example the members of the Gaddie family who make up the board for the Happy Valley School in Peoria. In the past three years, Happy Valley has purchased nearly $1 million in books from a company owned by one of the board's officers.
Likewise, BASIS has somehow managed to set up a for-profit company on the side to handle a lot of the nuts-and-bolts operations of the ostensibly nonprofit school, which effectively hides much of the school's spending from public scrutiny. When asked about the shady system, BASIS founder Michael Block sniffed in response: "Judge us by our results," he told The Republic.
What is this, the CIA?! You don't get to do that. You're spending public money, and even if you're doing so in a most-prudent manner, we still have the right to see where every penny is going.
The best thing about this whole situation (for those of you who attended charter schools, that's sarcasm; I really mean the worst thing about this situation) is that, so far, it appears to be legal. The law says that public and charter schools have to put out bids for purchases over a certain amount. However, the numbskulls in the Legislature put in a loophole for charters that says they can get an exemption as long as they "promise" that what they do will be "in the best interest of the school." I'm not making this up.
So far, 90 percent of Arizona's charters have taken advantage of this exemption.
For Arizona's charter schools, the financial sleight-of-hand du jour is, "We'll take your money, spend it as we wish, and not tell you where it went. You just have to trust us."
Sorry, but I don't.