Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Pa. cyberschool that once educated Santorum's kids now tied to FBI probe

Pa. cyberschool that once educated Santorum's kids now tied to FBI probe

 

If you're a political junkie, you've probably heard of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. It figured prominently in a scandal that helped end the Senate career of Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum. It was the thriving online learning center -- launched in a foundering ex-steel town on the Ohio border called Midland, Pa. -- that was taking $38,000 a year from taxpayers in the blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills for the home-schooling of five of Santorum's kids, who lived two states away in an affluent Virginia suburb.

The arrangement made Santorum look bad (for one thing, he'd been elected to Congress in 1990 by attacking an incumbent... for moving to Virginia) but it also gave some folks pause about the millions of dollars that Pennsylvania was beginning to hurl into cyber-charter schools -- schools that are getting the same public dollars as bricks-and-mortar charter schools, even through their cost of educating each child is much lower. But the flow of public cash to the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter empire founded by entreprenuer Nicholas Trombetta surged despite the bad publicity in the Santorum case, and despite news in 2007 that a state grand jury was probing the convoluted financial dealings of Trombetta, a GOP donor.

Nothing ever came of that 2007 probe. You may have heard of the state's attorney general back then, a chap by the name of Tom Corbett.

By 2010, the massive flow of money to the Trombetta cyber-empire -- which now included a baffling array of for-profit entities -- began to draw notice. According to a report in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the state....

.... pays tens of millions of dollars a year to a network of nonprofit and for-profit companies run by former executives of the state's largest online public school.

The relationships between the Beaver County-based school and those businesses were a concern to former Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, which late in its tenure asked PA Cyber for better accounting of its payments to spin-off entities. Gov. Corbett's Department of Education, though, opted early on to let the relationships continue without heightened accountability.

There's that Corbett guy again! Anyway, someone has finally stepped in. Not the state of Pennsylvania, of course. The job fell instead to the feds:

On Thursday agents from the FBI, the criminal investigations division of the IRS, and the U.S. Department of Education searched the school's headquarters in Midland, its accountants' office in Koppel, and properties rented by its spin-offs in Ohio.

The investigation appears to be aimed at current or former executives of the school. PA Cyber "as an entity, is not a current target," U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's office said. Regardless of the direction of the investigation, PA Cyber demonstrates a consequence of the state's charter school revolution: the emergence from schools of profit-seeking spin-offs.

This news come as a) evidence mounts that cyber-charters, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- their ability to generate profits, do a poor job of actually educating children (PDF) and b) the state of Pennsylvania is thus racing to apporve more cyber-charters. All of which cuts to the deeper question that's been under discussion here at Attytood for more than a year. No one disputes that public schools in Philadelphia and some other distressed cities are a disaster. To address that, we can a) fix our public schools or b) create a system to demolish those schools completely and funnel the money to a network of new schools that includes some worthwhile educators but way too many charlatans looking to make a quick buck or teach kids faith-based pseudo-science.

What we saw six years ago -- that when a powerful politician could use Pennsylvania tax dollars to school his kids in Virginia -- should have set off all kinds of red flags. Instead, we threw tens of millions of dollars at this guy. Now, it's up to the FBI to sort this all out.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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