Monday, February 8, 2016

Better watchdogs for charter schools

Gee, it only took a federal criminal investigation of at least six charter schools and the jailing of one charter official before the state finally moved to improve financial oversight.

Better watchdogs for charter schools

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Gee, it only took a federal criminal investigation of at least six charter schools and the jailing of one charter official before the state finally moved to improve financial oversight.

Some of the proposed measures are clearly worthy and long overdue. At the same time, the reforms seem so basic that they should have been in the state charter law when it was written 12 years ago.

For example, the reform legislation aims to limit the hiring of relatives. This seems like a no-brainer concept, except in patronage-laden Pennsylvania, where government work has become a family business for many.

Another measure would give school parents the right to ask the court to remove school board members who fail to follow the law. This is another good idea, considering it shouldn't be too much to ask board members to follow the law.

Giving parents the power to act as a check and balance on the board is a good idea. After all, it is their kids who are the ultimate customers of the charter schools. As such, the parents should be free to give some input, raise questions, and ensure school funds are properly spent.

This measure was prompted in part by a dispute at the Agora Cyber Charter School in Devon. After parents there questioned a contract awarded to a management company owned by Agora founder Dorothy June Brown, they were told they could withdraw their kids from the school if they weren't happy with the decisions of management.

Another smart measure would prohibit charter administrators from getting paid through contracts with the local school district that authorized the charter.

Administrators at two charter school were found to have separate contracts with the Philadelphia School District. The local districts need to have more of an arms-length relationship with the charters, rather than be in business with them.

The state reform legislation was proposed by Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., West Chester). The lawmakers said the legislation was sparked by stories in The Inquirer that raised questions about contracts and conflicts of interest at several charter schools.

The legislation was proposed one week after the former CEO of Philadelphia Academy, a charter in the Northeast, was sentenced to 33 months in prison for looting about $900,000 from the school.

At the sentencing of former CEO Kevin O'Shea, federal Judge Edwardo C. Robreno rightly called for more government oversight of the taxpayer-funded charter schools so "this type of criminal activity is not allowed to be repeated."

When the charter law was enacted in 1997, the state expected the local districts to monitor the schools. The districts have failed in that role. It is hoped that the state will do a better job.

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