Who's responsible for the charter school oversight fiasco?

A report released last week by the Controller's office on charter school oversight found some examples of waste and fraud that were just, frankly, depressing -- it seems like administrators had an opportunity to turn charters into financial fiefdoms. The Controller lays the blame for this primarily at the feet of the School District, which is responsible for charter school oversight. But today's Daily News editorial says we need to look up higher, too: Carelessness with the public's money does not begin with the School District.

The California gold rush began in earnest in 1849.

State capitol

In 1997, the state of Pennsylvania began a new gold rush when it passed a law establishing charter schools, with $8.5 million to start them up. At least that's the impression one gets after reading a review of charter-school oversight released last week by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

In an investigation spanning more than a year, the office found so little control and oversight of the $290 million that the school district pays to charter operators each year that these taxpayers dollars are extremely vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse. Examples of the chicanery and greed on the part of some charters is horrifying: excessive executive salaries that exceed those of their counterparts in the district; nepotism, and shady financial and real-estate transactions.

Some of the more flagrant examples of problems came to light before the report's release, which found a bar being operated on the site of one school, and a financial officer getting salaries from three schools. The controller avoided looking into schools that are already under separate investigation, some by the feds.

This report is not an indictment of the charter- school movement - there are many sound and responsibly run schools - so much as it is of the law that the state enacted in 1997. That law has since led to the creation of 135 charters schools throughout the state, nearly half of them in Philadelphia, without adequately addressing how they are overseen.

And although the controller's office primarily indicts the school district for its failure to provide oversight, we find that inaccurate and unfair.

True, the district is authorizer of charters and, according to the law, has some oversight authority. But the reality of charters is more complex, and the blame should be shared: by the Legislature that created the original law; by the lawmakers who have become such champions of charters that the district has gotten mixed signals at best about oversight; by the state Department of Education, and by the School Reform Commission, which has remained silent since the report.

The oversight issue has been essentially ignored for 13 years, since charters began opening. A set of factors has kept charters from the kind of scrutiny that is required. One is cultural: Since charter schools are free from many district regulations, many insist on their independence not only from the standardized curriculum, but from the district's scrutiny. The charter schools' status as political darlings among many lawmakers compounds the problem: A handful of lawmakers have actually created charters. And since the Legislature appropriates education dollars to the district, it sends powerful signals in those appropriations.

In the state Department of Education, which has direct oversight over 11 cyber charters, only three people staff the charter office, though some functions are handled in state departments. The school district itself has only three people manning its charter office. These numbers do not signal a realistic acknowledgment of the oversight required of an entirely new and separate system of schools, all which differ from one another.

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, is working on a bill to reform the original charter legislation; nothing yet directly addresses the important oversight issue. Should there be an independent office? Should the auditor general be the overseer? This bill should be the highest priority.

Waste and abuse of public money is always bad; exploiting precious education dollars for personal gain, as some charters operators have, is contemptible. But so is standing by and letting it happen.

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