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HBOMG: John Oliver Absolutely Demolishes the Abusive, Out of Control Charter School Industry

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On the most recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver dedicated the main segment to charter schools. More specifically, to poorly regulated and easily exploitable state charter school systems that see for-profit management companies swoop in and swallow up taxpayer dollars. Though policies vary from state to state, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada have been called the educational-industrial equivalent of the “Wild West.” 

One of the most insidious practices is the use of “sweeps” contracts, where nearly all of a school’s public funding is “swept” into the coffers of a charter management company. Charter schools frequently hire outside companies to handle management and accounting responsibilities. Some even take care of hiring teachers, selecting school locations, and handling school finances. Because these are private entities, they cannot be audited by regulators the way the schools can, which means they cannot be held accountable for how they use all that public money:

“It’s really just a pass-through for for-profit entities,” said Eric Hall, an attorney in Colorado Springs who specializes in work with charter schools and has come across many sweeps contracts. “In what sense is that a nonprofit endeavor? It’s not.”

The contracts are an example of how the charter schools sometimes cede control of public dollars to private companies that have no legal obligation to act in the best interests of the schools or taxpayers. When the agreement is with a for-profit firm, it’s also a chance for such firms to turn taxpayer money into tidy profits.

Insufficient legislative limitations and a lack of political will make oversight and reform feel like a near impossibility. One former education commissioner from Tennessee describes his years-long battle to close “the worst school in Tennessee.” He eventually resigned his position, but the online charter school in question remains open for business:

With the help of an unscrupulous operator, an inept school district, and the generally screwed-up politics of education, the worst-performing school in Tennessee opened and remains open to this day. It remains one of the biggest failures that happened on my watch.

[…] The “marketplace” fails when we are not able to ensure that parents know that the school they are choosing has a running track record of failure. Clearly, there is a critical regulatory role, and we cannot simply assume that an unfettered choice environment will automatically lead to good outcomes…The corporate shareholders aren’t looking for student results — they are looking to expand and grow and add more students.

The lack of oversight means some schools are woefully underprepared at the outset. Some are so poorly set up that they shut down within weeks of opening, leaving children and parents scrambling without a school to attend. When the kids finally do get into another school (if they manage to find one at all), they are so far behind that they may never be able to catch up.

Other charter schools close because the management company simply sees an opportunity to increase profits by cutting their losses, as happened in Detroit with the University YES Academy:

University YES Academy came into local spotlight in the spring of 2015 when staff made public their desires to unionize. The decision was ill-received by the school’s then-charter management company, New Urban Learning (NUL), and by April NUL announced that it would be leaving UYA. 

[…] The news was crushing for staff, as the resignation of NUL meant that should the staff vote in favor of a union (which they did a few weeks later) they would have nobody to bargain with. At charter schools, the management company is the employer not the school board — which means the departure of the management company is also the departure of the employer the staff hoped to bargain with. More dispiriting, the departure of NUL (the employer) meant that everyone on staff was terminated and had to re-apply for their jobs. At the start of the following school year, only 17 of the school’s 68 employees had been there the year prior.

In the end, because NUL decided to cut and run, UYA’s high school closed its doors two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester.

In many instances, school boards cannot fire these for-profit entities because all of their money is tied up in the management company attached to the signed “sweeps” contract. With no money left to run the school and no way to hold the private companies accountable, charter schools become bound to the management companies.

Oliver’s piece touches on all of these issues. The charter school system is a goldmine for unscrupulous private entities looking to snatch up taxpayer money, then cash out with little concern for the young students who get caught in the crossfire. 

Watch the Last Week Tonight segment below:



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