As one means of fixing what is broken in our nation's public school system, the Obama administration, as well as a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, supports the rapid expansion of publically financed charter schools. However, given the startlingly large sums of money some in the charter school sector are stealing from taxpayers, and the disproportionate impact the expansion of such practices has on the civil rights of black, Latino and poor schoolchildren, it may be time for the judicial branch of government to question the unchecked expansion of this largely unregulated sector of the educational system. It seems clear that neither Congress, nor the White House, currently has the political will to do so.
For example, this past May, two nonprofit groups issued a research report titled "Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud And Abuse." Jointly authored by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy, the report warned that the lax system of federal oversight of the rapidly expanding charter industry has led to the theft of more than $100 million due to fraud, mismanagement and outright theft. A few months after that study was released, a subsequent wave of news reports described federal raids and arrests at the offices of charter schools and charter management organizations in Connecticut, New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana and Illinois. These actions were taken following investigations into activities such as theft of money and equipment, bribery, kickback and stock manipulation schemes, and the misappropriation of funds by charter school administrators who used taxpayer dollars to purchase real estate for their personal use, take luxury vacations and treat friends and associates to fancy meals. Though necessary, these complicated investigations into charter school finances are not inexpensive and, in addition to the stolen funds, constitute an added cost to taxpayers.
However, despite such abuses, both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, as well as both major political parties, continue to support the largely unregulated expansion of charter schools. Just this past April, Congress voted 360 to 45 to pass the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10), which, as stated in the bill, will "strengthen the Charter School Program and allow successful charter school models to be replicated nationwide to support choice, innovation, and excellence in education." Clearly, given the widespread potential for and reality of financial abuse of taxpayer funds, we need a bill strengthening regulation and oversight of this industry before we provide more opportunities for growth.
If fraud and theft are not sufficient reason for the judiciary to become involved, perhaps the possibility of civil rights abuses will pique their interest. According to the Department of Education, this year our public schools reached a tipping point and white children are now a minority population with black, Latino and Asian students making up the majority of students who attend our nation's public schools. As a result, the federally supported policy of aggressive charter school expansion now disproportionately impacts the educational futures of black, Latino and poor students much more often than it impacts students who are white. Those futures will not fully flourish if the funds to pay for their education are not safeguarded.
Toward that end, at least one group has already filed suit, alleging that federal policies supporting the rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools violates the rights of non-white students. Filed this past May by a civil rights organization called the Advancement Project, with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, as well as with the Justice Department, the complaint charges that the federally backed practice of closing traditional public schools and opening charter schools in their place has so harmed students in Newark, N.J.; Chicago; and New Orleans that "African American children's hopes of equal educational opportunity are being dashed" and their civil rights impeded. What these districts all have in common are black and Latino enrollments of over 80 percent, along with poverty levels consistently over 70 percent. Put simply, these are children who can least afford to have the tax dollars allocated for their educations stolen, or their right to a quality education disrupted.
We have a system of checks and balances for a reason. If neither the executive or legislative branches of government will act, our hope has to be that the judiciary will. Our government simply does not work if all three branches turn a blind eye toward the theft of taxpayer funds and potential civil-rights abuses.
Rooks is an associate professor in Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies at Cornell University.