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| Holding Charter Schools Accountable, Promoting Strong Public Schools

Charter Financing: Study Finds Too Little Accountability in California

San Jose Mercury News - April 9, 2014, by Raymond Blanchard - Every parent wishes their children will reach their highest potential to live the life they choose. We do everything in our power to make this wish a reality, and we know an extraordinary education is essential.

Fulfilling this wish is difficult, particularly in the Bay Area. When California, the eighth largest economy in the world, ranks 49th among the states in school spending, we know it's difficult for our schools to provide the best education possible.

That's why I enrolled my children in Gilroy Prep Charter School, a Navigator school that achieved the highest API score -- 978 -- in California for a first-year charter school in 2011-12. I also served on the Navigator Board for three years but recently resigned due to transparency and accountability concerns with the Charter Management Organization (CMO), a service some charters use to manage their finances.

Now I find that my concerns were not an aberration. A recent study by the Center for Popular Democracy (linked with this article at mercurynews.com/opinion) found mismanagement of funds, fraud and abuse to the tune of $80 billion, or $160,000 per child, across all California charter schools, and our state could lose another $100 million in 2015 to charter school fraud. That's enough money to pay full tuition and board for every student in California at a University of California school for four years.

The report found that charter schools in California undergo little monitoring of finances, and the districts that oversee charter schools do not have the resources to provide sufficient oversight. Over my three years on the Navigator board, the local districts only attended seven board meetings.

Charter schools were created to bridge the achievement gap by granting increased freedom to administrators, teachers and parents to innovate without being subject to most California education laws. I support charter schools and think many of them provide an excellent education: 60 percent of Santa Clara County charter schools outperform the districts in which they reside. As a former entrepreneur and venture investor, I am all for freedom, innovation, competition and choice.

But the charter school financial model is at risk of failing.

Charter Management Organizations use public money with little public accountability and transparency, and that's starting to cause material financial problems. Not all charter schools have a CMO and run very well on their own, and some CMO-run charter schools are clearly better than others.

In 2014, charter schools authorized by the Santa Clara County Board of Education received $42 million in public revenue, excluding the millions of dollars in philanthropic investments. Some CMOs charge the schools they manage up to 25 percent of school revenue, while our local district charges about 6 percent per school.

In Santa Clara County, 73 percent of charter schools spent $1,287 less per student than their district school peers in 2012-2013. That's worth a musical instrument, computer, books, iPad and field trip per child. Where does the money go? It's not clear, and that's a problem.

To avoid financial risks, charter schools should be held to the same types of regulations as other public schools and the boards that oversee them. All public schools should be given the same freedoms charter schools have to innovate.

My wish is that all public schools be excellent educational institutions and stewards of our tax money. However, we must improve transparency and accountability. I think this is a wish we can all agree on.