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Charter School Fraud Has Cost Pennsylvania at Least $30 Million

Daily Kos - October 2, 2014, by Laura Clawson - Pennsylvania's charter schools are rife with fraud and mismanagement, as anyone who reads local newspapers knows. But a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy, "Integrity in Education, and Action United" details just how big the problem is. Pennsylvania charter school enrollment and funding is growing rapidly and without adequate oversight, and according to the report, there's been at least $30 million in fraud by charter school officials since 1997. For instance:

  • In 2012, the former CEO and founder of the New Media Technology Charter School in Philadelphia was sentenced to prison for stealing $522,000 in taxpayer money to prop up a restaurant, a health food store, and a private school. Media coverage of parent complaints of fiscal wrongdoing initially uncovered the fraud.
  • Nicholas Tombetta, founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, has been indicted for diverting $8 million of school funds for houses, a Florida condominium, and an airplane. In 2005, a former business associate of Tombetta surfaced allegations of fraud, which led to the investigation.
  • Dorothy June Brown, founder of Laboratory, Ad Prima, Planet Abacus, and Agora Cyber charter schools, will be retried this year for allegedly defrauding the schools of $6.5 million and conspiring to conceal the fraud from 2007 to 2011. Two administrators plead guilty and testified against Brown in her first trial. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Education conducted an audit of Agora after receiving complaints from parents of Agora students.

You'll notice that in each of those cases, it was complaints from parents or a tip from a business associate that led to investigations. Pennsylvania should be doing more to uncover wrongdoing before it's so blatant that parents are screaming about it. In Philadelphia, there are 86 charter schools and only two auditors. What's more, charter school auditors in Pennsylvania don't actively look for fraud; the report calls for expanded local audit authority, fraud risk assessments for all charter schools in the state, and targeted fraud audits. The report's authors also call for a moratorium on new charter schools until these oversight goals are met.