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Running charter schools like a pizza shop is a disaster in the making

When charter schools first began operating two decades ago, many people hoped they would finally serve as vehicles for underprivileged children to receive the education they deserved and weren’t always getting from their local public schools. But, as John Oliver pointed out on Last Week Tonight, running a school like a business also leaves it susceptible to the same factors often responsible for the downfall of businesses — greed, fraud and a lack of oversight and accountability.

There are some charter schools in certain states that never fail to impress with their statistics. Proponents of charters point to the democratic process of students being chosen by lottery, almost always meeting federal poverty guidelines, and providing opportunities to attend college many of their public school peers lack.

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Critics, meanwhile, argue that the optimists tend to overstate the success of charter schools. Oliver made it clear that his intention was to set aside the argument of whether all charters are a “good idea,” and focus on one glaring problem  — the quality of charter schools is uneven across states and districts.

In Florida, Oliver points to one especially alarming stat: Since 2008, 119 charters have closed, and 14 of them shut their doors before the end of the school year, leaving children and parents scrambling to find other accommodations.

“When schools close that fast it’s shocking,” Oliver said, adding that the way these schools are approved in the first place is a big problem. The application to start a charter can be hundreds of pages long, but Oliver found the language used in one called Franklin Academy in Fort Lauderdale was pretty much pulled from another charter application. “That behavior may not be illegal, but it’s certainly unethical,” he said.

It turns out it’s very difficult to monitor the fraud and greed taking place at some of these institutions. Charters get paid on a per-student basis that amounts to about $7,000 for every enrolment. The Richard Allen Schools in Dayton, Ohio is one example of a charter exposed for $929,850 in findings for recovery after a state audit. One of its many sins included reporting an enrolment of 450 students — but only actually enrolling 30 kids. And, sure, charters are expected to be overseen by non-profit sponsors, but that isn’t always an ethical process. Jeanette C. Harris was both the CEO of Richard Allen Schools and the founder of Kids Count of Dayton Inc., the consulting firm she hired to oversee her school.

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Oliver pointed to Ohio and Pennsylvania as two big charter-school problem states, and he put John Kasich on blast for relaying an attitude about education that he and critics of charters find exceptionally flawed. In a speech, Kasich called for the importance of more competition in public schools, likening them to “pizza shops.” If schools were run more like “pizza shops,” Kasich argued, they would be forced to keep up by providing the tastiest pizza possible, so that they could compete with the pizzeria four blocks away. Just substitute cheese and crusts with math and reading scores — along with all of the factors that influence a child’s ability to learn, such as what’s happening at home and in his community — and the obvious analogy is… pizza, I guess?

It isn’t that Kasich doesn’t present an interesting idea, it’s one that failing charters are proving may not be the answer.

“Just like in business, bad schools closed,” Oliver said, adding that “futures may be ruined” because there isn’t a filter when it comes to monitoring who is opening up these schools.

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There are great charter schools out there and there are charter schools that have, literally, changed children’s lives in ways their families never thought imaginable. But the bad ones, and a lack of oversight and regulations in some states, make it all too easy for children and parents to be taken advantage of by greedy people who know they can get away with anything in this present system.

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