Advocate of Pa. charter overhaul to release report on abuses

Rep. James Roebuck Jr.
Rep. James Roebuck Jr.
Posted: March 20, 2013

To bolster his argument that Pennsylvania's laws covering charter schools and cyber schools need overhaul, the Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee will release a report Tuesday that catalogs instances of fraud, financial irregularities, mismanagement, and test-score cheating at charter schools across the state.

State Rep. James R. Roebuck's 38-page report details 37 examples of serious problems that have emerged at charter schools and cyber charters in the last seven years, including cases of charter officials being sent to prison and allegations of cheating on statewide standardized tests. Twenty-seven of those cited occurred in Philadelphia.

Roebuck (D., Phila.), who introduced legislation this month - House Bill 934 - to reform the state's charter laws and strengthen oversight, said his review of selected charter schools found a lack of accountability over the way charter schools are run and funded. As a result of the lack of oversight, he said, taxpayer funds are left vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.

"While about half of all charter and cyber charter schools are in Philadelphia, this problem is hardly limited to Philadelphia," Roebuck, whose district is in West Philadelphia, wrote in an e-mail to the The Inquirer on Monday. "In addition, many of the cyber schools have students throughout the state. My bill would provide for much-needed transparency and accountability. We don't know what we don't know."

The 157 charter schools across Pennsylvania have more than 75,000 students, according to enrollment records on the state Department of Education's website. Sixteen cyber charters provide online instruction to nearly 35,000 more students in their homes. Philadelphia has 84 charters with more than 55,000 students. Five cyber charters that enroll students statewide are based in the city, as well.

Overall, Roebuck's report documented cases of charter school boards appointed by founding CEOs and acting as their rubber stamps; inappropriate business ties between charter schools and related entities; excessive salaries paid to charter executives; charter schools guaranteeing loans of related nonprofits; exorbitant fees paid to management companies; and charters operating as if they were "family businesses" with leadership positions being passed down.

Roebuck's study is based on an examination of 13 Philadelphia charters that City Controller Alan Butkovitz released in 2010, as well as news reports and other accounts. The roster includes a federal raid of the PA Cyber School in Beaver in July and allegations of inappropriate billing practices at the Vitalistic Therapeutic Charter School in Bethlehem last year.

The criminal fraud cases mentioned include Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia and New Media Technology Charter School in Northwest Philadelphia, whose former board presidents and former chief executives were sent to federal prison after they pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

The report also includes the recent federal indictments alleging that Dorothy June Brown and four codefendants engaged in a scheme to defraud the charter school network she founded in the Philadelphia area of $6.7 million.

One of her codefendants, Anthony Smoot, Brown's former business manager, pleaded guilty to his role Friday. Brown and her remaining codefendants are scheduled to go to trial in federal court Oct. 21.

Among other things, Roebuck's proposed bill would create an office within the Education Department to oversee charter schools and the power to investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and mismanagement; require the Education Department to audit charter schools annually; and require transparency and accountability for charter contractors, including for-profit management firms, by requiring them to disclose how they spend charter money.

Roebuck also calls for the creation of a statewide funding advisory commission to examine how charter schools and cyber charter schools are funded. Now, a school district's tuition payment for one of its students enrolled in a charter is based on how much the district spends to educate students in district schools. A cyber charter receives the same amount as regular charter, which has the expenses of serving lunch and operating a building.

Roebuck said Monday that he hoped his report would "demonstrate the need for comprehensive reform."


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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