Charter schools, John Oliver, and Accountability

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 11.44.40 PMLast week I was happy to see ed reform in mainstream media on John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight. It’s always good to see ed reform being discussed on popular shows. Unfortunately the context for this episode was gross mismanagement of charter schools by their founders and leaders. This is a sensitive topic for me, since charter schools are where I first started my career as a teacher, and I currently serve on the board of a charter school. Here are my 3 takeaways from the episode:

  1. Mismanagement of public funds is pervasive

If what you learned from the John Oliver segment is “wow, charter schools misuse a lot of public money,” I urge you to take a critical look at public spending more broadly. While it is true that the charter sector could use more oversight, it is a small fraction of state spending, and an even smaller fraction of your tax dollars. If you’re really interested in making sure your tax money isn’t misspent, consider the fact that the majority of the federal discretionary budget goes to the military. Here’s one of my all time favorite articles that touches just the tip of the iceberg of the complex ways our tax dollars are used by the military (this one’s about the US government’s attempts to build a road in Afghanistan in 2011). I don’t want to defend charter schools as “less bad” than other industries, but if the focus of this piece is on efficient use of public funding, it is shining the spotlight into the wings rather than center stage.

So, yes. There’s mismanagement of public funds in education. But let’s not lose sight of the forest through the trees. I would love to see Last Week Tonight uncover more stories that shed light on where our tax dollars go.

2. Mismanaged money in education hurts

While corruption occurs in many industries, I think it’s particularly painful for people to see examples of corruption in public schools. We view education as a basic right and a stepping stone to success for children of all backgrounds. When adults mismanage funding that should be used to help kids, it hurts. The examples John Oliver gave were painful to see: multiple schools that had to shut their doors within a few weeks of starting the schoolyear, forcing families to find alternate placements, schools without facilities that coped by taking kids on daily field trips, and clear conflicts of interest between charter school authorizers and charter school leaders. While on the scale of mismanaged funds this isn’t as large a pot as mismanaged Social Security or Defense spending, the perception is sometimes even more negative.

When corruption touches something we’ve all experienced- like the neighborhood school- it’s hard to not rise up in arms.

3. Charter school oversight is important

While I support charter schools, I agree with John Oliver that oversight is important. I’m the first to raise my hand for more accountability of any publicly funded sector (I also understand that this often places additional reporting burdens on under-resourced organizations). One place that oversight starts for charter schools is in the community. This resonates with me personally because I recently joined the board of a local charter school in Oakland. As a Board Member, I am responsible for the governance of the school and holding the school leadership accountable. The John Oliver segment was a reminder to me of the importance of this role.

One thing I’ve noticed in my experience on school boards is that understanding the budget is usually relegated to one or two people. The rest of the board isn’t necessarily expected to dig too deep into the details. I’ve been to many board meetings where peoples’ eyes glaze over during budget presentations. Part of this is understandable- many people who are drawn to the education sector are there for social reasons and because they are passionate and experienced in pedagogy and child development- not necessarily the Wall Street type. Nonetheless, it is our collective civic duty- particularly those of us who are shepherds of public funds- to go outside our comfort zones and make sure we know how to read a financial statement. I’m not a finance expert, but I can be brave enough to take on that responsibility and seek help when I need it. Thank you John Oliver for giving me the confidence to keep asking questions.


 

I believe deeply in investigative journalism and would love to see the mainstream media spend less time on celebrities and more time on investigating how tax dollars are spent. Overall I was happy to see charter schools in the spotlight, and it was a good reminder for me to be vigilant where I can.

 

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