INDIANA, YES. ARIZONA, NO.
Instead of Pennsylvania following Arizona’s example of chasing down non-existent election fraud, we should be following Indiana’s example of ensuring that charter schools aren’t illegally bilking the taxpayers.
Indiana’s Attorney General filed a bombshell lawsuit to recover a $154 million in tax dollars paid for fraudulent enrollment and improper spending by two cyber charter schools. To put this in context, $154 million is the single largest monetary damage ever sought by the Attorney General and is enough to cover the purse at the Indy 500 for the next decade.
The most brazen charge against the cyber charters is that they billed the state for 14,000 cyber students who had little to no online course activity. Tuition payments for these now-you-see-them-now-you don’t students totaled $68 million between 2011 and 2019.
Indiana also seeks to recoup $85 million in improper payments to companies linked to the schools. The most frequent allegation was that a cyber board member or senior employee was also moonlighting as an executive at one of the vendors. Over three years, the online schools sent 83% of their total funding to related companies.
The Hoosier State is not the only one to weather a major cyber charter scandal – California, Ohio, and even PA have had their share – but it differentiates itself because its Republican governor and legislature actually enacted oversight reforms.
First, Indiana annually audits its cyber charter schools. In fact, it was the findings from the regular audits that laid the groundwork for the Attorney General’s lawsuit.
Second, cybers must be transparent about how they calculate attendance. More to the point, cybers must withdraw a student who is a habitual truant. It also empowers the state board to respond if a charter school performs poorly for four consecutive years.
Pennsylvania taxpayers are not afforded those same protections. Six of the PA’s 14 cyber charter schools have never been reviewed by state auditors according to reporting by the Scranton Times-Tribune. The largest cyber charter, Commonwealth Charter Academy, with a budget of $270 million, was last audited nearly a decade ago.
To put that in perspective, 492 of PA’s 500 public school districts have budgets smaller than that, and they get audited every year.
PA election doubters who falsely claim a lack of election transparency should focus their efforts on creating transparency in a $1 billion industry entrusted with teaching our children.
If PA’s newly elected Auditor General Timothy DeFoor were wise, he would consider the implications of Indiana’s scandal and proactively check the records and books of PA’s cyber charters. Not only would this protect Pennsylvania taxpayers from an Indiana-sized fraud, but it would also demonstrate his independence from the pro-charter interests that funded his campaign. (An analysis of DeFoor’s campaign finance records shows that in 2019-20, 79% of his total donations came from a pro-charter group.)
Distrust by the average voter doesn’t come from wild election conspiracy theories; it’s born out of suspicion that lawmakers are influenced by well-financed special interests. Charter reform is a good first step to repairing that trust.