Editorials

A charter school mixes public dollars and private profit

At every turn, it seems, Baker Mitchell tries to thumb his nose at suggestions that charter schools such as his and the companies with which they do business, such as his, need regulation.

In fact, he’s a prime example of why charter schools need more public scrutiny and why the loosening of rules governing charters, which are funded by the public, needs to be reversed.

Mitchell owns a chain of nonprofit charter schools in rural areas of North Carolina. Mitchell, as reported by Marian Wang of ProPublica – a nonprofit, investigative news service – also owns for-profit companies that provide, for sale or lease, desks, computers, teacher training and the land on which the schools sit and the buildings they occupy.

Even though charter schools are privately run, they get public money. The initial idea was that charter schools could experiment with teaching methods and curricula in ways that might benefit mainstream public schools if replicated there. They’d be laboratories, advocates said.

Republicans, who have made public education a political target, embrace charters and believe there should be no limit on them. They also want charters to be as free from regulation as possible, making them almost private schools.

That’s fine with Baker Mitchell, who’s making money from doing business with the public charters he owns. That’s not exactly the way things should work, says the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which encourages responsible oversight of charter schools.

Such schools, the association says, should not be connected to their contractors. Parker Baxter, a program director for the group, says of Mitchell’s arrangement: “This kind of conflict of interest is what I would consider shocking.”

For his part, Mitchell dismisses his critics as anti-free market and the media as prejudiced.

But despite the obvious conflict, Mitchell rolls along and doesn’t even bother to comply with State Board of Education orders to provide full salary information about employees of charter management companies. He doesn’t even want to follow rules on public records.

Mitchell has friends in high places, including Art Pope, a conservative guru and former state budget director. Does that give him confidence that he’ll be able to defy regulators as long as he wishes?

With the conservative-led legislature lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools, the “movement” will continue to grow in North Carolina. But growing along with it should be more and better regulation to ensure that children in charters are getting the quality education the state constitution supports as something to which they’re entitled.

And there needs to be more regulation as well of the interaction between charter operators and the companies with which they do business. In the case of Baker Mitchell, there should be no conflict because he shouldn’t be overseeing companies that do business, state business, with charter schools he essentially owns. That’s just wrong.

No one is going to hold his breath waiting for regulation to be bolstered as long as Republicans are in power. But the charter school movement is rapidly turning into what skeptics said it might become: a publicly funded private school system. And that is not what it was ever intended to be.

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