3 States Tried to Shutter Failing For-Profit Online Charter Schools. A Suspicious Pattern of Allegations, Accusations, and Legal Complaints Quickly Followed
- Virtual for-profit schools spend millions lobbying officials to overlook rock-bottom achievement. Now supporters are taking aim at the public employees who do the scrutinizing
- Graft or good government? After years of abysmal academics and school-closure pushes, for-profit virtual school supporters accuse overseers in South Carolina, Georgia & Nevada of accepting perks
- Corporate tie-in? @pubschoolops, a parent advocacy group that defends K12 Inc.’s failing schools, uses K12’s corporate lobbying firm, Iowa P.O. box, and spokesperson
Correction appended Aug. 19
On their face, the allegations describe public officials being bought — and for a pittance. Drinks in a hotel lobby. Airfare reimbursement for a meeting. A $4,000 “personal payment” appearing just before a mid-level functionary inks a government contract for the consultant offering the so-called perks.
Indeed, the legal complaints filed in South Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada have resulted in a string of juicy headlines. And later, though ostensibly unrelated, in the resignations of two of the state employees named.
But, as a 74 investigation has found, layer in context and identify patterns that emerge in each state, and it’s possible to paint a very different picture: The officials accused were all attempting to enforce rules that could shut down for-profit online-only charter schools that posted abysmal academic outcomes year after year. Truthful or not, the accusations succeeded in emboldening critics of those oversight efforts.
Children deserve a first-rate education; and the public deserves first-rate reporting on it.
Please support our journalism.
The consultant is the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a national nonprofit organization made up of state agencies and independent groups working for higher standards and to ensure greater accountability in the charter school sector. Most recently it has focused on helping states devise rules for overseeing virtual schools.
The supposed junkets: meetings and conventions where these charter school authorizers compare notes and devise proposed standards.
The “personal payments”: stipends and travel expenses of up to $4,000 to experienced authorizers to mentor new charter school authorizers in other states during weekly phone conversations and occasional in-person meetings, and to coordinate panels and workshops at conferences.
The alleged quid pro quo: State payments to the national group for contracted services such as reviewing new charter school applications or helping to draft oversight policies — the types of support state agencies and standalone charter monitoring groups are seeking when they join NACSA.
This type of membership organization consulting is common in public education. As a part of their work, the public employees singled out in the complaints are members of the group.
Though there’s been pushback from virtual for-profit charters before, what’s happening in South Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada is different.
“This is a new and shameful strategy,” said Greg Richmond, executive director of the national association. “They are literally going after the reputations and the livelihoods of people who are just trying to do their jobs.”
Charter school authorizers are typically nonprofits, district school boards, universities, or government agencies. They are responsible for issuing charters — the legal documents that allow charter schools, which are public schools that are independently run, to exist. The authorizers can extend a school’s charter if it meets agreed-upon academic targets and revoke it if it doesn’t. Unlike district boards, authorizers may not dictate school operations.
Authorizers pay annual dues ranging from $150 to several thousand dollars, depending on their size and the amount of support they seek, to belong to NACSA. Members can pay for services ranging from help becoming an authorizer to NACSA’s assistance in vetting applications from prospective new schools. Such contracts vary from year to year, last year comprising $608,000 of the group’s $7.1 million budget, most of it made up of government and philanthropic grants.
In all three states where authorizers have faced complaints, new accountability protocols have endangered schools operated by K12 Inc., a publicly traded corporation that has a long track record of evading consequences when schools it runs — often via arms-length contracts with nonprofit boards of directors — take in hundreds of millions in tax dollars yet post rock-bottom results. The new laws and policies in question limit how many years a charter school can land on states’ lowest-performing lists before they lose their permission to operate.
The financial stakes are high. Virtual schools enroll some 300,000 students and take in a collective $1 billion in tax dollars every year. According to a transcript of an October 2018 earnings call with shareholders, K12 Inc.-managed schools enroll almost 119,000 students, a 7 percent increase over fiscal year 2018. “Based on the strength of this enrollment performance, our revenue guidance for the year is $1 billion to $1.01 billion,” CEO and Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis said. “This will be a revenue increase of between 9 percent and 10 percent year-over-year.”
In South Carolina and Nevada, complaints were filed on the eve of public meetings where overseers were slated to move to curtail school operations. Intentional or not, the timing was successful in shifting the focus away from the schools’ poor performance.
At the center of the under-the-radar controversy is an advocacy group with a big budget whose parent-activists — in numerous cases, members of the boards of K12-run schools — swing into action when those schools are threatened. Often using the hashtag #ITrustParents, the National Coalition for Public School Options (which recently changed its name from simply Public School Options) has a history of attempting to discredit NACSA.
Public School Options has never acknowledged a widely suspected relationship with K12 Inc. For the first time, The 74 has documented what appears to be a concrete nexus: Lobbyist disclosures suggest that PSO, which according to its IRS 990 filings has a budget of more than $2 million a year, works hand in glove with K12’s lobbying and public relations consultants.
PSO’s internet domain name was registered in 2008 by Midland Strategies, a communications firm with a post office box in Bettendorf, Iowa. Midland’s registered agent, Brian Kennedy, is president of a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, Woodberry Associates, which lobbied from 2009 to 2015 on education issues on behalf of the DCI Group, which also lists K12 Inc. as a client.
Woodberry also employs Christopher Mohrman, K12’s former lead counsel for public affairs. The firm’s media relations director, Susan Hepworth, fields reporters’ requests for comment from PSO.
Emily Riordan, a spokesperson for K12, declined to comment on the company’s relationship to PSO. “K12 does not disclose its charitable contributions,” she said in response to emailed questions. “Many parents of students enrolled in K12’s partner schools independently choose to become involved with Public School Options. We believe it’s important for parents to have a voice in the education issues that directly impact their children.”
For several years in a row, PSO members have flooded the Twitter hashtag for the national authorizing association’s annual convention, #NACSAcon, with bombastic tweets. In 2016, Expose Liberal Charter School Turncoats, a group that received $125,000 from PSO, gave NACSA its “rotten apple” award.
Though the group’s website, established in July 2016, no longer exists, damning snippets from articles about the complaints are now posted on an anonymous site called nacsafacts.com under the headline “When NACSA comes looking for a contract, they don’t come empty handed.”
Among other social media campaigns, PSO has sponsored Facebook ads featuring a doctored image of a NACSA logo page bearing NACSAfacts allegations.
“Parents,” PSO tweeted Nov. 29, “are asking the #Nevada Attorney General to investigate a cozy relationship between state charter school officials and an outside interest group. Parents need to be trusted with their child’s #education decisions.”
Parents are asking the #Nevada Attorney General to investigate a cozy relationship between state charter school officials and an outside interest group. Parents need to be trusted with their child’s #education decisions. https://t.co/kZW37JHQci
— National Coalition for Public School Options (@pubschoolops) November 29, 2018
The tweet linked to a Las Vegas Review-Journal story published the same day detailing a lengthy complaint PSO had filed two days earlier with the state attorney general. The letter asserted that a pattern had been established in other states of NACSA paying officials to obtain contracts.
It did not mention that investigators in South Carolina had found no wrongdoing by the staffers named in a similar complaint there, or that their counterparts in Georgia had yet to take up the complaint filed in that state. Separately, PSO petitioned a court in Nevada to compel the State Public Charter School Authority to produce public documents it says the authorizing agency withheld.
The Nevada authority’s general counsel, Ryan Herrick, said the agency has not been served in connection with the court filing. “If the authority is ever served with the public records complaint,” he said in an emailed statement, “the authority will immediately file a motion seeking to dismiss the matter, since all public records requests have been fully complied with.”
At a meeting of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority held the day after the Review-Journal story, the board chair of Nevada Virtual Academy, a failing K12-operated school whose future was atop the agenda, cited the article in claiming her school was being singled out.
“To be honest, we feel like we’re being treated very differently than other schools and even targeted,” said Samantha Morris. “And that has to do with things that have occurred, and, to be very frank, most recently the shock that I felt when I read the story in the RJ yesterday didn’t help our distrust much at all.”
In many of the 44 states (and the District of Columbia) that have charter schools, the law does not distinguish between nonprofit and for-profit school operators, or between virtual schools and the brick-and-mortar variety. But a NACSA task force made up of authorizers, state and local education agencies, and charter school leaders has come up with recommendations on different standards for online-only schools because of their track record.
“If traditional public schools were producing such results, we would rightly be outraged,” a June 2016 NACSA report on virtual charter schools said. “We should not feel any different just because these are charter schools.”
Among the recommendations: While most public charter schools by law admit all applicants, by blind lottery if necessary, virtual schools could benefit from a legal framework that requires them to screen applicants for the ability to work independently. Some virtual school students, such as athletes and actors, are high-flyers who need to attend school remotely and on their own schedule. But others who have performed poorly in brick-and-mortar schools with more resources and support may not find virtual schools a good fit.
Unlike conventional charter schools, online-only programs may need to be held to minimum staffing levels. And careful protocols should be established for accurately measuring student enrollment and attendance. Some schools ask parent “coaches” to be responsible for attendance, to decidedly mixed results. Various public agencies have reported conflicting numbers of students enrolled and students transferring in and out during the academic year, calling into question the accuracy of state per-pupil funding sent to the schools.
Like other charter schools, whose authorizers are responsible for closing chronic underperformers or limiting their growth, online schools must be evaluated on student scores on the same annual assessments the state’s other schools administer.
PSO has fired back, insisting that scores on state-mandated tests are not valid indicators of school quality and that parental choice should be the only factor in determining whether a school should exist. The group argues that families frequently choose online charter schools for reasons besides academic outcomes. The schools often use their own assessment data when marketing to prospective students.
Contacted by The 74 for comment on this story, Hepworth — the media contact for both PSO and former K12 consultant Woodberry — did not answer direct questions about the source of the South Carolina and Georgia complaints that mirror PSO’s Nevada complaint. However, one of the exhibits attached to the Nevada complaint is an email chain obtained in response to a public records request filed in Georgia. The complaint also references an official in South Carolina.
“Parents are not okay, nor will they ever be okay, with NACSA paying cash to state officials — the same state officials overseeing their state contract,” Hepworth said in an email. “It’s wrong and that is common sense. Just because unethical behavior is technically legal does not make it right. Parents need to know that bureaucrats making decisions about their children’s education are not being improperly influenced.”
The officials named in the complaints are vulnerable, said NACSA CEO Richmond, because they are public employees. The allegations, he said, “are at best grossly misleading and often flat-out false.”
Teaching kids online, for profit
Thanks in part to aggressive marketing, online-only charter schools have proliferated over the past 20 years. Nearly 300,000 students are now enrolled full time in virtual charter schools nationwide, according to estimates by the Center for American Progress. That’s more students than are enrolled in high-performing, nonprofit charter networks such as KIPP, YES Prep, Achievement First, Noble, Mastery, Uncommon, Aspire, IDEA, and Harmony schools combined.
About 70 percent of virtual charter schools are operated by for-profit companies, which run 15 percent of all charter schools, according to NACSA. Many traditional districts offer classes or academic tracks online, and nonprofit virtual charter schools exist as well. Their students often have unique circumstances, such as chronic illness, a family that travels most of the year, social anxiety, or bullying. Online learning can also supplement traditional school for students in rural districts or who want to take on extra, more challenging academics.
The largest and most muscular for-profit player in the industry, K12, was founded in 2001. When the results of the first annual state assessments mandated by No Child Left Behind were reported in 2003, headlines questioning the schools’ quality quickly followed. The data illuminated problems with all types of public schools, but the for-profit, online-only schools’ poor showing was sector-wide.
Right behind those reports were stories about the company’s resistance to oversight. While its lobbyists haunted state capitols and executives testified at hearings, parents protested what they characterized as government interference.
An Ed Commissioner’s Confession: How I Tried (and Failed) to Close the Worst School in Tennessee
The for-profit virtual school lobby has long sought to exert its might in the political arena, but according to Richmond, the complaints in South Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada mark the first time it has taken direct aim at the state employees who oversee those schools. In each of the states where complaints involving NACSA were filed, the public officials who draft policy and analyze school performance report to boards made up of political appointees — in some cases, appointed by elected officials who received campaign donations from virtual school operators.
The for-profit companies and PSO have also pushed back against virtual charter school oversight in states where efforts to strengthen standards are taking place in other regulatory agencies, such as an elected board of education. Ohio and Indiana, in particular, have seen high-profile debates over the schools’ futures.
Campaign contributions to candidates for state office — where oversight efforts live and die — have been substantial. In the eight years after the first online-only schools opened in South Carolina, for example, for-profit school operators spent nearly $1 million on campaign donations, a 2017 investigation by The 74 found.
An investigation published last year by the Center for American Progress calculated that K12 Inc.’s spending on campaign contributions and lobbying over the previous decade had topped $12 million.
Inside the $1 Million Fight to Hold South Carolina’s For-Profit Virtual Charter Schools Accountable
As state after state has attempted to close for-profit online schools, limit their growth, or hold them accountable for student learning, the virtual school lobby, led by K12 and Connections Education, a Pearson subsidiary that operates the Connections Academy schools, has flexed its fiscal muscle.
In 2017, the K12-run Georgia Cyber Academy was one of 10 schools threatened with closure by the State Charter Schools Commission. With more than 14,000 students, it is the largest public school in Georgia. In 2015, 2017, and 2018, it earned Ds on state school report cards. In 2016, it earned an F.
In 2016, state auditors said the school reported having more students than its records reflected. School leaders agreed in part with the findings yet insisted they had underreported enrollment.
Last fall, K12 Inc. contributed $5,000 to the campaign of Brian Kemp for Georgia governor. Kemp, who won the election, is among the officials who will nominate new members to the state’s oversight commission, which is expected to decide whether to renew Georgia Cyber Academy’s charter in 2020. The donation was part of a river of cash directed at elected Georgia officials and political groups by K12 Inc. in recent years, campaign finance records show, including $300,000 in 2012 to back a ballot initiative to make it easier for new charter schools to win approval. (The ballot question was also backed by nonprofit charter school networks.)
In California, around the time the Georgia auditors issued their findings, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris accused K12 Inc. of pressuring teachers to “doctor” attendance records. While admitting no wrongdoing, the corporation settled with the state for $8.5 million in 2016. (In 2018, the state banned for-profit charter schools, effective this July.)
The pattern has been repeated in multiple states: An audit or investigation prompts an outcry, which is quickly doused when lawmakers or other elected officials — on the receiving end of the political spending — justify continuing to send tax dollars to the schools. A news story tracker maintained by Education Week has links to articles and investigations outlining online-only charter school controversies in 24 states from coast to coast.
‘A legal and moral responsibility’
Four years ago, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University issued a damning report finding that online charter schools had “an overwhelming negative impact” on student growth. Compared with students in traditional district-run schools, those enrolled in online charters made gains in reading in only two states, no difference in two others, and less academic growth in 13 states, researchers found.
Math? It was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year,” Education Week quoted one of the CREDO researchers as saying.
K12 Inc. issued a statement that disagreed with CREDO’s findings, criticizing the researchers’ methodology and the data they used.
The findings were backed up by research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research. In June 2016, NACSA, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the education advocacy organization 50CAN, building on the three reports, released a proposed framework for holding virtual schools accountable for results.
Online-only schools fill an important niche, they agreed. But their unique characteristics require different oversight than brick-and-mortar public charter schools. The report laid out recommendations — such as screening prospective students, proving the school board’s ability to exercise its authority over the company running the school, and spelling out the specific data schools must supply to authorizers to verify student attendance and performance. The recommendations also urged states to shutter the schools with the worst outcomes.
“We urge authorizers to work within existing state policy frameworks to close chronically low-performing full-time virtual charter schools,” the report stated. “Authorizers can take the necessary steps to close such schools without any changes to state law. Authorizers have a legal and moral responsibility to close chronically low-performing charter schools of any kind, including full-time virtual charter schools.”
Expose Liberal Charter School Turncoats was born a few weeks after the framework was released. A few months later, in fall 2016, parents at Georgia Cyber Academy received invitations to an event the group was sponsoring in downtown Atlanta. According to a 2018 NPR report, they were offered free tickets to the Georgia Aquarium.
When they showed up at the downtown hotel where they were to meet, however, they were invited to make posters stating why they loved their school. Then they were asked to don T-shirts and, finally, led to a part of the hotel where NACSA was holding its annual conference.
On Oct. 26, 2016, Expose Liberal Charter School Turncoats put out a press release saying, “NACSA staff ordered hotel security to force the parents and children out into the street and then threatened to arrest them for trespassing.”
According to Richmond, it was hotel security who asked the protesters to leave, citing a desire to avoid the disruption.
A pattern across the country
In the three states where complaints involving NACSA have been filed — Nevada, South Carolina, and Georgia — an appointed board makes decisions about large numbers of charter schools with the help of a staff composed of state employees. All three state authorizing agencies have pushed for stricter accountability in recent years, and all have sought to curtail the operations of chronically underperforming virtual schools.
Like universities, nonprofits, school districts, and other independent charter school authorizers, all three states belong to NACSA. One of its primary functions is to bring authorizers from different places together to discuss best practices. The recommendations that participants take back home for possible implementation have met vociferous opposition from virtual school operators in numerous states. Here is what happened in three of them.
South Carolina’s push for stronger accountability began three years after the first online-only schools opened in 2009. In 2012, as part of the effort to tighten charter school standards overall, the state hired a new chief authorizer, Elliot Smalley. With the backing of the appointed Public Charter School District board to which he reported, Smalley began adopting NACSA’s recommended practices.
South Carolina’s virtual schools enroll 10,000 of its 26,000 charter school students. In the 10 years since the schools began operating, K12 Inc., Connections Academy, and other for-profit operators have spent $1 million on campaign donations and lobbying in the state.
State law requires the closure of charter schools in “breach” status — that have ranked among the lowest-performing academically — for three or more years. In 2017, three virtual schools with for-profit operators were on this track to closure.
In addition to protesting the new charter school performance standards, leaders of the three schools applied for permission to transfer to a brand-new authorizer. The shift would start a new three-year clock. A tiny Christian college trying to surmount massive financial problems agreed to become an authorizer. Citing its more receptive “philosophy,” a number of other virtual and for-profit schools also applied to the new authorizer for sponsorship.
In late 2017, as tensions mounted over the fate of schools facing sanctions or closure, a lawmaker who had received campaign donations from their operators appointed a veteran PSO board member to the state authorizing board. Among Beth Purcell’s social media appearances: a selfie at the New York Stock Exchange in front of K12’s ticker.
Soon after, the South Carolina Office of the Inspector General began investigating a complaint that a charter board employee had improperly steered a contract to NACSA after having received $8,000 in payments from the national organization. The employee, the complaint alleged, twice had been paid $4,000 by NACSA to coach new charter school authorizers in other states: once in 2015 and again in 2016.
In April 2018, the investigators issued a report that found instances of poor record-keeping by board staff but that said the staff member’s coaching activity did not violate policies on outside employment. Nor did the staff member “exercise influence” in decisions to contract with NACSA, which had a consulting relationship with the South Carolina authorizing board that predated the employee’s tenure.
In response to a request for comment from The 74, a board spokesperson supplied a written statement: “As the only national industry membership group for charter authorizers, NACSA has been a valuable resource for the [South Carolina Public Charter School District] for many years. This relationship existed long before the unfounded [Office of the Inspector General] complaint was filed, and continues today.” The district, the statement continued, “participates in the NACSA annual conference and utilizes its training resources (typically offered at no cost to members) on a regular basis. There have been no complaints, formal or informal, either prior to or after, the [Office of the Inspector General] report exonerating the [district] and NACSA.”
On Sept. 6, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution carried a story noting that of the thousands of vendors doing business with the state of Georgia, only about a dozen report gifts given to public employees. After reviewing some 4,500 public records, the paper found that NACSA had offered two state charter authority employees $1,000 stipends to research, recruit, and prepare speakers for panels and other sessions at national meetings in 2015 and 2016.
State officials are allowed to accept “reasonable” travel expenses but must report them, the paper wrote. Honoraria and other speaking fees are not allowed. Gregg Stevens, the Georgia State Charter Schools Commission’s general counsel, turned down NACSA’s offer but determined it was appropriate for the commission’s director, Bonnie Holliday.
In response to The 74’s questions, a commission spokesperson supplied this explanation for Stevens’ recommendations: “The nature of the work completed in these two scenarios was different. Dr. Holliday accepted a stipend, based on Stevens’ counsel, as the work she completed to assist with the NACSA conference was outside of her normal duties with the [state commission] and outside traditional work hours.
“Mr. Stevens, however, was offered a stipend to speak to a group of authorizers about charter performance contracts during the work day,” the statement continued. “This is a routine aspect of Mr. Stevens’ work with the [commission]. As a result, Mr. Stevens declined the stipend as it related to his normal duties whereas Dr. Holliday completed work completely separate from her duties with the [commission].”
Two weeks later, a charter school parent formally asked the Georgia inspector general to review allegations that the stipends and travel reimbursements were improper under the state’s vendor gift law. In December, Common Cause Georgia followed suit. The Georgia complaints also accuse NACSA of skirting state disclosure laws regarding “gifts” to public employees.
NACSA spokesperson Corrie Leech told the Journal-Constitution that the organization was unaware of Georgia’s vendor reporting requirements and would make sure to comply going forward.
In January, Holliday announced she was resigning to take a job as executive vice president of policy and external relationships of the state’s charter school association. A spokesperson for her new office referred requests for comment to the state commission.
“As a nationally recognized charter school authorizer, [State Charter Schools Commission] staffers are often invited to collaborate and share best practices with colleagues,” the commission said in a statement emailed to The 74. “These requests are always vetted by Counsel to ensure compliance with our high standards of transparency and established state policy.”
The South Carolina and Georgia allegations were reiterated in the complaint filed in November in Nevada, along with charges that Patrick Gavin, until recently head of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, had traveled on NACSA’s dime to a 2016 meeting of the organization’s virtual school oversight task force and had been nominated to sit on its board of directors.
Gavin authored two charter school accountability bills, which were passed into law in 2015 and 2017 and have been described as some of the strictest in the nation. Parents and leaders of the state’s virtual schools clapped back, complaining that he was “plotting a sneaky maneuver” to close schools and muzzle parents.
Leaders of Nevada Virtual Academy, the K12-operated school whose future was on the state Public Charter School Authority’s November agenda, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Gavin had resigned by the time the Nevada complaint was submitted in November. In the months preceding his resignation, tensions had arisen between him and the political appointees who oversee the charter agency over a new performance framework to be used to evaluate schools. Gavin declined to comment for this story.
Then, in December, PSO accused a second state staffer of improprieties, suggesting he should be prosecuted on felony charges.
Complaints alleged that Director of Authorizing Mark Modrcin accepted a NACSA $4,000 coaching stipend and then routed a consulting contract to the group. The $28,000 contract in question was awarded in July 2017, five months before Modrcin started work in Nevada. His coaching activities took place from April to October of last year.
During the same time period, NACSA volunteered to provide a free site evaluation to the Nevada agency through a contract with the federal National Charter School Resource Center.
According to Richmond, the coaching contracts are part of a NACSA-operated leadership program to bring new and experienced charter school overseers together. In addition to in-person meetings, coaches talk on the phone with their mentees weekly.
“You can’t get a degree in authorizing,” he said. “We compensate people, but we don’t come close to compensating them at the market rate” for what Richmond said is 80 to 100 hours of support.
“Yes, Bonnie Holliday did some work for us and got paid for it,” Richmond added. “Mark did some work and got paid for it. To say those are bribes is outrageous.”
‘The complaint is full of falsehoods, but it doesn’t matter’
Whether the coaching and conference-coordination stipends are improper depends on the law in each state. The basic principle, according to attorneys who advise school board members and other education officials on conflicts of interest, is that public employees should not be paid twice for the same work.
Whether they may be paid by an outside entity for work performed on their own time should be spelled out in policies each agency relies on to comply with those laws. District superintendents and other leaders often have time built into their contracts to consult or present for honoraria.
The basic principles underlying each law generally are the same, attorneys and government ethics experts say. Public agencies exist to serve the public’s interest — in the case of state charter authorizers, by safeguarding tax dollars and student welfare. Public employees should be transparent and not act in a manner that’s contrary to the public’s interest. Because of conflict-of-interest laws’ complexity, employees and their supervisors should consult with agency legal staff.
Ohio Says Its Largest E-School Overbilled State by Nearly $80 Million. Now 15,000 Students May See Their School Close
In South Carolina, investigators found that while documentation was lackluster, the state employee accused of improprieties asked a supervisor for permission to serve as a coach, a duty that fell outside the employee’s job description and was not performed during work hours. Investigators also concluded that the employee in question did not influence any decision by the agency to continue its long-standing practice of hiring NACSA for periodic support.
The types of contracts the agencies ink with NACSA — a member asking a national organization to review a program or recommend policies — are not uncommon in education. The Council of Great City Schools, for example, is made up of large urban districts that often hire the organization to analyze specific aspects of district operations ranging from the effectiveness of special education services to management structure.
In an email to The 74, Georgia Inspector General Deborah Wallace acknowledged that her office was investigating the allegations in the Journal-Constitution’s story but said she can’t comment further until the probe is concluded.
In a written statement, Lauren Holcomb, a spokesperson for Georgia’s authorizing agency, said she believes the matter will be concluded soon: “The [State Charter Schools Commission] understands the Inspector General is reviewing the complaint regarding the [commission’s] relationship with the nonprofit organization NACSA. It is our understanding that the matter should be closed within a very short time frame.”
A spokesperson for the Nevada attorney general said the office is reviewing the complaints and as a matter of policy cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Herrick, general counsel for the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, said his agency has yet to hear from the attorney general’s office “and is confident that any investigation will conclude that the allegations are meritless.”
In Richmond’s view, the investigation is secondary to controlling the narrative, which he believes is PSO’s ultimate goal.
“Their objective is to file a complaint that they can then hand to a reporter,” he said. “The complaint is full of falsehoods, but it doesn’t matter.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to note that PSO parent-activists have been, in numerous cases, members of boards of K12-run schools; to delete a sentence characterizing a statement by PSO spokeswoman Susan Hepworth, and to specify that more than one complaint was filed in Nevada.
Correction: Bonnie Holliday is executive vice president of policy and external relationships of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation provide financial support to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and The 74.Submit a Letter to the Editor