California’s charter schools are leaking public money like a sieve


It seems like every few months another absurd story breaks about California’s charter schools. Like the principal that used public money to buy expensive meals and $5,700 in flowers while moonlighting as an NBA scout for the San Antonio Spurs.

Or the Oakland charter school that gave its founder a $74,820 Mercedes GL 450 and 10 percent of the federal grant money it received for books and other student needs.

Or former charter school director and current Los Angeles school board member Ref Rodriguez allegedly authorizing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to nonprofits he oversaw during his tenure.

The specific details matter, but obviously these stories are signs of a larger, systemic problem in the state. They prove that existing state law doesn’t allow the state and local governments to proactively monitor the private groups that operate charter schools for fraud and waste.


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Our new report, Fraud and waste in California’s charter schools, details why.

First, there aren’t enough people paying attention. The state government doesn’t proactively monitor for fraud or waste, and local school districts aren’t given the resources they need to properly oversee charter schools in their boundaries. How else do you explain the CEO of one Bay Area chain of schools — the Tri-Valley Learning Corporation — being able to secretly divert $2.7 million in public funds to businesses he had ties with over a span of five years?

Second, due to limitations in current law, local school districts have few options to intervene when they smell something fishy.

Third, even the state government has limited auditing authority. For example, state auditors could only look at the books of some of Tri-Valley’s schools when they went digging, not all of them. Who knows exactly how much public money was taken?

And finally, local school districts and county boards of education can be pre-empted by the state when they suspect foul play. The State Board of Education can overrule a local decision that denies a new charter school or refuses to renew an existing one due to fraud and waste. This makes it harder for parents to hold charter schools in their communities accountable.

So how much public money has been lost? It’s hard to know — all we can see is the tip of the iceberg. Total alleged and confirmed fraud and waste in California’s charter schools has reached over $149 million.

It’s safe to say that California must act now to reform its oversight system.


Jeremy Mohler does strategic communications for In the Public Interest, a nonprofit that advocates for the democratic control of public goods and services.

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He’d love to hear from you: jmohler@inthepublicinterest.org