Chester Community Charter School has successfully boosted test scores in a failing public school district. But that does not mean it is excused from having to explain how it spends millions of dollars in taxpayers' money.
State Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak is asking pertinent questions about how the state's largest charter school operates. At the top is how the charter pays $14 million in annual rents and salaries to the for-profit company that runs it.
Since 1999, records show, the school has paid $60.6 million to the company and its chief executive officer, Vahan H. Gureghian, a wealthy Main Line lawyer. Exactly how much the school pays is unknown because it stopped reporting a management fee several years ago and has released conflicting financial statements. Nor does it disclose salaries or payments to its top officers or contractors.
Zahorchak said the public has a right to know and the payments must be disclosed. Chester Community has denied any wrongdoing and has challenged the state's review. The dispute has landed in Commonwealth Court, which has ordered hearings and arbitration.
The case, as detailed in two articles by Inquirer reporters Dan Hardy and Martha Woodall, exemplifies problems with Pennsylvania's charter-school law that have led to financial and ethical problems at other charters across the state.
Chester Community spends a greater portion of its funds on administration than any other charter in the state, while it appears to skimp on dollars in the classroom.
The school also has an alarmingly high percentage of students classified as mildly disabled. Could that be because it receives $23,000 in student aid for a special-education student, regardless of the level of impairment, and only $8,000 for each general-education student?
Since there are no state restrictions, Chester Community spends most of its special-ed allocation in other areas. The law should be changed so that is not allowed.
Chester Community offers a safe, nurturing environment with new facilities and an innovative curriculum. For many parents, it is a refreshing alternative to the city of Chester's failing and violence-prone schools. It has produced test scores significantly higher than the Chester Upland School District, but the charter's 2,350 students still have not met state benchmarks.
Other schools have also drawn attention to loopholes in the 1997 law that created the state's charter-school system. In Philadelphia, a federal probe into allegations of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and financial mismanagement at Philadelphia Academy Charter has spread to three other city charters.
The state must take steps to ensure charters remain a viable alternative to failing public schools. It should standardize the way charters are funded to limit discrepancies in per-pupil spending. And it needs to take over oversight from the host districts, which in too many cases are doing a poor job of objectively monitoring their competition.