Coming soon to a town near you: Charter school cronyism

In the wake of financial scandals in Idaho’s education world including the multimillion broadband fiasco, citizens have a right to be leery about cozy relationships between government entities and their business partners.

Take, for example, the recent charter school petition Caldwell School District received from Pathways in Education (PIE). From a public records request, that petition stated that PIE would pay California based Pathways Management Group (PMG), operated by charter entrepreneur John Hall, to the tune of $127 per student per month for “charter management.”

With a desired enrollment of 300 students and a flexible year-round schedule, that creates a significant contract of $450,000 for PMG per year. It is unclear what services would be provided for this fee as many of the services listed such as paying utility bills and purchasing electronics appear to be redundant activities the Caldwell district office already performs.

The PIE charter petition also states that the California nonprofit Education In Motion (EIM) will have exclusive ability to appoint PIE’s board of trustees. Pay no attention to the fact that the California Secretary of State also lists Hall as agent of that nonprofit at precisely the same California address shared with PMG, which he presides over.

In other words: an out-of-state group (with Hall listed as agent) has the exclusive ability to appoint trustees to the charter — not the local community. Hand-picked trustees then contract with Hall’s vendor to manage the charter, in perpetuity. Now that’s a good business model!

Idaho’s laws regarding charters was written to prevent this apparent type of conflict of interest. It states that “No more than one-third (1/3) of the public charter school’s board membership may be comprised of nonprofit educational services provider representatives.”

In this case, an entity under agency of Hall has the exclusive ability to appoint trustees which subsequently contract his management services. Some would say that means Hall controls more than the one-third share allowed, and in fact, has de facto control of the entire board.

All of which leads full circle back to the loss of local control because an out-of-state entity is not only in charge of an Idaho school, but is also the recipient of a lucrative business relationship with the school. Isn’t that cronyism? You know, favoring close friends, or, yourself?

But wait, it gets better: PIE withdrew its application from Caldwell School District before trustees voted on the charter proposal, and then resubmitted it to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission (IPCSC). That end-around step means that no elected officials will have an opportunity now to vote on opening PIE in Caldwell going forward.

That result is because the IPCSC members who will vote on granting PIE’s charter are appointed by a governor whose tenure has been littered with these types of conflict-of-interest episodes.

And the appointed commission may very well vote to grant a California nonprofit, with Hall listed as agent, the ability to appoint trustees in Caldwell, Idaho. Which will then engage in a substantial financial contract with an entity also helmed by Hall. Because that makes sense.

But these are the sorts of things that occur when the public loses control of making fundamental decisions about its local schools when that control is exported to charter schools along with their out-of-state management groups.

And for all the rhetoric about the “freedom” to have “choice” in our public schools, PIE suggests that we have given away every modicum of the freedom to run the schools in our community to a California nonprofit and business partners. Only in Idaho.

Levi B Cavener is a teacher in Caldwell. He also manages the education blog IdahosPromise.Org where an expanded version of this essay with primary sources is available.