Charter Schools

More Detroit Public School Principals Have Been Charged With Crimes in 2016 Than All the Charter School CEOs in John Oliver's Rant

To paraphrase Oliver, parents in Detroit should Google their local public school to ensure it wasn't previously run by a principal who pleaded guilty to theft.


Benjamin Beytekin/picture alliance / Benjamin Beyt/Newscom

During one part of his blistering but ill-informed takedown of charter schools, HBO's John Oliver zeroed in on what he called a track record of financial abuses by charter school executives.

After detailing how the CEOs of charter schools in Florida and Pennsylvania had recently been convicted of embezzling school funds to enrich themselves, Oliver stressed that the two incidents were not outliers.

"In Philadelphia alone, at least 10 executives or top administrators had pled guilty in the last decade to charges like fraud, misuse of funds or obstruction of justice," he said.

The point—or at least of the points—Oliver was trying to make is one that charter school opponents have been pressing for years: Charter schools, even when run as nonprofits, are conduits for greedy capitalists to siphon dollars from the public education system into their own pockets. Oliver is right that there have been some crony capitalists and outright crooks who have been caught using the charter school system to line their own pockets, and those people absolutely deserve to be punished for the damage they've done to public finances and to students' lives.

As a matter of policy, though, we have to ask whether those abuses cancel out all the good charter schools have done for kids and for the public education system as a whole (Reason's Nick Gillespie has a detailed look at all that).

If you think it does, then you'd have to apply the same standard to the traditional public school system—something that few charter critics seem willing to do.

You'd have to consider, for example, that the decade's worth of crimes detailed in Oliver's piece on charter schools are roughly equal to what's happened just this year in the Detroit Public Schools system.

In March, federal prosecutors filed charges against 13 administrators in the Detroit Public Schools for taking bribes and kick-backs as part of a $2.7 million scam. For 13 years, a school supplies vending company run by Norman Shy was submitting fraudulent invoices to the DPS, causing the school system to pay for paper, pencils and other goods that were never delivered to the classrooms, prosecutors said. One of the people charged was Clara Flowers, a former principal who is now an assistant superintendent for the entire district.

Shy allegedly paid more than $900,000 in the form of checks, cash and prepaid gift cards to the 13 current and former principals who signed off on fraudulent invoices. While the scam was running, there were persistent stories in the Detroit media about schools running low on supplies and teachers being forced to dip into their own paychecks to cover basic classroom needs. That's a noble thing for any educator to do, but it would be nice if they weren't forced to do it because their principals were helping a vendor get rich off taxpayer money

"To enrich oneself at the expense of school children is bad enough, but to misapply public funds intended to educate kids in a district where overall needs are so deep, funding sources are so strained, and the need for better education is so crucial, is reprehensible and an insult to those educators working every day to make a better future for our children," said David P. Gelios, special agent in charge of the bure FBI's Detroit Division.

As Oliver might put it: "You can say 'that's an isolated incident,' but it isn't."

In June, the former director of grant development for the Detroit Public Schools pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges after she was caught pocketing more than $1.2 million that was supposed to be used for tutoring services. Over the course of seven years, Carolyn Starkey-Darden created multiple fake companies and submitted phony invoices that included false test scores, forged signatures and fake individual learning plans, the Detroit Free Press reported. She will be sentenced in October and could face up to 10 years in prison.

She wasn't even being all that creative about it. One of the fake businesses Starkey-Darden used to pay herself was called "Grants 'N Stuff," the paper reported.

Starkey-Darden's guilty plea was filed just days after former Detroit principal Kenyatta Wilbourn Snapp was sentenced to a year in prison for her role in a separate bribery and kick-back scheme. Snapp pleaded guilty to conspiring to take school funds and laundering money after getting caught taking 11 bribes totaling $58,000 as part of a scam allowing two contractors to get paid for services they never delivered.

None of this is meant to forgive the crimes of charter school executives or suggest that abusing the public purse (and the public trust when it comes to educating kids) is a less serious offense because it happens in other public schools too.

Still, charter schools can be shut down. They can be held accountable in ways that the mainstream public school system will never be. It's better for a student to be forced to leave a bad school because it's being forced to close its doors than for that student to remain in a bad school because it's part of an unassailable institution that will lumber onward no matter how poorly it is run or how many students it fails to educate.

Let's go back to Oliver one more time. He joked about the fact that Philly Magazine has warned parents they should "Google any schools you're looking at to make sure they weren't once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft."

Sure, parents should check out any school where they might send their children. If that school has a bad history or has been run by a CEO who didn't put students first, parents would be wise to avoid it. That's part of the beauty of the charter school system: if schools are run like that, families can leave and seek a better education elsewhere.

That's exactly what they are doing. In Detroit, for example, more than 55 percent of students are now attending charter schools.

With the recent crime wave in the Detroit Public Schools system, more might make the decision to leave. To paraphrase Oliver, parents in Detroit might want to start googling their local public school to make sure it wasn't previously run by a principal who pleaded guilty to theft.

NEXT: Climate War: Bill McKibben's Really Bad Metaphor for Solving Man-Made Global Warming

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  1. During one part of [Oliver’s] blistering, but ill-informed take down on charter schools

    If it was ill-informed, who cares how blistering it was? That’s like describing “Jim Marshall’s spectacular run into his own end zone.”

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  2. “Grants ‘N Stuff”? Almost perfect.

  3. Who even watches this shit, any more?

    … then again, Sean Hannity is still on the air

    1. Stop hating on Great Americans

    2. Since Stewart left the Daily Show, Oliver has become the weekly progressive sermon. All the in-the-knows tune in to smile, nod and feel superior about their beliefs.

    3. I only noticed the other day that his fans seem to have abandoned. I saw a lot of comments that his first season was brilliant, second was getting repetitive, and now there’s nothing new or interesting.

      The end may be in sight!

      1. Unfortunately only a few thousand comment. Millions watch. The question is whether the comments are a representative sample of the viewers. I’d argue that they aren’t.

  4. How many charter schools whose former executives were criminals are still operating?

    How many regular public schools whose former executives were criminals are still operating?

    It’s not as if Oliver and his ilk are trying to alert people to the problems in charter schools, they’re trying to persuade their audience to reject charter schools in favor of regular public schools.

    That’s their argument.

    So they better have evidence that – follow me closely here – the charter schools are *worse* than the regular public schools.

    Progs really seem to have difficulty with basic logic. If they advocate for one set of schools over another, they have to show that their preferred schools are actually *better* in terms of honest administration, grades, etc.

    1. The lack of repercussions for public school employee misbehavior is a plus for them, not a minus.

      1. The cold fact is that the most effective way to “fix” the public schools would be to assemble the staff in the school gym, march in a Roman legion, stick a gladius in every tenth administrator, and then tell the survivors, “You have five years to show clear progres in improving student outcomes. We don’t care how you do it, but do it. Or we will be back.”

        The best LEGAL way is competition. And the Public School establishment knows it, resents it, and will fight it any way they can.

    2. “If they advocate for one set of schools over another, they have to show that their preferred schools are actually *better* in terms of honest administration, grades, etc.”

      No they don’t. It’s all about teh feelz.

      1. Government never has to prove anything. Schools are the government, so no proof is needed.

    3. Progs don’t argue Pros and Cons. It is the same thing with Climate Change. Let’s say it is real. Let’s say it is man made. Are the costs associated with solving the problem worth the effects? Costs such as underdeveloped countries, poverty, wealth shifting, etc.

      They can’t answer those questions and they won’t ever be able to. Every issue to them is a religion. There is no place for structured debate. It is their “facts” vs. deniers or heretics.

    4. Progs don’t care about actual results; they only care about their ideological fantasies. You could plow them with a mountain of evidence that a lack of government intervention in any domain leads to a better outcome than with it, but you’ll be just banging your head against the wall. Their starting point is that all government intervention is good because it takes a village and you didn’t build that.

  5. If public school administrators are stealing millions it’s only because they’re paid so little, you heartless libertarian racist monster!

    1. “We” pay sports stars and CEOs gazillions of dollars, it’s only right some principals and others who selflessly and altruistically enlighten our cherished children make big bucks too!

  6. And imagine the indignation if activists called for the closure of P.S. 101 on the grounds that P.S. 102 nearby was run by crooks and had students with bad grades.

    Yet they’re prepared to close good charter schools because of bad ones which are getting closed anyway.

  7. Oliver made the same series of mistakes when “destroying” for-profit colleges. For one, when citing the abysmal graduation rates at for-profits, he didn’t mention that state colleges have worse average graduation rates. And a higher average student debt by non-graduating students.

    He should just change the name of the show to “Confirmation Bias.”

    1. Last I checked, not many “for profit” colleges were selling grievance study degrees either.

      1. And the charge against for-profits is really getting angry at a symptom while ignoring the disease. If people weren’t required to have college degrees to qualify for $24,000/year desk jobs, diploma mills wouldn’t exist.

        1. Continuing education makes more sense than obtaining a useless 4 year degree for a large portion of the workforce

    2. Low graduation rates isnt necessarily a bad thing, it depends on the school and why the rates are low.

      My alma mater used to (still does, but to a lesser degree) by USN ratings because:

      1. We had a (relative to competition) low* acceptance standard.
      2. We had a low graduation rate.

      Why? Because we didnt have grade inflation and weeded students out. “Look to your right, look to your left, only one of you three will be graduating in four years.” That was standard at freshman orientation in the 80s.

      Since then both the requirements to get in have gone up and the graduation rate has gone up. I would have trouble getting accepted today and I graduated with highest honors.

      *my freshman class was the first with a old 2-part SAT average over 1200. Apparently it is 1430 on new SAT now (which I dont think is that directly comparable to old, but close enough to show the difference).

      1. left out “get dinged by”

      2. “Look to your right, look to your left, only one of you three will be graduating in four years.” That was standard at freshman orientation in the 80s.

        My dad told me it used to be standard at high school orientation. Back when high school wasn’t compulsory (1930’s).

    3. Or ‘Disingenuous Asshole Talking Out of His Hairy Ass’.

      Honestly, who bothers to watch this tired format anymore?

      People who think they’re smarter than the proles. That’s who.

      You know. Smug liberals.

      1. ah John Oliver…if he only had a brain…fucking straw headed idiot.

        1. Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma.

  8. The charges brought against the Detriot schools are just a result of racism. I’m sure The Shame of Rutgers is on the case.

    1. That’s some quality derp and blame shifting.

      Given that public schools are largely funded through property taxes and that Black children are overwhelming reared by Black single mothers, the failure to vigorously prosecute the financial institutions and lenders that gutted Black neighborhoods means that the system co-signed corporate acts of institutional violence against Black mothers and children, and against neighborhood schools in Black communities.

      1. Then change the fucking funding mechanism. Why do I have to pay for your little nitwit to go to school?

      2. the financial institutions and lenders that gutted Black neighborhoods

        Let’s take this at face value, shall we?

        Most of the neighborhoods they’re talking about were majority white 50+ years ago. Remember “white flight” and “block busting”?

        Now, if we apply just a little logic, why would a bunch of banks conspire together to change these neighborhoods to majority black then run them into the ground?

        To believe this is the fault of the banks, you would have to believe there was a racist conspiracy starting in the 1950s-1960s–and continuing for every decade thereafter, all other social changes be damned–to nefariously turn entire cities into black ghettos, and that the banks and millions of white people were so committed to the task that they were all willing to throw away untold billions of dollars (back when that was real money) of their own assets to do it.

        1. They believe this. At least some of them do. For real.

      3. I didn’t realize my outrageous property tax rates were set by banks rather than a conspiracy of city council and pubsec labor unions.

        1. She’s also claiming conservatives are running education spending policies in major cities. Nutty stuff

    2. Yes, this article is so racist. Are any of those Detroit school administrators white?

  9. Seriously I do not understand why we need to give someone like Oliver free publicity.

    1. Because some people on H&R have friends and relatives who will be all like, “oh, a libertarian, eh? Did you see John Oliver’s devastating takedown on charter schools? So much for your bizarre ideology of the free market fixing education!”

      Depending on circumstances, if a rebuttal is called for, now you have the toolz.

      1. he is the toolz

  10. They tried giving Dallas ISD teachers credit cards for supplies but the teachers went hog wild buying big screen tvs for their homes, clothes, dining out, and anything else they could lay their hands on. No one went to jail.

  11. “You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”

  12. Oliver is an idiot and anyone who watches him and actually thinks he’s right because he has an English accent is an idiot.

    Idiots all around.

    1. if only the Donald were British, everyone would love him and respect his opinions.

    2. B-but he went to Cambridge! That’s like Harvard on steroids! You can’t get more TOP MEN than that.

      1. Some Ivy league academics are experts are revising history to fit their models and narratives.

  13. Still, charter schools can be shut down. They can be held accountable in ways that the mainstream public school system will never be.

    Creative destruction. The essence of the free market.

    Public education – a teacher’s union boot stamping on a human child’s face ? forever

  14. Take John Stewart, excise his charisma and implant an English accent and an extra helping of smugness, and you have John Oliver-yet another semi-talented jerkoff who rose to fame on the coattails of the Daily Show.

    1. +1 empty wine glass

  15. Never could stand John Oliver. Maybe it’s some leftover the French not liking the Brits visceral thingy in me, but he always seemed more like a guy that was way too proud of showing how much he was funny and edgy and smart and he never had anything to do with about, you know, trying to be actually funny while discussing politics, like at least, Jon Stewart did, at one point.

    I don’t mind people I don’t agree with making good intellectually honest arguments against my ideas. I don’t even mind not so bright people making not so bright arguments against my ideas but strongly believing in them while still respecting my opinions. But I totally despise people making intellectually dishonest arguments against my ideas while acting like they have the intellectual high ground. At least Jon Stewart admitted he might be wrong every now and then. Doesn’t seem to be the case with Oliver.

    1. As nasty and awful as Stewart can be, there is no denying he is sometimes funny and that he is pretty talented. I don’t see anything funny about Oliver. He is just terrible but makes up for it by trying to hard and being smug. He is for my money the most annoying and loathsome figure in comedy.

      1. Right. Stewart lost his mind when the half white man was elected and Stewart went 100% virtue signalling to avoid ever being accused of the original sin of America (racism).

        1. And then he inflicted Samantha Bee on the world. Her commercials seems to be everywhere and are about as funny as a DNC staff meeting.

          1. Yeah I just down get that. At least Stewart and Oliver have an inflection like they’re telling a joke. Bee just angrily rants; you can almost see the blood vessels popping out of her head. Even if I were a leftist I’d find her monologues more irritating than funny. Her show is closer to a two minute hate session than a political comedy show.

          2. Even my liberal friends hate her. I would love to know who her audience is because I know several people who think the Daily Show is the end all be all and even they think she sucks.

            1. She was decent on the Daily Show ten years ago or so.

  16. This sort of shtick is gonna hit a wall once black Americans increasingly realize Charter schools benefit them.

    You should never, ever, never, ever listen to what a progressive tells you the world is like. ESPECIALLY where health and education are concerned where decision and choice should reside within YOU and YOUR FAMILY as free (moral and intellectual) agents.

    1. Reworked. “You should never, ever, never, ever listen to what a progressive tells you the world is like. ESPECIALLY where health and education are concerned. Decisions and choices should reside within YOU and YOUR FAMILY (as well as professionals involved) as free (moral and intellectual) agents.”

      1. professionals involved…… yeah, as like, some form of youth re-educations camps personnel or owner you mean ?

        I’m in unto you Rufus.

        1. Heh. Meant like ‘doctor to patient’ kind of way and not the ‘bureaucrat-doctor-bureaucrat-patient-bureaucrat’ formula preferred by stagnant progressives.

    2. This sort of shtick is gonna hit a wall once black Americans increasingly realize Charter schools benefit them.

      Black Americans don’t “realize” anything as a group; they aren’t even well-defined as a group. Many self-identified “black Americans” includes people that are indistinguishable from southern Europeans. And among black Americans, the more economically successful and self-sufficient are a different population from the government-dependent groups.

  17. Did Oliver mention that if you’re a public school teacher in NYC, you can be caught with bricks of heroin in a courthouse and still not be fired? Or that in LA, you can be caught molesting students and still not be fired?

  18. I actually like Oliver’s presentation style, the long-form dives into one or two issues per show is much better than the 3 minute snippets anyone did/does on the Daily Show. And it actually worked pretty well for most of his first quarter, when he was tackling largely nonpartisan issues. But when he moved on to partisan waters it quickly became apparent that he really likes beating down conservative strawmen by just piling up huge lists of grievances without ever acknowledging the upsides or contrasting with other options.

    He analyzes things by using “cons and cons” lists instead of “pros and cons”.

  19. The US should do what civilized nations do. For example, anybody convicted of a crime ever should be ineligible for government service. And the previous German president had to resign because his wife obtained a mortgage for $600k at a favorable mortgage rate from someone who the president took along with him on a government trip.

    If people want European-style successful progressive welfare states, they have to pay the price, which means zero tolerance for even the possibility of corruption by government officials, plus high taxes on the middle class. You can’t have US-style laissez faire public service and US-style low taxes and European-style government spending and power.

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