Under the guise of “school choice,” a small group of individuals are using charter schools to funnel taxpayer funds into their pockets. If a widespread school voucher program passes, it will do the same.
A charter school is a tuition-free learning institution that is privately owned but funded by public money from the Education Agency. While the TEA can approve which schools become charter schools, the agency does not oversee them the way they do with public schools. Nor are charter schools beholden to publicly elected board members. Much of their spending is not public knowledge.
What has been learned from dedicated reporting is that they are often more real estate investment forms with a school tacked on. A stunning investigation by Hearst papers, particularly Edward McKinley and Eric Dexheimer at The San Antonio Express-News, shows that the owners of the charter schools make flashy land purchases that are only tenuously connected to the school and use them to enrich themselves.
The most egregious comes from the non-profit that runs the Universal Academy in Dallas. They purchased a luxury horse ranch previously owned by Rex Tillerson, an ExxonMobile Chairman and Secretary of Energy under former president Donald Trump. The site featured a 120,000 sq ft viewing arena with climate control and viewing facilities. The school says it will use the facility to offer riding lessons to students for $9,600.
In other cases, owners of charter schools use the campuses to turn land into money makers. At Houston’s Diversity, Roots and Wings (DRAW) Academy, the owner leases four spaces to the school for profit. The same is true of ComQuest Academy and Accelerated Learning Academy.
This results in millions of dollars being sent out of the state’s public education budget and into the hands of landlords. Those landlords usually get to escape taxes as well since they are using their land for school purposes. It’s a tactic that is legal and used across the nation by charter school organizations.
That’s not even counting the money lost to public school by children attending charter schools. Public school budgets are determined by attendance. When a student leaves the public school and goes to the charter school, the allotment of cash per student goes with them. With 300,000 students in Texas charter schools, that adds up to over $200 million transferred into private hands.
Private, for-profit schools have even less oversight than the charter schools. There is little to keep their upper management from pocketing large amounts of cash through perfectly legal lease agreements such as the ones charter schools use. Likewise with executive bonuses and other incentives.
All this is paid for by Texas residents with their property taxes. Charter schools already represent a startling transfer of public wealth into the hands of a few rich landowners. There is no reason to think that the same won’t be done with private schools cashing in on vouchers, particularly if they can frame their high fees as a small price to pay for parents to escape “wokeism” in public schools.