The Great Charter School Scam: Three charters abruptly closed in North Carolina this year, highlighting a national crisis.

AuthorBurris, Carol

In 1997, The Learning Center, a charter school with the slogan "Naturally Grown Kids," opened in Murphy, North Carolina. It grew to almost 200 students, and the parents and guardians believed the well-established school was a sure bet. Sadly, they were wrong.

Last May, The Learning Center's board voted to close the school on June 30, due to fraud. The school's director allegedly had used school funds for what a board member delicately referred to as his own "private enterprise." So far, little information has been released to parents or the public as a police investigation proceeds.

This is not an aberration. Three Rivers Academy, also in North Carolina, closed on April 8, forcing its eighty-five students to find a new school. Three Rivers, according to the North Carolina State Board of Education, posed an "immediate threat" to students and to public funds.

Donnie McQueen, the owner of the for-profit entity that ran the school, allegedly had been cooking the books on attendance numbers to secure additional public funding, according to the North Carolina Justice Center's NC Policy Watch.

The closure of Three Rivers was quickly followed by the shuttering of Torchlight Academy, another charter school run by McQueen. The director of the school's special education program, Shawntrice Andrews, who is McQueenss daughter, was accused of falsifying students' Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents. Together, the family appears to have run the school like a personal piggy bank, NC Policy Watch reported. Now, with Torchlight's closing, an additional 500 students are forced to search for a new school to attend this fall. The McQueens deny any wrongdoing and say the issues were "mistakes."

The three North Carolina schools were not on the state's radar before they folded. In fact, both Torchlight Academy and The Learning Center were awarded $500,000 and $700,000 expansion subgrants, respectively, from the federal Charter Schools Program.

In May, a study by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH) at Tulane University found that charter schools close at much higher rates than public schools, even when controlling for factors such as enrollment and test scores. Each year, roughly 5 percent of charters close, compared with 1 percent of public schools.

But REACH'S data likely underestimates the problem. Because so many new charter schools open each year, the closure rate is offset by the overall growth of the industry...

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