Journalists at The Arizona Republic received the George Polk Award for Education Reporting for their survey of publicly funded charter schools.
The team’s reporting, led by an investigative writer Michael Squiresrevealed how the state’s school funding system and its permissive legal structure allow charter school operators to make huge profits on public education dollars.
Stories have shown how the founders of top schools, including Basis, American Leadership Academy, Primavera, and Benjamin Franklin, raise millions of dollars in public funding for their schools, and how the State Board for Charter Schools has no mechanism to control these benefits.
“The Charter Gamble” then uncovered the state system’s 25-year history, revealing that Arizona officials created the state-funded system without ever visiting or seeing a charter school, and that some of the current problems had been announced decades earlier, with little effort to fix them.
The George Polk Awards are presented by Long Island University to celebrate “the impact of courageous and authentic journalism”. Prizes are awarded in 14 media categories for reporting in newspapers, television, radio and magazines.
Credited rewards that of the Republic team for “initially disclosing insider deals, no-bid contracts, and political scams that provided windfall profits to investors at a number of Arizona’s top charter schools, often at the expense of ‘underfunded public schools’.
Greg Burton, editor of The Republic and azcentral.com, said the reporting team “unrolled miles of paperwork to reveal what had been hidden during a decades-long campaign to funnel public money into private public charter schools. – often with noble intent. But where regulators and politicians fail as watchdogs, local journalists are essential. In this case, politicians and businessmen who might have pushed for reform won millions by ignoring the warning signs. This is where Republic journalists worked to protect the public trust.
The investigative report
Charter schools operate with state taxpayer money and are supposed to accept any student, tuition-free.
Harris’s report in the spring of 2018 examined how Basis charter schools ask for donations from parents to subsidize teachers’ salaries, even as the school’s founders keep millions of government tax dollars for themselves.
Arizona Charter Schools: Arizona Republic Reporter Talks Investigation
Charter schools have become more popular in recent years. Journalist Craig Harris talks about investigating charter schools in Arizona.
The school will not disclose the management contract that allows the payments, or how much of the money comes directly from public funds. Harris reported that the Basis founders recently purchased a penthouse in Manhattan.
Harris later reported that American Leadership Academy founder Glenn Way made as much as $37 million by striking no-bid deals in which he built school campuses and then sold the properties for a profit to the charter school he founded.
At online charter school Primavera, Harris found, chief executive Damian Creamer received an $8.8 million “shareholder payout” even as his school’s dropout rates rose.
The report prompted a backlash from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who pushed for new legislation that would increase oversight of the state’s more than 500 charter schools. The way the money is handled should be a crime, he said.
Harris discovered that state legislator Eddie Farnsworth voted in the Legislature to increase funding for charters even as the chain of schools he owned, Benjamin Franklin, cashed in on the money — a practice, according to Farnsworth, consistent with the ethical guidelines of the governing body.
Farnsworth then decided to sell his chain of schools to a non-profit entity he created, keeping over $13 million in profits and continuing to collect rents from the new owner.
“The Charter Bet”
Harris teamed up with Ryman, Woods, and Price to find out how Arizona had created a system that allowed such profits.
Their reconstruction of the history of charter schools became the special report “The Charter Gamble”. The team dug into state records back to 1994, when the state’s charter school laws were first introduced, and spoke to people who had been involved while throughout the process.
Because the schools were such a novel idea, they found, no one involved in the state’s original charter school legislation had ever visited one. They chronicled the growth of charter schools and the creation of school chains, and revealed how Governor Doug Ducey’s more recent funding policies had benefited chains with political ties to his administration.
Price, a data journalist, compiled and analyzed thousands of Arizona Department of Education records to compile a database of every K-12 public school in Arizona. He found that charter schools spend 75% more per student on administrative costs than district schools — and no one is watching.
Price found that money diverted from the classroom correlates with lower academic performance. The Republic also found that in-state charter high school graduation rates are lower than district schools—charter high schools had a 77% graduation rate, compared to 88% for district high schools .
This report led to a call for more regulation and oversight of charter schools, with bipartisan legislation in the works for 2019 poised to become the most significant changes to state charter school laws since 1994. .
Past Polk Awards
Harris won a previous Polk Award for State Reporting for her investigative reporting in 2016 on the large-scale layoffs of state government employees.
Republic reporter Dennis Wagner won a Polk Award for military reporting for his 2014 work exposing how Department of Veterans Affairs officials falsified wait time data for veterans’ appointments , some of whom died while awaiting treatment.
The Polk Awards are named after a CBS News correspondent who was murdered while covering a civil war in Greece in 1948.