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Patricia McGuire Headshot

Scandalous Options

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I had to stop reading when I got to the part of the amended complaint in the Options Charter School case that revealed the salaries of the people who used to run the school. Wow. I'm clearly in the wrong business! Who knew that being in administration of a public charter school could make you some real dough, apparently legitimately -- before all of that scandalous stuff, which I'll get to in a minute.

All my life, until I got to law school, I attended schools where the principals, presidents and many faculty members actually worked for free. I got a pretty good education in spite of that fact. Actually, some of my most brilliant teachers were contributing their services. Yes, the people in question were Catholic nuns, those still-heroic figures in American life who spend most of their time exemplifying the virtue of taking the option for the poor. Most Catholic sisters, and many priests and brothers, never earned a dime all those years they were running schools and teaching millions of pupils.

Maybe it was from spending so much time with the nuns that I got my own weird ideas about compensation in education. Of course, nobody can work for free any more -- we even got rid of "contributed services" for the religious sisters a long time ago. Just wages are part of a healthy system of social justice. But nobody should choose to work in education who wants to get rich; the only motivating force should be educating our students. Unfortunately, some people (including some university presidents, I am sorry to say) didn't get that memo.

Money is, unfortunately, an increasingly disproportionate force in education, and not necessarily for the good. Whether the size of the football coach's salary or the glamorous new recreational facilities or the size of the Race to the Top grant, the power of money is trumping the value of real education. And once money gets into the mix, the opportunity for scandal is ever present.

Which gets me back to the Options Charter School scandal. I cannot comment on any specifics of the case, all of which are allegations until proven or dismissed. The defendants have a right to their day in court, and we may all be pleasantly surprised if the case turns out to have some redeeming value, perhaps some "wonderful life" playbill that just needed more time to reach a good conclusion, rather than the ugly mess of the present scandal's appearance of self-dealing schemes to get rich on money that should have gone to help educate children with disabilities.

Without commenting on individual guilt or innocence, there are already some very clear lessons emerging from the Options scandal -- lessons that make me sigh and wonder, "What's wrong with people? Don't they read newspapers? Haven't we seen this movie before?" The case is so very sad, but the fact that the protagonists appear to have believed that their financial manipulations would not become public is what is most astonishing.

Lesson #1: How will it read on the front page of the Washington Post? Really, folks, isn't this the first lesson they teach in media class for new executives? Even if your own moral compass is so badly damaged that you might be tempted by some shenanigans, can't basic common sense be your guide?

Lesson #2: "Everybody else does it" is a really, really bad defense. Really. In the most recent story about the Options case -- simply put, a case in which the school leaders allegedly created a shell for-profit corporation with themselves as owners and shareholders, and through which they ran the public monies (including Medicaid payments) intended to educate children with disabilities -- one of the lawyers is quoted in the Washington Post as saying,

"These related-party transactions between for-profit management companies and the nonprofit public charter schools are not only appropriate and lawful, but the same arrangements exist with several other public charter schools..."

Oh, dear. If that's the case, then the entire charter school industry should be shuttered immediately for a lack of common sense, if nothing else. C'mon, folks, this is Ethics 101. I've been a school leader at the university level for 25 years. We have very strict rules against related party transactions. This is not rocket science. It's so simple even a lawyer should be able to figure it out. Seriously!

Lesson #3: Getting personally rich off the education of children with disabilities stinks. Really stinks! Whether the protagonists are guilty or not, whether they committed any real crimes or not, the optics are just so awful as to cause reasonable people to turn away in disgust. And are memories so short that nobody involved at Options remembers the case of former Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr., now in prison for taking money from programs intended for kids?

Every bad news story about education today is not necessarily about the struggle over school reform, but there is an element in the Options case that bears consideration. Over the years, I've heard so many corporate executives who fancy themselves school reform leaders say that we must pay top dollar to get great principals into our schools. In the corporate model, the size of the salary does supposedly equate to the value of the job, if not the talent in the job.

The corporatization of school leadership positions has skewed the moral perspective of educators to the point that some educators are now all about the money, not the motivation found in helping students to learn. And, by the way, the corporate model has not exactly served our nation all that well when we think about the out-sized compensation of corporate CEO's compared to the plight of the workforce today, particularly the people who are still out of work after the corruption-driven recession.

Charter schools are also the darlings of the corporate school reform crowd, oddly so, since so many charter schools have yet to prove their real worth, and so much of the charter school movement seems like a free-form experiment. Sure, some are terrific, but many are not. The lemming-like rush to embrace charters as an alternative to traditional public schools occurs with a blind eye to the potential pitfalls of self-serving entrepreneurs.

My heart aches for the children and families of the Options Charter School who put their faith in people who have apparently let them down; now it seems that they will lose their school entirely.

Maybe the results will be different, but reading the complaint today, my head hurt from shaking it so much as I turned the pages and actually said out loud, "What were they thinking?" Apparently, they were not thinking about the children who should have been their first and only concern.