The case of QEA and unaccountable charter schools

| January 30, 2013

ChrisFitzsimonby Chris Fitzsimon

Three Serbian students at a North Carolina basketball powerhouse disguised as a high school were desperate in January of 2010, as school officials were reclassifying them without their permission from seniors to juniors to keep them on campus and on the team.

The students wanted to leave and were ready to graduate and head to college. They were attending the school on a scholarship but had each paid $4,000 to a shady nonprofit run by the school’s basketball coach, a man who had served prison time less than ten years before for robbery.

It sounds like a troubling story in an ESPN documentary about the sleazy side of big-time college sports and the high school basketball factories that churn through players looking for one that can make money for well-connected agents and the colleges themselves.

But this wasn’t a private prep school well known for its role in the basketball world. It was a public charter school in Winston-Salem, Quality Education Academy (QEA), supported by taxpayer dollars and the email plea the students made was sent to officials at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The school is still in operation three years later, still paying big time basketball, and still pulling in millions of dollars of public money as a charter school.

The plight of the Serbian students is just one of the revelations in an investigative report about QEA by Sarah Ovaska of N.C. Policy Watch.

North Carolina law says charter schools cannot charge tuition but state education officials amazingly told Ovaska that they aren’t sure if that applies to out-of-state students.

The report finds that two-thirds of the players on QEA’s basketball team since 2008 came from other states or other countries including Nigeria, Canada and Serbia.

Simon Johnson, the school’s CEO, said the students were charged tuition but said he didn’t know how much. He also claimed that no taxpayer money was spent on the basketball program but apparently the school doesn’t keep a separate athletics budget.

And of course, the teachers, supplies, and overhead for the school are paid for by public funding.

Some of the students live in a house that Johnson owns, though he first denied knowing where any of the basketball players lived. The mother of a former player said her son lived in a house near the school with other teenage students without adult supervision and attended only one or two classes a semester.

The nonprofit run by basketball coach Isaac Pitts that the Serbian players were required to give $4,000 to has since had its nonprofit status revoked by the IRS.

The more you learn about QEA’s basketball operations funded by taxpayer dollars, the more troubling it becomes. But that’s not the only worrisome aspect of what was uncovered by the NC Policy Watch investigation.

State education officials have known about the problems with QEA since at least 2010 when the email was received. DPI sent a consultant to investigate and demanded answers about the international students but never followed up with the school.

DPI officials now say they will send an auditor to QEA as a result of the questions raised by Ovaska’s investigation. It seems like the least they can do in this case, but how many more charter schools are operating in questionable ways?

DPI likely does not know. There are currently 107 charters in North Carolina. Until recently there were only three full time employees in the Office of Charter Schools overseeing them.

The State Board of Education recently approved 25 more charters for next year and has received letters of intent from another 156 groups who will be seeking approval to start a school.

Republican legislative leaders and some charter school advocates are pushing for even less regulation of the schools and are likely to seek legislation this session to relax the already lenient rules despite the lack of oversight.

Meanwhile, your money is still paying for the QEA basketball machine as the increasingly unaccountable charter school explosion in North Carolina continues.

If you don’t believe there are accountability problems with the current charter school system, consider this. One of the charters approved last year by the state board to open next fall is a new school in Guilford that will be run by none other than Simon Johnson of QEA.

Whatever you think of charters and certainly some are doing a good job, the QEA experience is clear evidence that North Carolina is not ready for another 150 charter schools.

We don’t simply don’t have the capacity or the political will to effectively oversee them and make sure they are being run appropriately.

A simple plaintive email from three kids from Serbia is proof enough of that.

Chris Fitzsimon is Director of NC Policy Watch and an NC Spin Panelist

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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