Colorado charter school gone bad

Everybody loves charter schools these days, from the Gates Foundation to researchers.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan likes charter schools so much he has made them a cornerstone of his education reform plan, requiring schools to lift caps on charter schools, making them eligible for his $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” contest. To date, seven states, including Colorado, have lifted restrictions so they can compete for the money.

Charter schools have been a huge boost to U.S. education reform. So what happens when a charter school goes bad? That scenario has been playing out this year at Colorado’s Cesar Chavez Schools network. The network, which educates over 2,500 students  in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and online is, to put it mildly, having a bad year.

Let’s recap.

May 28: Colorado Education News reporter Nancy Mitchell reports that founder Lawrence Hernandez received 53 percent pay increase in three years, from $171,466 in 2005 to $261,732.

July 2: Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones orders an investigation into testing practices after former superintendent John Covington allegedly pleads with him to investigate.

July 10:  Mitchell reports that over half the students at Cesar Chavez schools receive testing accommodations.

August 3:  Mitchell publishes a stunning investigation into the Chavez schools. In addition to finding concerns about the school’s finances and testing practices, she notes that Hernandez has initiated a dozen legal actions in eight years—against former teachers, former board members, and the state of Colorado, among others.

September 21: After the Colorado Charter School Institute directs the network to set up a separate board for Cesar Chavez Academy North and the Guided Online Academic Learning (GOAL) Academy, chaos erupts, according to the Pueblo Chieftan. The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that Hernandez orders the locks changed at GOAL Academy’s computer labs, locks teachers out of the online network, and fires two administrators. When an administrator refuses to give him student information, he allegedly takes it by force.

September 22: The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that GOAL Academy staff were told by Cesar Chavez officials that they must sign a loyalty oath at 4:30 p.m. or the network would assume they had resigned.

September 23:  Commissioner Jones releases a statement expressing concern about rumors that GOAL Academy student records may have been destroyed. He reminds administrators that destruction of student records is a violation of state and federal law.

September 24:  Hernandez, his wife and another top administrator are placed on paid leave by the Cesar Chavez Network’s board president. Informed by letter, the couple refuse to leave school grounds until the police arrive.

September 25:  A Pueblo judge issues a restraining order against Hernandez and six others.

Sure, greed, cheating and misconduct seem to be the hallmarks of 2009. But there are 2,500 kids involved here, not to mention their teachers. If we’re going to be increasingly reliant on charter schools, we have to be able to weed out the bad ones early, just like we do with public schools.

Kudos to the Department of Education for launching an investigation into the network. And if you find misconduct? Look next into why you didn’t catch this sooner.

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