John Oliver Breaks Down the Shocking Mismanagement of America's Charter Schools

John Oliver
Charter schools are some of the most mismanaged taxpayer-funded agencies in the country. YouTube

Most people agree that charter schools are good. Even politicians. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and, yes, Donald Trump have spoken in support of the publicly funded, privately operated educational institutions. Because both Democrats and Republicans support charter schools, charter schools get a lot of government money. On Sunday night's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver decided to investigate just how well these schools are spending the loads of government cash they've access to. "For this piece, and I know this is going to make some people on both sides very angry, we're going to set aside whether charter schools are a good idea in principle…and look at how they operate in practice," Oliver said. What the Last Week Tonight team found was a shocking amount of fraud and mismanagement at the expense of the future of the nation's children.

School Closures

There are over 6,700 charter schools in the United States educating 3 million students. A 2013 study found that "charter school quality is uneven across the states and across schools." As Oliver says, this is putting it mildly. In some states, not only are charter schools not putting poverty-stricken children on a track to college, they aren't even putting them on a track to the next grade. In 2014, the Naples Daily News found that 119 Florida charter school had closed since 2008, and that 14 of these closures happened before the school could even make it through a single year.

How in the hell is this possible? How can a school even open its doors if it is so ill-prepared? Yes, there is a lengthy application process, but Oliver pointed out one man who founded a charter school in Florida that essentially plagiarized portions of his application from a previous application. In many cases, people want to open charter schools because the government will give money to charter schools—around $7,000 per enrollment, to be exact. That money is routinely mismanaged, though, or even embezzled.

Education Is a Business

Let's move to Ohio to take a look at how badly some of this government money is being mismanaged. The state has around 360 charter schools, and an audit found that these school misspent public funding almost four times more often than other publicly funded agencies. As is often the case when money is being rerouted or mismanaged, this is largely due to lack of oversight. That and people trying to take advantage of loopholes for personal gain.

Charter schools are nonprofit institutions, but they can hire a private Educational Management Organization to run their operations. In Ohio, several charters hired an EMO called White Hat Management, to which they gave 95 percent of the funding the received from the government. Being a private company, White Hat was not forced to disclose how the money was spent. It wasn't spent well. In 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal found that White Hat ran 32 of the lowest-performing charter schools in the state. "Education is first, last and always a business," White Hat founder David Brennan said in 2000. "If it's run like a business, it can be done properly."


Some charter school founders don't even go to the trouble of routing government money through an EMO or an often incompetent "authorizer" with dubious motivations. The Florida charter school founder who plagiarized his application was also accused of spending funds meant for students on himself. In Philadelphia, at least 10 administrators have pleaded guilty to fraud-related chargers in the past 10 years. One Philadelphia charter school was using its cafeteria as an unlicensed club at night. The same year it was busted for doing so, it received $5 million in government funding. The school's CEO pleaded guilty to embezzling $80,000. In 2015, an Ohio superintendent spent money meant for her school on jewelry, spa days, vacations and more, and then tried to justify it by saying that she needed to experience all that life had to offer so that she could allow her students to do the same. She even quoted Proverbs.

The list of such cases goes on. An influx of cash, sadly, means people trying to take advantage of said influx of cash, even in education.

Online Charters

The lack of oversight of brick-and-mortar charters is nothing compared with the "Wild West" of online charters, which serve 180,000 students and bring in $1 billion in taxpayer money. Studies have found, however, that children may not be learning anything at all from cyberschool. Most schools have extremely loose online attendance standards so that they can tell the state that 100 percent of their students are logging on. In 2015, The Washington Post found that students in online charters lost an average of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math. "It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year," the story read.

There are of course plenty of charter school success stories, but the number of horror stories is unacceptable. Schools are not businesses, and far more is at stake than a profit margin. The charter school model that is currently in place either needs to be done away with completely, or is in drastic need of an overhaul. "The problem with letting the free market decide, when it comes to kids, is that kids change faster than the market," says Oliver. "By the time it's obvious a school has been failing, futures may have been ruined."