A new charter school is coming to New Haven — but the creation of Booker T. Washington Academy is not without controversy. The expansion of publicly funded, privately operated charter schools is a growing topic of national debate. And this particular one is controversial because it was created under dubious leadership and with little oversight.
The issue is especially relevant as November’s gubernatorial elections approach. Governor Dan Malloy, up for re-election, is a supporter of the charter school movement and has financial connections to both the Achievement First charter school organization and ConnCAN, a charter school advocacy group. Malloy was even challenged by Jon Pelto, a third-party candidate on the left, in large part due to his unwavering support of charter schools.
In the wake of a recent scandal involving BTWA and its initial charter partner company, it is evident that we need to re-evaluate the expansion of charter schools across the state.
BTWA, an elementary charter school in Newhallville, was initially supposed to be run by Michael Sharpe, the ex-CEO of Jumoke Academy charter school in Hartford. Its creation was approved partially on the assumption that the school would have a relationship with Jumoke.
But a state investigation in June revealed that Sharpe had both a hidden criminal record and falsified academic credentials. In 1989, Sharpe was given a five-year prison sentence for embezzling over $100,000 and conspiring to defraud California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District. After violating his probation, Sharpe was forced to return to prison. He also repeatedly claimed in school materials and legislative testimonies that he received a Ph.D. from New York University, a degree that turned out to be entirely fictitious.
These revelations forced Sharpe to resign as CEO of Jumoke and he was dropped from the BTWA project. Still, the BTWA team chose to proceed with John Taylor as its new director. The school was not required to re-submit a full new application, even though I think the old application should have been rendered invalid. A full application would have called for a public hearing; instead, the modified application was presented directly to the State Board and approved.
Previously, Taylor ran Green Tech High School, a charter school located in Albany. The school performed shockingly poorly under his leadership, posting a four-year graduation rate of 36 percent and a 29 percent pass rate of the English Language Arts Regents exam. When a State Board member brought up these statistics, Taylor outright denied them, even though they are easily accessible online through the New York State Education Department.
Connecticut needs to make changes to its current education policies. Charter schools should face a more rigorous application process, and the state should be making a more serious effort to investigate school administrators. There should also be investigation into charter school contracting decisions.
Finally, we should all be seriously evaluating the connections between politicians and charter school operators and advocates. Are politicians choosing to massively expand the number of charter schools in their districts because they genuinely believe they are improving public education, or is it because they’re getting financial kickbacks? Governor Malloy has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from those in the charter school industry and that should be scrutinized.
The numerous issues around charters are gaining attention nationwide. Given the recent BTWA controversy, New Haven should seriously consider setting a new precedent by changing the policies and politics of its charter schools.
Diana Rosen is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Aug. 31, 2014
This column has been revised to remove information upon which the columnist relied that was obtained from opinion columns published by other Connecticut news organizations. The revisions occurred following the receipt of additional information concerning the BTWA contracting process.
The News regrets publishing misinformed and incomplete statements about individuals formerly mentioned in this column.