Democratic lawmakers call for more oversight of charter schools after FBI raid

Democratic lawmakers peppered state schools Superintendent Steve Canavero with questions this afternoon after one of the applicants to the state’s charter school program was raided by federal authorities in California.

The lawmakers sought to understand how the Board of Education had conditionally approved Celerity Educational Group as one of three charter operators in the state in light of a Los Angeles Times article published late Wednesday night, which revealed that the school had been raided by federal agents as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of fraud and fiscal mismanagement.

Canavero said that the vetting process included a thorough financial review of the nonprofit’s finances and that there hadn’t been “any indication that there was a concern with regard to the organization.” He said that as soon as Deputy Superintendent Brett Barley was made aware of the Times article late Wednesday night, Celerity’s conditional status was revoked and the so-called “harbormaster” group, which is in charge of recruiting the charter operators to Nevada pulled its endorsement of the school.

A Celerity spokesperson did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

Democratic lawmakers concerns about Celerity came amid a discussion of the harbormaster contract, awarded to Allison Serafin’s nonprofit Opportunity 180, at the Interim Finance Committee late Thursday afternoon.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford described the Celerity raid as a “step back” for charter schools and urged that the state pump its breaks on the process.

“I know some folks think that it’s because people are afraid of change, but there was a gut feeling that many people had about this process,” Ford said. “I think this kind of confirms that we need to slow our roll.”

Democrats have by and large opposed the creation of a so-called “Achievement School District,” which allows the state to turn over leadership of struggling public schools to charter companies. Two other groups were awarded contracts to operate achievement schools while Celerity received conditional approval provided it met certain conditions.

As a counterpoint, Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards noted that Celerity had only been conditionally approved and that the charter school review process had rejected seven applicants the state felt did meet its requirements.

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton said that the state needs to be doing more work on the front end to look into these companies, whether it’s on the financial side, the audit side or “just not taking somebody else’s word for it and doing it ourselves.” She voiced her displeasure that federal authorities picked up on something that the state’s review process missed.

“Apparently they did figure it out,” Carlton said. “So we need to figure out what they did so we can do it.”

Canavero acknowledged that there are “critical” questions for the charter school review team to answer.

“These things are unfortunate and never positive,” Canavero said. “But we took fairly swift and decisive action last night.”