News Story

Detroit Had More Corruption in One Day Than John Oliver Found in Charter Schools Over 10 Years

Comedian's segment ignored rampant problems in traditional public schools

A national talk show comedian's 18-minute takedown of the nationwide charter school movement concluded the schools have been allowed to “run wild,” based in part on financial scandals.

The segment from HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver was applauded by the Washington Post, Rolling Stone and many other news outlets.

But critics of Oliver’s pseudo-serious tirade say he cherry picked incidents from around the country – some as far back as 2000 – to portray a charter school movement with little or no oversight.

At one point Oliver talks about a charter school in Philadelphia that was under new leadership because it’s former CEO had pled guilty to fraud.

“You can say, ‘That’s an isolated incident,’ ” Oliver said. “But it isn’t. In Philadelphia alone, at least 10 executives or top administrators have pled guilty in the last decade to charges like fraud, misusing funds, and obstruction of justice.”

Oliver’s critics say it’s not hard to find similar stories involving conventional public school districts.

"It would also be reasonable for your team to report on the ineptitude, corruption and self-dealing that takes place in public schools that operate under the district governance and finance model," said Jack McCarthy, president and CEO of Appletree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington D.C., in a press release. "That is, after all, what led to the creation of charter schools in the first place."

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said Oliver displayed “the ultimate in cherry picking.”

“What John Oliver has uncovered in financial irregularities across the entire nation for the last decade pales in comparison to what we’ve seen in Detroit in the last 12 months alone,” Naeyaert said. 

In fact, in a single day Detroit Public Schools outdid Oliver’s example of Philadelphia charter school improprieties spread over a 10 year period.

On March 29, 2016, the U.S. Attorney filed criminal charges against 13 individuals affiliated with Detroit Public Schools, including a dozen principals and an assistant superintendent.

A few months later, Detroit Public School’s former grant-development director Carolyn Starkey Darden pled guilty to charges that her companies billed the school district for $1.275 million over seven years for tutoring services that never occurred. 

Consider this list of improprieties committed by conventional public school officials that were in the news in just one state over just eight months – Michigan in 2016:

Former Dexter Community Schools IT Director Brian Scott Tungl stole more than $300,000 from the district and was sentenced to six months in jail.

Former Jackson Public School middle school principal Kelly Gilliam-Pennington was charged with embezzlement of $20,000 to $50,000.

Former Superintendent of Dryden Community Schools Thomas Goulette has been charged with two bank robberies.

Oliver went back as far as 2000 to find reports of charter school misdeeds for his comic rant.

In Michigan, in 2014, former president of Highland Park School Board Member Robert Davis was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing school funds. The FBI said that from 2007 through 2010 he used his position to get school district checks cut to companies controlled by associates, which in turn gave $200,000 to another entity he controlled called Citizens United to Save Highland Park Schools. Davis then used those funds for personal expenses. 

Even one of the largest school districts in Michigan acknowledges that fraud in conventional public schools has become a concern.

Chippewa Valley Schools in Macomb County has set up a “fraud hotline” where parents can report anonymously any activities that may be “criminal, unethical or otherwise inappropriate behavior relating to financial reporting, fraud, misappropriation of assets, or other issues.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.