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Why the Connecticut charter school program is reeling from scandal

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Children read books in a classroom at a charter school. A charter school in Connecticut is coming under fire for a lack of oversight for students.

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A long-standing critique of the charter school movement nationally is that the schools lack oversight. A recent push to expand charters in Connecticut is now under fire after the leader of one major charter was found to have fudged his past.

The man who led the successful Jumoke Academy charter program resigned last month after it was revealed that he had both falsified his academic credentials and hidden his past as a convicted felon who served time for embezzlement, the Hartford Courant reported.

For years, Michael Sharpe referred to himself as "Dr." and let it be understood that he had earned his doctorate at New York University.

More serious, the Courant noted in another report, was Sharpe's criminal past:

"But on Wednesday, city and state school officials said they had been unaware of Sharpe's criminal history, including his 1989 guilty pleas in a federal corruption case in California. Sharpe pleaded guilty to charges of embezzling more than $100,000 and conspiring to defraud California's Bay Area Rapid Transit District, or BART, where he had been a real estate manager. He served 2 1/2 years of a five-year sentence, and later returned to prison in the early 1990s after a finding that he violated probation."

After working with Jumoke for over a decade, in 2012 Sharpe helped found Family Urban Schools of Excellence, a management group that was soon working not only with several charters but also managing turnaround programs in noncharter schools. Jumoke was reportedly paid $180,000 for his role with FUSE.

The controversy comes at a critical moment for charter schools, the Connecticut Mirror notes. In adjacent New York, the new mayor, Bill DiBlasio, is at odds with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over charters, and the issue has split Democratic leadership in Connecticut as well.

Jennifer Alexander, CEO of pro-charter group ConnCAN, told the Mirror that she thought an examination of charter polices was in order.

"I think it is an important moment that signals a need to revisit and update Connecticut's charter law so that it keeps pace with best practices nationally, including clarity around areas of accountability and transparency — but, I think, also flexibility and funding," Alexander said to the Mirror.

Some have accused the state of expanding charters too quickly, but Gov. Dannel Malloy disagrees, according to the New Haven Independent. The state created no new charters from 2008 to 2012, but in the past two years it created seven.

This growth is hardly unmanageable, Malloy argues.

"Let’s concentrate for a second,” he said. "Out of 1,151 public schools across the state, 18 are charters," according to the Independent. “No one’s going terribly fast” in expanding charters in Connecticut, Malloy said.

Charters educate just 1.3 percent of students in Connecticut, the Independent notes. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national average is now 4.2 percent.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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