27 January 2016

Business as Usual in the Charter School Industry

The man at the center of dozens of charter school deals in southern California has been arraigned for corruption and self-dealing:
By the time Steve Van Zant left the Mountain Empire Unified School District in 2013, he had overseen the authorization of more than a dozen charter schools to operate in other districts throughout San Diego County — with several going on to hire his education consulting firm.

All the while, Van Zant coached at least one other district on how to approve out-of-town charters, according to emails obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune. As more districts approved far-flung charters, Van Zant’s EdHive consultant business took on some of the schools as clients.

The San Diego district attorney’s office arraigned Van Zant on Jan. 15 on a felony conflict-of-interest charge from an undisclosed incident in May 2010 while he was superintendent of Mountain Empire.

The district attorney’s office declined to disclose details of its investigation, and it is unclear whether the charge relates to his work with charter schools. According to the criminal complaint, Van Zant violated laws that prohibited him “from being financially interested in contracts made by him in his official capacity.”

The Union-Tribune has tracked a charter empire built by Van Zant by taking advantage of what some call a shortcoming in state law that gives districts a financial incentive to place charters in other school districts. By placing charters outside its boundaries, a district can raise new funds — up to 3 percent of a charter’s revenue — without any threat to enrollment or state attendance funds.

More than 80 out-of-district charters have been approved in San Diego County, the vast majority of which were authorized by small East County districts — several with help from Van Zant, who includes a list of charter clients on his LinkedIn professional network profile.


When Van Zant accepted the job in 2013 as superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, he was positioned to devote even more time growing his consulting business. He would commute from his Mission Bay home for the three-day-a-week position in Northern California with a starting salary of $165,000 and still run EdHive, which recently opened an office in Symphony Towers in downtown San Diego.

The EdHive website says it can “find an authorizing district for your charter and cut a deal that provides the financial incentive for the district and still save your school money” among services such as negotiating leases and setting salaries.


Van Zant has been placed on indefinite paid leave in Sausalito. He was seen leaving EdHive’s Symphony Towers office Friday.
There are way too many stories like this.

I know that there is an opportunity for corruption in schools of any sort, as there is with any sort of public funds, but the degree to which charter schools are a petri dish for corruption strongly implies that this is a feature of the system, not a bug.


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