Charter school founder jailed for pocketing millions

Founder of Los Angeles-based charter schools sentenced to 30 months in prison for misappropriating millions in taxpayer money

The founder of California-based charter school network Celerity Educational Group has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for siphoning off $3.2 million in public funds amid growing complaints from educational experts over mushrooming charter schools in the U.S.

Vielka McFarlane pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to misappropriate and embezzle funds for personal use and was ordered Monday to pay restitution of over $225,000 within 60 days.

According to the Los Angeles Times, McFarlane used her charter schools’ credit card to shop for expensive clothing, luxury hotel stays and first-class flights.

McFarlane’s case has provided ammunition to American education experts who have long been grilling Betsy DeVos, secretary of education under the Trump administration, for her support of the Charter School Program (CSP).

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated to a large extent by for-profit companies with minimal oversight.

Opponents of charter schools say privatizing the education industry would be catastrophic for the future of the U.S.

Proponents, usually billionaires who invest in education for monetary interests, say they are not different from public schools.

Another charter school executive, Soner Tarim of Harmony Public Schools in Texas, who is also CEO of Unity School Services (USS) which operates the 260-student charter Woodland Prep in rural Alabama, was under fire for being the "highest paid man” in Washington County with an annual income of over $300,000 at a time when seasoned NASA astronauts could only earn $144,566 a year.

Tarim is also a member of a designated terror group in Turkey, the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which is responsible for killing 251 people and wounding more than 2,000 others during a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

The US-based ringleader of FETO -- billionaire Fetullah Gulen, who views education as a lucrative industry to raise money for his illegal activities -- oversees the operation of more than 150 charter schools across the U.S.

Officials "asleep at the wheel"

The Network For Public Education (NPE), a New York-based educational advocacy group, accused officials of being "asleep at the wheel" in its latest report in April, drawing attention to a list of such irregularities and fraud over years.

The NPE’s report -- Asleep At The Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride -- shared the results of a two-month-long examination of the CSP, whose funding has grown to over $4 billion annually.

"Our investigation found a troubling pattern of insufficient applicant review, contradictions between information provided by applicants and available public data, the gifting of funds to schools with inadequate financial and governance plans, a push-out of large grants to the states with little supervision by the department, and the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars," said the summary of the 40-page report.

The poor credentials of charter schools across the U.S. and misuse of funds by their executives gained national attention when 14 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to DeVos last week to express deep concern over the lack of oversight of the CSP.

Democrat congresswomen and congressmen drew attention to the NPE’s report, which explained in detail how “hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down”.

They went on in their criticism of the CSP by providing the results of an analysis of data from 2006-2014, which "indicates that nearly one out of three CSP grant awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015".

Recently, the House Appropriations Committee also disappointed the multi-billion-dollar charter industry by cutting DeVos’s budget request from $500 million to $400 million in the wake of increasing public anger.

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