It’s Time to Close the American Indian Public Charter Schools



For the past decade Ben Chavis and his so-called American Indian Public Charter schools in Oakland have gotten away with egregious conduct that would be considered grossly unacceptable for any other school — because they have had high test scores. First, there was the revelation that Chavis routinely abused his students verbally, humiliating them in front of their classmates, to force them score higher on tests or quit the school altogether. Then came the news that Chavis had hurled racist and sexist comments at others in front of students, and that his schools had stopped serving American Indian children.

Ben Chavis
  • Ben Chavis
But that’s not all. Earlier this year, a draft reportt by state auditors uncovered evidence that Chavis had engaged in fraud and was illegally pocketing taxpayer funds. Then last week, the Express reported that one of the schools' eye-popping test scores appear to be the product not of academic excellence. Instead, there's evidence that the school has been routinely cherry-picking top students from local elementary schools in violation of district regulations. At minimum, Chavis’ schools appear to be nothing more than a rigged system in which mostly high-scoring students apply to get in, are accepted, and then continue to score well on tests.

Then, the state’s final audit came out and revealed some truly disturbing evidence, including $350,000 of what appear to be improper payouts to Chavis' wife; $355,000 in payments to Chavis for a summer school program that violated state law; and $348,000 to companies that Chavis owns and did unauthorized construction projects.

Alameda County schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan requested the audit after receiving complaints from former school employees of financial impropriety by Chavis and his wife. Jordan has turned the final audit results over to Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.

Although the final audit is damning, the Oakland school board has known about Chavis’ misconduct for years and yet has repeatedly voted to renew his charter school licenses and extend them. In April, after the draft audit report came out, and Oakland schools Superintendent Tony Smith recommended strongly that the board deny the charter renewal request for American Indian Public Charter School II, a majority of school board members — Noel Gallo, Alice Spearman, Chris Dobbins, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge — voted nonetheless to renew it. Gallo and Spearman, longtime supporters of the school, led the charge in its behalf, touting the same justification that they have used for years — outstanding test scores.

In other words, for Gallo, Spearman, Dobbins, and Hinton Hodge, it doesn’t matter whether a school leader verbally abuses kids, hurls racial and sexist epithets, and appears to engage in fraud and as long his schools do exceptionally well on state tests. It also doesn't matter to Newsweek: The magazine ranked American Indian Public Charter High School as the 32nd best in the nation earlier this year. Indeed, the entire story of Chavis and American Indian Public Charter schools represents the prime example of our society’s extreme overemphasis on standardized testing — that high test scores trump everything else, including honesty, student dignity, and teaching kids that bigotry is wrong.

They’re not. And it’s way past time for Gallo, Spearman, Dobbins, and Hinton Hodge to recognize that fact and do what’s right: revoke American Indian Public charter schools’ licenses.