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The Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation (GEO): Indiana, Have You Hugged Your Charter School Operator Today?

When Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced he was closing the Fountain Square Academy charter school last month because of low performance, he focused the blame solely on the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education less than a year ago.

The GEO Foundation is hoping to play big in the charter school movement, operating two other schools in Indiana, one in Colorado, and two new ones opening in the fall in both Gary and South Bend. Like most educational privatizers, its name sounds friendly and its websites display happy, good-looking school children. Yet if one looks deeper into the non-profit management company, a darker picture emerges. With a CEO with a rightwing background, trouble in their schools in two different states, and a string of cronyism tied directly to Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, the GEO Foundation needs to be closely monitored if it intends to continue operating charters, and I’m not holding my breath.

Since 2006, GEO’s 21st Century Charter School has been in trouble in Gary , when parents first organized a class boycott, complaining the school had no nurse, was teaching basic math in upper level courses, and teachers were using extreme punishing techniques on students. Two teachers were suspended for a week for hitting students with drumsticks and touching them inappropriately. Even worse, the following week of that May boycott, one teacher’s aide was arrested for choking a student with a trash bag in February of that year in a social studies class until the 12-year-old boy turned red and couldn’t breathe. More recently, the state Board of Accounts has cited the Gary school for sloppy financial record keeping and poor management.

Similar problems have been documented at GEO’s Pikes Peak Prep School, which is under the radar of the Colorado Department of Education. A June 30, 2009 audit done by John Cutler & Associates found that although the school is required to pay GEO 100% of all the $1,604,230 in state and federal funds for students enrolled, the school was unable to fulfill its contract because of budgetary shortfalls and still owned GEO $349,159. In October 2010, while placing the Charter School Institute which oversees Colorado charters on a priority improvement plan, the CDE stressed that the school had a $551, 659 deficit and failed to include an analysis of financial statements in its reports to the department. Since the school also pays GEO an administrative fee (as schools often do to management companies), this adds to the school’s financial troubles. Although scant information appears online, World Law Direct claims that in June 2010 the school and the GEO Foundation were being sued and further investigated for a hostile work environment, wrongful staff termination, fraud, and misuse of funds.

Kevin Teasley’s History

If we peer into GEO Foundation CEO’s history, we get a hint at the group’s mindset. As a former member of the Heritage Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Reagan Office of Public Liaison, and other rightwing groups, Kevin Teasley has been a figure in the voucher/charter movement in several states from the get-go.

While at the Reason Foundation in California, Teasley was associated with the voucher group Excellence Through Choice-in-Education League (EXCEL), which was funded by Indiana’s own Dan Quayle, William Bennett (who once desired to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and has recently radio-interviewed the very proud Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett), and Milton Friedman (whose Foundation for Educational Choice is in Indianapolis now), a group which then-California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said was attempting to use taxpayer money to breed “cult schools.” The voucher measure, on the November 1992 ballot, did not pass.

In Wisconsin, with board member Walmart’s John Walton (who now funds GEO), Teasley ran the voucher front group the American Education Reform Council (sometimes referred to as the American Education Reform Foundation) before coming to Indiana. Funded by the Walton Family and the Bradley Foundation, AERC was very active in the turn-of-the-century voucher campaigns in Colorado and other states. As People for the American Way noted in an in-depth study entitled “Community Voice or Captive of the Right? A Closer Look at the Black Alliance for Educational Options,” in 1997 Teasley—then AERF president— and Hoosier J. Patrick Rooney (who started the Indiana CHOICE voucher group in 1989 or 1990, which is still active) were investigated by the Wisconsin election board for working with Mark Block, the campaign manager for the re-election of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. Wilcox was pro-voucher and it was essential to re-elect him to continue the Milwaukee voucher program. Although Teasley and AERF were found not to be in election law violation, Teasley supposedly raised over $10,000 for Wilcox’s campaign after he wrote letters to voucher backers. Wilcox won, but he and Mark Block (who now directs the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin) were both fined for illegally coordinating a get-out-the-vote effort.

By the time Democratic Mayor of Indianapolis, Bart Peterson (now with the Mind Trust), was elected with his pro-charter agenda in 1999, Teasley was already revving up GEO in Indiana.

GEO Team Players

Working with Teasley at GEO is Tom Zupancic, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Indianapolis Colts. Zupancic also serves on the boards of the 21st Century Charter School, Fountain Square Charter School, and the Board of Trustees for the University of Indianapolis. As a motivational speaker making hundreds of appearances yearly and selling the Colts, Zupancic is good at getting across the message he wants shared and passed on. Zupancic has even gotten Mike Doss of the Colts to pose with school children to promote the charters in Indiana.

Former Domestic-Policy Adviser to Dick Cheney and implementer of No Child Left Behind for the Bush U.S. Department of Education, Nina Rees also helps run GEO. If this were not enough to set off sirens, Rees also is Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and is responsible for early-childhood education and after-school tutoring for Knowledge Universe, a global education company with 3,700 education locations, 40,000 teachers, and a network of online schools and colleges. Knowledge Universe is chaired by Mike Milken (who served two years for 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud) of the Milken economic think tank. Milken’s plan to privatize and decimate public education is brilliantly laid out by Kenneth J. Saltman in the essay “Michael Milken and the Coporate Raid on Education.” Rees does not hold a degree in education or a Ph.D.

Although he has lavished Mitch Daniels, Tony Bennett, and Indiana Republican Brian Bosma with campaign money, Rollin M. Dick (GEO Chairman and currently of MH Equity Investors) is best known for his involvement with Conseco. As chief financial official for Conseco, Dick along with CEO Steven C. Hilbert resigned in 2000 after the insurance investor went into bankruptcy and handed out $95 million to buy the name of Conseco Fieldhouse, the stadium of the Indianapolis Pacers (a $33.5 million taxpayer funded deal was recently reached to keep the Pacers in town). Dick, too, is active with other groups in the so-called school reform movement in Indiana, sitting on the Board of Trustees at Butler University, the 21st Century Charter School, and Tech Point Foundation. At Tech Point, he works with Ron Brumbarger (who is Founding Chairman/CEO of Indiana Virtual Charter School and involved with Hoosier Academy Muncie, Hoosier Academy Indianapolis (both charters), and Governor Daniels’ Education Technology Commission.

The Future’s Uncertain and the End is Not Always Near

Word is GEO is approaching Ball State to sponsor the closing Foundation Square Academy. With the money and pull behind GEO (Forbes noted Eli Lilly, the Walton Family, the Friedman Foundation, and charter operator Christel DeHaan, among others, as funders), Ball State probably will grant the wish, as they did when Dennis Bakke’s Imagine Schools were shut down by Mayor Bart Peterson, Imagine’s financial dealings being so shady that even the “Peyton Manning of Charter Schools” couldn’t afford taking the risk.

It is also fitting that Steve Hatz is a board member at the new GEO Foundation charter school, the South Bend Career Academy, opening in South Bend this fall for middle and (at a later date) high school students. Although Hatz also legitimately receives (and is qualified to) Workforce One money from the Indiana government to train out of work laborers, his role in the public schools in South Bend is questionable.

In October 2009, Hatz—along with British company Cambridge Education and a member of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County—crafted reports for the Indiana Department of Education to use for turnarounds for three South Bend high schools the state has threatened to take over because of low ISTEP test scores. Then, 10 teachers at Washington and Riley high schools complained the evaluation group was harassing students in the hallways. For his response, Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett has accused the schools of not staying in touch with his office. This March, Bennett sent another IDOE team back to the schools for another evaluation, and it looks like a final decision on whether or not to close the schools rests on this year’s ISTEP results.

No doubt about it—Tony Bennett is 100% for the GEO Foundation. Not only did Tony Bennett help raise money for GEO’s early college programs by charging $100 to eat with him in 2009, he already follows the group’s soon-to-be-opened new school on Twitter, along with four other people, all so-called school reformers.

Doug Martin

Doug Martin

Doug Martin is a Walt Whitman scholar, poet, fiction writer, editor, musician (the Delicious Militia), and teacher.