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'Just One More Thing' About Falk, TV's 'Columbo'

Peter Falk, who was known for his portrayal of the disheveled and seemingly inept homicide detective Lt. Columbo, died on Thursday at age 83. Fresh Air remembers the actor with excerpts from a 1995 interview.

20:56

Other segments from the episode on June 27, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 27, 2011: Obituary for Peter Falk; Interview with Martha Woodall.

Transcript

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'Just One More Thing' About Falk, TV's 'Columbo'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Peter Falk, who was known around the world for his portrayal of Columbo
in the NBC TV series, died Thursday at the age of 83. We're going to
listen back to an interview with him. Falk also had a movie and stage
career. He was directed by John Cassavetes in "Husbands" and "A Woman
Under the Influence." He won a Tony for his performance in Neil Simon's
Broadway show "Prisoner of Second Avenue."

In his role as Columbo, Falk became synonymous with the word rumpled. On
Google, I found 683,000 results that had both the words Columbo and
rumpled. Columbo was a detective in the L.A. Police Department who
seemed so disorganized, distracted, yet polite, in his rumpled raincoat
that he appeared harmless, but he always solved the murder.

The first time Falk played Columbo was in a 1968 made-for-TV movie
called "Prescription: Murder." Here's a scene from the film with Falk
and Gene Berry.

(Soundbite of film, "Prescription: Murder")

Mr. PETER FALK (Actor): (as Columbo) Well, listen, there's one more
thing. You don't remember what your wife was wearing that night, do you?

Mr. GENE BERRY (Actor): (as Dr. Ray Flemming) Well, Carol had so many
dresses. Is it important?

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Well, yes, in a way, it is.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, let's see now. Why, yes, she was
wearing a blue wool dress with brass buttons, if I'm not mistaken.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, that's what the stewardess
said. She's back in town, by the way, and I spoke to her, and she told
me your wife was wearing a blue wool dress with blue kid gloves.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, then that's probably it.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) That's funny though. If she came home from the
airport, what did she do with the dress and gloves? When we went over to
your apartment last week, we couldn't find them.

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Well, they may have been stolen.

Mr. FALK: (as Lt. Columbo) Yeah, maybe, maybe. Did you put those on the
list of stolen items?

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) Really, Lieutenant, how could you expect me
to notice they were missing?

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Still, it's puzzling when you think about it. I
mean, why would a guy steal a dress and a pair of gloves? What are they
worth?

Mr. BERRY: (as Dr. Flemming) People don't always do the rational thing.

Mr. FALK: (as Columbo) Oh, they sure don't. You learn a lot about that
in my line. Well, I guess you do in yours too.

GROSS: I spoke with Peter Falk in 1995.

What was the part of Columbo like when you first read it?

Mr. FALK: It was very good. It was somebody that I immediately wanted to
play. The basic thrust of a guy appearing less than he actually is, that
was always there. And the - that disarming quality of not ever appearing
formidable was always there.

I think that when we started to make the series, they would often write
scenes that were supposed to be humorous, and those were the ones that
made me very nervous.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. FALK: Because I didn't think they were funny, and they were kind of
cute. And so I would tamper with those all the time to make sure that
they were - that they were funny, that they were humorous, not funny,
and that they were more subtle and more believable.

And the other thing that I guess I insisted upon was that I think that
he is by birth a polite man. But he's also canny. So he's not above
using his politeness. But the fact that he is polite makes it easier for
him to play polite.

And the other thing that used to bother me about the early scripts - not
the early scripts, any of the scripts - was in the final scene, if you
had what actors used to refer to as Moshe(ph), Moshe the Explainer
Scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And that's when the detective, he takes two pages - he talks
for two pages, and he explains everything that happened. And as the
actor, you can hear the people snoring. You know the audience is tuned
out. They're not interested.

So the trick is to have that final scene remain a scene and have the cat
and mouse going back and forth and the audience plus the villain, they
don't know what in the hell this guy's driving at, but they're
interested. You show them just enough to keep them interested, keep them
guessing. What is he going to do? And when you finally nail the guy,
that should be the end of the show. There should be about three lines
after that, and that's it.

It was things like that that - and clues. Clues can't be transparent,
and if they're obvious to the audience, then he's not Sherlock Holmes.

GROSS: I like the way you described Columbo as looking like less than he
actually is. That's something that's easy to identify with. Did you
identify with that?

Mr. FALK: I've always been sloppy, all my life. I never could keep
myself together. And I am, in person, a bit misty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I can't keep an umbrella more than three days. That was when I
used to live in New York. You'd lose it, and I'd lose everything and
frequently walk into walls. So I understood that quality. And I am a
slow thinker, and I am attracted to ambiguity. I'm not somebody that has
black-and-white answers to everything. And that kind of fits in with
Columbo.

So the slowness and the methodicalness and the sloppiness, that was all
very easy for me.

GROSS: And of course I should ask you about the raincoat, Columbo's
raincoat, which I believe you bought.

Mr. FALK: Well, there was a dispute over that because I...

GROSS: What, over who really bought it?

Mr. FALK: No, the dispute - I always said that I read that in the
script, but Lincoln Levinson(ph) said no, it wasn't in the script. But I
seem to remember seeing it in the script. So whatever it is, I did buy
it. I didn't buy it at the time. I had already had it. But I said this
is what I want to wear.

And I knew what I wanted to wear underneath it too. I wanted everything
to be tan and brown all together, a little dash of dull green in the
tie. And that's about as flashy as he got.

And the suit that fit in the least was a seersucker - kind of seersucker
blue and white. So I said dye that. And they dyed it and got out all
that white and whatever the hell it was. I don't remember. But it had to
be dyed. And that became tan. And the shoes were mine too. They were a
pair of shoes I picked up in Italy, I don't know, a long time ago. They
happened to be fairly expensive shoes, handmade shoes, but they were
very comfortable, and they were clunky.

GROSS: And that was important, clunky?

Mr. FALK: Clunky was important, yeah.

GROSS: For that sense of being slightly uncoordinated?

Mr. FALK: I think you always wanted that contrast because the people
that he was going after, they were always...

GROSS: Wealthy.

Mr. FALK: They were always, yes, God's chosen.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: They all have long necks and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And they all could buy suits off the rack, and they fitted
them, and they looked good, and their teeth were white, and they had
dough, and they spoke well. And so clunky shoes were a good contrast.

GROSS: I have one more Columbo question for you. Do you think that your
long association with that character has worked for you, against you,
both in your - in the other part of your career, the part outside of
Columbo?

Mr. FALK: Well, I always say the same thing, Terry.

GROSS: Say it again.

Mr. FALK: I'll say it again. Being known as Columbo, it ain't cancer,
so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I mean I make a lot of dough, and the listeners, you know, I
think it's difficult for the average person to say what is - what is he
complaining about, that he's typecast? Who the hell cares? I mean, he
does make a lot of money and he gets good seats in restaurants. So I
don't feel that that's something that people are really interested in.

But to answer your question, I think arguably I probably would be a
better actor if I hadn't spent so much time playing that one role. I
think that kind of diversity and that kind of challenge - I might be a
better actor. I don't know. I'm not sure. I think probably I would be.
But so what?

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1995 interview with Peter Falk. He died
Thursday at the age of 83. We'll hear more of the interview after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1995 interview with Peter Falk. He died
Thursday at the age of 83. He was known to TV viewers around the world
as Columbo. He also had a stage and film career. Here's a scene from the
1974 film "A Woman Under the Influence," which was directed by John
Cassavetes and starred Falk and Gena Rowlands.

She played a suburban housewife with two children who's having an
emotional breakdown. Falk played her husband, who loves her but is
worried sick about what's happening to her. Here's a scene.

(Soundbite of film, "A Woman Under the Influence")

Mr. FALK: (as Nick Longhetti) You're going to be committed. Go into the
hospital until you get better.

Ms. GENA ROWLANDS (Actor): (as Mabel Longhetti): I'm not sore at you. I
mean, you hit me. You never did that before. (Unintelligible). You feel
bad about it. I always am miffed at you, and you always are miffed with
me, and that was always just how it was, and that's it. Till death do us
part, Nick, you said it. Remember? Do you, Mabel Mortenson(ph), take
this man? I do. I do, Nick. I do. Remember, I said it's going to work
because I'm already pregnant.

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't let that mind run away on you now.

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) Do you remember how you laughed?

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't...

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) You laughed. Do you remember? And he was
(unintelligible).

Mr. FALK: (as Nick) Don't do that.

Ms. ROWLANDS: (as Mabel) Hey, don't be sad. I know you love me.

GROSS: Let me switch gears to another aspect of your acting career. I'm
thinking of the long association you had with the actor and director
John Cassavetes. What struck you as different about his approach to
directing...

Mr. FALK: Everything.

GROSS: ...than what you were used to?

Mr. FALK: Everything. Everything John did was original, everything.
Every bone in his body was original. He was the most fertile man I've
ever met. I'll never meet anyone as fertile as he was.

GROSS: When you improvised with Cassavetes in a movie, what was the
process of improvisation like?

Mr. FALK: There's much less improvisation in his movies than people
think. I could make a lot of money if I would bet somebody, I'd say you
point out the scenes to me that are improvised, and when you're wrong,
you pay me, and when you're right, I'll pay you.

You can't tell the difference between what's improvised and what isn't
improvised in John's scenes. John introduced a new standard of
spontaneity, a new standard of spontaneous behavior in acting. Nobody
did that before. He started that.

There were times when John would want you to improvise. There were other
times where it was strictly written, and you were expected to follow the
script.

GROSS: Working with Cassavetes, did that bring out a certain spontaneity
in you, in your performances?

Mr. FALK: Oh yeah, it did, but it took me a long time to trust him,
because actors, we have our own idea about how we, how we act, and you
rely on - well, technique has a lot to do with acting. Technique has a
lot to do with the craft of acting, and that's the one thing John didn't
want. I mean, he didn't want you to be technical, even in the best
sense.

You can get an actor who's an extremely capable technical actor, and
nobody can tell the difference.

GROSS: What strikes me with Cassavetes' movies, one of the many things
that make them different is that there's a lot more - everything's
slower. There's more space around actions and words. There's silences
and pauses and just a lot of room. And I was wondering if that made it -
made you pace yourself differently in a performance, knowing that the
camera was going to be on you maybe for a long time and in moments that
to another director might seem like an off-moment and not an on-moment.

Mr. FALK: Yeah, that's the one thing John never wanted you to think
about, and the way he directed prevented you from thinking about that,
whether or not you were going to take more space or whether you were
going to take less space or whether this scene called for whatever, this
kind of mood or that kind of mood.

He was trying to get you to get rid of all that crap, just behave,
behave, let me worry about it later on. And then he would cut the scene.
But while you were doing it, he would do anything to stop you from
thinking. He would do anything to stop you from trying to figure out how
am I going to do this. And he would never tell you anything.

And the reason he wouldn't tell you anything was because he was afraid
of words. He was afraid that those words would then be re-translated
into some cliché.

GROSS: Well, why wouldn't he tell you? He just - he didn't want you
thinking?

Mr. FALK: He didn't want you thinking, and if you start talking about
what the character is feeling, you do have that danger of saying: Oh, I
understand now. This is how you play embarrassment. And you play it the
way you've seen somebody else play it, or you have some idea of how to
play it.

And what usually happens is that the behavior lacks the ambiguity that
most behavior has, where it's not just - there are different kinds of
anger. There are different kinds of charm. They - they're not all the
same, and there's mixtures involved at any given moment in time. And I
think that's why the behavior in his pictures - to me, at any rate - are
more interesting. So he wouldn't tell you anything. And...

GROSS: So this threw you off-balance, having...

Mr. FALK: Yes.

GROSS: ...technique taken away from you and...

Mr. FALK: Yes. Yes, and I was off-balance, and I was irritated, and I
was angry, and I was afraid, and I was nervous. I was all those things.
He had to break - break everybody down. And he did. And it was good that
he did. And he was able to do it.

GROSS: I want to ask you. You have a glass eye. And I think that
happened when you were three, you had a tumor removed?

Mr. FALK: Yeah.

GROSS: And I guess they removed your eye too?

Mr. FALK: Yeah, it was a malignant tumor.

GROSS: Do you think that that's - that you've made that work for you as
an actor, to affect your image, to use it as something that looked
menacing or that makes you look more vulnerable?

Mr. FALK: Well, none of that was consciously - I mean the only thing
that I would be aware of when I was acting was to try to avoid looking
100 percent walleyed, you know, so that if you were to look in one
direction, and one eye went all the way to the left, and the other one
was still in the middle, I try to avoid that. But I have never
consciously felt as though I'll use it in some way.

GROSS: Could you not get shot from certain angles because your eye
wouldn't move, and that would be the only eye on camera?

Mr. FALK: I'm better off from the left side because(ph) I think that
that minimizes the walleyed thing.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Did kids pay you to look (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: That would've been good. No, they – no, they never did that.
No, when you were a kid, you know, I used to dread that moment when
somebody would say what's the matter with your eye or something like
that. And it was a turning point, I don't know, when I was 12 or 13
years old. I think it had to do more with playing ball with the guys,
because once you started knocking around with those guys, they were so
open about it, and they would say it so freely, and it was usually a gag
or a joke or knocking you or whatever the hell it is, that by then it
didn't mean anything to me anymore. I was very comfortable with it.

GROSS: Did it interfere with...

Mr. FALK: Because I realized - the other thing is then I realized I
could get a laugh with it.

GROSS: Now, did it interfere with anything that you wanted to do?

Mr. FALK: No, no, not at all. No, the main - well, I think one of the
main problems with the eye was the fact that my mother would - if I'd go
play football or whatever sport, she was always nervous about it. And I
always thought that was ridiculous, nothing to be nervous about. You
know, when you're that age, nothing can happen to you.

And you could always get people's attention if you took a spoon and
tapped it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: I remember the first night I was in the Merchant Marines.
There was this black guy from San Francisco – no, I think he was from
Oakland. He didn't know me, I didn't know him. We just shared this
(unintelligible) together for the first night. And he was sitting up in
the top bunk opposite me, and I came in and I sat down. It was already
very, very late, and he had his pajamas on.

So I started getting undressed. At that time, I had - my front teeth
were knocked out, and I had removable bridge. So I took out that bridge
and put it on the table. It had a nice sound effect, a little clunk,
when that went down. And then I popped the eye out, and then the glass
hit the tabletop. That had a nice sound effect.

And he's up there, he's up there watching me. And then I bent over, and
I started unscrewing my knee. It was a gesture, you know, where I
started turning it, and it looked like I was about to remove my leg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: And I always remember him saying: Excuse me, I'll be right
back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALK: He went somewhere, probably the men's room.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FALK: Well, you're very welcome.

GROSS: My interview with Peter Falk was recorded in 1995. He died
Thursday at the age of 83. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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What Happens When Charter Schools Fail?

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Charter schools were created to improve education by encouraging
innovation. Many charters have succeeded. But the heads of some schools
have used the charters as opportunities for personal gain through fraud,
mismanagement and nepotism. In the Philadelphia area, 19 of 74 charters
are under federal instigation.

My guest Martha Woodall is an education reporter for the Philadelphia
Inquirer. The corruption that she uncovered at charters helped lead to
the federal investigation.

Martha Woodall, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the basics. What
is a charter school?

Ms. MARTHA WOODALL (Education Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer): Well,
charter schools are publicly funded schools that are overseen by their
own independent boards, and they are allowed to do things that other
schools can't do. They have - they're allowed to be flexible, and they
don't have to follow all the regulations that a public school - a
traditional public school can do. But they are public schools,
nonetheless.

GROSS: And they get taxpayer money?

Ms. WOODALL: Totally taxpayer money. They usually get local money, state
money and most of them also get federal money.

GROSS: So why were they first created? And what problems were charter
schools intended to address?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, charter schools were - began in the early 1990s. The
first one, in fact, took place in Minnesota, opened in 1992, and they
were – the idea behind charter schools was if only educators could be
free from all these regulations and laws that had been built up over the
years, they could innovate, they could do creative things with teaching
and they would have better outcomes. And it was also seen as an
opportunity for parents to select schools, as opposed to simply sending
their kid to the school a few blocks away. They could actually choose
where their student would attend school, and they were, you know, to
innovate and to do things better than the traditional public schools.
That was the idea.

GROSS: So before we get to some of the fraud and mismanagement and
nepotism that you've investigated, let's talk a little bit about the
success rate for innovation. Let's look at the Philadelphia area
schools, which you've covered. Have the charter schools succeeded in
being innovative and in having positive education outcomes?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, some of them certainly have, and that's one of the
things that we've seen here in Philadelphia, in particular, that it's
been - the results have been mixed. We have some extraordinarily
successful charter schools here. We have a charter school here, for
example, that is focused on art and architecture for high school
students. So this is giving kids an opportunity to do things that they
would probably not have at most traditional high schools.

But overall, there have been a slew of studies, including one most
recently that was - and probably the most thorough - that was done by
researchers out of Stanford University, where they looked at
Pennsylvania charter schools. And more than half of those are in
Philadelphia. And they found while we had a slightly higher percentage
of very good charter schools who were outperforming traditional public
schools, we also had a lot more charter schools - like more than half -
where the students were doing worse than the students at the school that
they'd come from.

GROSS: Okay. So let's look at some of the problems that charter schools
have faced in the Philadelphia area where you've been investigating
charter schools. Let me start by saying that charter schools are kind of
like an entrepreneurial approach to education.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Right.

GROSS: Where does the entrepreneurial part come in?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, the entrepreneurial part comes in, in part because
they also were seen - some of the charter advocates thought, you know,
if we're going to make all the schools better, there needs to be
competition. They need to compete in a marketplace, in an educational
marketplace. And as a result of that kind of philosophy, they attracted
a lot of people who were former businesspeople who wanted to get
involved in education and could apply business practices to education.

And I think what arose from that philosophy in too many cases - or an
unfortunate number of cases - was that people were viewing these as
businesses, and they were figuring out ways to make money and obtain
large management fees. And a lot of the schools have accumulated large
reserves which have been used for ways that don't really enhance the
outcomes for students and sometimes enrich the people at the top.

GROSS: So let's look at some of the fraud that you found. Let's start
with the Philadelphia Academy Charter School. And what were some of the
problems at this school?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, at this school, which was a school that was doing
pretty well academically, parents at this school were disturbed –
several parents in particular – that there was not money for the kinds
of special services their children needed. They had mild learning
difficulties, and the school kept saying we don't have money for this.
However, there was money that was being spent on all kinds of other
issues. So they started going to meetings and raising questions at the
trustees in the meeting and were basically told: We don't want you
asking questions.

And so ultimately, what began as educational questions turned out to be
that the founding CEO of the school, his successor was alleged to have
stolen almost a million dollars from the school.

GROSS: So the parents started investigating because they felt that the
money wasn't being used where it was supposed to be used for the
students. What did they find? What did you find?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, they began raising questions. And what we found when
we started looking into it was that the existing CEO owned the vending
machines in the school, used the school's money to stock up at discount
stores for candy and soda, and then pocketed all the money. I mean, he
was charged with skimming something like $16,000 in vending machine
proceeds. He was alleged to have stolen money from the Toys for Tots
campaign that the students had collected, and using money from dress-
down days, where students paid some - like a dollar or two not to wear
uniforms, taking that money, as well.

They were involved in owning a building that the high school rented.
They charged inflated rent amounts, and then used some of that money to
buy another building that was going to be used for another entity that
they controlled. They misused credit cards.

GROSS: Now, let me back up with the real estate thing.

Ms. WOODALL: Yeah.

GROSS: So explained how that worked?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, they founded a nonprofit organization that bought the
building that the high school then rented. And the CEO's wife, in fact,
was the head of the board. And they charged really high rental rates for
the school to use the building, and then they accumulated money through
their higher rates to go out and buy another building - or were planning
to buy another building - that was going to be used for one of the other
businesses and nonprofits that were nonprofit in name only, where they
were using for financial purposes, as well.

So they were using taxpayer money that went - was supposed to have gone
to the school for other purposes.

GROSS: So another thing you found was that the CEO of the school - and
he was the second CEO, not the founding CEO - he was a high school
graduate, a former Philadelphia police officer with no background in
education, right?

Ms. WOODALL: Right. He had been briefly an uncertified shop teacher and
rose through the ranks and was suddenly the CEO of the school. And that
was one of the other things that the parents found most alarming, that
here was someone who had no educational background who was trying to
make educational decisions that were affecting the students.

GROSS: So right before the founding CEO - who is no longer the CEO at
this point - was about to be indicted, he killed himself.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Right.

GROSS: How did you feel about that? Because you had investigated this
story. Your investigation led to the federal investigation.

Ms. WOODALL: Personally, I felt terrible. I had never had anything like
this happen to me as a journalist. I've been a journalist since 1973.
I've written about a lot of things, but nothing that I had been involved
with had led to this horrible, horrible end.

GROSS: Yeah. So getting back to the school and the problems at the
school, you know, we talked about the real estate deals that were
inappropriate, the lack of qualifications for the CEO. There was
nepotism, also.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Both the founding CEO and, well, primarily the
second CEO had a whole lot of relatives on the payroll there who were
making more money and supervising people who had far more experience and
more credentials than they had. And as part of the arrangement - in
order to keep the school open, the Philadelphia school district, which
had approved the operating charter for this school, required the top
administrators to leave and required a replacement of the board, and the
board then basically fired all the relatives. That was part of the deal,
because they wanted to sever all ties with the families that had been
involved at the charter.

GROSS: So the school still exists, but under different leadership.

Ms. WOODALL: The schools still exists under a new leadership and an
entirely new board, and they have really turned things around. This
happened in the spring of 2008, and they've made a lot of strides since
then.

GROSS: My guest is Martha Woodall. She covers education for the
Philadelphia Inquirer and has done a series of articles investigating
corruption in charter schools.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Martha Woodall, and she
has investigating charter school fraud in Philadelphia, where she's
covered education for the past nine years for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When you look at all the charters in the Philadelphia area, do you see
other patterns of fraud, financial mismanagement that you think
illustrates some of the larger problems that charter schools are prone
to? And this is not to condemn all charter schools, but just to say that
they leave open opportunities for this kind of fraud and corruption.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Nepotism, certainly. We've had cases here where
large numbers of family members are on the payroll and contracts
awarded, favorable contracts to relatives and friends that include
leases for luxury cars. And I think part of the problem that we have
found is that the boards who are overseeing these schools are not really
involved as deeply as they should be. They may only meet a few times a
year.

They may only - and they may be friends of the CEO. That may be why they
got on the board, and therefore they're reluctant to really provide the
kind of oversight that they're supposed to be providing. And I think the
federal law on nonprofits has been strengthened in the last couple of
years, making it clear that the people who sit on these nonprofit boards
are really responsible for what happens at the nonprofits.

GROSS: In talking about charter schools, you've cited several instances
of, you know, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, nepotism, other questionable
practices. How much oversight is there?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, in - for Philadelphia, with our charter office of
seven people, they're supposed to be keeping track of the 74 schools,
and there are going to be even more schools - more charter schools in
the fall to monitor.

However, because of the $629 million shortfall, the school district of
Philadelphia is basically cutting its administrative staff in half. And
that means, as I understand it, the person who has been in charge of
that office and one of the other high-ranking people will be gone. That
office will be cut in half. So there will be, I think there will be,
like, really, three-and-a-half people assigned to the charter office
next year. And...

GROSS: Responsible for, like, over 70 schools.

Ms. WOODALL: Right, for 74 schools. And beyond that, the school district
also has its own inspector general's office, which a lot of large public
agencies do, so that when - if there are allegations of fraud or abuse
anywhere in the school district - whether it's absconding with money
from the PTO or someone misapplying funds - that office investigates.
And the Philadelphia inspector general has been deeply involved in the
charter investigations, and that office of a handful of people is going
to be cut in half, as well.

GROSS: Are there loopholes in charter school laws that make it easier
for people to get away with the kind of fraud that you've been
investigating?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, I think one of the things is the fact that you have
so few people keeping track of the charter schools, they haven't - they
don't have opportunities to go out and really visit the schools and pay
much attention until the charters are up for renewal. So that gives, you
know, several years in between where people can be getting away with
things.

And in this state, also, charters have to send in, each year, a very
detailed, annual report about their school's operations. A copy of that
goes to the charter school office. A copy of it goes to the State
Department of Education. The State Department of Education puts it on a
shelf. I mean, they don't really read those reports. They say it's up to
the school districts who are in charge of the charters to read the
reports. But given the size of the workload, it's unclear how much time
the charter office has to actually read each of those reports each year.

GROSS: So about 19 charter schools in Philadelphia are under federal
investigation. This is Philadelphia and the suburbs.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Right.

GROSS: So that's a pretty high percentage.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Right.

GROSS: Is it like this in other cities? Is Philadelphia exceptional?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, I think Philadelphia, there's certainly more
investigations going on in Philadelphia than elsewhere. I'm not sure
that Philadelphia is exceptional. I think part of the fact is that the
U.S. attorney's office here has been really vigilant and has made, has
made charters a priority. I know that the U.S. Department of Education's
inspector general put out a report in March of 2010, basically advising
U.S. attorneys across the nation that charter schools were an area where
they really needed to be putting a lot of attention because there were
so many opportunities for fraud, and in that case that report found that
there had been, you know, several investigations in California and there
had been some in Texas and Ohio. But Philadelphia had the dubious
distinction of having the most where there had been indictments.

GROSS: Now, your paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, did an amazing series
a couple of months ago about violence in the Philadelphia public
schools. And it was really a harrowing series with attacks - describing
attacks on students and teachers, by students.

Ms. WOODALL: Right.

GROSS: And is that just in the public schools? Is that going on in the
charters as well?

Ms. WOODALL: I don't believe it's going on in the charters to that
extent, at least I've not heard that. In fact, part of the reason why
charters have expanded and grown so much in Philadelphia is parents have
the perception that the charter schools are safer. And in - I think in
many cases they are because charters can kind of - although they're
supposed to be following due process procedures if a student is violent,
it's certainly easier to remove the students who are causing trouble at
a charter school and they wind up back at the traditional schools.

But parents of - even if a school is not necessarily performing very
well academically, they may choose to put their child in a charter
school because they have a perception things are safer.

GROSS: And you say that perception is probably accurate.

Ms. WOODALL: Mm-hmm. At least as far as we know.

GROSS: As you know, there's a running debate about whether the charter
schools are hurting the public schools or not. The argument that they're
hurting schools goes something like this, that the charter schools are
taking the most gifted students away from the public schools and they're
taking the students who have the most incentive and whose parents have
the most incentive to get a good education, and those people are
pursuing charter schools. So while the charter schools are getting the
best students, they also are dumping the most problematic students back
into the public schools because they can, the regulations are more
flexible for expelling students.

So if you measure back-to-back the performance of the charter schools
and the public schools, the charter schools have an inherent advantage.
So having covered public schools and charter schools over the past nine
years, do you have any thoughts on whether the charter schools are
creating problems for the public schools or not, whether they're putting
public schools at a disadvantage, whether they're depleting the public
school system?

Ms. WOODALL: I think that certainly there's an advantage that comes from
having a parent who is active and engaged enough to have made a decision
to place a student in a charter school. I think that's probably an
inherent advantage. Because as we know, the lack of parental involvement
is one of the biggest issues facing traditional public schools. But at
the same time, I think where the argument is, in terms of perhaps
undermining public schools, has the most merit, it has to do with the
finances. And I know that charter advocates point out, well, the money
is following the student, it's public money, that doesn't harm the
traditional public schools because they're not educating that student.
Well, that's true to an extent. A lot of the charter school students
maybe never attended traditional public schools. Sometimes they come out
of the non-public school world and they're entering - this is the first
time their education is being funded by taxpayers.

In addition to that, since most charters - at least in Philadelphia, for
example - don't draw, they're not just neighborhood schools, they draw
from throughout the city, you're picking one student from this zip code,
one student from that zip code and putting them in a charter school
classroom that doesn't really mean that any of the sending schools can
close a classroom, because they're not coming in in neat 25 to 30
student allotments. And that - for that reason, that it's - the
resources are being diminished for the traditional public schools.

GROSS: So you have less money per classroom in a lot of places.

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Right. Right, right.

GROSS: My guest is Martha Woodall. She covers education for the
Philadelphia Inquirer and has done a series of articles investigating
corruption in charter schools.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Martha Woodall, an education reporter for the
Philadelphia Inquirer, who has written extensively about fraud in
charter schools. Nineteen charters in the Philadelphia area are under
federal investigation.

Looking at the big picture, how would you say the reality of charter
schools compares to the vision of charter schools in the early 1990s
when they were created?

Ms. WOODALL: I think that some have clearly met the goals of
experimentation and better student outcomes and opportunities for
parents to choose. But I think that a lot of people would say that in
terms of the academic outcomes it hasn't been as dramatic an improvement
overall nationwide as had been anticipated.

GROSS: What about the most innovative schools? Have we seen in some
charter schools, like specialized schools for art and architecture or
science, that these charter schools are coming up with models that could
be applied to other schools, including public schools?

Ms. WOODALL: Right. Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. And here in
Philadelphia we have a charter organization that began with one school
here that's now expanded to a lot of other schools, and it's the Mastery
Charter Schools, and they've been enormously successful and they have
also managed to be successful - they have raise additional money, so
they're able to actually, they have a lot of grant money and private
foundation support so that they're actually able to spend more on
services for students than the traditional public schools. And their
approach is not only a strong rigorous college prep background that has
been successful, they have also developed this whole emotional and
social learning curriculum that is part of the student's growth and
performance that really deals with like character and how people behave.
And in terms of discipline, they use a restorative justice practice. And
I think those kinds of approaches have helped them be academically
successful.

GROSS: So the school that you were just talking about is called...

Ms. WOODALL: Mastery Charter School.

GROSS: And is that the school that Oprah Winfrey gave like $1 million
to?

Ms. WOODALL: Yes. Her Angel Network gave them $1 million last year, and
they have received some federal grants as well and some other private
funds to really expand. And they're involved now, after having had one
of their own successful high school charter schools, they have been
involved in doing turnarounds for the Philadelphia school district,
where they take really troubled schools and turn them into charters. And
they started doing this several years ago and they - last year they had
one of the first graduation for one of their turnaround schools where
they go from seven to 12, and their students, they had more than, you
know, 90 percent of their students going to college in neighborhoods
where fewer than 20 percent of the students from the traditional public
high schools were going to college.

GROSS: What's the moral of that story?

Ms. WOODALL: Well, there again, they have this whole approach involving
the social and emotional learning. They have a longer school day, a
longer school year. They have mentors. They provide mentors for the high
school students and they have to - and they are required to conduct like
high school internships. I mean they have like a very complete
philosophical program that has worked out really very well for them. And
they're also among the schools where the teachers actually are paid at a
better rate. They work hard for their money but they tend to be paid
better than the traditional public schools.

GROSS: Okay. Martha Woodall, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. WOODALL: Well, thank you so much for inviting me, Terry.

GROSS: Martha Woodall covers education for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
You'll find a link to her series about charter schools on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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