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Church-state watchdog claims local taxpayer-funded charter school more parochial than public

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Soto insists that while effective charters have a role to play in the state's education system, the TEA needs additional staffing and resources to better monitor, repair, or close down wayward charters. In February, Soto testified before the Texas House Public Education Committee insisting all charter schools are not created equal. Of the 15 ISDs in Bexar County, the TEA lists four districts, serving nearly half of the region's student population, as recognized, while the other 11 are listed as academically acceptable. Of the 26 charter holders operating in Bexar County, none are exemplary or recognized, 15 are academically acceptable, and other 11 are considered academically unacceptable.

This lack of oversight is amplified by the fact that charter school boards of trustees are essentially self-appointed, Soto said. Shekinah's website does not list the board members charged with overseeing the institute's 13 academies. When asked for a list Monday, the institute told the Current to file an open records request (they have yet to supply a list as of press time Tuesday).

Washington herself has been at the forefront of pushing for Texas to expand its charter school system since starting Shekinah. In 2009, she testified before the state Senate's Education Committee asking for the Texas legislators to eliminate its cap on charter schools. Washington also serves on the Texas Charter Schools Association's advocacy committee.

She's also no stranger to controversy. Last year WOAI Troubleshooter Brian Collister dug up complaints from anonymous district workers claiming Washington was using school money for personal use, like gifts, travel expenses, and payments to her son. WOAI also found that Washington, who readily attaches the prefix "Dr." to her name, has no Ph.D. from an accredited university — she claims to have two degrees, one from World Mission Outreach Bible College and another from World Vision University, neither of which are accredited institutions.

TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman this week confirmed the agency has an open investigation into Shekinah's finances, but offered few details. It's unclear whether that investigation stems from complaints filed by Americans United or other complaints already on file with the TEA, records Lipper dug up in his investigation on Shekinah.

The complaints range from accusing Washington of using state money to pay for upkeep of her church sanctuary at the Shadrach Temple, to charging that she pays non-degree school employees who happen to be church members more than teachers with degrees. Another complaint alleges that Washington put church members who didn't work for the school on Shekinah's payroll.

The TEA says it drafted a preliminary report on Shekinah in February, but agency officials won't discuss the report's findings.

That same month, Washington appeared again on Rhema Gospel Express, calling herself a "kingdom entrepreneur" who had a "double anointing" from God — both as a pastor and as a local school administrator. "God directed me toward the youth, he directed me into education," she said. "I consider this to be a marketplace ministry." •

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