Charter For Chicanery?: Texas Oversight Agency Says Shekinah Charter Schools Broke Law

Shekinah Learning Institute was cited by the Texas Education Agency for, among other things, using taxpayer funds for improvement to Shekinah Superintendent Cheryl Washington’s church.

In February, Americans United asked state officials to investigate a series of Texas charter schools that allegedly used taxpayer money to promote religion. While the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has yet to address our concerns publicly, it has determined that those public schools and their superintendent are guilty of violating state laws.

Americans United is still reviewing the full TEA report, but the San Antonio Express-News reported today that Shekinah Learning Institute violated Texas law by entangling its operations with a church and day-care center run by Shekinah Superintendent Cheryl Washington.

Washington, who goes by “doctor” even though she does not have a degree from an accredited university, is head of the Shekinah Learning Institute and acts as pastor of Shadrach Temple International. Washington’s church shares space with one of her charter schools, and according to the Express-News, in 2008 she represented Shekinah when it made a $1.4 million purchase of a former church for use as a charter school campus.

The following day, Washington represented her church when it signed a rental agreement with Shekinah that allowed the church to rent space from the school. The report said Washington violated state law when she represented both sides.

The TEA findings showed that the facility, which was purchased with taxpayer funds, was inadequate for the school. Shekinah also did not prove that other sites for the school were considered, the newspaper reported.

Shekinah attorney Joseph Hoffer denied that other locations were not considered, the Express-News said.

The newspaper also reported that Shekinah was cited by TEA for using taxpayer funds for improvement to Washington’s church, though Shekinah was later reimbursed by the church for some of those costs. In addition, the audit found that one Shekinah campus spent $3,000 per month to use a classroom at a day-care center for which Washington is the registered agent.

Hoffer denied wrongdoing on Washington’s part, saying the day-care center, which has since closed, “was a nonprofit wholly owned by Shekinah. It wasn't owned by Cheryl Washington,” according to the Express-News.

The newspaper was unable to reach Washington for comment and Shekinah has until next week to submit a plan to TEA outlining how the problems uncovered in the audit will be addressed.

Unfortunately the audit made no mention of important constitutional issues. As reported in the June issue of Church & State, an investigation by Americans United suggests that that the Shekinah Radiance Academy – including its Truth Campus, a school located in the Dallas suburb of Royse City – operates as if it were a publicly funded religious institution.

Evidence indicated that the school promoted weekly chapel services, offered week­ly Bible study classes and used a religious name and logo, all of which could be violations of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Although the TEA audit said nothing about any of that, Hoffer seemingly went out of his way to essentially back up what AU has already said about the Shekinah Learning Institute.

“Many of the parents thought they were actually at a private Christian school,” he said of the publicly funded charter system.

That’s why Americans United is continuing to investigate the Shekinah Learning Institute . Stay tuned for updates.