October Charter School Investigations—Tales of Fraud, Mismanagement, and Mis-Education

There is so much news from place to place about the financial and management scandals in particular charter schools and charter management organizations that it is hard to keep track. Schools are taking public money—and too frequently finding a way to make a profit—while failing to serve the children they enroll or neglecting to enroll particular groups of children with special needs.  All of this increases the burden on public schools and misspends tax dollars, thereby undermining the public good.  Here are just three examples that have surfaced during mid-October.

North Carolina ProPublica just published a major investigation of Baker Mitchell’s charters in North Carolina including Douglass Academy in Wilmington.  After he came to North Carolina in 1997, according to ProPublica, “Mitchell quickly connected with the state’s big political players, including conservative Kingmaker Art Pope.  By 2002, he was sitting alongside Pope on the board of the John Locke Foundation…. part of the State Policy Network, a Koch-supported group of think tanks whose agenda includes steering public funds away from traditional schools and toward charters, vouchers and tax credits for homeschoolers.”

Mitchell then established the same kind of racket that William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has going in Ohio: he created a private, for-profit company owned by himself to provide all services for his charter schools. “The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell.  It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff.  It handles most of the bookkeeping.  The treasurer of the non-profit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company.  The two organizations even share a bank account.”  Back in 2001 the Internal Revenue Service denied Mitchell’s management company  non-profit status, for, according to IRS, “Mr. Mitchell… controls both your management company and your lessor.  He has dual loyalties to you and his private, for-profit companies.  This is a clear conflict of interest for him.”  However, Mitchell’s board (on which he was serving actively as a member) protested and the IRS eventually capitulated based on promises by the board—promises never fulfilled, according to ProPublica.

Mitchell has also become involved in advocacy for privatization of education in North Carolina.  In 2011, he joined the state’s Charter School Advisory Council that helped eliminate the cap on the growth of charter schools.  In 2013 he was instrumental in helping push a bill through the legislature to remove oversight and regulation of charters and to provide a tax exemption “for landlords who, like Mitchell, rent property to charter schools.”

Adelanto, California: Bill Raden, a reporter for California’s Capital & Main, has investigated the first school in the nation to have undergone a “Parent Trigger” conversion.  The investigation tracks the operation of Desert Trails Elementary School during its first year of operation after it was seized by parents through a petition and subsequently charterized.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disseminated model “parent trigger” legislation across the state legislatures.  According to Raden, “At least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation and seven of them have enacted some version of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas,” in addition to California.

Rapid turnover of teachers has plagued Desert Trails. Although its executive director has been paid a salary of $200,000, teachers are reported by Raden to be earning only $3,300 per month.  “During its first year, teachers say, the charter lost a principal (Don Wilkinson) and a director (Ron Griffin)—both before the Christmas break—and its vice principal, six classroom teachers and its behavioral specialist.  In addition only nine of Desert Trails’ first-year teacher roster—or 33 percent—are returnees this year.”  Several teachers or former teachers who agreed to be interviewed tell of personally spending hundreds of dollars for basic classroom supplies.  They explain that drinking fountains were turned off to prevent their freezing at night during the high-desert winter when the heat was turned off to save money.

While Desert Trails employed a special education coordinator and teacher, teachers say they were advised by Debra Tarver, the current executive director, not to tell parents about their right to services for children with special needs.  Raden describes instances when parents of children with special behavioral needs were advised that the school “was not a suitable environment to meet their needs,” while school administrators denied that the students had been suspended or expelled.

Teachers report they were subject to a succession of curriculum changes as the school’s administrators turned over.  All report, however,  that intense pressure grew throughout the year to focus on language arts and math, the two tested subjects, and to cut out social studies, science, and physical education.  Raising test scores became an obsession.

Columbus, Ohio: Catherine Candinsky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch examined real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools, a national charter management organization.  Candinsky and Siegel report that rent—paid to a real estate subsidiary of its national sponsor, Imagine Schools Inc.—is the highest expense for Columbus Primary Academy.  The school will pay rent of $700,000 this year to SchoolHouse Finance, a national Imagine-owned subsidiary, at the same time its expenditures for salaries and benefits will be only $614,000. “SchoolHouse buys the buildings, resells them typically for two or three times the purchase price, and then leases the facility from the new owner so it can rent the space back to Imagine.”  Policy Matters Ohio has highlighted that this arrangement yields profits for Imagine Schools “both at resale and as it collects rent.”

Real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools  is not merely an Ohio phenomenon: “The upshot is that the complex deals are diverting hundreds of thousands of public dollars to one of the nation’s largest charter-school operators, Imagine Schools Inc., and its affiliates.  Imagine operates 67 charter schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia.  At least three states and Washington, D.C, are investigating Imagine for real-estate maneuvers like those in Ohio, and a fourth state, Missouri, already has shut down several Imagine schools.”

As such investigations continue to turn up violations of the public trust, one wonders whether any kind of oversight is likely to be imposed by state legislatures.  Candinsky and Siegel conclude their Columbus Dispatch expose on Imagine Schools with a reflection on this very issue.  They describe the power of financial contributions for shaping public policy, in this case the political investments by Ohio’s two largest for-profit charter operators:  “David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, have combined to give $2.25 million since 2009 to state political parties, lawmakers and statewide officeholders, mostly Republicans.  That includes a combined $320,000 to the House GOP caucus and Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina; $223,000 to Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and his caucus; and $71,000 to (Governor) Kasich.  The likely top two leaders of the House starting next year got a combined $104,000 since 2009.”

Report: State School Spending Less Than 2008; Yellen: School Spending Disparities Increase Inequality

At a Federal Reserve Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, delivered a speech on inequality in which, according to Bloomberg Business Week, she said,  “public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households,” and described inequality in public education funding as a primary factor that blocks opportunity.  Comparing the United States to other nations, she continued, “A major reason the United States is different is that we are one of the few advanced nations that funds primary and secondary public education mainly through subnational taxation.”

The Business Week reporter sought comments on Yellen’s address from school finance experts including Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, who declared that in recent years, even in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts whose formulas have historically done a pretty good job of allocating additional state assistance for poorer school districts, “There’s been a substantial decline in state aid to schools for funding equity.”

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its research on the decline in overall spending for public education since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.  The new study, Most States Still Funding Schools Less than Before the Recession, is the latest in what is becoming a discouragingly long series of reports on what CBPP describes as the propensity of more than half the states to deal with ongoing fiscal crises by reducing public school services rather than raising taxes.  Earlier reports are here, here, and here.

The new report examines state funding-per-pupil during the 2014-2015 school year, when 30 states provided less per student than prior to the 2008 recession, with 14—Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina, Utah, Maine, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina— reducing funding by more than 10 percent.  According to CBPP, while many states have in fact increased state funding for education during the past year, even with the added money, more than half have not yet reached the amount they were spending back in 2007-2008 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

States have reduced spending on K-12 public education and also reduced funding for state universities and colleges despite that “there are about 725,000 more K-12 students and 3.2 million more public college and university students than there were in 2007-2008.”  At the height of the recession, public school districts were forced to cut 330,000 teachers and other staff.  While by 2012, districts had been able to restore some of those positions, a total of 260,000 school staff positions had been lost due to budget cuts.

Spending for K-12 public education is made up, on average of 46 percent state funding and 10 percent federal funding with the rest raised through local taxation.  Despite that federal funding is only a tiny slice of the funding pie, that small piece has been reduced at the same time states have cut back.  The federal reductions have further cut programs that poor school districts count on: “For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.  These cuts include the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration and the additional cuts also resulting from the budget Control Act of 2011.”

CBPP reports that, “Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, states closed 45 percent of their budget gaps through spending cuts and only 16 percent of their budget gaps through taxes and fees (they closed the remainder of their shortfalls with federal aid, reserves, and various other measures). Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but recently some have enacted large tax cuts, further reducing state revenues.”

For a number of reasons, explains CBPP, local school districts have been unable to raise enough in local taxes to make up for reduced state funding: “Property values fell sharply after the recession hit, making it difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through the property tax…. Property values have improved since then but remain below pre-recession levels nationally.  Further, property tax revenue in most states has not yet fully captured the property value increases that have occurred. (There’s generally a significant time lag between when home prices rise and when property tax assessments register the increase.) Local school districts can pursue property tax rate increases, but those increases usually are politically difficult and sometimes legally restricted.  For all these reasons, property tax revenue growth nationwide has been modest….”

In her speech at the Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen named public spending on education as a primary “building block for expanding opportunity.”   A pattern of continued tax cutting and austerity budgeting across state governments is instead deepening inequality.

Newark Mayor, Ras Baraka, Pleads for Federal Civil Rights Intervention in City’s Schools

Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, has an op-ed in this morning’s NY Times that condemns New Jersey’s 19 year state control of Newark’s public schools and the  malfunctioning school reform plan imposed this fall by Governor Chris Christie’s overseer superintendent Cami Anderson.  Baraka pleads for federal intervention to restore authority for Newark’s schools to the mayor temporarily, and as soon as possible, “to return control to an elected school board with full powers.”  Newark has an elected school board, but under state control, the locally elected school board lacks any authority to govern the district.  Cami Anderson has refused for several months even to attend its meetings.

Last spring Governor Christie publicly insulted the parents and citizens of Newark when he declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”

Baraka describes how poorly schools have functioned this fall since Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan was launched: “Consider the reports I’ve received of Barringer High School (formerly Newark High School).  Three weeks into the school year, students still did not have schedules.  Students who had just arrived in this country and did not speak English sat for days in the school library without placement or instruction.  Seniors were placed in classes they had already taken, missing the requirements they’d need to graduate.  Even the school lunch system broke down, with students served bread and cheese in lieu of hot meals.”

Neither did One Newark school choice work as promised: “Under One Newark’s universal enrollment scheme, a secret algorithm determined what school was the ‘best fit’ for each child.  Often, this ended up placing each child in a family in a different school, none of which was the neighborhood school the parents chose… To cap it all, last year the school system operated with a deficit of $58 million.”

Baraka reports that he has “written to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in support of the lawsuits that parents, students, advocates and educators in our city have brought, requesting that the federal government intercede.”

Meanwhile early last week, Superintendent Cami Anderson delivered a two-hour state-of-the-schools presentation to defend the launch earlier this fall of One Newark and to brag about what she says is improved student achievement.  However, the New Jersey Spotlight reports that, “the details to back up her arguments and claims have been more elusive. Anderson was repeatedly asked Tuesday for actual data, including the district’s latest results on the state’s testing for 2013-14. She said those results are available on the district’s website, but despite requests to provide the links, nothing has been forthcoming from her office two days later.”

The New Jersey Spotlight also explains that Anderson, “has been at odds with her locally elected school board since her arrival in 2011. Last month, after no-confidence votes and calls for her resignation, the board voted almost unanimously to freeze her pay and block other initiatives. She hasn’t attended a public board meeting in months.  Meanwhile, protests continue from activists and student groups opposed to the “One Newark” reorganization plan, including one on Monday in support of a federal civil-rights complaint alleging that closing and consolidation of schools disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic students and families.”

Ras Baraka was elected mayor by an overwhelming margin last spring after a campaign whose central issue was return of democratic control of the school district to Newark’s citizens.  Before he ran for mayor, Baraka was a much respected high school principal in Newark.

I urge you to read Mayor Baraka’s commentary in this morning’s NY Times.  This blog has extensively covered the state’s autocratic imposition of Cami Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan on the city’s schools herehere , hereherehere, here, herehere, and here.

Backlash Against NCLB-Mandated Testing Grows, But Movement Has A Long Way to Go

Yesterday in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton summarized what seems to be a growing backlash against the standardized testing that has kept mushrooming since 2002, when annual testing of all children (and comparing scores of subgroups of children and schools) was mandated by what Jonathan Kozol has called “the federal testing law” No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  While Congress continues to delay a reauthorization of the law, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education has said that to escape from some of the other punitive consequences of NCLB, states can secure federal waivers (from the U.S. Department of Education, not Congress) if states will promise to use the standardized tests required by NCLB as part of the way the states evaluate teachers.  And then the Obama Administration has also said that to secure waivers, states must promise to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards.” The easiest way to do that is to adopt the Common Core Standards, which come with their own tests developed by big companies who are in it to make a profit.

Layton adds, “In addition to the federally required tests, states have layered on more assessments, with many requiring exams such as an exit test to graduate high school.  Local school districts and individual schools often administer more tests.  The result is that, on average, students in large urban schools districts take 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade, according to data being collected by the Council of Great City Schools.”

But push-back is growing according to Layton, “The standardized test, a hallmark of the accountability movement that has defined U.S. public education since 2002, is under growing attack from critics who say students from pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade are taking too many exams.  Four states have repealed or delayed graduation testing requirements in the past two years.  Four others, including Texas—where the idea of using tests to hold schools accountable for educating children first began—have cut the number of required exams or reduced their consequences.  Boycotts, such as when 60,000 students refused to take exams this year in New York, are on the upswing.”

The backlash among teachers is raging, and the local press has begun to pay attention.  Myra Blackmon of the Athens Banner-Herald (GA) published a scathing commentary on the implications for teachers and children of too much testing and the implications for taxpayers of profits piling up for the big testing companies:  “Georgia will pay CTB/McGraw-Hill, which bills itself as ‘one of the nation’s leading educational assessment partners’ more than $100 million over the next five-years to develop the yet-another-new-testing-scheme called Georgia Milestones.  That’s $20 million each year for a system that many don’t believe will last a year beyond the end of the contract.  We’ll likely be on to another magical testing scheme by 2019.”   She concludes: “High-stakes testing is not about measuring ‘student growth’ or helping teachers do a better job.  It is actually a new blunt instrument, used to bludgeon schools to spend limited funds for no good reason, to beat teachers until they are ready to quit and to abuse millions of school children who have little choice.”

Concern about too much testing even began to creep inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway this week with meetings to discuss the problem—the first co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council for the Great City Schools, and a second event, “The Need for Better, Fairer, Fewer Tests,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress.  There seems to be absolutely no consensus at this point about how to cut back, cut out, or even just control the growth of testing, though grade span testing—testing once between K-5, once in middle school and once in high school—has at least been mentioned by one or two people as an alternative to testing all students every year.  And Valerie Strauss, in her Answer Sheet blog, printed one proposal for a three-year moratorium nationwide on standardized testing.  Education Week published three columns this week on the seepage of the anti-testing backlash inside the Beltway, here, here, and here.

In this same week—along with articles about the rage over too much testing of the wrong kind and the profits flowing to the big companies that publish and grade the standardized tests—the education writer Mike Rose posted on his blog a reflection on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his classic book, Lives on the BoundaryLives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievement of America’s Educationally Underprepared considers the needs of students being left behind—the very same issue supposedly addressed by the federal testing law called No Child Left Behind.  But Rose’s idea about how to help struggling students is very different than what is happening in our current test-driven schools.  In his new blog post, Rose writes, “The stories have a purpose beyond their particular events and characters: to question educational practices that don’t serve underprepared students well, and, more broadly, to explore the complex relation between education and social class in our country.”

Rose explains that after a quarter of a century he continues to receive letters of gratitude from readers who feel affirmed by Lives on the Boundary.  Rose is a teacher whose concern is improving the experience of education for children who feel left behind and affirming each student’s worth—the very antithesis of test-and-punish accountability.  Rose writes: “I think that Lives on the Boundary makes particular and palpable the feeling of struggling in school, or not getting it, of feeling out of place, but conveys that welter of feeling within an overall narrative of possibility.  This possibility is actualized through one’s own perseverance and wit, but also through certain kinds of instruction, through meaningful relationships with adults, and through a particular set of beliefs about learning and teaching.  The book conveys the sense that a difficult life in school is not unique to you, not odd or freakish, that there are reasons for such a life, that though difficult, the difficulty is not necessarily of your making.  You are a legitimate member of this place, and your struggles and successes are important.”

After reading Rose’s new blog post, I pulled Lives on the Boundary off my shelf, and re-read the “afterward” Rose wrote for the 2005 edition.  In his “afterward,” Rose captures a primary reason for today’s growing frustration with the domination of standardized testing in the lives of children and teachers.  He surmises that “one of the things people respond to in Lives on the Boundary is the depiction of education as a complex lived experience.  Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place in a field laden with feeling—satisfaction or embarrassment, uncertainty, pushing oneself, and a thousand tiny brushes with others. And it all takes place someplace with its history and culture, its economic and political context—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom. All of this may well get reflected in a set of (test) scores…. But the scores are many levels of abstraction away from daily life in the classroom, the place where one’s identity as a student is formed.” (Lives on the Boundary, pp. 246-247)

Charters in Chicago Underperform Traditional Neighborhood Schools Says New Report

In his new book, Losing Our Way, journalist Bob Herbert traces in broad strokes several trends that he believes define our society.  He examines the decay of our infrastructure; the collapse in employment—especially for young adults; the wars we fight—who does the fighting and how we care for the injured; and our evolving approach to educating our more than 50 million children and adolescents.  You can read excerpts from Herbert’s book here and here and listen to Bill Moyers interview Herbert about his book.

Tracing the development of public policy in education, Herbert declares that charter schools have not fulfilled the promises of their proponents: “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish…. President Obama praised charter schools as ‘incubators of innovation’ and made their expansion a central component of his Race to the Top initiative.  States that did not make it easier to increase their stock of charter schools could not share in the Race to the Top billions.  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true.  Charters never came close to living up to the hype.  After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.” (Losing Our Way, p. 210)

Earlier this week, thanks to a major report from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, there is new evidence to confirm Herbert’s judgment.  Charter Schools in Chicago: No Model for Education Reform begins with a summary of primary conclusions: “Charter schools have become the cornerstone of school reform in Chicago and nationally.  Arne Duncan, who led Chicago schools and was a strong proponent of charters, became secretary of Education.  As Secretary Duncan has championed policies to dramatically expand the use of charters throughout the United States, Chicago… remains one of the nation’s lowest performing school districts.  Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower than the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system…. Further, charters, which are even more likely to be single race schools than the already hyper-segregated Chicago school system, have not increased interracial contact…. Finally, the fact that Chicago charters use expulsion far more often than pubic schools deserves further study.  In the end it is unlikely that the Chicago charter school experience provides a model for improving urban education in other big city school districts.”

Here are specific findings.  After controlling for “the mix of students and challenges faced by individual schools,” the researchers conclude that “Chicago’s charter schools actually under-perform their traditional counterparts” as measured by passing rates on tests of reading and math, by growth rates among students as measured by tests, and by high school graduation rates.   This is despite what the researchers call  “selection bias” in charter schools.  “The way that parents and students select charters virtually guarantees that, as a group, charter students have greater parental concern for and participation in their education than do students in traditional, assigned schools.  By definition, charter parents cared enough to go to the trouble of enrolling their kids in a school other than one assigned to them by the school district.  While many parents of kids in traditional schools care and participate just as much, you can’t say that they have all demonstrated the same level of concern.  What this means is that we should expect student achievement to be greater, all else being equal, in charter schools, even if charters do no better at educating kids.” (emphasis in the original)

Despite that enrollment in Chicago’s charter schools has grown rapidly, from 5,400 in 2000 to 48,700 in 2013, traditional neighborhood schools continued to serve 76 percent of Chicago’s students in 2013, with charter schools serving 12 percent.  The remaining students are enrolled in selective, gifted,and magnet programs operated by the school district.  The Minnesota researchers express concern that “the overwhelming majority of charters essentially serve a single racial or ethnic group…” “Only 7 percent of charters (all of which were predominantly non-white) were not single race schools.”

Of special concern is the apparent use of expulsion in charter schools.  “The average expulsion rate is more than 10 times greater in charters than in traditionals.”

The researchers worry that, “Chicago’s charter system continues to grow rapidly despite the fact little evidence supports the claim that students perform better in charter schools than in traditional counterparts.”  The researchers recommend a three-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools while an impact study is conducted to evaluate “how charter school policy has affected the district as a whole.”

Help Take Back Ohio State Board of Education from Far Right: Elect Michael Charney

Just over a year ago, I discovered that the young woman sitting at my table at a League of Women Voters event is a member of the Ohio State Board of Education.  She was, I later learned, elected by voters in a huge, gerrymandered state school board district, by a constituency that organized to promote the rights of home-schooling families.  Sarah Fowler (State School Board District 7) has never attended a public school; neither is she college-educated.  A young adult in her early twenties, she was home-schooled. As an adolescent she ran an egg business as part of her family’s farming enterprise.

Ohio’s state board of education is made up of nineteen members—eleven elected and eight appointed by the governor. Earlier this week in anticipation of the 2014 November election, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog described what has been happening on our state board: “Over the past few years, conservative activists have been quietly and diligently working to take control of local and state school boards around the country.  Ohio is no exception.  John Kasich used his position as Governor to pack Ohio’s State Board of Education with social conservatives and pro-charter activists.  Board member Cathye Smith Flory, for example, believes all kids in public schools should be taught about creationism.  Debe Terhar, the outgoing board president, compared Obama to Hitler on her Facebook page.  And Mark Smith, who also serves as president of Ohio Christian University, claimed Ohio-born novelist Toni Morrison should be banned for her ‘socialist-communist agenda’ and went on a rant about the evils of ‘Equality’ and the benefits of ‘traditional marriage’ at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom coalition conference.”

In Ohio, the eleven districts that elect members of the State Board of Education are so large that it’s likely one doesn’t know much about the candidates running in one’s own district.  District 8, for example, includes all or part of 13 counties all the way along the Ohio River and including Youngstown on the north and Athens, the home of Ohio University, toward the south.  District 1 covers Ohio’s northwest corner—nearly a quarter of the state geographically—including all or part of 23 counties. The way this is all set up makes it easy, when voters are not paying attention, for a relatively small, organized constituency to get its candidate into office.

Domination of Ohio’s State Board of Education changed considerably when, nineteen years ago, the governor was given more control.  An eleven member board was expanded to nineteen, with eight seats to be appointed by the governor.  Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal explains that, “the independent representative school board created by voters 60 years ago… no longer exists.  In 1995, the legislature added eight more chairs to the 11 elected seats at the table, to be filled by the governor, and for all practical purposes, took the board out of the hands of voters and made Ohio one of only three states to have a hybrid membership.  The reason for the change: The elected 11 had endorsed a lawsuit called Nathan DeRolph vs. State of Ohio alleging that the legislature and governor were not adequately funding public education.”

Here are some facts about the state board that Livingston recounted in his investigation a year ago: eight of nine state board committees are chaired by white men; seven of nine committees are chaired by the governor’s appointees; only one member of the state board now lives in an urban school district, despite that 25 percent of Ohio’s public school students reside in urban areas.  According to Livingston, despite that the state board positions are non-partisan, “Almost all appointees are significant Republican donors, organizers or fundraisers.  About a third of the members attended private schools or send their kids to private schools.”

Livingston continues: “What role does the state board play?  Members write the detailed rules that put laws into action.  They create academic standards and definitions, approve curriculum, establish test benchmarks, outline teacher evaluations and more.”

Despite the growth in the governor’s power to appoint eight members of the state board, the public controls eleven seats, and there is a move this fall to take back some seats from the far right.  Two contested seats are particularly important in the 2014 November election because two retired public school educators are running.  Pat Bruns, a thirty-year retired educator, is a candidate in District 4 (Cincinnati) for the seat state board president, Deb Terhar, will vacate.

Retired Cleveland teacher, Michael Charney, seeks to replace Sarah Fowler, the Ashtabula County advocate for home-schoolers and the young woman I met last year.  I have personally known and admired Michael for years.  For a long time he has been a dedicated advocate for public schools, for adequately funded public schools, for his students, and for school teachers. Here is the platform he endorses: listen to the expertise of classroom and school educators to define classroom life; focus on the literacy life of 3- and 4-year olds; regulate online charter schools so that public school districts do not lose hundreds of millions of dollars; promote public education—not the privatization of public schools; emphasize arts, music, extracurricular activities and physical education, as well as career and college ready preparation; and use the insights of motivated high school students to help their peers who fall behind.

In Ohio, Michael Charney’s basic statement of support for the classic mission of public education is a radical departure from the status quo on our state board of education.  If you live in Ashtabula, Trumbull, Portage, or Geauga County, or the part of Lake or Summit County in State Board District 7, I heartily encourage you to vote for Michael Charney.  If you live somewhere else, but you know people in these counties, I urge you to talk to them about taking back Ohio’s state board of education to protect the rights of the students in Ohio’s public schools and to protect our democracy.

Cowen Institute Retracts Major Report That Bragged About New Orleans Charters

Here is a statement, very recently posted, from John Ayers, the executive director of the Cowen Institute for Education Initiatives, located at Tulane University:

Statement from the Executive Director

The Cowen Institute has withdrawn its recent report Beating the Odds, which indicated that some public high schools in New Orleans, especially those that serve the most vulnerable youth, are performing better than predicted.

After its release, officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate.  The report will not be reissued.

As a result of this incident, the Cowen Institute will thoroughly examine and strengthen its internal protocols to ensure it adheres to the highest standards of review and accuracy in its research and in future reports.

We apologize for this mistake.

John Ayers, Executive Director

The Times-Picayune’s story on the retraction of the Cowan Institute’s latest report notes that already, “the report had leaped to prominence in some New Orleans education circles, touted by everyone from state Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a driving force behind the state’s education reforms of the past 20 years.”

 In an analysis last summer for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant described the many ways in which the New Orleans Recovery School District has distorted the data to make it appear that student achievement has significantly improved since Hurricane Katrina and the state’s takeover of the schools in New Orleans, while the reality is less glowing.  Bryant points out: “from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.” Since 2005, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  According to Bryant, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  In addition many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated; some have been only very recently opened and have not been rated because they are new. Hence boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Bryant adds that the school district’s enrollment dropped after the hurricane in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students. While families have moved back to the city slowly over time with enrollment now climbing to over 40,000, the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.

Here is how the Cowen Institute, on its website, describes its own founding and its mission:

“Immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, then-Tulane President Scott Cowen emerged as one of the few civic leaders in the city to serve as a leader in the recovery. He quickly realized the unique opportunity that New Orleans had to transform its public schools, rather than returning to the old way of running schools. Dr. Cowen, now President Emeritus, recognized that the University’s long-term survival depended on the revival of the entire city, and that without a strong K-12 education system the city would never become a true urban center with economic development opportunities for its citizens. In December 2006, his commitment and passion were recognized by one of the University’s trustees who presented him with a generous grant to create the infrastructure to leverage Tulane’s resources for the transformation of public education.  Named in his honor, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives (commonly called the “Cowen Institute”) opened its doors in March 2007…  The Cowen Institute aspires to be the premier university-based entity where individuals and communities learn about best practices for programs, partnerships, and policies for transforming K-12 public school systems.”

It is worth pointing out that such institutes—housed at major universities but formed around a particular school “reform”agenda that very likely conforms to the philosophy of the donors who provide independent funding—may well be producing so-called research that affirms the mission they were established to endorse.