When State Oversight of Charter School Sponsors Prevents Any Oversight Whatsoever

The Ohio Department of Education has turned down the Cleveland Transformation Alliance’s strong recommendation that a statewide charter school sponsor–Cincinnati’s St. Aloysius Orphanage—no longer be permitted to open new charter schools in Cleveland.

In 2012, when the Ohio legislature approved what was called the Cleveland Transformation Plan to overhaul Cleveland’s public schools, Mayor Frank Jackson, who controls the school district under state law, wanted to have a locally-appointed civic and education group—the Transformation Alliance—approve or turn down charter schools.  The idea was that, under the guidance of the Transformation Alliance, public and charter schools would work in partnership. But the state didn’t really give the Transformation Alliance any power; it was established only as an advisory committee.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains the state’s recent action: “Jackson won limited power from Gov. John Kasich and the legislature in 2012 to let his school quality panel, the Transformation Alliance, recommend to the state who can create and oversee new charter schools in the city. That hard fought power was much less than what Jackson had initially sought—an ability for city leaders to approve or deny each new school directly. But when the panel tried to use that already-reduced power this year for the first time—asking the state to block controversial charter sponsor St. Aloysius Orphanage from starting new schools here—the Ohio Department of Education did not agree.”

Here is some background about Ohio—a national exemplar of poor oversight of its charter school sector—where charter schools can be authorized by nonprofit agencies, even agencies with no experience in education. Agencies frequently sponsor schools in far away cities, as there is no requirement in state law that authorizing agencies be located near the institutions they supposedly oversee.

St. Aloysius Orphanage was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1837. It has evolved from a 19th century orphanage into a 21st century mental health agency that also provides a local Cincinnati charter school for children needing special education services. St. Aloysius Orphanage has also become one of Ohio’s largest statewide charter school sponsoring agencies. It contracts with a for-profit firm, Charter School Specialists, to provide all the services required of charter school sponsors by the Ohio Department of Education. Under an agreement with the state, St. Aloysius Orphanage is paid 3 percent of the state’s reimbursement to all of the 42 charter schools it sponsors across the state, an amount it splits with its contractor Charter School Specialists.

In an August 2017 letter sent to State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Transformation Alliance Executive Director Piet Van Lier described the serious  problems uncovered when members of an Alliance task force spoke with representatives of St. Aloysius Orphanage: “Gaps in the type and quality of oversight are apparent. St. Aloysius staff represented on the interview team were unable to adequately answer questions about specific school improvement efforts. It was also not clear that St. Aloysius’s board had any member with an education background… The task force also expressed some concern that Charter School Specialists, which delivers all sponsorship services for St. Aloysius, also provides school treasurers and other services for sponsored schools for a separate fee. It is not clear how arms-length assurances are maintained.”

And the particular new charter school being opened by St. Aloysius in Cleveland this fall is part of a Florida-Ohio chain of charter schools—Cambridge-Newpoint—that is currently under indictment in Florida for fraud and racketeering charges.

Claiming that the Transformation Alliance missed a deadline in submitting its complaint, State Superintendent DeMaria has denied the Transformation Alliance’s recommendation to reject the school and deny St. Aloysius Orphanage the right to open additional schools in Cleveland.

O’Donnell summarizes the response of members of the Transformation Alliance to the state’s recent denial of its recommendation: “Members of the Alliance—Cleveland school district, union, charter school, higher education, business and philanthropic leaders—believe that the Cincinnati orphanage, which now oversees 12 charter schools in Cleveland, creates mediocre or poor schools across the state, just to offer school choices for the sake of choice, not quality. Alliance members also question whether the orphanage and the for-profit company that creates schools for it are mainly trying to make money.”

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Some of New York’s Powerful Charter School Networks Win Right to Certify Their Own Teachers

The NY Times reports that on Wednesday, “The charter schools committee of SUNY’s Board of Trustees voted to approve regulations that will allow some (charter) schools to design their own teacher-training programs and certify their own teachers.”  This is, of course, the story of a charter-school-authorizing body in one state—a committee of the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees—that has been appointed to sponsor and oversee the operation and quality of charter schools.  But it is also a much bigger story about a nationwide problem: the influence of money and power on non-elected and unaccountable bodies that states have appointed to sponsor charter schools.

CHALKBEAT NY describes what the new rule will mean for the New York charter schools sponsored by SUNY’s Board of Trustees: “Dozens of charter schools across New York can now apply to certify their own teachers after the State University of New York’s charter school committee approved new regulations, over the vehement objections of teachers unions and state officials. In charter schools overseen by SUNY that apply to train their own teachers, prospective teachers now will only have to sit for the equivalent of a month of classroom instruction and practice teaching for 40 hours before becoming certified.  And unlike teachers on a traditional certification path in New York, they will not be required to earn a master’s degree or take all of the state’s teacher-certification exams.”  Charter school leaders had been lobbying for the new rules because they have been experiencing rapid staff turnover and a subsequent teacher shortage.

The rules had been revised in recent days, reports the NY Times, after State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia declared: “I could go into a fast-food restaurant and get more training than that.” Originally the plan had required only 30 hours of classroom training but the required hours of instruction were increased to 160 after Elia condemned the plan. However, the new regulations, which had originally required 100 hours of in-classroom teaching experience, were modified to require only 40 hours.

SUNY’s Board of Trustees is one of two charter school sponsoring bodies in New York. The 167 charter schools across the state that are sponsored by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee—including Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters—are the only schools to which this new ruling will apply.  Teachers certified under the new rules will be eligible to teach in neither New York’s public schools nor in charter schools authorized by the state’s other sponsoring agency. Ironically, the campuses of the State University of New York educate and certify public school teachers with in-depth programs that require extensive supervised classroom teaching experience.

Eliza Shapiro, writing for POLITIO Morning Education, explains that leaders of powerful charter school networks have been pushing their sponsor for less stringent requirements for their teachers: “The city’s charter networks have long relied on young and inexperienced teachers—often on two-year, Teach for America contracts—to staff their growing networks. Charter network chiefs have been plagued by high turnover among teachers who burn out after a few years in the classroom and move on to higher-paying jobs outside of education. Certification woes have also left some of the city’s most powerful charter networks vulnerable to legal trouble. Earlier this year, POLITICO reported that officials at Success Academy privately acknowledged being out of compliance with state laws mandating a certain threshold of certified teachers in every school. Charter leaders, led by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, have spent years pushing the SUNY board and charter-friendly legislators in Albany to come up with a solution to the problem of certification.”

In a joint statement, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and Education Commissioner Elia condemn the new rules: “We strongly disapprove of today’s actions by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee. With the adoption of the latest proposal, the Committee ignored our concerns and those of many others in education. Over the past several years, the Board of Regents and the Department have raised standards for our teachers…. This change lowers standards and will allow inexperienced and unqualified individuals to teach those children that are most in need—students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities—in SUNY-authorized charter schools.”

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, and the Alliance for Quality Education have threatened to challenge the new regulations in court.

It is becoming increasingly clear that 25 years ago when state legislators created charter schools with the claim they were freeing the schools from the straitjacket of bureaucracy, they naively created an education sector that is too frequently overly responsive to powerful interests and unresponsive to government’s responsibility to protect children. While the details are different from Michigan to Ohio to New York, the problem is that charter schools are shielded from government oversight in the public interest—even if, as in New York, the charter school sponsor is a committee of the board of trustees of a state university.

Trump VA Tries to End Ethics Law Prohibiting Staff Conflicts of Interest with For-Profit Colleges

While this blog focuses on K-12 public education, the Trump administration has proposed ending a regulation of for-profit, higher education, a proposal that is so outrageous it cannot be ignored.  The Trump administration wants to nullify a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect veterans by ensuring that staff in the Department of Veterans Administration are not being paid or otherwise rewarded by the for-profit colleges that, to stay open, actively recruit students who will pay tuition with GI benefits, federal loans and Pell Grants.

NY Times reporter Patricia Cohen explains: “The proposal to suspend the ethics law was published in the Federal Register in mid-September and is scheduled to take effect on Oct. 16, but no public hearings have been scheduled and no public comments have yet been submitted.”

Here is what the change will mean, explains Aaron Glantz of Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: “The proposed regulation… would allow employees of the Department of Veterans affairs to receive ‘wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities’ and services from for-profit schools that receive GI Bill funds. VA employees would also be allowed to own stock in those colleges, the waiver says, as ‘the Secretary (of Veterans Affairs) has determined that no detriment will result to the United States, veterans or eligible persons from such activities.'”

The NY Times‘ Patricia Cohen quotes Carrie Wofford, director of Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit advocacy group: “There’s no good that can come from allowing colleges to have unseemly financial entanglements with V.A. employees. Congress enacted a zero tolerance for financial conflicts of interest for V.A. employees precisely because Congress uncovered massive fraud by for-profit colleges targeting veterans.”

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss just published a letter sent by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin to protest the Department’s waiving the conflict-of-interest regulation:  “If this proposed change were to go forward, Department employees and state accreditors would be able to be employed by or own stock in the very institutions the Department and State Approving Agencies are charged with regulating… Many for-profit colleges have been found by numerous law enforcement entities and investigative reporting to have preyed on veterans and service members for access to their educational benefits, and have invested heavily in obtaining special access to military bases and populations. Loopholes in federal law have created incentives for many entities in this sector to recruit and enroll veterans as a means of gaining access to other sources of state and federal aid.  Many for-profit colleges have also put substantial resources into lobbying Congress and numerous federal agencies to weaken regulations that would protect student veterans from fraud.  Weakening conflict of interest regulations related to for-profit institutions is not only inadvisable, but will put our men and women in uniform and those who have served our country at further risk of predatory and abusive business practices.”

The effort to waive the conflict of interest regulations in the Department of Veterans Affairs is part of a wider effort by the Trump Administration to roll back rules imposed during the Obama Administration to curtail abuses by the for-profit college sector. The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has also taken steps to weaken rules that protect students from predatory activities by for-profit colleges. Michael Stratford covers these issues for POLITICO.  Here is his summary at the end of August of steps taken by the DeVos Department of Education to undermine Obama-era regulations to protect students from taking loans to study in for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak academically that their graduates are unemployable and unable to pay off the loans they have accrued:

  • “Moved to gut two major Obama-era regulations reviled by the industry that would have cut off funding to low-performing programs and made it easier for defrauded students to wipe out their loans;
  • “Appointed a former for-profit college official, Julian Schmoke Jr., to lead the team charged with policing fraud in higher education—one of a slew of industry insiders installed in key positions. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry University, whose parent company agreed last year to pay $100 million to resolve allegations the company misled students about their job and salary prospects;
  • “Stopped approving new student-fraud claims brought against for-profit schools. The Education Department has a backlog of more than 65,000 applications from students seeking to have their loans forgiven on the grounds they were defrauded….”

Stratford adds some background to clarify what kind of for-profit programs the Obama Department of Education had been regulating and the current administration is trying to let off the hook: “For-profit colleges, which enrolled nearly 2.5 million students in the past academic year, encompass multistate behemoths such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry, as well as hundreds of small trade schools that struggle to make ends meet. Since a Great Recession boom, the industry has been dogged by allegations of predatory sales techniques and poor outcomes that left tens of thousands of students drowning in debt while the schools raked in billions from federal student loans and grants. President Barack Obama sought to curb those abuses with a regulatory crackdown that the industry blamed for pushing two of its giants, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, into bankruptcy, while others saw their stock prices nosedive and enrollment plummet.”

In her fine book, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler summarizes the problems for-profit colleges pose for our society: “Ironically, despite being regarded as part of the private sector, the for-profits are financed almost entirely by American taxpayers. They enroll about one in ten college students today, but utilize one in four dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the predominant source of federal student aid.  A 1998 law permitted the for-profits to gain up to 90 percent of their total revenue from this single source.  Other government funds do not count against this threshold, so the for-profits also receive 37 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits. In recent years, this combination of public funds has provided the for-profit schools with 86 percent of their total revenue, to the tune of roughly $32 billion annually.” (pp. 2-3)

The Obama Department of Education, to its credit, tried to crack down on abuses by for-profit colleges. The Trump administration is systematically undermining the public interest by rolling back regulations.

School Finance Expert Attacks Thinking of Betsy DeVos: the Social Contract vs. Individualism

Bruce Baker, the school funding expert at Rutgers University, publishes a regular personal blog that he calls School Finance 101.  Recently he has been posting reflections he calls “School Finance Prerequisites.” These pieces consider principles Baker views as foundational to an understanding of public school finance.  Baker is challenging the thinking of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, a long opponent of public education and a philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in advocacy organizations like the American Federation of Children and the libertarian think-tank, EdChoice, to promote school choice and her goal of making school funding portable—a publicly provided chit carried by each child to the school chosen by her parents.

In On Liberty vs. Equality, Baker examines a central flaw at the center of the promotion of school privatization: the belief that school choice will lead to educational equity:  “A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.'” However, “a lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another… Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate these divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.”

Baker continues: “(E)xpansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices.  Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others. Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists… (T)he choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system.”

In a companion post, On the Provision of Public Education, Baker considers public vs. private goods and the essential role of taxation to pay for public goods and services. Baker is describing what ought to be some basic lessons of civics: “Governments, established by the people for the people, collect and redistribute tax dollars to provide for the mix of public goods and services desired. Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual…. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Why is it so important to re-explain these basic principles of public funding for the public good?  “The necessity to revisit the basic connections between taxation and the provision of public goods comes about partly in response to a frequent argument of (advocates for) school choice… that public tax dollars belong (or at least should belong) to the child, not the institutions… Institutions—especially government institutions—are faceless bureaucracies, thus ‘bad’ whereas children are obviously ‘good.’  That is, even if those institutions are established to serve the children…  (I)ndividual parent preferences for the use of public dollars always supersede societal preferences.”  Baker argues that, “the tax dollars collected belong to… the democratically governed community… that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars… Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools.  The assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt (15 to 20 years) surely do not belong exclusively to parents of currently enrolled children.”

If you have been listening in recent months to speeches delivered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you may realize that in these recent blog posts, Bruce Baker is explicating what is wrong with the logic in DeVos’s reasoning.  For example, here is what she said in a keynote address at the annual meeting last July of the American Legislative Exchange Council:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…

“Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students.’ NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

“This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Bruce Baker is condemning Margaret Thatcher’s contention—and apparently Betsy DeVos’s belief—that there is no such thing as society—only individuals and families.

In his recent posts, Baker defends the thinking encapsulated by the American Federation of Teachers in its anti-DeVos tweet—that public schools are an essential manifestation of the social contract: “We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

Ohio’s Failure to Oversee Online and Dropout Recovery Schools Is Even Bigger Than ECOT Scandal

ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is the symbol of a much bigger problem in Ohio and across a number of states: an out-of-control sector of cyber schools and so-called “dropout recovery schools” whose savvy operators and owners have learned how to skirt and manipulate state laws that merely assumed entrepreneurs would run schools for the purpose of benefiting their students instead of lining their own pockets.  That was an incredibly naive assumption.

In her new expose of EdisonLearning’s Capital High School in Columbus, Ohio, For-Profit Schools Get State Dollars for Dropouts Who Rarely Drop In, Heather Vogell demonstrates that Ohio’s problem is much bigger than ECOT, and explores the outrageous scandal across several states of dropout recovery schools sucking profits from the scarce dollars in state education budgets: “Such schools aggressively recruit as many students as possible, and sometimes count them even after they stop showing up, a practice that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-paid revenue for empty desks. Auditors have accused for-profit dropout recovery schools in Ohio, Illinois and Florida of improperly collecting public money for vanished students… So-called ‘dropout recovery’ schools are increasingly popular, with many setting up shop in poverty-stricken city neighborhoods. In Chicago this past year, about 8,000 students attended such schools. In Ohio in the 2014-2015 school year, more than 16,000 students did, including some who attended online-only programs.”

Vogell examines the Ohio dropout recovery schools being sponsored by EdisonLearning—Capital High School in Columbus and a chain of 8 EdisonLearning dropout recovery schools across the state, the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies: “For-profit school management companies like Capital’s parent, EdisonLearning, have rushed into this niche, taking advantage of the combination of public funding, an available population of students and lax oversight… For EdisonLearning, the move to dropout recovery schools signaled a remarkable downshift in ambition. When launching the Edison Project 25 years before, media executive Chris Whittle and former Yale University President Benno Schmidt held out privatization as a fix for urban schools’ ills…. At its height, Edison managed dozens of schools in cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore. Whittle and Schmidt left their administrative roles in December 2006. Money troubles and controversies over test scores, staffing and safety forced the company to scale back… By 2013, the Bridgescape program had expanded to 17 schools in six states.”  Eventually Magic Johnson severed his ties with the schools: “In the summer of 2016, EdisonLearning ended its partnership with Magic Johnson and removed his name from schools’ signs… EdisonLearning—which sold off a chunk of its business in 2013—posted a significant loss in the 2016 fiscal year and has closed Bridgscapes in Illinois, Ohio and Virginia. But it is still bullish on dropout education.”

Capital High School, the dropout recovery school featured by Vogell, occupies a storefront in Columbus, Ohio, and although its student attendance ought to be able to be documented more easily than at an online school like ECOT, confirming students’ attendance has been a huge problem for the state of Ohio which pays the tuition: “Last school year, Ohio’s cash-strapped education department paid Capital High $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars to teach students on the verge of dropping out. But on a Thursday in May, students’ workstations in the storefront charter school… resembled place settings for a dinner party where most guests never arrived. In one room, empty chairs faced 25 blank computer monitors. Just three students sat in a science lab down the hall, and nine more in an unlit classroom, including one youth who sprawled out, head down, sleeping.  Only three of the more than 170 students on Capital’s rolls attended class the required five hours that day, records obtained by ProPublica show. Almost two-thirds of the school’s students never showed up; others left early.  Nearly a third of the roster failed to attend class all week. Some stay away even longer.  ProPublica reviewed 38 days of Capital High’s records from late March to late May and found six students skipped 22 or more days with no excused absences… Though the school is largely funded on a per-student basis, the no-shows didn’t hurt the school’s revenue stream. Capital billed and received payment from the state for teaching the equivalent of 171 students full time in May.”

Vogell describes aggressive efforts to recruit students. Some states provide an incentive for high school counselors to recommend that students move to a dropout recovery school: the students no longer count against the public high schools’ graduation rate if the students drop out into an alternative “dropout recovery” school. In other cases recruiters from the for-profit dropout recovery schools take coffee and donuts to meetings with high school counselors from whom they seek referrals. Vogell describes one Midwestern city where the dropout recovery schools engaged church pastors to help with recruitment. Vogell interviewed students’ probation officers who complained that dropout recovery programs with little structure are not helpful to the students they monitor.

This blog has been tracking the scandal at Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.  Now suddenly in a new development, ECOT will become a new chapter in the story Vogell exposes: Ohio has now initially approved ECOT’s changing its designation to a “dropout recovery school.”

To review: ECOT’s best known problem is that the state has accused it of theft of tax dollars for students the school claims but who are not regularly participating.  We’ll see if the Ohio Supreme Court will uphold a lower court’s demand that ECOT return enormous overpayments, money ECOT has already turned over to the two privately held, for-profit companies that provide curriculum and management services. ECOT’s founder, William Lager, owns both companies and has been collecting sizeable profits which he has shared with Ohio legislators as political campaign contributions. ECOT sued to prevent the state’s clawing back $60 million overpaid to ECOT during the 2015-16 school year, when ECOT charged the state for educating 15,300 students. The state has been able to document only 6,300 students in school at ECOT that school year. Now the state is demanding that ECOT repay $19 million for the 2016-2017 school year.  Although ECOT claimed 14,200 students last school year, the state can document only 11,600.

In the newest development, ECOT has now been initially approved by the Ohio Department of Education as a dropout recovery school.  For years ECOT has been earning an F rating from the state for its students’ test scores and deplorable graduation rate—an F rating which, under a 2015 law, now threatens the survival of its nonprofit sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. In late September, the Ohio Department of Education agreed to accommodate ECOT’s request that it be declared a “dropout recovery school” instead of a regular online school.  The new designation will automatically change the school’s overall grade from F to C without any added responsibility for ECOT to better serve its students. Ohio, we learn, has lower expectations for the students at dropout recovery schools and will change the school’s overall score, even if the students’ academic performance and graduation rate remain deplorable. All ECOT has to do is prove that the majority of its students are between the ages of 16 and 21 and are in need of special services for students at-risk. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell adds: “The Ohio Department of Education…. does not audit that claim and leaves it to schools and their oversight organizations known as ‘sponsors’ to make that determination.”

“Backpack Full of Cash” Film Screening—Next Tuesday Night at Cleveland Heights High School

A Northeast Ohio screening of the new film, Backpack Full of Cash, from Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions and narrated by Matt Damon, is scheduled October 10, next Tuesday evening, at Cleveland Heights High School.  Please join us for this timely film presentation, followed by discussion.

  • Date: Tuesday, October 10, 2017
  • Time:  7 PM
  • Place: Cleveland Heights High School Auditorium (corner of Ceder and Lee Roads) (Park off Washington Boulevard and enter the high school from the newly remodeled east entrance.)

Sponsors of this free screening are:

  • Heights Coalition for Public Education
  • Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795 AFT
  • Reaching Heights
  • Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women
  • Progress Northeast Ohio.

In these times when Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is devotedly promoting school privatization, we will consider the essential civic role of public education. Public schools are not utopian; of course society must attend constantly to improving the public schools. At the same time public education is the civic institution in which, by law and through the democratic process, we can best protect the rights and serve the educational needs of all of our children.

In the discussion guide for the film (Touch the thumbnail for the discussion guide.) the education journal Rethinking Schools explains: “There are more than 13,500 public school districts (over 90,000 public schools) serving approximately 50 million students in the United States… There are about 6,800 charters in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving almost three million students, or… 6 percent of the nation’s public school students….  Roughly 1.3 million students took part in a voucher or voucher-like program in 2017.”

The discussion guide traces the history of charter schools: “Charters first appeared, often with community and teacher union support, in urban districts in the late 1980s and early 1990s… Over the years, the charter school movement has changed dramatically. While there are high-quality individual charter schools, the charter movement has become a national and well-funded campaign organized by investors, foundations, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system with less public accountability and less democratic oversight.”

What about the history of vouchers? “The voucher movement can be traced to economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. In 1955, he called for eliminating the funding of public schools and replacing it with universal vouchers…. The first use of vouchers was by white families after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision. For five years, until federal courts intervened, officials closed the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than desegregate.  White parents took advantage of vouchers to send their children to a private, whites-only academy… The first contemporary voucher school program began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1990.”  It was soon followed by the state supported voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. Voucher programs today also include education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits.

Here are some of the questions our October 10 film screening will address:

  • We live in a capitalist country. Why not look to the free market for solutions to challenges in education?
  • Is it true, as some say, that charters and vouchers outperform public schools?
  • If a school is educating a child, whether it’s a private school or a charter school, doesn’t it deserve public dollars?
  • Why shouldn’t we be using public dollars to help some children escape from public schools?
  • We have choices in other areas of life. Why not in schools?
  • How should we define our civic responsibility to educate all children?

Our screening of Backpack Full of Cash and the ensuing discussion will address timely concerns not only in today’s national context as our U.S. Secretary of Education promotes school privatization, but also in Ohio, where children’s opportunities and our public school funding are threatened by an unregulated charter sector—including out-of-control online academies, in addition to several statewide school voucher programs.

Check out the official trailer for the film.

U.S. Department of Education Awards $253 Million in 2017 Charter Schools Program Grants

Last week, Betsy DeVos’s much touted priority for school privatization became a greater reality at the federal level, but not through her favorite vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts.  These vehicles that use public money for scholarships for children to attend private schools seem to be making their way into state law via the model bills that state legislatures are pulling off the shelf at the American Legislative Exchange Council, but there has been no indication that Congress is sympathetic to adopting vouchers.  Congress rejected Title I Portability during the 2015 debate on the Every Student Succeeds Act, and neither the Senate nor the House has shown any inclination to appropriate money for a federal voucher program.

There is another way, however, that Betsy DeVos is expanding privatization at the federal level.  The federal Charter Schools Program has slowly and persistently expanded.  While the U.S. Department of Education made Charter Schools Program Grants to states of $157 million in 2015 and to states and charter management organizations of $245 million in 2016, last week the Department announced awards of over $253 million in 2017.

When Congress passed ESSA in December of 2015, it endorsed the Charter Schools Program and added new categories by which the federal government can make grants to incentivize the startup and expansion of charter schools.  Nonprofit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) became eligible under ESSA to receive direct grants, and in another category the U.S. Department of Education was permitted to make grants to agencies that enhance the credit of charter schools to construct and renovate facilities.

Last week the Department granted $144,680,792 to what federal jargon calls SEAs, state education agencies (which are, in reality the states’ Departments of Education) to expand charter schools in nine states.  The largest grants went to Texas ($38,034,535), Wisconsin ($37,954,114), Indiana ($24,002,291) and Minnesota ($22,381,611).  Five states won smaller federal awards—New Mexico, Maryland, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Rhode Island.

This year 17 nonprofit Charter Management Organizations will split $52,412,924, with the largest of these a grant of over $26 million  to IDEA Public Schools, a Texas CMO, and the second largest, $5 million, to Rocketship Education, the controversial schools featuring blended learning. Two New York CMOs won the third and fourth biggest federal grants in the CMO category: Ascend Learning won a grant of over $3.5 million and Success Academy Charter Schools will receive $3,225,240.  Success Academies is the NYC chain that pays its CEO, Eva Moskowitz an annual salary of over half a million dollars.

The Charter Schools Program grants to enhance credit for charter schools to buy or renovate facilities total $56,250,000 and have been awarded to development groups in seven states and the District of Columbia.

Twice, the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued scathing reports on the Department’s operation of the Federal Charter Schools Program in 2012 and again in 2016.  In 2012, the OIG declared: “We determined that OII (the Office of Innovation and Improvement that operates the Charter Schools Program) did not have an adequate process to ensure SEAs (state education departments) effectively oversaw and monitored their subgrantees.” And in 2016, the OIG charged: “Specifically, we found that 22 of the 33 charter schools in our review had 36 examples of internal control weaknesses related to the charter schools’ relationships with their CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) concerning conflicts of interest, related-party transactions, and insufficient segregation of duties.”

The Ohio Department of Education has received grants from the federal charter schools program.  Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Education Association, through a joint project, knowyourcharter.com, slammed the program in May of 2016 in a report called Belly Up that reviewed grants made to Ohio: “At least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million. Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned… A recent state audit of 44 Ohio charter schools found 15 percent attendance discrepancy. Of these 44 charters, 17 had received CSP grants totaling $6.6 million in federal funding and one of these schools—the London Academy—had only 10 of the 270 students in attendance.”

The Charter Schools Program is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. During the tenure of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education it became obvious that the emphasis of the program was Duncan’s priority for innovation and that Duncan and his staff were far less attentive to accountability.  I have never seen any kind of published report that would indicate that during the Obama administration, the Department cleaned up the Charter Schools grant program during Duncan’s tenure through 2015 or John King’s 2016 tenure.

And I have seen nothing to indicate that Betsy DeVos, a persistent opponent of regulation, has implemented careful procedures for oversight of the grants being made in 2017 to state education agencies, CMOs  or other agencies receiving grants.  I will be delighted if someone can provide evidence that the Charter Schools Program, condemned by the Department’s own Office of Inspector General, has been cleaned up.

But there a much deeper concern.  Why is the U.S.Department of Education encouraging states to expand school privatization instead of creating incentives for states to invest more in their public schools and to distribute funding more equitably?