Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Has Its Day in Court; Chief Justice Calls ECOT’s Claim Absurd

After a lengthy legal case in which Ohio’s biggest charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has challenged the Ohio Department of Education’s attempt to crack down on what appears to be ECOT’s outrageous over-reporting of student attendance, ECOT had its final day in court. The Ohio Supreme Court heard ECOT’s appeal yesterday morning.

For about an hour the attorneys for ECOT and for the Ohio Department of Education presented their arguments, and the justices peppered them with questions.  ECOT’s attorney, Marion Little argued that Ohio law requires only that online e-schools document students’ formal enrollment and provide 920 hours of curriculum annually. Whether or not students actually participate in the school’s online education is, according to Little, not covered by Ohio law as a condition for the state’s per pupil funding of the school. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expressed skepticism.

Here is the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell on the argument made by the attorney for the Ohio Department of Education: “Department lawyer Douglas Cole repeatedly blasted ECOT’s position that it should be paid for every student enrolled at the school, regardless of how long they spend working on their online classes. ‘The department says that’s an absurd result and the court should be leery about reading that intent (into the law),’ Cole said.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel describes the final interchange between ECOT’s attorney and Chief Justice O’Connor:  “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only log in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’ she asked.”

Verification of e-school attendance has become a serious issue in Ohio, particularly for ECOT—Ohio’s largest charter school, which has been collecting tens of millions of tax dollars every year in per-pupil reimbursements. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explained in a background piece in Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “ECOT is the biggest charter school in Ohio—bigger than all but 13 school districts in the state—and was once the largest online school in the nation. ECOT received more than $100 million in state tax dollars each year until the recent funding dispute, while drawing students and funding from 95 percent of the school districts in Ohio.  Those include more than 800 from Cleveland, more than 200 from Akron and about 120 from districts like Parma and Elyria.”

In the 2015-16 school year when the state instituted a requirement for more rigorous documentation that students were actually participating in the school’s electronic program, there was a gaping disparity between the number of students ECOT claimed were enrolled and the number of students whose active participation the state could verify.  The Columbus Dispatch‘s Siegel reminds us that, “The department found ECOT was unable to verify about 60 percent of its enrollment for the 2015-16 school year, and more than 18 percent of its enrollment for the 2016-17 year.”

Here are the exact numbers, according to the Plain Dealer’s O’Donnell: “Under the new requirements, ECOT could document class participation of only 6,300 of its 15,300 students for the 2015-16 school year—a 59% gap—leading the state school board to demand that ECOT repay $60 million.  Then again last September, the state found that for the 2016-17 school year, ECOT can properly document about 11,700 of the 14,200 students it claims.”  Based on the disparity in enrollment figures, the state school board last week voted to recover $19.2 million for the 2016-17 school year. For these two school years the state is now trying to recover a total of $80 million.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision on ECOT’s appeal is vitally important to ECOT’s founder William Lager and supporters of the school.  The Dispatch‘s  Siegel reminds us: “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s attorneys were literally fighting for the school’s life in front of the Ohio Supreme Court… The state’s largest charter school shut its doors three weeks ago when its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, suspended operations because the school was set to run out of money in March… It appears the only way those doors reopen next year is through a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling that says the department illegally imposed a retroactive rule change that led to the ECOT owing the state about $80 million for unverified enrollment… The Department of Education in 2016 beefed up its oversight and started requiring online schools to show through log-in durations and offline documentation that students were actually participating in minimum hours of ‘educational opportunities.'”

In an article written on Monday, prior to ECOT’s hearing at the Ohio Supreme Court, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel described the history of the case: “(T)he two-year fight between ECOT and the Department of Education has been unusually ugly.  Using television ads (which the state auditor is investigating for possible illegal use of state funds) and media spokesman Neil Clark, a grizzled Statehouse lobbyist, ECOT harshly attacked the department, its leadership, and more recently through an affiliated blog, Gov. John Kasich… Clark accused the department of ‘trying to eliminate school choice in Ohio through illegal actions,’ and he also has accused the courts of playing politics. Publicly, the Department of Education did not swing back much until a few weeks ago, when, in the wake of ECOT’s closure, a spokeswoman said, ‘The department has no confidence that ECOT intends to follow the law… We’re disappointed that ECOT and its for-profit vendors, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management, continue to prioritize their monetary gain over the best interests of 12,000 students.’ Since 2000, these companies, run by ECOT founder Bill Lager, have collected about $200 million in state funding.”

A huge issue prior to yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was whether justices on the Ohio Supreme Court with a potential conflict of interest in the case ought to recuse themselves.  Ohio’s justices are elected and, therefore, depend on political contributions. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, for example, has been closely tied to ECOT and William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two for-profit companies that provide ECOT’s curriculum and management. Here is the Plain Dealer‘s editorial, published yesterday to coincide with the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ECOT case: “In 2012, the last time O’Donnell ran for re-election, his campaign received $3,450 from Lager, as well as another $4,450 from employees of Lager’s Altair Management. O’Donnell then agreed after receiving a personal call from Lager, to speak at the 2013 ECOT graduation.”

When the Plain Dealer‘s O’Donnell described the Court proceedings yesterday morning, he confirmed that Justice Terrence O’Donnell’s questioning helped ECOT’s attorney Marion Little by leading Little to lay out ECOT’s justification for its theory of counting student attendance: “Justice Terrence O’Donnell had a different approach in his questions for Little and Cole. One sequence of questions allowed Little to affirm key points of the school’s argument that charter schools were always paid on the number of  students (who enroll without considering their participation) until the state changed its method in 2016.”

I encourage you to watch the archived footage of the February 13, Ohio Supreme Court hearing on ECOT’s case. Having watched the hearing myself, I’ll guess that the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court will fall on the side of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s point that ECOT’s argument is absurd. I am assuming the court majority will decide not to to protect William Lager and his outrageous profits based on charging Ohio’s taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for students who have not really been actively engaging with ECOT’s curriculum despite that the students may have formally enrolled and received a laptop computer.

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Is School Privatization Agenda Shifting to Vouchers? Charter School Advocacy Organization Collapses

On Wednesday, Politico New York‘s Morning Education update briefly covered a pro-charter schools advocacy day in Albany, New York and then noted, “The rally comes as the old guard of charter advocacy in the state officially collapsed Monday when Families for Excellent Schools announced it would close following the firing of its CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.”  Politico New York’s Eliza Shapiro broke the stories of Kittredge’s firing late last week and on Monday, Shapiro and Politico‘s Caitlin Emma broke the news that the organization will shut down.

Even if you live far away from New York, and even if you have forgotten who and what Families for Excellent Schools is, you should keep reading. Because what happened this week may signify a shift in the politics of school privatization.

It remains true that education policy shaping the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children (the 99 Percent) continues to be driven by the power of the One Percent. But in this week when we marked the first anniversary of Betsy DeVos’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education, the momentum behind school privatization has taken another step toward domination by the Republican libertarian crowd—the Amway DeVoses of Michigan and the Koch Brothers of Kansas—who are collaborating with the American Legislative Exchange Council to drive vouchers and neo-voucher education savings accounts and neo-voucher tuition tax credits through the nation’s 50 state legislatures and even into Puerto Rico.

It is the hedge-funded Democrats—the people who made up Families for Excellent Schools, and who continue to underwrite Education Reform Now, 50 CAN, StudentsFirst New York and Democrats for Education Reform, and who drove the expansion of charter schools during the Obama years and in Democratic states like New York—whose star seems to be fading.

Families for Excellent Schools, which collapsed this week, has also been closely tied with Eva Moskowitz’s chain of NYC Success Academy Charter Schools.  It was Families for Excellent Schools that spent $9.7 million in 2014, without revealing its donors, to campaign for charter school expansion through television advertising and sponsorship of huge rallies. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to stop the practice in NYC of co-locating charter schools into NYC public schools, but Families for Excellent Schools was powerful enough to win the support of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a law dictating that the NYC Public Schools must find rent-free space in public school facilities for new charter schools or else pay the rent in commercially available buildings.

Families for Excellent Schools shut its doors this week after it was revealed that Jeremiah Kittredge, its director, had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a participant at the 2017 Camp Philos, an annual conclave of wealthy hedge fund supporters of charter schools that has been sponsored annually since 2014 at high end resorts and hotels by Education Reform Now—a sister organization of Families for Excellent Schools.

While in 2011 its founders set up Families for Excellent Schools with a name that connotes participation of a group of parents seeking better education, and while its website declares it was established “through a partnership between schools and families,” Families for Excellent Schools has been, in reality, an Astroturf—fake grassroots—organization.  Tracing ties of Families for Excellent Schools to Education Reform Now, StudentsFirst NY, and another lobbying effort, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, George Joseph reported for The Nation in 2015: “In contrast to most ‘grassroots’ parents’ organizations, Families for Excellent Schools has retained the services of David Grandeau, New York’s former top lobbying regulator, whose expertise has helped shield its donors’ identities by funneling most of its spending through a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Nevertheless, overwhelming institutional similarities indicate that Families for Excellent Schools is largely funded by the same nine hedge-fund billionaires behind almost all of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany’s rapid expenditures.”  Joseph identifies Joel Greenblatt, Daniel Loeb, Julian H. Robertson Jr., Carl Icahn, Paul Singer, Seth Klarman, and other wealthy hedge funders, along with known donors like the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  Nonprofit Quarterly also identifies Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma as a major donor.

It turns out that the problems of Families for Excellent Schools are much deeper than Kittredge’s misbehavior. Here is the NY TimesKate Taylor reporting this week on the real significance of the organization’s closure: “Families for Excellent Schools for years was the well-funded face of the charter school movement in New York, but its support seems to have evaporated… As a 501(c)3 organization, Families for Excellent Schools is not required under New York State law to disclose its donors. The group ran into trouble, however, in Massachusetts, where a related organization, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, spent $15 million in 2016 as part of an unsuccessful effort to expand charter schools in the state. The ballot measure it backed was overwhelmingly defeated. In the aftermath, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance concluded that Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy had violated the state’s campaign finance law and fined it $426,466, the largest fine in the history of the office. To resolve the case, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy agreed to dissolve, and Families for Excellent Schools agreed not to fund-raise or engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.”  Kittredge, who ran the Massachusetts campaign, lost support, especially after Massachusetts forced the publication of the names of donors to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, donors who prefer secrecy when making obviously political donations.

According to Politico reporters Shapiro and Emma, Kittredge had already planned to leave Families for Excellent Schools to take an advocacy position at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools: “Although Success has internal and external media relations operations, Kittredge has frequently served as Moskowitz’s unofficial press secretary at events. As recently as November, he orchestrated a press conference on the steps of City Hall about a school space sharing dispute between Moskowitz and Mayor Bill de Blasio…. and served as the logistical arm of Success’ ambitious political advocacy program.”

After Kittredge was fired by Families for Excellent Schools last week for inappropriate behavior, however, Success Academy Charter Schools severed ties.

Have We Been Sitting Idly By While the Meaning of the Term “Public Education” Has Been Corrupted?

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, introduced many of us to the idea that metaphoric moral frames shape our political thinking.  Lakoff concludes his 1996 Moral Politics with an epilogue on the problems posed for public discourse when most of us assume we can neutrally discuss public policy.  Instead, explains Lakoff, political language is always laden with moral judgements that remain invisible to most of us  as we listen, speak, or argue. There is no such thing as neutral, objective political dialogue:

“Conservative and liberal political positions are impossible to compare on an issue-by-issue basis.  Instead, understanding a political position on an issue requires fitting it into an unconscious matrix of… morality… There are no neutral concepts and no neutral language for expressing political positions within a moral context…. (N)ews reporting assumes that concepts are literal and nonpartisan. But concepts, and the language that expresses them, are typically partisan, especially in the moral and political spheres…  To use language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system… (T)he very nature of political discourse in this country makes it difficult to discuss the relationship between morality and politics at all.  The separation of church and state has implicitly left the church as the institution that is seen as guarding morality.  It has been assumed that all political discussions are issue-oriented and morally neutral.” (Moral Politics, pp. 384-387)

One must read Lakoff’s book to learn about the moral frames he believes are juxtaposed in the politics of the right and the left, but Lakoff’s thesis that our political language is never neutral surely speaks, more than 20 years after he published Moral Politics, to the proliferation of politically polarized news media and to rancorous accusations today from right and left about biased media and fake news.  Lakoff’s thesis ought to remind us to pay close attention to the biases implicit in the words we hear in public discourse.

I thought of Lakoff last week, when a news reporter delivering a supposedly unbiased story on immigration casually adopted the language of the Trump administration to describe immigrant families in America bringing grandparents or siblings to this country.  We all know families who have, quite legally for many years, brought their loved ones as immigrants to our communities. But the reporter, seemingly without any awareness of her bias, adopted the anti-immigration and anti-immigrant term, “chain migration.”

Then there was the fine piece about political language in Sunday’s NY Times: Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway?.  The reporters comment on growing use of the term “able-bodied” as a condition to preclude public assistance or as a test for health care eligibility: “The ‘able-bodied’ are now everywhere among government programs for the poor, Republican officials point out. They’re on food stamps. They’re collecting welfare. They’re living in subsidized housing. And their numbers have swelled on Medicaid, a program that critics say was never designed to serve them. These so-called able-bodied are defined in many ways by what they are not: not disabled, not elderly, not children, not pregnant, not blind.  They are effectively everyone left, and they have become the focus of resurgent conservative proposals to overhaul government aid, such as one announced last month by the Trump administration that would allow states to test work requirements for Medicaid. Able-bodied is not truly a demographic label, though: There is no standard for physical or mental ability that makes a person able.  Rather, the term has long been a political one.  Across centuries of use, it has consistently implied another negative: The able-bodied could work, but are not working (or working hard enough).  And, as such, they don’t deserve our aid… In Washington, ‘able-bodied’ has retained its moral connotations but lost much of its historical context.  The term dates back 400 years, when English lawmakers used it the same way, to separate poor people who were physically incapable of supporting themselves from the poor who ought to be able to.  Debates over poverty in America today follow a direct line from that era.”

So what about “public  education”?  Has it begun to take on the connotations of the other public programs that are thought to be only for those who are not able-bodied—the kind of people conservatives condemn as living in “public housing” or who are on “public assistance”?  Have people begun to absorb Betsy DeVos’s admiration for parents with the gumption to go out and shop for a school that will more perfectly suit each child’s needs or each parent’s wishes?  Should we admire those with the will to try to escape to something that a mere “public” school cannot provide?  The biases I worry about here admire individual grit and associate “public” with something less—something that parents might accept if they are just takers and are too lazy to look around.

I worry that we have begun to permit one of our society’s longest and most admired institutions to be tarnished by the political linguistics of people who  idolize markets and choice and everything private.  By contrast as public institutions, public schools protect students’ rights by law and promise access for all students to appropriate services for their educational needs. Too often, we who believe in the public schools neglect to point that out.

Here is the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker in a 2016 interview about the positive role of government—the institution that represents the public.  Hacker focuses on the positive role of government—the public—for the economy, and he identifies the role of public education as central to that public benefit: “The mixed economy is the effective combination of government authority and private markets… The mixed economy made us not just richer in terms of material wellbeing, but also vastly richer in terms of health and education… The United states led the world in massively increasing educational levels with the creation of universal high school and then the encouragement of college degrees.  Additionally, there was the investment in science and research that began in the 1930s and really blossomed during and after World War II… The combination of the right political conditions and the development of science and knowledge, in part because of the increased public investment, allowed private actors and public leaders to capitalize on the opportunities created by an increasingly prosperous and interconnected society.”

Hacker blames growing inequality and the growing power of financial and business elites since the 1970s for widespread loss of faith in the role of government: “It’s true, of course, that Americans are much less trusting of government than they were in the past. The decline began in the late 1960s, accelerated in the ’70s, and has reached a point, now, where only a small minority of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right…. I think the shift in the broader ideology around government has been led by business and political elites. We went from an industrial economy to a financial economy… Business associations moved dramatically to the right. The Business Roundtable moved from supporting the mixed economy along with the larger interests of the business community to being much more focused on CEOs’ bottom lines. The Chamber of Commerce became closely tied to the Republican Party and effectively a lobbyist for hire for narrow business interests. And Charles and David Koch, committed libertarians, created their own network that rivals now the Chamber of Commerce in size. They created a set of advocacy organizations and lobbyists who push for a small-government philosophy.”

It is important to note that one of the members of the Kochs’ elite circle, Betsy DeVos, who founded, funded and chaired the Koch-friendly American Federation of Children, has now become the fox guarding the hen house.  As U.S. Secretary of Education, DeVos is responsible for overseeing the federal government’s role in supporting the 90,000 public schools across America that continue to serve 50 million students.  As Betsy DeVos persistently extols the individual parents who shop around in her imagined market place of privatized schools and as she disparages the need for a public system of education, we need to listen to her rhetoric for what George Lakoff would call its moral connotations.  Her philosophy of education represents a political-moral frame that idealizes the role of the family and the private marketplace but derides any sort of public system.

In his recent work Hacker reflects more generally on government’s role in general for balancing the power of markets.  Here are the words of another political philosopher, the late Benjamin Barber, who sought to define the meaning and importance of the concept of the public specifically in the context America’s creation of a vast system of public schools:

“Through (school) vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Chicago Organizes to Confront Portfolio School Reform, Stop School Closures and Disruption

Consider the following description, from The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, a 2016 policy brief from the Network for Public Education, of a school governance practice known as “portfolio school reform.” While you are reading about this school governance practice, think about the city school districts you may know where portfolio school reform is the operational theory—maybe Chicago, or Washington, D.C., or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Indianapolis, or Nashville, or Denver, or Los Angeles.

“As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student, while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed. In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts. Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack. These districts are often run by a governor or mayoral-appointed authority, with locally elected board members stripped of power.”

The brief continues—presenting the definition of “portfolio school reform”: “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. Then reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration. In theory, this process of closing, re-bidding, and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing.  These approaches have been described (positively) as ‘creative destruction’ or (negatively) as ‘churn.'” “CRPE (the Center on Reinventing Public Education which originated portfolio school reform theory and which promotes portfolio school reform) adds pupil-based funding, more flexible use of human capital, and capacity building.”  “Rhetorically, advocates of this reform describe a shift from a ‘school system’ into a ‘system of schools.’ Importantly this approach does not confront nor attempt to remedy policies creating and sustaining concentrated poverty or those perpetuating a racist system of de facto segregation. Therefore, urban districts themselves are characterized as ‘failing.'”

The Chicago Public Schools is one of the largest districts listed by CRPE in its network of portfolio school districts, and Chicago epitomizes management through churn—the opening and closing of so-called failing schools, in addition to the schools that the district judges under-enrolled.  Under-enrollment quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a district like Chicago, however, where per-pupil funding and the rapid opening of new charter schools means that as children leave to try out school choice, they carry their funding away from a school which soon is designated as “under-enrolled.”

Chicago closed 50 elementary schools in 2013 and established a self-imposed five-year moratorium on closing any more. But according to Sarah Karp of WBEZ, “the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines. High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today. Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

Now that Chicago’s five-year moratorium on school closures has ended, Chicago Public Schools just announced another round of closures. And like the 2013 closures, the new reorganization plan will primarily affect schools serving the city’s African American neighborhoods. Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune describing CPS’s plan for the upcoming round of school closings and consolidations in 2018: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common.”

This plan presents some troubling features and lots of conflicts for the parents and students who will be affected. Several South Side high schools will be eliminated, but the plan is to open a brand new high school in 2019 that will serve the affected neighborhoods. The catch is that the current students will be displaced someplace else while all this is happening.

And one of the schools that will cease operation in its current form, a very highly rated elementary school, the National Teachers Academy will be reconstituted as a high school. Again Sarah Karp reports: “Chicago Public Schools leaders want to convert the school, the highly-rated National Teachers Academy elementary school, which serves primarily low-income, black students, into a high school to serve the South Loop and parts of Chinatown, Bronzeville, and Bridgeport. CPS argued the new, non-selective neighborhood high school could be among the city’s most diverse.” Karp cites a new research report that concludes: “a plan to close a Near South Side elementary school will disproportionately harm poor, black children… Among the critics is a two-year-old group called Chicago United for Equity. They undertook the study, which analyzed whether the conversion would have a disparate impact on any one student group.”

Last week parents and students from schools slated for closure or consolidation staged a protest in front of the private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children are enrolled. Hyde Park Herald reporter Tonia Hill summarizes the demands made by families who will be affected: “Parents, students, and advocates are demanding that each school, Team Englewood Community Academy, John Hope College Prep High School, Paul Robeson High School, Harper High School, Hirsch Metropolitan High School and the National Teacher’s Academy, be sustainable community schools… The group is also demanding that CPS allocate funds to advertise their neighborhood schools to middle school age students and their parents.  Most important the group wants to ensure that no student is displaced from the Englewood community.”

Empty Schools: Empty Promises, a stunning, December 2017, report by Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracks “thousands of black students leave(ing) Chicago for other segregated districts.”  Belsha describes families who feel pushed out of Chicago, a  city that has come to feel unwelcoming: “Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its black population, or more than 250,000 people. In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 black students. Now, the school district which was majority black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts… (S)ome academics blame city officials for making it harder for poor African-Americans, in particular, to live in Chicago: They closed neighborhood schools and mental health clinics; failed to rebuild public housing, dispersing thousands of poor black families across the region, and inadequately responded to gun violence, unemployment and foreclosures in black communities. ‘It’s a menu of disinvestment’ says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. ‘The message that public policy sends to black families in the city is we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.'”

Many believe the opening and closing of public schools and the resulting neighborhood disruption is driving away families who simply seek stability for their children. If test scores and funding were the only factors being considered, Belsha describes research showing that parents might be better off staying in Chicago: “The Reporter looked at the 50 Illinois school districts most impacted by transfers from Chicago’s predominantly poor, black schools. Most districts were among the worst-funded in the state and have been shortchanged even more than CPS… High-poverty districts in northwest Indiana that took in many CPS transfers have also seen their budgets slashed in recent years….”

Stability is the bottom line for many families who want their children to be enrolled in schools near home, to be able to develop a community of peers and to know the teachers.

It is hard to sift out all the variables in Chicago. But one factor that may be contributing to decisions being made by portfolio school managers in the Chicago Public Schools is quietly mentioned. It’s never proven in the studies but it remains a lingering question. On Chicago’s South Side today, isn’t one factor implicated in these recently announced closures and reconfigurations really gentrification?

National School Choice Week: A Time to Examine How the Lessons of ECOT’s Demise Apply Beyond Ohio

During this National School Choice Week, a celebration of school privatization that is being financially and ideologically promoted by people like Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it is a good time to consider the lessons we have been learning about the impact of parental choice and what is virtually always at the center of school choice: privatization of education at public expense.

One obvious and little noticed problem for those who seek to bring the problems of school choice to the public’s attention is that the laws which established charter schools and govern their operation are state-specific.  When an unscrupulous charter school, or even a big chain of charters goes down in another state, it is easy to think, “This isn’t relevant to me,” and maybe skip reading the story.  Even if the Network for Public Education (NPE) releases a high quality, incisive a report on a selection of charter schools across the country, it is tempting to look for a chapter about a school in one’s own state and skip the report’s first four chapters about California. One can turn away, thinking, “I can’t do anything about this other state’s mess anyway.”

But if you read NPE’s big report, you’ll notice that charter school problems across the states have some things in common. Coincidentally and ironically, this National School Choice Week is happening only days after the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, one of the nation’s largest cyber charter schools, was finally put out of business  by Ohio state officials and its sponsoring organization.  ECOT’s demise last Thursday is a good opportunity to reflect on the broader lessons can be learned about school privatization.  ECOT’s seventeen year longevity, despite a history of controversy, is a lesson about outrageous lack of regulation of a privately operated education sector that relies on public tax dollars—public tax dollars that, even when the school is not-for-profit, too frequently flow to for-profit management contractors who use the money to pay state legislators and regulators to look the other way.

In Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, Bill Bush quotes Bill Phillis, long ago an assistant superintendent of public instruction in Ohio and now executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding: “How blind can the state be? It was as if a bear was at the door, but they didn’t look out the window.” Phillis speculates, according to Bush’s report, that ECOT has “over billed the state by more than a half-billion dollars over its lifetime, while its founder, William Lager, showered politicians with campaign cash.”

Bush reviews ECOT’s early history: “ECOT opened in September 2000, and three months later, its first superintendent Coletta Musick, was ousted.  The Dispatch reported that the dispute supposedly centered on ECOT’s attendance claims, but Musick couldn’t discuss it because ECOT had paid her $124,233 in tax money to sign a nondisclosure agreement… Shortly after Musick left, three of ECOT’s five school board members, handpicked by Lager, also resigned.  Then-state Auditor Jim Petro issued an attendance audit in 2001 covering ECOT’s first year: The school initially claimed to have 2,270 students, but records showed only seven logged on to any of the school’s computer systems. Yet the school had still received full funding for all the students. ECOT was ordered to repay $1.6 million but was allowed to work off the debt.”

After the legislature strengthened Ohio’s charter school law a bit in 2015, the state could claim the right to demand computer log-in data before reimbursing ECOT for its students’ per-pupil state aid. ECOT, however went to court to protect its right, under a 2003 agreement, not to present log-in records to the state.  ECOT has had the state in court all year to prevent the state’s claw-back of $80 million for just two school years—2015-16 and 2016-17.  Until  ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West cracked down last week based on the school’s pending bankruptcy, the state has been unable to recapture the money.  The Ohio Supreme Court remains scheduled to hear the school’s final appeal in oral arguments on February 13.

Last summer, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel were the first to break the story about ECOT’s early history.  The reporters interviewed a disgruntled former-ECOT-employee, Chandra Filichia, employed by Lager as an ECOT registrar for several years, but now back full time as a waitress at the Columbus Waffle House where she met Bill Lager in 2000. Then bankrupt, Lager met with friends over coffee as they tried to come up with a new business venture.  Lager and his ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy mapped out their business plan on paper napkins.  Finally, “The two of them attended state-run classes on how to start a charter school, where they met Coletta Musick.  The former principal brought an actual education background to the team. Lager already had connections for obtaining computers and office equipment.  David Brailsford, a Toledo ticket broker, provided the early financing.”

In a new and detailed expose for Mother Jones, James Pogue revisits this early story, adding details and photographs to depict the online charter school’s humble beginning as a budding business venture.  Pogue re-interviews Chandra Filichia, the waitress later hired by Lager to recruit students for ECOT, about her disillusionment with the quality of ECOT’s academic program: “As a registrar, she described herself as being in a position to see the school’s attendance problems.  She said kids who hadn’t logged on in for weeks would call, after being threatened with truancy proceedings, begging for her help.”

Pogue  quotes Jeffrey Forster, a former superintendent at the school, responding to an inquiry from an Ohio Department of Education’s attorney about the process ECOT used to verify its student enrollment: “Forster recalled as an example how one day in 2009, ECOT gathered its teachers in a Columbus-area Doubletree hotel, and over the course of 10 hours had them verify attendance for as many as 14,000 students. They passed the forms around a string of lined-up tables and worked from memory as much as from login or attendance records… If no one recalled a student, the teachers—each of whom could have had dozens of pupils, sometimes many more—would look on their rosters to see if they could find a name.  Many of the students presumably had done their schoolwork in good faith, and if a student had definitively dropped out the teachers would decline to sign.  But the verifications seem to have had nothing to do with how much time the student actually spent doing classwork.”

Pogue also quotes Keith Richards, who as Newark, Ohio’s public school superintendent in 2006, wrote a formal letter of complaint to ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.  Superintendent Richards also forwarded his complaint to State Auditor Petro: “Of the 12 former Newark students who have attended ECOT this year, we have found many violations… with regard to enrollment, attendance, instruction time and activity and withdrawal procedures.” Superintendent Richards continued, “We have documentation that shows that four ECOT students… do not have a computer or even in some cases, internet access in their homes.  We know of one student who was enrolled in ECOT for two years… and who was never given a computer or ECOT coursework.”

On Sunday, the first day of this year’s National School Choice Week, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized: “Ohio’s charter-school laws were from the start, exceedingly friendly to big campaign donors who would go on to use them to make a buck. Numerous attempts over the years to reform the laws and strengthen oversight have been stymied by the charter-school lobby and legislators friendly to it.”

As a way of marking National School Choice Week this year, please read Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel’s July 30, 2017 expose on ECOT ,  James Pogue’s report at Mother Jones: The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded, and the Network for Public Education’s recent report, Charters and Consequences.

Then consider, as a contrast, our nation’s system of public schools, regulated by law and the democratic process to protect the rights of their students and protect the public’s investment. Privatization of education is not inevitable.  School choice responds to power and privilege.  Maybe it is time to consider the best way to protect the public good by strengthening the public investment in well regulated public schools—and distributing tax dollars more generously to the schools in poor communities whose needs are great and whose funding remains meager.