Charter Advocates Demand that States Reform Failing Online Academies

When the largest pro-charter school advocacy organizations publish a report demanding major reforms in the sector for which they are themselves the primary advocates, you have to pay attention. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN (the pro-charter, pro-school “reform” network of state astro-turf advocacy groups) just published a scathing report on the abysmal performance of virtual, online academies.

These pro-charter organizations explain that the huge online academies are failing to educate students at the same time they are cheating taxpayers:  “(T)he well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter… schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country.  It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively for the students it serves. It is also time for authorizers to hold full-time, virtual charter schools accountable for performance, using measures and metrics suited to their programs and closing those that chronically fail their students.”

The new report presents facts about the growth of the online charter sector: “Of the 43 states and D.C. that have enacted charter school laws, 35 states plus D.C. allow full-time virtual charter schools. The eight that do not allow these schools are Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia…  As of August 2014, according to National Alliance research, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and D.C….  According to National Alliance research, enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools is highly concentrated in three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California—which collectively enroll over half of full-time virtual charter school students nationwide… Full-time virtual charter schools serve a higher percentage of white students (69 percent vs. 49 percent), a lower percentage of Hispanic students (11 percent vs. 27 percent), and roughly the same percentage of black (13 percent vs. 15 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (2 percent vs. 5 percent), Native American (1 percent vs. 1 percent), and multi-racial (4 percent vs. 3 percent) students as compared with traditional public schools.”

The report’s scathing critique of online charter schools is grounded in a trio of reports by academic think tanks, jointly published in the fall of 2015 by Stanford CREDO, Mathematia Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Here is a summary of the concerns raised in the new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN: “Full-time virtual charter school students experience 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.”  “The mobility rates for students after they leave full-time virtual charter schools are extremely high…. (Students who leave full-time virtual charter schools have a more chaotic school experience after they leave full-time virtual charter schools than they did before they enrolled in such schools.)”

The new report’s authors recommend that states ought to beef up their regulations to ensure “minimum academic performance standards” and ought to have the leverage to close schools that are not serving their students.  States ought to regulate authorizers to ensure that all the money they collect for oversight is being used for its intended purpose. Non-profits should not be beefing up their operating budgets with the funds intended to cover charter school oversight, and tiny local school districts should not be padding their own budgets by collecting state fees to sponsor huge charter schools that poorly serve children from other districts across the region.

Virtual charter schools do not have the same costs as brick and mortar schools, and states ought determine what it really costs for online schools to operate and additionally “require full-time virtual charter school operators to propose and justify a price-per-student in their charter school applications” based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools.

And finally, the new report recommends that as states establish valid costs for operating full-time virtual charter schools, they also consider  a performance-based funding system that reimburses schools only for the students who are actively participating in the online school’s academic program.  The report encourages states to consider paying for the students who stay in the schools and graduate: “As states develop policies in the specific area of performance-based funding, we recommend that they look to the emerging efforts in four states that are experimenting with completion-based funding systems: Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah.”  While online schools ought to be open to all, schools ought also to be required to have some admissions requirements to ensure that parents are able sufficiently to oversee their child’s participation.

States also ought to be monitoring the performance of the authorizers themselves.  And states ought to be setting limits on the size and expansion rates of these schools which sometimes enroll thousands of students. “When the large size of many full-time virtual charter schools is combined with research showing that full-time virtual charter school students have much weaker academic growth overall than traditional public school students, caution is justified.”

We will have to wait to see whether state legislators are moved by the advice of the pro-charter advocates to clean up the most notorious operators in the charter sector, the until-now untouchable online academies. After all, the same advice has been given before.  The Annenberg Institute for School Reform released similar recommendations in 2014, and the Center for Popular Democracy has been releasing an annual demand for more accountability in the charter sector.

In Ohio, at least, it is apparent that academic and think tank reports have been unconvincing to legislators in the pocket of the for-profit charter operators who regularly make the necessary political contributions.

DFER’s Campaign to Dominate Local School Boards and Launch Charters

In Hedging Education, Justin Miller, for The American Prospect, describes “how hedge funders have over the past decade underwritten a movement to mushroom the number of local school board members who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. “A network of education advocacy groups, heavily backed by hedge fund investors, has turned its political attention to the local level, with aspirations to stock school boards—from Indianapolis and Minneapolis to Denver and Los Angeles—with allies.”

It all began in New York City, where, “Whitney Tilson, straight out of Harvard… deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach for America’s first employees in 1989.  Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York.  Soon after that, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him… The school was one of two original Knowledge Is Power Program schools—better known as KIPP, which has since grown into a prominent charter network with nearly 200 schools in 20 states plus the District of Columbia, serving almost 70,000 students, predominantly low-income and of color…  Tilson… started dragging all his friends, most of whom were hedge fund investors, from Wall Street up to the south Bronx to see the KIPP school.  ‘KIPP was used as a converter for hedge fund guys,’ Tilson says. ‘It went viral.'”  When he became a charter school evangelist, Tilson really didn’t know much about public schools themselves: “I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn. I didn’t know of anyone who dropped out of high school or college—much less that there were high schools where half the students dropped off.” One wonders whether Tilson also visited public schools in New York City or whether he just accepted that KIPP’s approach is the best strategy for educating children in poor neighborhoods.

Tilson and his friends in the hedge fund world founded a new political organization, Democrats for Education Reform, and, according to Justin Miller, they set out to confront what they considered to be the politically powerful supporters of public schools, the teachers unions.  “Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in.  Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission ‘to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.'”  Miller adds that DFER also targeted national Democratic leaders: “Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions.”

Miller corrects the common assumption that hedge funders got into supporting charter schools for the money: “Many critics of the corporate education-reform movement are quick to accuse proponents of seeking to cash in on the privatization of one of the United States’ last public goods.  And while there are certainly those in ed-reform circles who stand to benefit from a windfall of new education technology, testing, and curriculum services, hedge funders by and large do not fit that stereotype. Theirs is more of an ideological and philanthropic crusade, rather than a crude profit-seeking venture.”

Miller reports that DFER, which is currently active in 13 states and the District of Columbia has expanded the role of charters across the country by partnering with other Astroturf groups that, like DFER,  pretend to be local, but are in fact, well-funded national organizations—StudentsFirst (that just merged with 50CAN), 50CAN (operating in 7 states), Stand for Children (with 11 state affiliates), and Students for Education Reform, described by Miller as an Astroturf offshoot of DFER.  Shavar Jeffries, the national president of DFER, denies, of course, that DFER is an Astroturf organization: “Our state chapters are not run by people flying in from Washington.  They are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.”  Miller responds: “But the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret.  The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted.”

These organizations have, according to Miller, been able to influence local school board races with big financial investments primarily because, “Compared with other political races where a campaign will stretch over the better part of a year… school board races are unique.  Filing deadlines are much closer to Election Day, meaning that the field of candidates doesn’t fully materialize until quite late and the actual races don’t heat up until about two months out.  That makes it more difficult to vet candidates and learn about connections.  Campaign finance reports exposing big money often pop up late….”

These big national groups—DFER, StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, 50Can and Students for Education Reform—have, as profiled by Miller, influenced school board elections in Denver, Minneapolis, and most particularly Indianapolis, where candidate Gayle Cosby eventually raised a total of $80,000 (from several organizations and investors) to support her successful 2012 school board candidacy: “DFER pumped more than $40,000 into Cosby’s campaign, hiring her a campaign manager, orchestrating several direct-mail flyer blasts, and buying up radio spots.  This was unheard of in Indianapolis school board races.”

Cosby is described as reflecting that after DFER contributed $40,000, “At that point, I felt a loss of control in certain respects.” Today Cosby has become disillusioned with the cause promoted by her original campaign investors: “Cosby has since taken up the role as the board’s main dissenter. She believes that charter special interests have completely co-opted the desire for change in the schools and have promoted an agenda that sees charter schools and privatization as the only way to fix Indianapolis Public Schools. Four seats will be up in 2016, including Cosby’s, who has decided not to seek re-election….”

Developments at StudentsFirst and Teach for America

There is some shifting and changing of the guard in the world of corporatized education reform.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN

I thought about Michelle Rhee and her organization StudentsFirst earlier this week as I sat for three hours at a huge meeting in my own school district, where our dedicated teachers demonstrated over and over again that they understand the needs of our community’s young people and where parents and a long list of students spoke about an art teacher, an English teacher, a drama teacher, a Chinese teacher or a coach who had made them feel welcome and engaged. Rhee—the woman featured on Time Magazine‘s cover with the broom to sweep out “bad” teachers—said she founded StudentsFirst to promote the interests of children and to protect us all from what she said was the practice in public schools of putting the needs of adults before the needs of students.

Michelle Rhee launched StudentsFirst in 2010, after she was ousted from the D.C. public schools. Rhee promised she would raise $1 billion to support the organization’s in its first year, though in reality she was able to raise only $7.6 million that year.  Rhee resigned as the organization’s director in 2014.  Now StudentsFirst is being subsumed into another far-right organization, 50CAN.

Here is Caitlin Emma from Politico Morning Education: “What will remain of Students First? Sources tell Morning Education that the 50CAN and StudentsFirst marriage announced last week is not so much a merger as it is an acquisition—and it’s unclear how many StudentsFirst staffers will be left when all the wedding cake is eaten… 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee said there will be some layoffs as a result of the merger.”

So what is 50CAN?  Diane Ravitch provides some background: “The latter organization is funded by hedge fund managers and the Sackler family of Connecticut, whose fortune was made from pharmaceuticals, specifically the opioid drug Oxycontin, that is now causing so much addiction and death across the nation.  Forbes says they are the 16th richest family in America.  Jonathan Sackler’s daughter Madeleine made a documentary about Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter chain called ‘The Lottery.’ It gave viewers the impression that these were the world’s most magical schools and any child lucky enough to win the lottery would have a blessed life.  Never having attended a public school, she bought into the myth that they are horrid places that one must escape… and that charter schools are sort of like the private school she attended in Greenwich.”

50CAN began as ConnCAN in the state of Connecticut and Sackler and his partners have expanded it to other states and created a national organization.  Here is Jon Lender for the Hartford Courant: “Jonathan Sackler is a leading proponent of charter schools in Connecticut, the region and the nation.  He is… operator of about 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut with thousands of students.  He was the founding chairman and still a director of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, and serves as director of other education groups such as 50CAN….”

While 50CAN clearly intends to operate across the 50 states, according to the organization’s website, today it has seven state affiliates in addition to ConnCAN: RI-CAN, MinnCAN, NYCAN, MarylandCAN, CarolinaCAN, JerseyCAN, and PennCAN.  Although 50CAN’s website proclaims a commitment to developing local leadership for excellence in education (“We believe that the most successful local education advocacy efforts follow a bottom-up approach by finding, connecting and supporting a diverse group of entrepreneurial leaders.”), 50CAN is an Astroturf organization—a national organization that merely pretends to be locally supported at the grassroots.  Here is a description of its work in Minnesota: “While the name “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund” lends the group an air of boots-on-the-ground campaigning — chairman Daniel Sellers describes himself as a ‘Minneapolis resident and parent’ — there is nothing grassroots about it. In fact, the Progressive Education Fund, as reported by MinnPost, is an offshoot of 50CAN, the right-wing education group founded by Connecticut hedge fund managers and heavily bankrolled by school privatization interests, such as the Walton Family Foundation. Sellers is the chair of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund and also the executive director of MinnCAN.”

Caitlin Emma for Politico describes the merger of StudentsFirst with 50CAN in a bit more detail: “50CAN, unlike StudentsFirst, has a growing budget and a growing number of funders.  50CAN’s current operating budget is about $8 million, up from $2 million in 2010 when the organization was started.”  50CAN’s Porter Magee says “the merger combines the two best aspects of both organizations.  StudentFirst’s ability to influence the passage of legislation—like parent trigger laws that allow parents to intervene in low performing public schools and turn them into charter schools—and 50CAN’s broader advocacy work.”  One must correct the assumptions here: although parent trigger laws have been passed by several states with support from StudentsFirst and ALEC, there have been virtually no successful, sustained parent takeovers of public schools.

Teach for America

New college graduates are no longer flocking to become alternatively certified over the summer and sign up for a two year stint at Teach for America.  Diane Ravitch announced on her blog: “Despite the flashy celebration at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit held in Washington, D.C. last month, TFA did not meet its recruiting target for the second year in a row.  2015 was the first time in its history that TFA laid off employees, and now it’s happening again.”  “CEO Elisa Villaneuva Beard announced on February 29 that 250 TFA staff positions will be eliminated….  She said 100 new positions will also be created, leaving the net job loss at 150.”

Emma Brown, reporting for the Washington Post, explains: “The downsizing comes after a previous round of reductions in which TFA’s national staff shrank by more than 200 positions.  The two shake-ups will leave Teach for America with approximately 930 national staff members in fiscal year 2017, 410 fewer than it employed in fiscal year 2015, according to the organization.”

TFA’s model is controversial.  Instead of sending well-trained and credentialed college graduates, who have experienced extensive student teaching and mentoring, into the nation’s poorest schools, TFA has run a 5-week alternative certification program over the summer and sent graduates from elite colleges into our nation’s poorest cities for two year assignments, a practice that has created rapid turnover of staff in schools that need stability.

Last month Science Newsline reported on a study from the University of Illinois confirming that, “Teach for America has reaped millions of dollars in nonrefundable finder’s fees from school systems in the U.S. through lucrative contracts that require schools to hire designated numbers of the organization’s corps members—whether or not its teachers meet districts’ specific content or grade-level needs….  Five major U.S. school systems—in Atlanta, Chicago, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and New York—paid finder’s fees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per TFA corps member per contract year…. The financially troubled Chicago Public Schools paid TFA nearly $7.5 million in finder’s fees between 2000 and 2014—a time period when the school system also underwent significant budget cuts, closed numerous schools and laid off thousands of teachers….”

States have continued to pay fees to bring TFA into their school districts, most recently Arkansas, where in January Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he will invest $3 million of state discretionary funds to bring in TFA over three years.  And at the federal level, according to Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education has given TFA hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding (at all levels) comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone, according to TFA’s 2015 annual report.”

“Social Welfare Agencies” Spending Millions to Push Privatization of Education

While states continue to spend less money on public education than they did in 2007 prior to the Great Recession, lots of people are spending lavishly to promote what is frequently called the corporate school reform movement that features various forms of privatization. It is virtually impossible to follow and master all the details of what is happening.  Every once in awhile, however, this blog highlights some examples of the ways money is being spent to buy the policies that shape the education of our children.  This is one of those posts.

The recent and startlingly lavish publicity campaign against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to reign in the excesses of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s favored charter schools is a good place to start. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported that in the past three weeks a not-for-profit organization called Families for Excellent Schools has spent $3.6 million airing TV ads that attack Mayor de Blasio for denying Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools the right to co-locate three schools into public school facilities in New York City.  Mayor de Blasio had granted co-location rights to the majority of Moskowitz’s schools that applied for free space, but denied these three because they would endanger very young children by placing them with much older students in high schools or would infringe on the rights of students with disabilities by taking the rooms used for physical therapy and other special services.  To provide a little context, the Daily News reporter described the $3.6 million add buy: “the amount candidates typically spend in three weeks of a heated mayoral primary.”

So… what is Families for Excellent Schools and who are its financial supporters?  In March 2014, Robert Lewis, of WNYC News, reported: “Families for Excellent Schools’ most recent tax filings are from 2012, so it’s unclear how much they’ve raised in recent years or where that money is coming from.  The organization is technically two entities—a standard charity and a tax exempt group that can accept anonymous contributions for advocacy.”  Managed by the 27-year-old Jeremiah Kittredge, Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with New York’s affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  According to Zoe Carpenter, writing for The Nation,  Families for Excellent Schools is chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum, although its website lists neither its board members nor its funders.  Stu Loeser, former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now the organization’s press official.  Lewis reports that Students for Excellent Schools  has received grant funding from the Walton and Broad Foundations, although from the organization’s website one can discern neither what its standard charity functions are nor how the organization’s money is allocated for charity and advocacy.

New York City is not the only place where big money is being used for political advocacy and where the donors of that money are hidden today by the tax code.  Thomas Edsall, writing for the NY Times, explains: “The explosion in secret financing of political advertising has turned tax-exempt nonprofit organizations into the weapon of choice for those who want to influence elections without leaving fingerprints.  Campaign spending by these groups, which do not disclose donors, has grown from a modest $5.8 million in the 2003-4 election cycle to $310.8 million in 2011-2012, an increase of more than 5000 percent with further growth expected in 2014 and 2016…  Most of the money raised from undisclosed contributors flows through nonprofits claiming tax-exempt status under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code…. The most common tax-exempt organizations are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups, although there is also substantial political cash channeled through 501(c)(6) groups, which are nonprofit trade associations like the United States Chamber of Commerce.”

Writing for The Center for Public Integrity, Rachel Baye traces the role of secretive big-money donations to so-called “social welfare” groups that support privatization of education and that are not required to report their donors:  “StudentsFirst—created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee—is leading a new wave of ‘education reform’ organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states…  Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform… They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.  However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S, tax code.”

This blog explored a new web campaign, Stinktanks.org, from Wisconsin’s Center for Media and Democracy—a campaign designed to expose the quiet linkage through an organization called the State Policy Network, of a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good. Many of the state think tanks described by Stinktanks.org and the State Policy Network itself are promoting privatization of public education.  Once again in many instances, the donors are shielded by the tax code.

Rachel Baye quotes University of Wisconsin professor Michael Apple’s explanation of why so many powerful people are donating to the “social welfare” 501(c)(4) agencies that are investing in the political campaigns of local school board candidates and state legislators who seek to  privatize public education: “‘If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education.  Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.’ But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donor’s decisions to open their wallets, he said.”

Potential for profits is huge, according to Baye: “In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology.  By 2011, that number was estimated at $428 million…”