New “Charters and Consequences” Report from Network for Public Education Is Essential Reading

The Network for Public Education’s just-released investigative report, Charters and Consequences, paints a picture of corruption and the needless destruction of one of our society’s long-prized civic institutions. You’ll read about “charter schools gone wild” in California, where barely staffed storefront resource centers—sponsored by school districts 50 or 100 miles away—accrue state tax dollars to their sponsors’ operating budgets even as the sponsors do very little for the charter schools they supposedly oversee.  And you will read about Pennsylvania, where by state law, the charter gets every dollar—state and local—that would have been spent on the child in her public school, on the assumption that the local school district can reduce its expenses child-by-child, ignoring stranded costs for buildings and transportation and a school district’s inability instantly to resize its teaching staff.

The new report was researched and written by Carol Burris, the retired, award-winning NYC high school principal who now serves as Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE).  Burris not only explored research and news reports but traveled to interview the superintendents, teachers and parents affected by rapid charter school expansion.

Burris’ stories of visits to various locations ground the report’s conclusions—what Burris learned as she looked at the operation of online charters, for-profit charters, and the impact of charter school expansion on host public school districts. Here are some of her conclusions:

“When cash is flush, and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

“Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual school system with the private taking funding from the public simply cannot survive.”

And what about the way charter school operators persist in dubbing their schools “public” charter schools?  “Most charter school advocates are quick to point out that they are not part of the school privatization agenda. They place the adjective ‘public’ in front of ‘charter school’ to distinguish themselves from voucher schools. This branding effort has been somewhat successful—especially with politicians and the press. But simply saying charters are public schools does not make it true… Democratically elected school boards govern most public schools.  Nearly all charter boards are appointed and not accountable to parents or the community. Charters control the number of students they have, and they do not have to take students mid-year. The transparency laws, especially in spending, that public schools must follow can be ignored by charter schools… And in some cases, when the school shuts down, the school building and property is not returned to the public who paid for them, but is retained by the charter owners themselves.  And, by the way, charters can walk away and shut their doors whenever it suits them.”  “Many are governed by larger corporations known as CMOs.  Some are for-profit; others are not-for-profit, yet still present financial ‘opportunities’ to vendors and those who run the school.”

Burris identifies the very different consequences for the students enrolled: “The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from age 5 to 21—no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, but also if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened… The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor, and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs. Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition…. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, (in public schools) they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers… It has long been suspected that high attrition in the ‘no excuses’ charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions.  The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen—only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.”

The Network for Public Education concludes its report with recommendations adopted by its board of directors: “For all the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support… We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level. Until that time, we support all legislation and regulation that will make charters better learning environments for students and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund them.” NPE calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until laws are changed to protect students and protect tax dollars.

Please read the Network for Public Education’s Charters and Consequences report, circulate it, and discuss it—along with the short policy briefs NPE has included in its toolkit on school privatization.


False Claims and Fraud Keep on Surfacing in the Charter School Sector

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are fans of the marketplace. Privatizing education is their thing.  That is why it is so useful to consult some experts—in this case Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists who, in their newest book American Amnesia, warn about problems with marketplace thinking:

“That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries. The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes…. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t (education, infrastructure, courts, basic scientific research); reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account such as shared knowledge; (and) regulate the market to protect consumers and investors….”  (American Amnesia, pp. 4-5)

Trump and DeVos extol the free hand of the market despite what we learn week after week about negative spillover costs and self-dealing when charter operators are tempted by pots of government money and inadequate oversight. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss introduces a new report from Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, with this bit of background: “President Trump’s first federal budget proposal seeks a $168 million increase for charter schools, which is a 50 percent funding increase from the current level set by the previous Obama administration… A 2016 audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department—which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters—had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.”

Burris’s report, which Strauss then reprints in full, examines a chain of charter schools well-known for its high test scores. But, as we learn, there is something fishy going on: “One of the best illustrations of the ‘non-public’ nature of charters is the much heralded BASIS charter schools that began in Arizona, a state with extremely lax charter laws. A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made—all hidden from public view.”  BASIS schools were started up by two economists in Tucson, expanded to Scottsdale, and later to Texas and Washington, D.C. Boasting a curriculum based on Advanced Placement classes and tests, they have been highly acclaimed for their rigor.

Hacker and Pierson use the economist’s term—negative externalities— for negative spillover costs or negative side-effects which are costs to society that may not be noticed or may be forgotten, whether the charter is launched by the visionary educator or by the crafty profit-maker seeking to educate children privately at public expense. The test scores of the students at a particular charter school are the yardstick society most commonly uses to judge the school, but what about the side-effects on society that may be much broader than the experiences of one group of children inside the school?  As Trump and DeVos seek to privatize more schools, what are some cautions that ought to be considered due to the negative externalities associated with the charter sector as it stands today?

One negative externality at BASIS is that the schools do not serve all children, as public schools are required to do.  BASIS schools have managed to imbalance their student populations to ensure that their students are very high test-scorers: “The proportional over-enrollment of Asian-American students and under-enrollment of Latino students at BASIS charter schools is startling. But differences in the students served do not end with race and ethnicity.  In 2015-16, (in Arizona) only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners.  And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none…. (I)t chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program… Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools—along with the lack of a free-lunch program—discourages disadvantaged students from applying.”

Another  negative externality  is that the school shapes its student body by failing to admit enrollees after middle school: “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school. Students must take six Advanced Placement exams and pass at least one with a score of 3 or above in order to graduate. However, they are required to take more AP classes than that, beginning in middle school. There are comprehensive tests that must be passed or students are retained (in grade)… Even after getting into BASIS, however, there is less than a 50 percent chance the students will stay to graduate. During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands. Like the ‘no-excuses’ charter schools found in cities, the attrition rates at BASIS middle and high schools are extraordinarily high. Of a cohort of 85 students who began eighth grade in BASIS Flagstaff during the 2011-12 school year, only 41 percent (35) remained to enter twelfth grade in 2015-16. In the flagship school, BASIS Tucson North, a seventh-grade class of 130 became a class of 54 by senior year. The same pattern exists in every BASIS charter high school in the state.”

Burris also explains a third negative externality—the profits being made (at public expense via the tax dollars BASIS schools collect) by Olga and Michael Block, who started BASIS and then turned management over to the for-profit, limited liability company that they now own and that operates BASIS. Because the company is private, their salaries cannot be discerned, but there is some indication of profits being made. As Burris reports: “According to a 2015 study by the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, BASIS schools spent an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while the average public district spent just $628 per pupil.”

Beyond correcting for mere side-effects of running separate systems side-by-side for educating children—the public system and then systems of charters and vouchers—there is the danger of fraud and self-dealing when privatized schools operate without adequate oversight and regulation. This week’s example is, finally after years’ of investigation, the arrest of Benford Chavis, who operated a charter chain—the American Indian Model Schools—in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chavis “faces six felony counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Chavis allegedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools.  The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned… Chavis faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of mail fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering.” Chavis has been under investigation since 2013,  is no longer associated with the schools, and now lives in Lumberton, North Carolina. He is said to have been a controversial presence in the schools he operated: “Students were often publicly humiliated and forced to attend Saturday school and detention. Chavis drew both national scorn and praise for his tactics.”

Michelle Rhee coined the attack on public school teachers and administrators—that they prioritize adult interests and fail to put students first. Benford Chavis is an example of a more common phenomenon: charter operators who put profits first. He is said to have engaged in overtly criminal behavior. But in too many cases, self-interested operators stay just inside the law or prevent adequate oversight by investing in contributions to the legislators who would have to enact regulations to prevent both negative externalities and self-dealing.

Unlike Trump and DeVos, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson believe government itself is best suited to educate our society’s children: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic and civic outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.” (American Amnesia, p. 65)

How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.”

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

What Might Seem to Benefit the Educational Consumer Turns Out to Be a Disaster for Society

This week the Senate will consider President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education.  Tomorrow the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will very likely vote to recommend DeVos’s confirmation for a vote on the Senate Floor. Her nomination has become extremely contentious. Please call your U.S. Senators again today to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Because Betsy DeVos has devoted her life and her financial fortune to replacing our society’s system of public education with publicly funded tuition vouchers that children can carry to private schools and with unregulated charter schools that are publicly funded by privately operated, much attention has been paid this month to weighing public vs. privatized education.  Valerie Strauss has published another excellent piece by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, that enumerates What Taxpayers Should Know About the Cost of School Choice.  “School choice” is, of course, another name for school privatization—always framed by its supporters through the much prized values of freedom and choice without naming their social consequences.

Burris examines the financial implications of school privatization. She explains: “American taxpayers cannot afford to run the multiple systems of K-12 education that the ‘choicers’ desire, nor would it be in the best interest of children to do so. We have been experimenting with taxpayer-funded choice for two decades, and the evidence is clear. We have wasted billions in tax dollars, with no comprehensive evidence that charters, online schools and vouchers have resulted in increased academic performance of American students.  It is time we have an honest discussion about the true cost of school choice.”

Here is Burris’s argument.  I urge you to read her entire article to grasp the quantity of evidence she amasses to demonstrate each of her propositions:

  1. “Billions of federal tax dollars have poured into charter school promotion, without regard for success and with insufficient oversight.”  Burris explains that by 2015 the federal Charter Schools Program had spent $3.7 billion in startup grants for charter schools to states along with another $333 million in 2016, but many of these schools were unsustainable and have since closed.
  2. “Some charter schools spend more tax dollars on administration and less on teaching.”  Burris describes two national charter school chains, for example, Imagine, Inc. and the Leona Group, whose Arizona affiliates were shown by researchers to have spent $28 million more last year on management fees and real estate rental fees than they spent in support for students in the classroom.
  3. “Charter schools drain tax dollars from your community schools.” Burris shows that in some states like Pennsylvania, each student carries his or her per-pupil funding to the charter school right out of the district’s budget. But school districts are unable to adjust staffing and costs to the loss of a few students here and there across many buildings. She adds: “Whether charters receive funding from the district, or directly from the state, the costs of running an additional school system are passed on to taxpayers.”
  4. “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases.” Burris points out that the public cannot afford to undertake paying all or even part of private school tuition across the country through some kind of national voucher program. Although Indiana’s voucher program started small, serving only poor children, it has been rapidly expanded and now costs the state $131.5 million annually. Burris adds that because no state requires private schools to accept all students, the financial burden on  public schools spikes as expensive-to-educate students become concentrated in public district schools.
  5. “Charter schools and voucher schools have minimal transparency and limited accountability. That lack of transparency results in scandal and theft.”  Burris explains: “(I)n many states charters are virtually unregulated.” Her examples are from Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Burris concludes: “I suspect that Betsy DeVos and her followers would say that all of the above is the price we must pay to keep charters free of regulations. But if regulations are the problem, and deregulation the solution, why don’t the ‘choicers’ push to deregulate public schools?  Shouldn’t their creativity be unleashed as well?  The reason they do not is obvious. For ‘choicers.’ the marketplace is the first love. Contemporary, extreme conservatism sees government as having only two functions—policing and defense. True believers do not want communities assuming the responsibility of educating children; they believe that education is the responsibility of the family.”

It is helpful always to consider privatization more theoretically with help from the political philosopher Benjamin Barber, who explains how marketplaces undermine the distribution of public goods: “The paradox of public and private that sets capitalism against civilization works to defeat common aspirations by ’empowering’ private wants. We lose the capacity to shape our lives together because we are persuaded by the prevailing ethos that freedom means expressing our desires in isolation. In the area of education, for example… the defects of public schooling are thought to be remediable by the virtues of private parental choice… 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… As citizens, we would never consciously suggest such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, pp. 131-132)

California’s Tangled, Corrupt Charter School Sector

Charter schools—created to embody the idea of innovation without the constraint of bureaucratic regulations—have been spreading across our cities for twenty years, and it has now become as clear as can be that, if we have to have privatized charter schools, we can’t do without the protection of some rules.  (I myself would prefer to assign responsibility for educating our children to the public schools—publicly owned and operated and accountable to democratic governance.)

Carol Burris, a former, award-winning, New York City high school principal and now the director of the Network for Public Education, just visited California, where she traveled around interviewing people on all sides of the charter school controversy. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has published (in four parts here, here, here and here) Burris’ story of “the never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California.”

Most alarming is the practice of establishing satellite charter “resource centers” or “learning centers”—places in shopping centers or other accessible sites where older students who study online come occasionally to meet with a teacher. These are often sponsored by tiny elementary school districts who have no intention of overseeing the charters they authorize, but who are instead in it to pad their own districts’ budgets with extra cash—per-pupil state fees paid to sponsors.  In part four of her report Burris writes: “Readers who have been following this series on charters are familiar with the storefront charters and not-for profit shells of K12 (the huge online for-profit chain) that are growing in number across the state. Many of these charters have terrible graduation rates—some as low as zero percent. Students rarely check in—some, like Epic, have the requirement of going to a center only once every 20 days.  Their explosive growth has been driven by corporations courting small, rural elementary districts with promises of additional revenue with little to no impact to the school district. The corporation then operates charter ‘learning centers’ or ‘resource centers’ mostly or exclusively to generate revenue for themselves and their authorizer, even though the schools are not in the authorizer’s district and do not serve their residents.”

In part one, we learn: “Of the San Diego charter schools, over one third promote independent learning, which means the student rarely, if ever, has to interact face to face with a teacher or fellow students. One of the largest independent learning charters, The Charter High School of San Diego, had 756 students due to graduate in 2015. Only 32 percent actually made it.  The Diego Valley Charter School, part of the mysterious Learn4Life chain, tells prospective students that they ‘are only required to be at their resource center for one appointment per week (from 1-3 hours), so it’s not like having a daily commute!’  The Diego Valley cohort graduation rate in 2015 was 10.8 percent, with a dropout rate of 45 percent.”

Burris tries to tease out from a school’s website where it is and which school district sponsors it (in part two): “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website.  Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif. address given on its own website.  Bryan’s (the name of one student) classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart, nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sand’s address.”

In part three we read about the mysterious, “Wise Academy… tucked away on a Girl Scout camp on the Bothin Youth Center in Fairfax, Calif… You cannot find this K-6 charter school, which has been in operation for three years, on the state’s Education Department website. Rick Bagley, the superintendent of the Ross Valley School District in which Wise is located, was never informed of its presence as required by law. No one really seems to be wise to Wise—except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project. The California STEAM Sonoma charter, was authorized in March 2016 by the Liberty Elementary School District, a tiny district that serves 216 students in its schools. Wise is not within Liberty’s boundaries; it is located in the Ross Valley School District in Marin County. Liberty approved the charter in order to receive funds as an authorizer, knowing that it would neither lose students nor revenue to the school. But Wise did not just begin last March. The school began three years ago with a different authorizer, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a different authorizing district. The Academy of Arts and Sciences, like California STEAM, is an online charter school based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. It uses the K12 curriculum and the FUEL curriculum, both owned by the for-profit corporation K12, founded by former banker Ronald J. Packard and located in Herndon, VA.”

I suspect that, like me, you have been struggling to track the plot of this story. But at least just this week, as the final installment of Burris’ report was being printed in the Washington Post, the story had a happy ending—assuming that a court decision at the appellate level can be trusted as a happy ending, because of course, there will likely be further appeals. Here is the news from Maureen Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune: “California’s booming satellite charter school industry that has persevered through lawsuits, scandals, and turf wars suffered a blow this past week when a state appellate court ruled hundreds of the campuses are illegally operating outside their districts. At issue now is how 130,000 California students—including 25,000 in San Diego County—will continue their education. The court decision also puts at stake millions of dollars in revenue generated by the charters for privately run organizations.”

Specifically, how are these store-front learning and resource centers violating the law, according to the appellate court?  Magee explains: “Under the State Education Code, independent-study charters are allowed to operate satellite campuses in their home districts and in neighboring counties.  However, there is nothing in the law about whether a charter can operate satellite centers outside their home district and within their county.”  If you are still a little confused, explains further: “In a victory for school districts, a California appellate court has ruled it is illegal for charter schools to open satellite campuses outside the district that has authorized them… (T)he issue at hand was the legality of opening charter satellite campuses outside the district but within county lines.”

There seems to be one loophole which will leave a number of the strands of this story’s plot dangling.  Dannis, Woliver, Kelley Attorneys at Law explains: “The Court further clarified that these geographical restrictions apply to all charter schools, including independent study charters, and that the exceptions to the restrictions are limited. Where a charter school provides a majority of its educational services in, and a majority of its pupils are residents of, the county in which it is authorized, it may establish ‘a resource center, meeting space, or other satellite facility’ in an adjacent county, provided the facility is used exclusively for educational support of pupils enrolled in nonclassroom-based independent study.”

It is important that plaintiffs got the judicial branch of government involved in this situation as a check and balance, because the executive branch of California’s government apparently is entirely comfortable with all these store-front “resource centers” earning money for tiny impoverished school districts that have neither the intention nor the capacity to regulate them. Both houses of the California legislature passed a bill to curtail such practices, but, in September, when Senate Bill 739 got to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, he vetoed it.  Brown is known to be friendly to the growth of charters in his state.

Charter Schools: Two Weeks Filled with Scathing Critiques

Today is Labor Day. This blog is returning after a two-week break—two weeks filled with probing criticism of the controversial charter school education sector.

In a Labor-Day-related commentary, Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the American Prospect, explores the growing anti-union, anti-democratic power of the charter lobby: “Funded by billionaires and arrayed against unions, it is increasingly contesting for power in city halls and statehouses where Democrats already govern… This abrupt elevation (or self-elevation) of today’s charter school entrepreneurs into tomorrow’s civic leaders may seem surprising, but it’s part of a larger pattern… In future decades, historians will have to grapple with how charter schools became the cause celebre of centrist billionaires—from Walton to Bloomberg to Broad—in an age of plutocracy.  The historians shouldn’t dismiss the good intentions behind the billionaires’ impulse: the desire to provide students growing up in poverty with the best education possible. But neither should they dismiss their self-exculpation in singling out the deficiencies, both real and exaggerated, of public education as the central reason for the evisceration of the middle class.”

Meyerson continues: “By spending sufficiently to shift the composition of Democratic caucuses in legislatures, city councils or school boards to the right, they (the charter school lobby) can undermine public education… In their mix of good intentions and self-serving blindness, the billionaire education reformers have much in common with some of the upper-class progressives of a century ago, another time of great wealth and pervasive poverty.  Some of those progressives, in the tradition of Jane Addams, genuinely sought to diminish the economy’s structural inequities, but others focused more on the presumed moral deficiencies and lack of discipline of the poor. Whatever the merits of charters, the very rich who see them as the great equalizer are no closer to the mark than their Gilded Age predecessors who preached temperance as the answer to squalor.”

Then there was comedian John Oliver’s much publicized take-down of charter schools, created as less regulated and, hence, supposedly more creative and innovative than their public school counterparts that are castigated by charter proponents as hamstrung by bureaucratic oversight.  If you haven’t watched Oliver’s amazing and carefully researched comedy critique, I urge you to check it out.

I also urge you to follow up by reading Jeff Bryant’s piece that expands upon Oliver’s ridicule. Bryant notes that because Oliver’s broadcast was so widely viewed, charter school advocates have rushed to criticize Oliver and defend their pet project. But, declares Bryant, “None of Oliver’s critics seriously refuted the crux of his argument that there might be something fundamentally wrong by design, rather than by implementation or intent, with the idea that a ‘free market’ of privately operated and essentially unregulated schools is a surefire way to improve education opportunities for all students… (W)hat charter advocates generally won’t admit is that many of the problems these schools cause are reflective of what inevitably seems to happen when an essential public service is privatized… Numerous experts point out charter schools blur the line from what it means to be a public institution providing a public good and that, by their very design, they expand opportunities to profiteer from public tax dollars and private public assets… Over the years, the U.S. Department of Education has rewarded charter schools with over $3.3 billion in federal funds, and with passage of the most recent federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, USDoE will send $333 million more to these schools before the current fiscal year is over.”

In the Washington Post, columnist Valerie Strauss published the transcript of Oliver’s critique and some of the response from charter school supporters.  Strauss also responded to Oliver’s comedy riff by publishing an analysis from Carol Burris, the award-winning, now retired New York City high school principal who serves as executive director of the Network for Public Education: “The truth is, the deregulation that the high-scoring charter schools love so much also produces dismal charter failures, taxpayer fleecing and fraud  And that, in the end, could cause the whole charter system to collapse.”   Burris punctures the publicity balloon inflated by the promoters of charters over traditional public schools: “Only 4 percent of New York’s charter students are English Language Learners, as compared with over three times as many—13 percent—of the 3-8 students in New York City’s public schools.  Fifteen percent of charter students in Grades 3-8 are students with disabilities, as compared with 22 percent of the students in New York City traditional public schools.  These differences in who attends charters are part of a national pattern… Then there are differences in the degree of disability— a child with a mild learning disability is very different from one with severe autism or emotional problems… English Language Learners are also not a monolith.  New arrivals with little if any fluency in English have lower test scores than English Language Learners (ELLs) who are close to exiting services.  About 15 percent of the 3-8 students who are ELLs in New York City schools have been in the United States for less than a year, as compared with less than 1 percent in New York charter schools.”

Then there was the Labor Day-appropriate, late-August finding from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In a teachers union decision, the (NLRB) declared, “that charter schools are private and efforts to start teachers unions in them should fall under their purview, rather than the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) which oversees the public sector.”  In Ohio, retired school administrator and former consultant on charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, Denis Smith seized the NLRB’s decision as an opportunity to reflect on the definition of a public school. So much for all the bragging about “public” charter schools.

Senate Will Consider Confirming John King, but He’s Unlikely to Repair Arne Duncan’s Damage

The word was that John King would remain an acting U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s administration.  In January, Lyndsey Layton reported for the Washington Post, “King… will retain the ‘acting’ modifier for the rest of President Obama’s time in office.  He has not been nominated by the president, and he will not undergo the confirmation process required of Cabinet-level officers under the Constitution.”  But just over a week ago, another report in the Washington Post announced, “President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year.  Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination.”

It will be surprising if John B. King, Jr.—whether confirmed as secretary or continuing to serve as a mere acting secretary— accomplishes earth-shaking policy while he serves for the next few months.  The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized late in 2015 while Arne Duncan remained the Secretary of Education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act is significant for unbuckling—at the federal level—teachers’ evaluations from their students’ test scores.  This is a significant correction by Congress, whose members reached bipartisan agreement to reduce Duncan’s overt attack on school teachers, and John King has said he will try further to repair that breach that attacked the millions of professionals we count on to fill our nation’s classrooms.  It’s unlikely, however, that King will further reduce test-and-punish, and he won’t have the power to undo the teacher blaming across the statehouses that Arne Duncan set in motion when his Department of Education conditioned the receipt of federal waivers on states’ passing their own laws to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores.  Pushing back that wave of legislation will require months and years of effort by advocates across the states.

But John King’s confirmation hearing has now been scheduled in the Senate on this coming Thursday afternoon, February 25.  So who is John King?

Carol Burris was an award-winning New York high school principal when John King was New York state’s Commissioner of Education.  Burris, now a retired educator and currently serving as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, summarizes some of the milestones of John King’s career: “John King was a teacher for a total of three years—first in a private school and then in a charter.  For a brief time, he served as a co-director of Roxbury Prep (he was never a principal as he claims) a Boston charter middle school that had about 200 students when King was there.  He left to become Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools charter chain, which is regularly criticized for its high rates of student suspension.  While a doctoral student at Teachers College, King met classmate and Board of Regents member, Merryl Tisch.  In April of 2009, Tisch became the Chancellor of the Board of Regents.  In September 2009, John King was appointed deputy commissioner.  Two years later he was appointed commissioner… King was appointed senior adviser to Arne Duncan in 2014, and Acting Secretary of Education when Duncan left in December of 2015.”

Burris recounts what has become the well-known story of King’s mishandling of the roll-out of much harder Common Core tests in New York at the same time King and Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed New York’s legislature to enact evaluation of teachers by their students’ test scores: “By October of 2013, opposition to the Common Core and testing had grown so strong that King was encouraged by the State PTA to hold forums, the first of which took place in Poughkeepsie, New York.  King lectured for an hour and a half.  By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak.  King then cancelled the rest of the scheduled forums… After continued pressure, some forums were re-scheduled; however, there were restrictions placed on who could attend, and the format was tightly controlled.”  Burris shares an assessment from the Lower Hudson Journal News characterizing John King as “tone deaf.”

During King’s tenure as New York’s deputy commissioner and his time as New York’s education commissioner, New York spent over $28,000,000 to develop its Common Core curriculum—and used its federal Race to the Top grant for this purpose. Burris, a high school principal during the roll-out of the new curriculum, is scathing in her criticism: “(T)he curriculum was a ‘breakout flop.’  Teaching strategies, often presented as scripts, were confusing. The time allotted for each lesson was longer than the instructional time allotted by most districts, resulting in rushed pacing…  Romeo and Juliet, which has been a classic part of ninth-grade English curriculum in most high schools, was reduced to excerpted readings in the modules, crowded out by non-fiction, which included Wizard of Lies: the Life of Bernie Madoff.”

King launched Common Core testing across the state before the curriculum had been fully rolled out, and to make matters worse, cut scores were set too high. Predictably test scores plummeted everywhere. Burris adds: “Perhaps the most reckless error made by the NYSED (NY State Education Department) under King, however, was setting the graduation standard on the Common Core math and English tests so high that the graduation rate, based on historical data, would have plummeted to about 35% when it was imposed.  In response to growing public resistance to the Common Core and its tests, the Board of Regents put off the unrealistic graduation standard from 2017-2022.”

As he heads toward a confirmation hearing and the rest of this year leading the U.S. Department of Education, John King is reported by the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown to be “trying to repair the Obama administration’s frayed relationship with teachers.”  “In one of his first major speeches as acting U.S. secretary of education, John King apologized to teachers for the role that the federal government has played in creating a climate in which teachers feel ‘attacked and unfairly blamed.'”

Brown, however, also interviews Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, who declares that officials at the Department of Education need to listen to teachers as they develop rules that will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  Whether the Department consults professional educators will matter more than the acting secretary’s words of apology: “If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms… then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child—not just lift test scores.”