Local Activist Exposes How Ohio Charter Funding Undermines Traditional Public Schools

Susie Kaeser, a long-time public school supporter and activist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, just researched the way Ohio funds its public schools and siphons local as well as state funds away from public school districts to pay for children attending charter schools.  She has published her conclusions in a local community paper, The Heights Observer.

Her lucid explanation is shocking. It is amazing what we can choose not to see and what the press continues to avoid pointing out.

“Each year the legislature determines the funding level for charter students and those in traditional public schools. According to a 2013 Department of Education report, the funding level for every charter student was set at $5,732. By contrast, state funding for traditional public school students is specific to the school district they attend, based on the property wealth of each district. Because I live in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District, I thought I’d focus on its funding. According to CH-UH treasurer Scott Gainer, our per-pupil allocation in 2012–13 was $1,741, or just 30 percent of the amount promised to charter students.

“Not only do charter students receive more state funds than their public school peers, but the difference comes out of the per-pupil contributions for public school students. This is how it works. The state creates a pot of money for each school district that will pay for both charter and traditional students who reside in that district. While the state promised $5,732 to charter students living in Cleveland Heights, it only put $1,741 in the pot for each of those students. This is the same amount that is added to the pot for each of the 5,787 public school students who live in the district.

“When it is time to pay for charter students, the state subtracts the guaranteed amount—$5,732—for each student and sends it to their charter school. Public school kids get what is left. The $4,000 shortfall for each charter student comes out of what was put in the pot for the public school students. In 2012–13, about $2.5 million was sent to pay for 371 Heights charter school students, even though they only brought 30 percent of that money into the pot. In effect, traditional public school students subsidize 70 percent of the cost of charter school students.”

Kaeser also understands that traditional public schools are publicly owned, publicly operated, and publicly accountable, while in Ohio charter schools are poorly regulated.  “Charter schools—no matter their quality—operate without adequate safeguards to protect public funds and undermine authentic public schools by draining away resources and children.”

Duncan Offers No Way to Regulate Bad Charters Like Ohio’s ECOT

In June of 2010, I was part of a group that met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Some of us challenged Secretary Duncan about the fact that to apply for grant funding from his Race to the Top competition, states had to get their legislatures to pass laws to remove any caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  Duncan replied, “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.”  But Secretary Duncan did not suggest any ways that he thought the federal government ought to regulate or oversee the bad charters.

The problem of the bad charters remains. A case in point is Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  ECOT’s on-line students score abysmally below students in  the majority of the state’s traditional school districts and other charter schools.  ECOT’s five-year graduation rate is 37.8 percent, far below other school districts.  And the massive investment of tax dollars is being turned into profit for its CEO/owner/operator, William Lager.

These facts are documented by Ohio’s Plunderbund  blog in a searing indictment of ECOT and William Lager, one of Ohio’s largest political contributors.  According to Plunderbund, from 2010 to 2013, Lager made over $700,000 in political contributions to Ohio’s legislators.

Plunderbund explains that, “William Lager is connected to ECOT in three different ways.  First, he is the school’s CEO…. Second, William lager is also the CEO of Altair Learning Management Company….  And third, William Lager is the CEO of IQ Innovations….”

Altair manages personnel and human resources, instruction, purchasing, strategic planning, public relations, financial reporting… equipment and facilities.  In 2012, Altair’s management fee was $3,157,964.  IQ Innovations provides curriculum services.  In 2012, ECOT paid IQ Innovations $12,631,856.  “In total, that means that Lager’s school, ECOT, is paying Lager’s other two companies Altair and IQ Innovations, over $15.7 million annually.”

Now, ECOT has won an Ohio competitive innovation grant beyond the state’s per-pupil allocation for each of its 13,836 on-line students.  ECOT applied for one of Ohio’s new Straight A Fund innovation grants and was just awarded “their full request of an additional $2,951,755.” Plunderbund  provides details from the budget of the proposed project that will be largely managed by IQ Innovation Services . “ECOT is being given an additional $2,951,755 by the state (legislature), of which $2,725.250, or a whopping 92%  is going directly into Lager’s IQ Innovations company. That means that next year, William Lager, as CEO of ECOT, will be funneling over $18.5 million dollars in state funding directly to his own private companies.”

 

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.

School Reform Information Controlled by Funders and Think Tanks? What about the Public’s Right to Know?

In Philadelphia, the state-appointed School Reform Commission got the William Penn Foundation, a philanthropy, to pay the Boston Consulting Group, a contractor, to design the “portfolio school reform plan” that recommended closing public schools and opening charter schools.

Twenty-four public schools were eventually closed last spring.  For the public, it has been hard to parse out which part of Philadelphia’s ongoing school catastrophe derives from Governor Corbett’s slashing $1 billion from the state’s public education budget and what part comes from an ideological, “portfolio” Philadelphia school reform plan that promotes privatization.  (For more on the crisis in the Philadelphia schools this year, check out the three part series earlier this week from National Public Radio, here, here and here.)

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss republishes a piece by Helen Gym, a parent activist in Philadelphia.  Gym writes about the struggles members of the public have experienced as they try to secure access to the list of 60 public schools the Boston Consulting Group recommended for closure.  Gym speculates that these days, while information may be available to the philanthropies funding reform plans and the consultants and contractors designing the plans and other big givers who are trying to influence school reform, the public cannot get access to the information that is shaping public institutions.

Gym writes: “The closing of 24 schools in Philadelphia remains the single most important issue of the year. The closings affected more than 9,000 students and transformed school communities. They also had an impact on political and real estate dealings, with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Last week, city leaders guaranteed a $61 million swap to fast-track real estate deals for shuttered school buildings. News reports indicate that several, mostly unnamed, buyers have shown interest in sweeping up all the properties for a single sum — in one case, an offer of $100 million.  Given the stakes, it is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in the documents presented to the District.”

Universal Access and Public Ownership: Charter Schools Don’t Meet These Criteria

This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look.  You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”

Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students.  There are quality charter schools.

But I also know that public school policy must be systemic.  Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time.  Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school.  There is a problem of scale for one thing.  Public schools in America educate 50 million children.  The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle.  Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.

Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access.  Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students.  Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic.  No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child.  Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set.  But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.

Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated.  But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate.  In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.

As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent.  Yet in too many places public oversight is missing.  While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools.  Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters.  My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools.  Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:

“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October.  (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.)  All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed.  Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year.  The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.”  The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.

For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did  this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state?  Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.

The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools.  One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”  Earlier this fall  Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent.  Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools.  According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”

NYC Rejects Charterization, Closure and Co-Location as School Reform Strategy

Bill DeBlasio’s victory in the New York City mayor’s race signifies a shift in that school district’s policies on public education.  While Mayor Bloomberg has been a leader and spokesperson of the national movement for “corporatized school reform”—rapid expansion of charter schools—extensive closures of traditional schools, especially comprehensive high schools—co-location of charter and public schools in the same buildings— DeBlasio has instead spoken firmly for improving traditional public school across the city.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. DeBlasio would significantly overhaul one of the Bloomberg administration’s principal legacies: the A-through-F grading system for schools.”  The New York Daily News reported that “De Blasio wants to focus on fixing traditional public schools and has proposed charging rent to charter schools located within those schools.”

On his campaign website, DeBlasio has identified a long list of public education priorities that include:

  • Increasing taxes for those earning $500,000 or more to pay for universal pre-Kindergarten and for enriched after-school programs for all middle school students.
  • Adding 100 full-service, wrap-around Community Schools such as the less than twenty now being modeled by the Children’s Aid Society.  These are the schools that house medical, dental, and mental health clinics, parent education and support programs, Head Starts, and extensive after-school programs and transform the public schools into family and community centers.
  • Seeking money owed New York City by the state under he Campaign for Fiscal Equity school funding remedy, to pay for reducing class size which has increased significantly in the past couple of years.
  • Supporting struggling schools with resources and technical assistance instead of rushing to close them.
  • Charging rent to charter schools according to their capacity to pay, especially the schools of the charter chains whose CEOs are paid annually in six figures.
  • Involving the community when charters and traditional charters are being co-located.
  • Providing state-mandated arts education taught by certified arts instructors for all children in the New York City Schools.

While the newly elected mayor does not oppose mayoral control of the public schools, he has said he would create new avenues to expand input from parents through the Community Education Councils and the Citywide Education Councils for particular issues such as high schools, special education, and English Language Learners.

What incoming Mayor DeBlasio has promised is a new direction for the public schools in New York City.  For the sake of the children of New York and as a harbinger of broader rejection of “portfolio school reform” and privatization, it will be important to monitor the new mayor’s capacity to implement the changes he has promised.

Moody’s Investor Service Confirms Worry that Privatization is Destroying Urban School Districts

In an earlier post, Creating Public School Districts of Last Resort, I described my own concern that public school policies being driven by the federal Race to the Top grants, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind Waivers—policies that include incentives to close public schools and expand charters—are creating urban public school districts-of-last-resort.  Charter schools that must keep up their overall test scores or be castigated for failure have little incentive to accept  the children who bring special challenges—disabilities—the need to learn English—extreme poverty or homelessness.  As privatization increases, the public schools that must accept everyone increasingly serve the children who are least desirable from the point of view of the charters and most expensive to educate.

Diane Ravitch agrees, according to her new book, Reign of Error.  She describes school districts in poor urban areas being pushed by the federal government to close traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods where test scores are low and expand charter schools to serve the children from schools that have been closed:

“The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.  What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them.  Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fall, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools….  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.  Then parents will be forced to travel long distances and hope that their children will be accepted into a school; the school chooses, not the students.” (319-320)

Earlier this week, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current policies are driving urban school districts into a fatal decline.  Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.'”  Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and  over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.

According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study:  “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines.  It begins with people leaving the city or districts.  Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts.  The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students.  As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts.  Rinse, repeat….”

While the Moody’s report itself is available only to subscribers,  an announcement of the report by Moody’s summarizes the warning: “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs…”   Here is the interpretation of  Washington Post reporter, Niraj Chokshi:  “Charter schools don’t suck up enrollment from just one school. They pull from schools across a district, meaning each takes a slight hit while none loses enough students to justify substantial restructuring. There is no critical mass of empty classrooms or schools.”

Privatization Proliferates: Vouchers, Charters, and Portfolio School Reform

If you live in a small city, a rural area, or even a suburb you may not be watching the privatization of K-12 education in your own community.  But privatization is proliferating; just let us count the ways.  Two articles in the press this week and one new academic report will help.

Privatization is happening mainly in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities, places where test scores reflect the poverty of the children enrolled and where, as a condition for awarding Title I Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, the federal government is pressing school districts and states to close public schools and open charter schools.  Privatization is also being driven by conservative politicians and political donors who allege that charter and voucher schools will serve children better and cost less.

Writing for PoliticoPro, reporter Stephanie Simon demonstrates that, Vouchers Don’t Do Much for Students. Vouchers and voucher-like tuition tax credit programs are now paying for 245,000 students in 16 states and the District of Columbia to attend private schools at public expense.  “Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition—and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”  Tracking the oldest voucher programs in Wisconsin and Ohio, Simon demonstrates that students perform no better than their public school counterparts, and in Wisconsin, two-thirds of voucher students never attended the public schools but are receiving public vouchers to cover tuition at parochial or private schools. Simon quotes Wisconsin state legislator Sandy Pope: “The taxpayers are paying for a second, competing school system that doesn’t do as well as the one we already have.”  Simon also notes the many voucher schools across the U.S. that openly violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by teaching biblical creationism in science classes.

In his regular Education Week blog column this week, Anthony Cody reports that while their proponents dub charter schools “public charter schools,” these same charter advocates contend that charter schools are private entities when a school’s operation is questioned as a regulatory case reaches the courts.  Cody describes a California case where a trial court convicted a California couple “of multiple counts of fraud related to their practice of using their charter school bank account for personal expenses and thousands of dollars worth of meals.”  As part of the legal appeals process, the California Charter Schools Association filed an amicus brief alleging that “charter schools are deemed to be private entities under the law of California,” and “employees of the nonrofit corporation operating a charter school are not public employees.”  “So let’s end this hoax,” writes Cody.  “Charter schools are happy to accept public dollars, but reject the oversight and accountability that comes with operation as a public school.”

Finally there is the new report from the National Education Policy Center that exposes the slick sales pitches made to school districts by proponents of “portfolio school reform.”

Portfolio school reform is the model made famous in New Orleans in 2005, when the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina created what Naomi Klein in her important book, The Shock Doctrine, calls the “opportunity” for privatizers to swoop in with a plan to remake a public school district through a business model.  Portfolio School Reform was developed and promoted at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, with the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The model prescribes the rapid expansion of a charter school sector in the “portfolio school district” and the adoption of a theory of disruption or churn, with low-scoring schools closed and “successful” models opened in a continuing cycle.  Although the assumption is that the teachers and the school itself are the variable that determines the test scores,  not coincidentally, all 35 of the “portfolio districts” listed on the Center’s website today are among the nation’s largest city districts with so-called “failing” schools located in neighborhoods experiencing concentrated poverty.  Among the “portfolio districts” on the list are New York City, Washington ,D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Hartford, New Haven, Baltimore, and Memphis/Shelby County.

The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado (NEPC) was established for the purpose of examining the research presented to justify particular school reforms.  In this week’s analysis, NEPC examines two powerpoints from advocates in Memphis and New Orleans that were presented to the Milwaukee Association of Commerce as that organization prepared to decide whether to endorse portfolio school reform for Milwaukee.  NEPC analysts conclude, “Although no rigorous research has yet examined the effectiveness of portfolio governance structures, the presentations are aimed at encouraging their adoption… Policymakers considering such reforms should not act without a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of relevant evidence…. They should acknowledge the thin evidence base on portfolio governance and consider possible alternative explanations for those asserted results.  Specifically, the reported achievement gains are suspect and may be attributable to other unexamined factors such as the massive out-migration of New Orleans students.”

New Orleans Charter Experiment Leaves Behind Poorest and Disabled

The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’s Schools a Model for the Nation—or a Cautionary Tale? asks reporter Andrea Gabor. You are likely to remember that after Hurricane Katrina deluged the city on Labor Day weekend of 2005, the schools in New Orleans underwent a city-wide charter school experiment with encouragement and funding from Margaret Spellings, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education, and huge grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naomi Klein described the mass layoff of New Orleans’ public school teachers and the subsequent rush to charterize the district as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'”

One could wonder how it would all work out in the years immediately following the hurricane, but now, eight years after the New Orleans charter school experiment began, Gabor helps us take a hard look at the evidence: “Figuring out what has taken place in the New Orleans schools is not just a matter of interest to local residents.  From cities like New York to towns like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes… New Orleans tells us a lot about what these reforms look like in practice.  And the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Gabor reports that the mass layoff of local teachers in 2005 has led to importing of many young, short-termers.  In 2011, 42 percent of teachers in the Recovery School District had less than two years of experience—22 percent, one year or less in the classroom.  “In part to help with this lack of experience, charter schools train teachers in highly regimented routines that help them keep control of their classrooms.” Describing Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most successful charters, Gabor reports: “Each morning at 8 AM the teachers, almost all white and in their 20s, gather for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting staff revival meeting, the beginning of what will be, for most, a 14-16-hour workday.” At Sci Academy, students are expected to “SPARK check!” on command.  “The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place hands folded in front); ask and answer questions; respect; and keep tracking the speaker.” Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist who was deeply involved with another of New Orleans charters before he left to manage a local child advocacy organization, now questions the behaviorist culture the competitive charters have created: “The typical charter school in New Orleans is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids… Is that really what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

Gabor critiques Louisiana’s accountability system, which focuses relentlessly on the college matriculation rate of each high school’s graduating class as the one factor that matters most in a high school’s state ranking.  What about the children who barely get accepted at a college?  Although many are likely to drop out of college, they will have accrued college loans they’ll never be able to pay off.

Will students who struggle and students with special needs get enough attention when the primary focus of many schools is graduating kids who are accepted at a college?  The high school dropout–pushout rates are telling. “Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s impressive college-acceptance rate were some troubling numbers.  The school’s first graduating class was 37 percent smaller than the same class had been in the ninth grade—even though some students came to the school after freshman year and filled seats left vacant by departing students.  The attrition rate has improved; the class of 2013 was 28 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade.”

Gabor reflects: “In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives… to foster a love of learning…  The progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace.”