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.

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What the Promoters of School Choice Week Forgot to Mention Last Week

School Choice Week was celebrated all over the country last week. Such staged “events” are always congratulatory, which is why it is a good idea to think about what the supporters of school choice forgot to mention.

School choice is the term we use to define an education marketplace in which parents no longer must send their children to the assigned public school but can instead choose a publicly funded charter school or receive a tax-generated voucher to pay tuition at a parochial or private school. So, how’s school choice really going?

In December, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University released a policy brief that warned: “A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain…. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of ‘public’ education.  Charter school operators are growing… self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction… Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations… are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers or litigation brings them to light.”  Professors Baker and Miron conclude that the charter marketplace is enriching charter operators at public expense and that inadequate regulation makes it hard to identify and prosecute violations of the public interest.

Here is what the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) described in an October report, Charter School Black Hole: “The system insulates each element from accountability for what actually happens….”  The federal government has relinquished oversight to the states, which have then turned over regulation to charter school authorizers in what CMD calls, “a classic example of ‘industry capture’ of the agencies charged with oversight by the industry they are tasked with overseeing.”  “This is due in part to the way laws governing charters have been built by proponents, favoring ‘flexibility over rules’… Charters are policed—if they are policed much at all—mainly by proponents…” “Theoretically, the charters are held ‘accountable’ to charter authorizers.  However, enforcement of standards by charter authorizers appears lax in many instances….”  The application process for federal charter school funding has never been public; hearings are neither held to share who is making the federal proposal nor to examine what is being proposed.  No one has the opportunity to testify publicly on the quality of the application being made by a state agency or a charter management company before the federal grant application is submitted or the grant awarded.  “Without calling for broader public input, federal charter school bureaucrats accepted the word of state charter proponents that their charter programs had adequate controls for performance against fraud and waste.”

In September, as part of an in-depth investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporters Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs interviewed Michael Masch, former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia, who is reported to have warned, “The boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet, we’re building all these new schools… At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools… Whether it’s a plan or a strategy or an unintended consequence, the reality is that you have brand-new buildings for charters while district schools are falling apart. You’re starving one system to fund another.'”

Finally, in June, in a letter to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools charged the U.S. Department of Education with failure to regulate the charter schools to which the Department of Education had made grants since 2009 totaling $1.7 billion.  The letter cited formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG audits were described as concluding that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.  The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools called for a moratorium on the awarding of federal funds to charter schools until federal oversight is improved.  So far, however, neither has federal oversight been improved nor has a moratorium on the launch of new charters been imposed by the Department.

Despite these and many other warnings, as we begin 2016 politicians remain ideologically committed to school choice and critics of school choice continue to expose examples of the failure of oversight.  Just four examples:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner David Hespe plan to honor their ideological commitment to school choice by expanding the number of charter school seats across New Jersey from 46,000 to 50,000.  The Newark Star-Ledger reports:  “The state will also try to encourage the development of more charter schools to serve at-risk students, including those with autism….” That would probably be important, as a study by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers in the fall of 2014 found that while New Jersey’s charters are located primarily in urban communities, they, “educate: a significantly smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged students… one-sixth the percentage of Limited English Proficient students as their host districts, (and) a smaller percentage of Hispanic students (28% vs. 47%) and a higher percentage of Black students (62% vs 40%) than their host districts…  Charter schools across the state do not enroll as many students with special education needs as their host districts (9% vs. 15%).  The classified students who enroll in charter schools also tend to have less costly education disabilities.  This leaves their host districts with the task of educating both higher percentages of classified students and of students with the most costly needs.”

And, in California, the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Maureen Magee reported last week that, “The San Diego district attorney[s office arraigned (Steve) Van Zant on January 15 on a felony conflict-of-interest charge….”  At the same time Van Zant was a school superintendent in Mountain Empire School District and later Sausalito Marin City School District, he launched a shady consulting business and charter empire, EdHive, in partnership with his wife, an interior designer: “The Union-Tribune has tracked a charter empire built by Van Zant by taking advantage of what some call a shortcoming in state law that gives districts a financial incentive to place charters in other school districts.  By placing charters outside its boundaries, a district can raise new funds—up to 3 percent of a charter’s revenue—without any threat to enrollment or state attendance funds.  More than 80 out-of-district charters have been approved in San Diego County, the vast majority of which were authorized by small East County districts—several with help from Van Zant….”

The Rochester, New York  Democrat and Chronicle just published an in-depth investigation of questionable financial dealings of the Education Success Network of charter schools: “A charter elementary school leases space from its landlord, a holding company, and, in turn, sub-leases to a tutoring company.  It contracts with an outside group for its administrative services.  A charitable foundation with real estate interests of its own infuses cash, doling out benevolences from more than $8 million in assets.  In reality, the money isn’t changing hands as much as changing pockets.  All those entities and others are part of the Education Success Network, controlled by a group of local education reform advocates with influential business and political connections.  Its affiliates have taken in millions of taxpayer dollars with little oversight… ESN’s inherently tangled interests… are an example of the concerns many educators have with the charter school model, in which private entities are entrusted with taxpayer money to do the public work of teaching children—work that, in Discovery’s case has led to little demonstrable improvement by students.”

Finally, there is the state with the ultimate school choice—Nevada.  Here is how the Education Law Center described Nevada’s school voucher program when it was enacted last summer: “The new law requires the State Treasurer to transfer public school funding to an ESA (Education Savings Account) for any student who leaves Nevada’s public schools… The ESA law requires the ‘statewide average basic support per pupil’ — $5,100 per student and $5,710 for low-income and students with disabilities—be deposited into each ESA from local district budgets, a process that will divert, over time, substantial resources from the public schools.”  In other words any child can get a voucher from his or her public school district to go to a private or parochial school.  It is a plan that will break public school districts and potentially the state budget. Here is some good recent news: Nevada vouchers were ruled unconstitutional by a lower court: “Judge James Wilson of the First Judicial District Court of Nevada (Carson City) has ruled in Lopez v. Schwartz that the state’s school voucher law (SB302) enacted last summer by the Legislature violates two provisions of the Nevada Constitution.  Judge Wilson issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the State from implementing the law.”  This story has not ended, however.  Everyone expects the case to be appealed to a higher court.

Supporters of school choice celebrated last week.  Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes what many of  the rest of us worry about: “Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged…. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens… and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 312)

Colleen Grady Questions Evolution, Is New Policy Adviser in Ohio Education Department

According to the website ballotpedia.org, 24 states have all Republican government, with governor, senate and house all dominated by Republican majorities.  Seven states are dominated by the Democratic Party.  In the recent November 3 election, Kentucky moved closer to all-Republican status, with the election of a Republican governor, but its Democrat-dominated state assembly prevents it’s falling into what ballotpedia calls a Republican trifecta state.  These numbers demonstrate that across state governments, more than half the states have lost the checks and balances provided when both political parties are viable.  Ballotpedia adds, “In addition to having a trifecta, it is also worth exploring which states have supermajorities. The supermajority allows a party in power to further exert its influence over the minority party.” Ohio is one of the states with a Republican legislative supermajority.

In Ohio, education policy is one of the areas where the impact of one-party, supermajority political domination is apparent.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the problems that have arisen in the leadership of state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dick Ross, who has resigned as of the end of 2015 now that a series of problems have been so relentlessly exposed in the press that his leadership has become an embarrassment.  Ross was hired, as state superintendents in Ohio are, by a state board of education that is also dominated by politics: “The 19-member Ohio school board is nominally Ross’ boss, but it’s long been virtually invisible in state education policy.  Further, the governor (John Kasich) can usually call the shots at the board, since he or she gets to appoint eight members (the other 11 are elected)… Kasich holds most cards in the search to replace Ross.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors summarize some of what has happened under Ross and Kasich’s tenure: “Observers… were stunned to learn that David Hansen, then the director of school choice for the Ohio Department of Education, had illegally omitted the F grades of online charter schools in evaluating charter school school sponsors—who, in Ohio, include some deep-pocketed donors to the GOP and Gov. John Kasich… But the even more curious part of this episode was that Ross claimed to have known nothing about Hansen’s actions.  At the very least, that raises questions about Ross’ attention to detail… In the wake of the charter school grading scandal, the U.S. Department of Education rightly raised questions about the quality of Ohio’s charter-school oversight, potentially putting in jeopardy $71 million in federal grants intended to underwrite the creation of more high quality charter schools in Ohio. In another disturbing recent case, Ross clearly had a hand in the secret state takeover of the Youngstown schools without the knowledge of either the state school board or most of the community—a legislative move that could affect other struggling school districts.”

The Plain Dealer‘s recent editorial declares that with Ross’s recent resignation, Ohio has, “an opportunity to find a superintendent who can do what Ross failed to do: be an independent, transparent and unbiased leader.”  But one recent action by the State Board of Education portends education leadership from the Kasich administration that is neither independent nor less biased.  The State Board, very likely with the approval of Governor John Kasich, just hired controversial former state board member Colleen Grady as its senior policy adviser.

Patrick O’Donnell, a rising star at the Plain Dealer as its education reporter, penned an article that also appeared in Sunday’s paper to describe Colleen Grady and report on her resume: “Grady left her $80,000-per-year post as senior policy adviser of the House Republican Caucus on Friday to take the same position at ODE (Ohio Department of Education) on Monday.  In her new position, she will report directly to the superintendent.”

O’Donnell continues: “Grady has been a major figure in education issues for several years.  Once a member of the Strongsville school board, she served on the state school board representing much of Northeast Ohio from 2005-2008… She has… taken strong positions on several controversial issues involving education…. She is a former lobbyist for the White Hat charter school network and took the lead in pointing out issues with the Senate’s version of House Bill 2, the state’s recently passed charter school reform bill.”  In other words, in her position as senior policy adviser to the House, she likely advised House leaders to try to weaken the senate bill which, thanks to massive press coverage of Ohio’s egregiously weak oversight of charter schools, the legislature was embarrassed into passing. The House did not prevail, and Grady can’t be pleased with the new bill to regulate charters, despite that it focuses on only the most outrageous problems with previously unregulated charters.  For example, the new bill does prevent a charter school from hopping to a new sponsor if the current authorizer tries to put the school out of business due to academic failure or fraud. The new law makes it illegal for a charter management company to suggest board members for a new charter school—board members who will then be responsible for hiring a management company—a practice that White Hat has been known to practice and that is replete with conflicts of interest.  And the new law makes illegal the kind of contract that White Hat had with several charters that eventually closed, a contract that left all the furniture and computers to the management company rather than returning assets of the closed schools to the public whose tax dollars had purchased them.

O’Donnell adds another detail about Grady: “As a member of the state board in 2006, she backed two attempts to have science teachers encourage debate about evolution, instead of teaching it as a fact.”

While I am delighted to see the editors of the Plain Dealer editorialize for a superintendent of public instruction in Ohio who will be “an independent, transparent and unbiased leader,” I don’t imagine we are going to get this kind of education leadership in our Republican dominated, one-party, supermajority state.