Charter School Sector Out of Control

Last week when Ohio’s progressive Senator Sherrod Brown introduced (to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill being considered right now by the U.S. Senate) an amendment for federal regulation of charter schools, the Plain Dealer reported that he noted the irony that the very people who complain about waste, fraud, and abuse in government are now defending unregulated charter schools.

Whether or not Brown’s “Charter School Accountability Act of 2015” is enacted in this session of Congress, it is absolutely important that someone has finally introduced regulation of charter schools into the Congressional debate about education.  Just last month, a group of national organizations, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to remind him that the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General had, “raised concern about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter School Program,” and to demand a moratorium on new charter schools until regulation is improved.  The Office of Inspector General had reported in 2012 that neither the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, nor the state education agencies which disburse the majority of federal funds are equipped to keep adequate records or establish even minimal oversight of charter schools.  But according to the Alliance’s letter, nothing has been done to improve oversight.  And yet, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, “The department has given $1.7 billion in grants to charter schools since fiscal 2009.”  This blog covered the letter sent to Secretary Duncan from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools here.

Nowhere has the experiment with charters been as extensive as New Orleans, where ten years ago after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city, laws were swiftly changed to enable the state of Louisiana to declare the majority of New Orleans’ public schools “failing” and to seize the schools into the state-run Recovery School District that turned the majority of schools into privately managed charter schools. The Recovery School District in New Orleans has been bragged about in the press and in a mass of research literature produced by proponents of its “portfolio school reform” strategy.  And Louisiana’s creation of a “recovery district” or state appointed emergency manager has been copied by, for example, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, and very recently by Ohio for Youngstown’s schools, and Wisconsin for Milwaukee’s schools.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is an organization at the University of Colorado that has undertaken the project of reviewing research produced too often by think tanks with a bias.  On Monday, NEPC released a statement to raise concerns about the much-publicized research that has been produced to endorse the New Orleans charter experiment:  “This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina…. Following this tragedy, an extraordinary experiment in market-driven governance of public school was imposed on the city.  On this anniversary, advocacy groups and think tanks have issued numerous reports touting the claimed success of the New Orleans model, pointing to test scores that are higher than before Katrina, and championing its export to other disadvantaged communities.  Past claims put forward by these groups have rarely been supported by rigorous, objective research.  In fact, independent researchers have disputed these claims, arguing that the massive out-migration of students may have resulted in inflated scores for those remaining.  Other scholars have noted that the test standards were changed and the gains were exaggerated.”

NEPC suggests that whether or not test scores have significantly risen, there are other standards by which a school district must be evaluated.  NEPC endorses independent research that now documents: that the fragmented mass of charter schools have not always done a good job of providing services for students with special needs;  that low-income families’ school choice has been far more constrained by lack of transportation and after-school care while wealthier families have far less constrained choices; that some charter schools have been skimming the best students through tactics involving selective advertising and recruitment; and that the massive layoff of all the district’s teachers after the 2005 hurricane has left the district with far fewer African American teachers and fewer teachers with at least 10 years of experience.  NEPC adds: “Voters in New Orleans have lost control over the majority of their public schools, and have almost no say in whether they will get those schools back.”

A report released in May by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools adds another serious worry.  Just as there has been lack of adequate oversight of charter schools at the federal level and across the states in general, Louisiana and the New Orleans Recovery School District have been ill-equipped to ensure adequate financial and academic oversight of New Orleans’ charter schools.  The report documents the size of the public’s financial investment in Louisiana Recovery District charter schools: “These schools have received substantial federal and state taxpayer support, totaling $71.8 million from federal Charter School Program grants and billions from Louisiana taxpayers.  In school year 2014/2015 Louisiana taxpayers will have poured over $831 million into charter schools.”

Oversight to protect taxpayers and students has not accompanied the massive investment of tax dollars, however. “The rapid growth and massive investment in charter schools has been accompanied by a dramatic underinvestment in oversight, leaving Louisiana’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers at risk of academic failures and financial fraud.”  Here are the problems the Center for Popular Democracy identifies: “Oversight depends too heavily on self-reporting by charter schools or the reports of whistleblowers… The general auditing techniques used in charter school reports do not uncover fraud on their own…  Inadequate staffing prevents the thorough detection and elimination of fraud.”  “As the state has insufficiently resourced financial oversight, it has failed to create a structure that provides struggling schools and their students with a pathway to academic success… Since 2005, approximately $700 million in public tax dollars have been spent on charter schools that currently have not achieved a C or better on the state’s grading system.”  The report, recommends very basic reforms including that “underlying data comparators remain consistent from year to year to allow oversight officials and the public to accurately compare school performance,” that the state investigate whether there has been cheating by some schools to elevate their scores, and that the state audit school-reported data regularly to ensure it is accurate.

The National Education Policy Center warns this week that broader and more extensive research is needed for a comprehensive understanding of the meaning New Orleans’ school reform: “Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers… (I)t is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores.  The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores.  In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a ‘recovery’ or ‘portfolio’ model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.”

The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?