School Choice via Charter Schools: Individualism vs. the Common Good

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced new grants of $245 million (a quarter of a billion dollars) under its Charter Schools Program (CSP), for the creation and expansion of charter schools. The federal government awards these grants to what are known as SEAs —state educational agencies or, in common parlance, state departments of education—and to charter management organizations—the big chains of charter schools, many of them for-profit. But while the U.S. Department of Education continues to operate the Charter Schools Program as though nothing has changed, there is a whirlwind of controversy these days about the impact of charter schools.

In Ohio, everybody is waiting to see what Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Jenifer French will decide in the case brought by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—a huge online school being investigated by the Ohio Department of Education for collecting hundreds millions of tax dollars over the years for phantom students—students who sign up for ECOT but log-in for only about an hour every day, when the state requires five hours of active participation.  Why has ECOT sued for a preliminary injunction to block the state’s demand for records of students’ computer log-in times?  Because ECOT has not bothered to set up a comprehensive system for collecting this seemingly important information.  On Monday of this week, the Ohio Department of Education reported on an audit it has conducted with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “ECOT was paid about $106 million in state funding last year for a reported 15,322 full-time students.  But after a preliminary attendance review in March and a final review in August that required the school to verify its enrollment through student log-in durations, the department has concluded that ECOT’s actual verified enrollment is 6,313 students.  Based on the final determination, the department could try to force ECOT and its politically influential founder, Bill Lager, to repay about $60 million to the state.”  And potentially much more if there is a retroactive claw-back for over-payments in previous years.  Much hangs on Judge Jenifer French’s decision in what is rapidly becoming an outrageous scandal.

Then on Thursday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second installment of Carol Burris’s blockbuster report for the Network for Public Education on financial and academic abuses in California’s charter schools. California serves more students in charter schools than any other state, and the problems described by Burris astonish.  She describes Desert Sands Charter High School with 2,000 students, a four-year graduation rate of 11.5 percent and a dropout rate of 42 percent: “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.”  Burris describes a Desert Sands Charter School student whose “classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sands’ address. Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning.”  Former students “found their experience at the charter to be anything but ‘personalized.’  They described education at Dessert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit… The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores.”  Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and a retired, award-winning high school principal, knows what she is looking at when she evaluates a school. I urge you to read this week’s stunning critique, to go back and read her first post, and to anticipate upcoming releases.

Finally this week, In the Public Interest published a new report, How Privatization Increases Inequality and reached the very same conclusion about charter schools as Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who clarified her position in opposition to Massachusetts Question 2, a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would raise the state’s cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. In the Public Interest emphasizes two negatives as charter schools proliferate: they increase economic and racial segregation, and they drain money from the public schools that serve the majority of students and concentrations of children with special needs: “The introduction of private interests into public goods and services can radically impact access for certain groups.  In some cases, privatization can create parallel systems in which one system propped up by private interests typically serves higher income people while another lesser quality system serves lower income people. In other cases, the creation of a private system siphons funding away from the public system meant to serve everyone. In some situations, poor individuals and families can lose access to a public good completely… The rapid growth of charter schools in the landscape of public K-12 education has ignited many concerns, including their financial impacts on public school districts, the ability of state and local governments to hold charter schools accountable, and whether they provide a quality education to students. However, another related and serious concern is the evidence showing that charter schools create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation among students.”

Jeff Bryant, in his weekly commentary for the Education Opportunity Network, quotes Senator Elizabeth Warren as she rejects Massachusetts Question 2 for the very same reasons: “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth… Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren echoes the ethical concern formulated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Washington, D.C. town hall in 2011: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” There should be no losers built into the system: Jackson points to public education as the very definition of public responsibility for “lifting” all children—not just the children we might consider the winners and not merely the children whose parents know how to play the school choice game well enough to make their own children the winners.  As money is sucked out of large public districts in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Cleveland to serve the relatively few children who can “choose” their way into a charter school, more and more people are considering the very premise of school choice in the context of their most basic values: support for the common good vs. endorsement of the pursuit of self-serving individualism.

New Allegations Condemn Moskowitz’s NYC Charter Network for Possible Cheating

School privatizers have flooded the media with miracle stories about saving children who are lost in the “wasteland” of public schools until they are “saved” by a particular brand of charter school.  Entrepreneurial charter operators have hired expensive public relations companies to trumpet these supposed wonders to the press.  In New York City, Don’t Steal Possible, a half million dollar television advertising campaign sponsored by billionaire hedge fund managers was mounted to convince parents that NYC’s mayor was trying to steal the future of their children by directing too much money to traditional public schools and not to the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools.

But underneath all of Eva Moskowitz’s glitz, we have been learning this year about ugly pressure at Success Academy charters on children and teachers to raise test scores at all costs.  The NY Times published a video (secretly made) of a first grade teacher insulting and punishing a little girl who became confused as she tried to explain her arithmetic (see here, and here), and we learned that another school maintained a “got-to-go” list of children the school intended to encourage to withdraw prior to the standardized testing date.  It has also been documented that Moskowitz’s schools do not “backfill” (a term commonly used in NY City charter schools) by adding new students when others drop out.  In this way, the schools can cultivate a particular group of higher-testing children who have internalized the schools’ harsh, zero-tolerance culture.

This week, however, Eva Moskowitz got more very bad press. Eliza Shapiro, a reporter for POLITICO New York has uncovered new and very serious allegations of intense pressure on staff, the likelihood that some staff have been cheating to ensure their students score well, and an unusually high turnover rate among teachers. Roy Germano, an ethnographer, was hired by Moskowitz “to study her rapidly expanding charter school network.”  After Germano turned in internal memos and reports in the spring and summer of 2015 that suggested teachers might be cheating, however, Moskowitz banned Germano from her schools and soon fired him. “While Germano did not conclusively prove that teachers were cheating, he reports multiple incidents of Success staffers informing him that Success teachers may have prepared students for specific questions on internal tests, allowed students to copy answers from each other, scored their own students higher than students in other classes, and pointed to incorrect answers on exams and warned students to rethink their answers. He compared Success’s data-driven, high-stakes environment to the state of the Atlanta public schools system when a widespread cheating scandal was uncovered there.  Germano also suggested that Success introduce measures to spot check and prevent cheating.” His internal report warned Moskowitz: “The credibility of the organization could be greatly undermined if a third party were to detect cheating among our teachers and leaders before we detected and began dealing with it ourselves.”

Shapiro reports that, “Germano’s reports and memo, along with a trove of other documents obtained by POLITICO—a separately commissioned internal draft risk assessment report, a compilation of exit interviews, and internal Success staffing records, among other documents—paint a picture of a growing enterprise facing serious institutional strain in the form of low staff morale, unusually high turnover, and the kind of stress that could drive teachers to exaggerate their students’ progress.” “Success principals—many of whom were teachers for only a few years before being promoted—are expected to have all the children in their schools pass state exams, and have up to 80 percent of their students scoring the highest level on the tests…. Principals are sometimes rewarded with 20 percent bonuses if their students do particularly well or improve dramatically on state English and math exams… although the network’s bonus decisions are not purely based on student performance.  And Success teachers are publicly ranked according to their students’ performance on tests.”  Germano reports: “When observing… classrooms, I observed instances where all the emphasis on test taking strategy may be sending the message that scores matter more than actual learning and that exceptional results are to be obtained by any means possible.”

Shapiro followed up with second report yesterday that further explores the documents obtained by POLITICO NY.  Moskowitz commissioned the work by Germano and a major “‘Enterprise Risk Assessment’ based on 14 interviews with members of the network’s senior leadership team” at a time when Success Academies anticipates rapid growth and expansion: “The expressions of concern come as Moskowitz aims to harness tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds to expand the network from its current 34 schools, serving 11,000 students, to 100 schools and 50,000 students over the next decade… The internal documents cited in this article illustrate some of the challenges that have already resulted from its early growth spurt to 30 schools, including considerable staff churn and uneven quality among schools within the network… (T)he risk most often cited by senior managers was the network’s ability to recruit and retain its existing staff, including school principals and top executives… In the sixteen months since the risk assessment was drafted, at least five high-level Success executives have left the network out of 20 total ‘leaders’ listed on the network’s website.”

As the network has grown rapidly, its capacity to manage data has “been plagued with problems.”  Staff expressed concerns in the risk assessment, for example, that the very expensive technology system the network has been trying to develop is “slow, not very reliable lack(s) basic functionality.”

Shapiro summarizes the incredible philanthropic dollars Success Academies has been able to attract from well known hedge fund supporters including one $25 million gift this year from Julian Robertson, but she also notes the charter network’s lavish expenses: a 15-year, $30 million lease in the financial district, a $567,000 annual salary for Eva Moskowitz (more than double that of NYC schools chancellor Carmen Farina), and enormous expenses to public relations firms including the Washington, D.C. firm of SKDKnickerbocker, Sloane & Company, and now Mercury, the same company recently hired by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to help manage press coverage of the Flint water poisoning.  Shapiro explains that Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter, pro-Moskowitz organization, spent $734,000 for the pro-charter, pro-Success Academy rally in Albany in March 2015, including $71,900 for beanies and $62,795 for matched T-shirts for the participants.

Although Success Academies is spending a lot of money to create the appearance of glitzy school reform and high test scores, POLITICO NY‘s important new revelations raise serious ethical and educational issues. I urge you to read both of Shapiro’s new articles here and here.

But my own deepest concerns about Moskowitz’s schools are captured in the video the NY Times posted earlier this year of a teacher’s cruelty to a first grade child and the follow-up description of the way Success Academies betrayed the hope of the child’s mother, living in a homeless shelter but trying to do the best she could for her daughter.

How Charters Destabilize Public School Districts: Let Us Count the Ways

Three recent press reports—from Nevada, Chicago, Illinois, and Massachusetts—document how expansion of charter schools is  undermining the public schools that serve the majority of students including those with the greatest needs.  The same theory of charter school expansion operates all three locations—competition, innovation, and growing opportunity for students who have been left behind.  Instead all three recent articles describe diversion of desperately needed public tax dollars, destabilization of public schools, lack of regulation, and all sorts of ways that students with the greatest needs get left farther behind.

Here is the conclusion of a new report by Hugh Jackson for Nevada Public Radio on Nevada’s fiscal outlay for unregulated charter schools: (T)oday’s charter industry… reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is a surrender to pessimism… Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools.  As for everyone else, well, too bad for them… (C)aptitalizing on politically correct disdain for public institutions and a consumer culture’s visceral embrace of ‘choice,’ and truly impressed by the steady flow of public money through the public-education revenue stream, the private sector is working feverishly… to drain more and more money from that stream.”

In Nevada, enrollment in poorly regulated charter schools has grown by 21 percent over last year—grown by 133 percent over the past five years: “Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately operated.  The result is a charter-school industry, encompassing what can be a dizzying array of arrangements and contracts between the schools, their unelected boards, state agencies, property developers, for-profit management companies, nonprofit arms of private companies, hedge funds and investment firms, and myriad consultants, contractors and education-industry vendors.  Virtually every dollar everyone in the charter-school industry makes is provided by the taxpaying public.” Lack of regulation—room for all sorts of fraud—and $254 million diverted this year from the state’s public schools.

The biggest recipient of all this largess in Nevada is Academica. While, in theory, citizens come together to recruit a board of directors and launch an innovative, neighborhood-based educational experiment, “Academica is not only relied upon every step of the way, but the instigator.  No doubt some charter schools are the result of concerned citizens and parents banding together, from the bottom up, as it were, to fill what they perceive to be a particular educational niche or void. With a new Academica school, the far more likely scenario involves a for-profit company making market-based decisions on location, timing, demographics, and such, not unlike Walmart determining where to open a new Sam’s Club.  Upon determining that a new project pencils out, Academica finds the statutorily requisite citizen’s charter school board… Enter the investment funds.  To be eligible for state funding to build or improve a charter school facility the school has to have been opened for three years.  So it needs financing to bridge the gap….  The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund is one of several for-profit investment funds in the nation that have attracted capital from a) foundations, institutional investors and individuals who are ‘for’ education; and b) hedge funds, investment banks and other investors drawn to generous federal tax credits on income earned from the public through charter-school profits. Started by Southern California financier Bobby Turner in partnership with long-time Las Vegas charter-school champion Andre Agassi, Turner-Agassi has provided bridge financing for at least four Academica building projects in Nevada and is doing the same for most of Academica’s aggressive expansion in the state.”

Then there is the report from Kate Grossman for The Atlantic that documents how school choice in Chicago has “hollowed out” Chicago’s open-enrollment neighborhood high schools.  Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side has only “391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1700.  Austin is one of 35 public high schools that are well under half full.  Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full. These schools face a set of woes that make a turnaround all but impossible.  A citywide school-choice system leaves these mostly open-enrollment schools with some of Chicago’s most challenging and low-achieving students.  Deeply strained budgets fueled by declining enrollment hurt staffing levels, teacher retention, and programming… Chicago has a poor track record of delivering for its weakest students but this latest chapter, arguably an inevitable and predictable consequence of school choice, may be a new low.  Students who need the healthiest and most stable schools are segregated in some of the most unstable institutions….”

“School type defines the pecking order in Chicago’s choice system.  Open-enrollment neighborhood schools are at the bottom, especially in low-income communities. All rising ninth graders are assigned to one of these neighborhood schools based on their home address, but any student can bypass by applying elsewhere. The options include lottery-based charter schools, selective schools that admit based on test scores, neighborhood schools outside a student’s community with space, or magnet and specialty schools that draw citywide.”  ” ‘The school-choice policy idea in Chicago creates a stratified, classist society,’ argues Rita Raichoudhuri, the principal of Wells High School, a neighborhood school that has struggled with declining enrollment despite improvements in the school’s dropout, graduation, and attendance rates in recent years. ‘ The cream of the crop is together at selective enrollment schools.  The second tier, with involved families, is at charters and magnets. Then the ‘rejects’ end up in neighborhood high schools.'”

In Chicago, a school’s decline is pretty much guaranteed by a per-pupil budget system: “The lower a school’s enrollment, the smaller the school’s budget… Tilden, for example, lost nearly $200,000 this year because of enrollment declines and other budget cuts in a city grappling with huge deficits… Wells, on the city’s gentrifying Near Northwest Side, lost $450,000 this year when enrollment dropped by 100 students and it has lost more than $3 million over the last three years because of additional enrollment declines, citywide budget cuts and the end of a federal turnaround grant.”  Chicago is part of the Portfolio School Reform network of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which promotes the idea that school choice will deliver, “A great school for every child in every neighborhood.” Instead in cities like Chicago, where the overall student population is declining, the result is the attraction of the most able and most aggressive students and their parent advocates to the schools that appear most desirable and the segregation of very poor and disabled students, along with their English-learning peers who also need expensive services that charter schools are less likely to provide, in what quickly become public schools of last resort.

Finally, in the spring issue of The American Prospect, Gabrielle Gurley profiles the fight going on this year in Massachusetts, where public school officials and supporters are organizing to keep a referendum–launched by charter school supporters to lift the cap on the expansion of charter schools—off the November ballot.  Gurley, who outlines the financial impact of potential growth of charter schools, warns: “As Massachusetts lawmakers study their options, what is clear is that lifting the cap on charter schools without new revenues (for public schools), or even tinkering with the current tuition-reimbursement formula, is a recipe for further fiscal distress in the school districts.”  “(M)unicipal and school officials’ dissatisfaction with charter-school funding is also rooted in frustration with a deeper systemic flaw. The formula that determines how much state education aid flows to school districts has not been updated since 1993, so aid has failed to keep pace with major cost drivers like employee health care and special education.”

Currently in Massachusetts, which has 81 charter schools (and has not yet reached the current cap that permits 120 charters statewide), “When a student leaves a school district to attend a charter, that district transfers a tuition payment based on a district’s average per-student expenditure.  To mitigate the financial impact of this transfer, a district receives a 100 percent tuition reimbursement from the state the first year but only 25 percent in each of the next five years…  A school district’s payments to these schools are designed to not exceed 9 percent of its net expenditures. In the state’s poorest-performing districts, the amount cannot exceed 18 percent.  But that could change with the ballot initiative, and Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, is a big supporter of charter-school expansion.”

Gurley quotes researcher Christopher Lubienski: “Low-income students who attend charters ‘tend to be the advantaged of the disadvantaged.  The poorest kids and the kids with the most costly special needs still go to public schools.”  “A 2015 Massachusetts Association of School Committees study found that although charters do enroll some challenging groups like English-language learners, they are not doing so at the same rates as traditional public schools. Bay State charters also continue to under-enroll poor students, while children with more profound types of disabilities were also under-enrolled or not enrolled at all.”  “Thus the irony: Charters were intended as a gateway to better public education for the poor. In practice, some of them, especially outside large cities, end up as taxpayer-funded, quasi-private schools for the middle class.”

Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh is described as a supporter of charter schools, but, according to Gurley, Walsh “conceded that under the ballot question, the proposed expansion of up to 12 (charter) schools each year would have severe repercussions on the municipal and the school system budgets. ‘If you give us more charter schools without giving us the resources to pay for them, can you imagine what the budget problems will be in the next three, four, five, six, seven years? It will be daunting.”

Public Agenda Releases In-Depth Resources on Charter Schools

Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation have just published on-line a rich and informative set of resources on charter schools.  You will find a comprehensive summary of facts and details about charter schools and questions you should be asking yourself when you hear about or read about them.  This is a nonpartisan summary of current research.  Because the experiment with charter schools is ideological—charters are the centerpiece of an experiment with marketplace school choice—and because charters are so different from place to place, you won’t find the answer in this publication to the ultimate question: Are charter schools a good idea?

Several shorter pieces accompany the longer report. Two short resources—10 Questions for Journalists and 10 Questions for Policymakers—target specific constituencies.  A third, Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community?, is a discussion starter for a parent or civic organization. In a few pages it presents facts about charter schools—that they are largely an urban phenomenon and make up about 6 percent of publicly funded schools today—and broad questions to consider.

Public Agenda’s new publication is fair and comprehensive in its description of the research.  Explaining why authoritative research about charter schools is hard to find, the Guide to Research describes serious challenges: “Students, schools and the laws governing them vary considerably across the country… Some charter schools are freestanding, while others are managed by larger organizations. States vary in their regulations, including whether or not they cap the number of charter schools that are allowed to open and the certifications they require for teachers. States, districts and schools differ in many ways, such as school financing and in demographics. And most charter school studies use samples of charter schools and students that are not representative of all charter schools and students. Researchers can therefore generalize their findings only to the specific student population, geographic location or type of charter school that they studied.”

Public Agenda’s resources, filled with facts and the questions policy makers, journalists, and citizens should ask, remind us that we ought to be questioning far more deeply the rapid expansion of charter schools and wondering what all this means for our children, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our society.  The longer Guide to Research provides background research summaries and the key questions people ought to ask in a number of areas—such issues as Key Facts about Charter Schools, Reading the Research, Student Achievement, Diversity and Inclusion, Teachers and Teaching, Innovation, Finances, Governance and Regulation, Charter School Operators, Families, Public Opinion, and Questions for Future Research.

Each section is an in-depth, nonpartisan summary of a mass of current research.  Many readers will need guidance to begin to digest all this information.  Users of the guide will still need to search for journalism by researchers who have key contacts (including whistle blowers) who know some of the answers about how all this is working on the ground: Stephanie Simon’s piece several years ago for Reuters, for example, or last summer’s Detroit Free Press‘s week-long expose on the charter fiasco in Detroit, or some serious questioning by Robin Lake, the promoter of portfolio school reform who has begun raising concerns about her own organization’s strategy as it is playing out in charter schools in Detroit.  And, of course, there is all the controversy in New York City about promotion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters by wealthy hedge fund managers.  Finally the Cashing In On Kids website regularly posts investigations of charter schools—answers to some of the questions Public Agenda raises.  Cashing In On Kids, for example, has recently posted a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy & Coalition for Community Schools, System Failure: Louisiana’s Broken Charter School Law, an investigation that makes no attempt to disguise the problems with how the New Orleans charter school experiment has failed, from the point of view of the report’s authors: “Underinvestment in oversight leaves Louisiana’s charter schools vulnerable to financial fraud and academic failures.”  Such candor about a report’s point of view is regularly present in the pieces posted at Cashing In On Kids.

Public Agenda’s Discussion Starter does ask the essential question: “Are charter schools a good way to improve education in our community?”  But because the new publication is nonpartisan, Public Agenda does not answer this essentially political question. The Discussion Starter offers three possible answers to the question—“three broad perspectives to think over and discuss.” They are good prompts, as they define three of the most common frames around charter schools: (1) “Charter schools offer parents more and better choices…. And that should be our goal—giving families the power to choose….”  (2) “Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools. They siphon off tax dollars and separate some of the most motivated and knowledgeable parents from our regular schools. (3) Charter schools offer a much-needed chance to try out new ideas and approaches….”

I’ll close by sharing this blog’s point of view: (2) is the correct answer. Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools.  Why? Even though public schools in America have never been perfect and our society has historically under-served groups of students who were marginalized—black and brown students, American Indian students, English language learners, disabled students, poor students, girls— democracy itself has enabled advocates to fight for and win reforms. While our society urgently needs to find ways to expand educational opportunity for vulnerable children, a democratically governed system incorporates public engagement and electoral politics as mechanisms for reform.  We all benefit from public ownership and oversight by state governments and local school boards. And a comprehensive network of public schools, rather than a fragmented patchwork of privately operated alternatives, creates systemic programming that can ensure services for a mass of children with many needs.  As students whose families know how to play the school choice process go to charters, they leave behind in the public schools the students least likely to be acceptable in charters because they are very poor or English learners, or seriously disabled.  The rapid growth of charters is turning our big city school districts into places of last resort for the children whose needs are greatest.  At the same time, as school choice alternatives siphon off more public dollars, public school districts struggle with fewer resources.

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber says it best: “Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)