Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school ear, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent.  This year is not an anomaly.  So what is going on?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host school systems: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.

Charter Schools: Two Weeks Filled with Scathing Critiques

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”

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)

Bombshell Report Exposes Federal Failure to Oversee Charters

I was once in a meeting where Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared: “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.” Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan has done nothing to increase federal oversight for the purpose of addressing what he called “the problem.”  A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, exposes the U.S. Department of Education’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995. The federal Charter School Program (CSP) awards grants to state departments of education to encourage charter school expansion.

Who’s in charge?  Really nobody: “The system insulates each element from accountability for what actually happens in charters.” The federal government has relinquished oversight to the states receiving federal grants, states which have then turned over regulation to  charter school authorizers in what the Center for Media and Democracy 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 charter proponents….”  “Theoretically, the charters are held ‘accountable’ to charter authorizers.  However, enforcement of standards by charter authorizers appears lax in many instances, and states have said they lack legal authority under statutes that created the charter option to demand compliance.”  “As a consequence, the public does not know how much federal seed money each charter has received and does not know how it has really been spent…” “Unlike truly public schools, which have to account for prospective and past spending in public budgets provided to democratically elected school boards, charter spending is largely a black hole.”

The Center for Media and Democracy gathered the information in the report through a series of formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the U.S. Department of Education as well as requests to the state education offices (SEAs) that administer federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants.  First CMD asked the U.S. Department of Education for a list of all charter schools that have received money under the Charter School Program. Only after repeated requests and many months did the Department of Education comply: “Finally, in late summer, the agency gave CMD a list of charter schools that had received CSP SEA money in recent years.  But, due to the poor quality of the format, CMD had to manually transcribe the list.”

CMD explains that 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 and against fraud and waste.”  “In the current structure, the U.S. Department of Education hears only from proponents of the charter school grant application and in this closed loop—unsurprisingly—it approves money to a state like Ohio based on formal submissions that praise it, in spite of numerous failures.”

The Center for Media and Democracy examines the role of federal Charter School Program grants in eleven states plus the District of Columbia: California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Wisconsin.  In coming weeks this blog will return to the information in the state reports.  Here is just one example— a taste of what CMD discovered as it surfaced information about poor oversight of federal charter school grants in Michigan: “(C)harter schools in Michigan received $34,997,658 between 2010-15 under the CSP (federal Charter School Program) umbrella, after the state was awarded $43.9 million under the CSP expansion in 2010.  (This discrepancy is based on appropriations amounts and cycles and other differentials.)  Almost half (139) of the charters in Michigan were subsidized in part by federal tax dollars, in the past five years… Since the inception of charters in the state (back into the 1990s), more than 100 charters have closed (108).  Many of them have closed due to lack of ‘academic viability’ (poor results) while others have closed due to lack of ‘financial viability’ (such as inadequate enrollment) and some for both or other failings… Another area of concern is that four out of every five Michigan charter schools are really being run by for-profit management companies…. Perhaps one of the most surprising takeaways from the federal information available about how taxpayer money is being spent or wasted is the existence of ‘ghost’ schools that never opened.  Out of the charters that were approved for CSP funds by the Michigan Department of Education in 2011 and 2012, twenty-five never opened…  The organizations behind these proposed charter schools were approved for a total of nearly $3.7 million in federal tax funds in ‘pre-planning’ and ‘planning grants…”

Ohio is another of the states covered in the report: “Ohio has been awarded a substantial amount in federal CSP SEA grants: more than $195 million between 2004 and 2015.”  At the end of September 2015—in grants awarded for 2016 or over the upcoming five years—the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  Ohio was granted the most of any state—$71 million—even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools.  (Subsequent to the receipt of the federal grant, the Ohio legislature did pass a modest bill to begin correcting some of the most egregious problems in the states out-of-control charter sector.)  Aware of the state’s unregulated charter schools, in July of 2015, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced a bill for federal regulation of charter schools; some of the proposed bill’s provisions were folded into the Senate’s proposal for the reauthorization of the federal education law.  (Very different Senate and House versions of a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act have passed, but a joint version has not yet emerged from a conference committee.)

And last week Senator Brown stepped up again to provide leadership by demanding federal oversight.  Senator Brown joined Ohio Representative Tim Ryan to introduce a bicameral Congressional bill to regulate charters  through increased “accountablity, transparency, and community involvement.” The legislation would impose Congressional oversight over a process that until now has been hidden inside the Department of Education.  The proposed Charter School Accountability Act would require independent financial audits of charter schools and reports on each school’s program, mission, school discipline policy, student attrition rates, staff turnover, and data reflecting admission and recruitment policies and student retention.  The proposed bill would require states applying for federal grants to set charter school performance standards and to collect data on school closures and performance reviews.  It would also require state legislatures to establish state “authority to suspend or revoke a charter schools’ s authorization based on poor performance or violating policies,” and it would demand that states establish regulations to prevent conflicts of interest and implement fiduciary policies for charter school boards, treasurers, and staff.  The bill would also require states to seek parental and community involvement as charter schools are planned.

The new report from the Center for Media and Democracy confirms the pressing need for the kind of federal oversight proposed by Senator Brown and Representative Ryan. The federal government’s protracted failure to oversee it’s $3.7 billion investment in charter schools has been among the most egregious problems in Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.  While Duncan has been in charge for seven years as Secretary of Education, he has made no attempt to regulate charter schools; his clear priority has been innovation rather than oversight.  This blog has covered Duncan’s failure to establish adequate regulation of the out-of-control charter sector here, here, here, and here.

Talk of Charter Oversight in Ohio is Likely Just Talk

Ohio’s governor and members of the legislature have begun talking about regulating charter schools in a state that was called  by an official at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, “the wild, wild west” of charter schools.  But it’s really only just talk, and the real question is whether the legislature will make any serious effort crack down on the charter sector whose tycoons have continued to fill legislators’ political coffers.

There are serious questions, for example, about whether any of the new regulations proposed by Ohio’s governor or House of Representatives would touch the kind of fraud that was recently investigated by the state auditor, who released a report on Ohio’s so-called “dropout recovery” charters that, he discovered, have been collecting state reimbursements for phantom students who are not really attending the schools.  This blog covered the auditor’s investigation here.

Patrick O’Donnell, a reporter for the Plain Dealer, has been investigating the recent discussions about regulating Ohio’s charters. In this report O’Donnell summarizes the contents of a proposed bill in the Ohio House that would, if it ever passes, prevent some of the really serious problems with Ohio’s charter schools.  And there are some extremely serious problems right now.  For example, if a charter school is failing miserably academically or found to be misusing state funds, the school would no longer be able to, ” ‘hop’ from one sponsor to another if a sponsor, the organization responsible for making sure they do a good job, cracks down on them.”  The bill, if passed, would also require charter school board members to “disclose if they have any family members or business associates doing business with the school.”  And the sponsors would be prohibited “from selling goods or services to the schools they oversee.”  Proposed regulations would require charter schools to have their own treasurers who are independent from the sponsors as well as the management companies hired by the charter school boards.

And while the new law, if passed, would not determine whether desks and computers and other equipment purchased with tax money belong to the charter school itself or the private management company hired by a charter school board to run the school, the new law would at least require the school to have established a clear agreement with the sponsor and management company about who owns the equipment. The agreement would need to define “which entity owns… school facilities and property including, but not limited to, equipment, furniture, fixtures, instructional materials and supplies, computers, printers….”  Currently ten of Ohio’s charter schools are involved in a long running lawsuit to determine if the schools, whose boards want to change management companies, can take with them the equipment purchased with tax money.  For-profit White Hat Management Company, whose management contract all ten schools want to terminate, claims it owns all of the equipment.

Here and here, O’Donnell examines Ohio’s Governor John Kasich’s proposal that the legislature crack down on Ohio’s system of charter school sponsors: “Ohio differs sharply from other states… by allowing many different kinds of agencies to take that sponsor/authorizer role.  In some states, only local school districts, universities or a few state charter boards can sponsor schools.  But Ohio has nearly 70 sponsors and is one of the few states that allows other nonprofit agencies to be sponsors… Some people… have accused sponsors of using schools as a money grab, just to collect three percent annual fees that are supposed to cover oversight costs or to find other ways to draw money from the schools.”  O’Donnell continues, “Asked last week how Ohio can justify having sponsors as a layer of bureaucracy in the process of cracking down on poor charter schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ spokesman Greg Richmond could offer no defense of Ohio’s system. ‘It’s hard to rationalize or justify Ohio’s system,’ he said.”

O’Donnell reports that Kasich will ask the legislature to better regulate sponsors and perhaps eliminate those with low ratings. “The rating system currently has three categories: exemplary, effective and ineffective.  Kasich would add a fourth rating as the lowest: ‘poor.’  When an authorizer is rated as poor, the state would withdraw sponsorship rights and take over sponsorship of all of its schools.”  Current law puts low-rated sponsors on probation and blocks them from adding new charters to their roster until they improve.  Kasich proposes to reward the most successful charters by permitting them go to their local public school board to request that the local board of education place a local property tax levy on the ballot for the charter school in the same way public school districts in Ohio raise local millage.  Charters sponsored by “exemplary” agencies could also qualify for help from a $25 million state fund to be created to assist charter schools to purchase or renovate their school facilities.  The new rules Governor Kasich suggests the legislature pass would even apply to the “handful of authorizers that the state named as permanent sponsors in Ohio’s first charter school pilot project.”  Till now, these sponsors have been grandfathered out of regulations.

Are there reasons to be skeptical?  Yes.  Does all this sound too complicated to pass in the legislature?  Yes. Why focus on the sponsors and ignore the possibility of just regulating particular charters that are known to be wasting or stealing taxpayer dollars and failing to educate children?

One reason for skepticism is that, as O’Donnell reports, past efforts to get the Ohio legislature to regulate charter schools have failed.  In 2012, as part of a proposed Cleveland Transformation Plan, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson asked the legislature merely to pass enabling legislation for the formation of a local Cleveland charter school regulatory agency with representatives appointed from the city school board and civic and business leaders.  The legislature did permit the creation of what is  now called the Cleveland Transformation Alliance but denied the Transformation Alliance the right to shut down any charter schools, even if their academic or financial records are abysmal. The Cleveland Tranformation Alliance serves only in an advisory capacity.  The legislature has never even given the Ohio Department of Education the capacity to regulate charter schools or close those whose performance is poor.

Ohio is currently a one party state: Republican governor, Republicans with large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.   Innovation Ohio recently tracked the political contributions of Ohio’s two biggest charter operators—William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and David Brennan of White Hat Management:  “Between the two of them, they have contributed about $6.4 million to Ohio politicians and committees since 1998. Of that, less than 3 percent went to Democrats.”

It is clearly in the financial interest of Ohio’s legislative leaders that charter schools not be regulated.

Chicago Cuts Funding for Neighborhood Schools, Continues to Implement Unproven Reforms

Last week Chicago’s school board passed a budget for the 2014-2015 school year that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “cuts funding to traditional schools by $72 million while increasing spending by the same amount for privately run charter and contract schools.” The Tribune reports that this budget reduces funding for neighborhood schools for the second year in a row.

Earlier this summer, Pauline Lipman and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released a report that examines the impact on Chicago’s families of the city’s school governance changes in the past two decades that have rapidly opened unregulated  charter schools while closing a mass of traditional public schools.  Here is the summary that begins that report:

“On May 22, 2013 Chicago’s appointed Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turn around five others, and co-locate 17 elementary schools, affecting roughly 40,000 students.  This was the largest number of schools closed at one time in the U.S.  Since 2001, Chicago Public Schools has closed, turned-around, phased-out, or consolidated over 150 neighborhood public schools in low-income African American and Latino communities.  This policy has disproportionately affected African American students and communities.  At the same time, CPS has expanded privately run charter and turnaround schools.  These actions should be understood in relation to CPS’ ‘portfolio’ district agenda in which schools are part of a market of largely interchangeable public and private services, rather than stabilizing neighborhood institutions.”

Lipman and her colleagues conducted qualitative research based on extensive interviews with the parents whose children were affected by the most recent school closures and reassignments.  They conclude: “School actions have hit African American students disproportionately.  Some shuttered schools were iconic institutions of African American cultural and intellectual life… Closing a school is a drastic action.  Schools are stable institutions in communities facing the destabilizing effects of public and private disinvestment, poverty, high unemployment, and housing insecurity.  Closing a school may result in children traveling outside their neighborhoods, siblings attending different schools, trauma to children, and the loss of jobs for teachers, as well as other education workers who are often community residents… Nevertheless the trend of closing schools (and replacing public neighborhood schools with charter and ‘choice schools’) is increasing despite very limited data about either its effectiveness in increasing academic performance or the impact closings have on children, families, and communities.”

Another study released in June by a task force appointed by the Illinois General Assembly to study the impact of changes in school facilities and student reassignments raised similar concerns: “In both the 2012 and 2013 School Actions and Closings, communities of color and the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, were impacted the most by CPS’ Actions.  Approximately 90 percent of the students directly impacted by School Actions and Closings in 2012 and 2013 were African American.  An estimated 2,615 homeless students attended the Welcoming Schools and the schools that CPS closed in 2013; 2,097 Special Education students (those with disabilities and Individual Education Plans or IEPs) were impacted.”

The legislatively appointed Chicago Education Facilities Task Force Report concludes overall: “Since the Illinois General Assembly granted Mayoral Control over Chicago’s public school district in 1995, there has been a concentration of decision making about the nature and direction of public education in Illinois’ largest city, and the nation’s 3rd largest school system.  These decisions have had substantial and sometimes drastic immediate and long standing effects on students, families, neighborhoods and the city.  Once former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative in 2003 to create 100 new schools by 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not only opened new schools (mainly charters); the district has also been closing neighborhood public schools and drastically reconfiguring the public school system in other ways.  Since 2008 alone, four different CPS administrations with average tenures of less than 3 years made far-reaching changes and decisions that Chicagoans will live with for generations.  These decisions have determined which students get to go to which schools; how to maintain school facilities; what the district’s capital spending priorities should be, and determined how and when to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on school repairs, renovations, and new construction.  Yet Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been making these decisions without adequate educational facilities planning or public input.”

The Sun Times reports that, ironically and perhaps understandably, in the new budget just passed Chicago Public Schools will be spending $1.8 million on its communications department.  One would hope this money will support extensive two-way communications with families and community leaders and not merely slick promotion of what has become known as Chicago School Reform—the type of portfolio school governance plan that Arne Duncan managed in Chicago and subsequently brought to us all, when as U.S. Secretary of Education he launched Race to the Top and a series of related “portfolio” school policies.