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.”

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Another Pro-“Ed Reform” Group Deplores Charter Marketplace

The number of charter schools has grown rapidly since the U.S. Department of Education required in 2009 that, to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states would need to remove any caps on the number of new charter schools that can be opened each year. While until recently the debate about the expansion and performance of charter schools has been relatively ideological, now even supporters of competition and school choice have begun raising serious questions about the lack of oversight of charter schools that suck billions of dollars out of public education budgets across the states and too often fail academically or financially.

In the fall of 2014, two pro-charter advocates began to raise serious questions about our new charter landscape.   Margaret Raymond of Stanford’s Hoover Institution announced that marketplace school choice through charter schools is not working in Ohio.  And Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform,” wrote a  scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation in Detroit:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Now the Education Trust-Midwest has condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan.  Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, and “agnostic about school governance.” But how to get some kind of oversight of charters in Michigan is a question Education Trust-Midwest cannot answer, though the organization makes an excellent case for increased regulation: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.  Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”

The report describes the charter school sector in Michigan today: “Since the cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011, authorizers oversaw the largest single-year charter growth in state history.  In 2013, roughly 40 schools opened their doors.  In 2014, just under 39 new charters have opened, with many more expected in 2015.  Many of these new schools are run by operators with terrible track records of performance, such as Leona and Education Management Networks….”  “Without the cap, which once exerted at least some pressure on authorizers to be selective about new charter schools, today there is little incentive for authorizers to put students’ academic interests before that of some operators.  Indeed, the incentives run in the opposite direction: authorizers receive 3 percent of the public funding for each school they authorize, regardless of performance.  That amounted to about $30 million that went to Michigan’s charter authorizers last year.”

According to the new report, 40 different entities authorize charter schools in Michigan.  They include public higher education institutions, traditional pubic school districts, and intermediate districts. In a sidebar of the report, Sunil Joy explains how current law speaks to the issue of oversight of charter schools:  “According to the Michigan Revised School Code, the state superintendent has the ability to ‘suspend the power of the authorizing body’ for not engaging in ‘appropriate continuing oversight.’  The law goes on to say that any new contracts issued during a suspension period are void.  This process is vague and contested; some universities contend they are constitutionally autonomous.  Constitutional autonomy means that the Michigan constitution gives public university boards full authority to supervise their institutions to control and direct how they spend money… In August of 2014, the Michigan Department of Education put 11 authorizers on an ‘at-risk of suspension’ list for not engaging in proper transparency…. What is clear is that no one, including the state superintendent, can revoke an authorizer’s power.”

The Education Trust-Midwest suggests several needed reforms.  Authorizers whose schools don’t perform should be sanctioned. Authorizers should not be permitted to approve new contracts with companies that already have poorly performing charters.  Authorizers should be required to hold public meetings and accept community input as new schools are considered.  The Education Trust-Midwest does not, however, provide suggestions for building the political will in Michigan’s General Assembly for the passage of such regulations.  In a climate where many people are benefiting financially from the current scheme that lacks regulation, presumably charter authorizers and charter operators are making their influence felt by legislators.

Although nobody seems to know how to put the lid back on the Pandora’s Box of sins and evils that have come with unregulated school choice, more and more proponents of corporate reform have begun declaring that competition alone is not, as many have suggested in the past, an effective way to address achievement gaps and inequality. The Education Trust-Midwest has now gone on-record with Robin Lake, the proponent of “portfolio school reform” and with Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution.  The Education Trust-Midwest declares: “Clearly school choice alone will not close Michigan’s unforgivable achievement gaps. Twenty years of data prove it. Simply opening the door for the rapid expansion of new charter schools isn’t enough to ensure our state actually provides better public schools for students.”