Archives for category: Charter Schools

Mitchell Robinson, Associate Professor of Music Education at Michigan State University, has compiled a handy guide to the bold idea of “achievement school districts.”

 

There is the Recovery School District in New Orleans; the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan; the Achievement School District in Tennessee; and more on the way in other states.

 

The main thing you need to know about these experimental districts is that they promise rapid improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools, and all of them have failed.

 

Here are the key traits of Achievement School Districts:

 

School Funding

 

Individual ASD schools are often required to pay a “kickback” or “tax” to the state ASD authority for the “privilege” of being identified as a “low performing school”. In Nevada, “ASD schools receive the same state and local per-pupil resources that they would have received as part of their original home district. This includes local, state, and federal funding. As with other charter school sponsors, the ASD will receive a small administrative fee from each school it authorizes.” (bold added)
In other words, in spite of the probability that an ASD school has been chronically underfunded for years, perhaps decades, the state will now take its own cut from whatever local, state and federal funding the school may be receiving for administrative overhead, further decreasing the actual number of dollars that are going to classrooms, teachers and children.
Local Control

 

Local control, long recognized as a hallmark of public education, is a dinosaur in ASDs. In Detroit, the locally-elected school board still meets, but has essentially been stripped of all power and authority. The members of the elected school board refer to themselves as being “exiled,” and the newly elected state superintendent of schools has called on the governor and state legislators to return control of the Detroit Public Schools to the local school board, saying, “I believe we ought to have a Detroit school district for the Detroit community.” Instead, Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a radical plan to split the city’s schools into two districts: one to educate children, and the other devoted to addressing the district’s debt problem.

 
Transparency

Even though it is often trumpeted as an integral aspect of effective school governance, very few ASDs follow their own propaganda when it comes to transparency in reporting. Detroit’s EAA is an especially notorious offender in this respect, making claims that do not stand even the faintest amounts of scrutiny. According to Wayne State professor of education Thomas Pedroni, the EAA’s “internal data directly contradicts their MEAP data. Even Scantron, the maker of the internal assessment, would not stand behind the EAA’s growth claims. And Veronica Conforme, the current EAA Chancellor, removed all the dishonest growth claims from their advertising and their website, and told me personally she doesn’t give them credence for the purpose the EAA used them for.” For more from Dr. Pedroni on the EAA’s specious relationship with transparency, see this, and this.

 
Punitive vs. Educative Methods

Many ASD charters include language regarding the possible consequences if schools do not meet “adequate yearly progress” goals, such as: “Operators of ASD schools that do not demonstrate meaningful improvement will be held accountable pursuant to policies set by the ASD.” Indeed, school closings have become a prominent tool in the school reform playbook:
Washington, D.C. closed 23 buildings in 2008. Officials are currently considering another 15 closures.
New York City closed more than 140 schools since 2002; leaders recently announced plans to shutter 17 more, beginning in 2013-14.
Chicago closed 40-plus buildings in the early 2000s. The district recently released a list of 129 schools to be considered for closure.
This approach follows guidelines first established in the No Child Left Behind legislation, which stipulate draconian changes for any school that fails to meet yearly progress within five years….

 

This thinking represents a sea change in terms of strategy with respect to schooling and education policy. Never in our nation’s history have we taken a punitive approach rather than an educative approach when schools or children have struggled with demonstrating expected levels of progress.

Denis Smith worked in the Office of Charter Schools in the Ohio Department of Education. In this article, he points out the paradox of tasking a state agency with both promoting charter schools while supposedly regulating them. This is a conflict of interest.

 

This explains, he writes, why it was predictable that David Hansen, who was supposed to regulate charter schools, got in trouble for cooking the books to make the charters owned by Republican campaign contributors look good, even though their schools perform poorly.

 

Hansen, the husband of Beth Hansen, Governor John Kasich’s chief-of-staff, was put in place by the governor’s team to head the Office of Quality School Choice. His background, as head of the right-wing Buckeye Institute, famous for maintaining a database detailing the salaries for thousands of public school teachers and devoid of salary information for CEOs of national for-profit charter school chains and other privatizers, is now being examined by charter watchdogs as they discover a series of conflicts-of-interest that raise basic questions about his actions.

 

Here are a few morsels:

 

“Hansen and ODE were ignoring the big fish,” Stephen Dyer observed. “And that was, unfortunately, Hansen’s undoing. None of these crackdowns were against schools run by big Republican donors — David Brennan of White Hat Management or Bill Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — whose schools rate among the worst in the state and who educate about 20% of all Ohio charter school students.”

 

Plunderbund readers, in fact, were informed several days ago that Hansen is a serial data offender.

 

“This isn’t the first time Hansen has been caught altering charter school data to improve the image of these charter school operators. Hansen was President of the Buckeye Institute in 2009 when they put out a report on Ohio’s dropout recover schools. Similar to the current incident, Hansen’s group altered data to improve the apparent performance of the charter schools. The shady data changes resulted in “a dramatic overstatement of the graduation rates at the charters.” Many of the schools in the 2009 report were owned and operated by White Hat Management. Meanwhile, White Hat owner David Brennan was quietly contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the Buckeye Institute through his Brennan Family Foundation.”

 

Hansen was a cheerleader for charters who was supposed to regulate them. Never happened, never will happen,

The superintendents of the Philadelphia public schools, William Hite, is a graduate of the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy. The BSA is a major proponent of charter schools, and a major critic of public schools, which it considers to be failing, failing, failing.

 

Superintendent Hite has filled up the top administrative jobs of the public school system with veterans of the charter school movement.

 

Guess that is what he learned as a Broadie.

I hope you will read the opinion piece that I wrote for today’s Los Angeles Times about what priorities the next superintendent should have.

 

For those of you who have frequently criticized the LA Times as a tool of the charter industry, please note that I was invited to write the article.

 

The article is a strong plea for a leader who will restore public confidence in public education. Given that Los Angeles has a very rich, very powerful lobby for privately managed charters, it was written to counter their pressure to convert more public schools to private management. They heavily invest in school board candidates who follow their agenda. In the last election, the charter lobby managed to place a charter school operator on the district school board. Only an awakened public can defend the public sector from raids by the corporate sector on what rightly belongs to the entire community.

 

Los Angeles’ public schools are indeed in crisis. The solution is not to abandon them, but to rebuild them so as to meet the needs of the children enrolled in public schools.

 

 

Chris Barbic led the Achievement School District in Tennessee from May 2011 until resigning a few days ago. Barbic has sterling reformer credentials: he is both an alum of Teach for America and a graduate of the Eli Broad center. After creating the YES Prep charter chain in Houston (which won the Broad Prize for Charter School Excellence in 2012), Barbic was invited to Tennessee by then State Commissioner Kevin Huffman to achieve a daunting task: To take control of the lowest-performing schools in the state and move them to the top 25%. Barbic, a Broadie, was sure he could do it. When he took charge, he handed neighborhood schools (mostly in Memphis) over to various charter operators. (Here is a report on the ASD by EduShyster, written in 2012.)

Despite a steady stream of press releases claiming progress, the reality was that test scores barely budged. Four years into the five-year plan, none of the ASD schools are in the state’s top 25%. In addition, local parents and communities pushed back, angry about losing their neighborhood school to outsiders. Even Barbic’s YES Prep chain decided not to join the Achievement School District.

Barbic declared when he announced his resignation, “Let’s just get real.” He acknowledged that it is easier to get good results in a choice school than to transform a neighborhood school.

In a choice school, the students choose the school, and the schools choose the students.

“Barbic admitted what skeptics of charter schools have preached for years — “achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.”

The Houston Chronicle reported:

“Barbic, as founder of the highly acclaimed YES Prep charter school network in Houston, was used to starting schools from scratch, enrolling students whose parents chose to send them there instead of to their zoned school. Charter schools in Texas are supposed to be open-enrollment, meaning they can’t set admission criteria, but some people argue that charters benefit simply from enrolling children with more motivated parents.

“Tennessee presented a different challenge for Barbic. There, he was charged with launching a special school district that included the state’s lowest-performing schools. A key part of Barbic’s mission was to recruit charter networks to step in and improve the schools. However, he ran into some trouble as most charter operators have a start-from-scratch model, rather than taking over existing schools. Even YES Prep withdrew from the experiment.”

But here is an irony:

Terry Grier, the Houston superintendent, has hired Jason Bernal—Barbic’s successor at YES Prep–to take charge of transforming Houston’s lowest performing middle schools and high schools. He will be Houston’s “chief transformation officer.”

Jeff Bryant recounts the story of Jefferson County, Colorado, known as “Jeffco,” where parents are battling religious zealots and charter advocates for control of their community’s schools.

 

Sprawling westward from the Denver skyline, where the front range of the Rockies sharpens its ascension to the peaks, Jeffco, as the locals call it, is experiencing an acrimonious debate about its public schools.

 

At scores of house parties…, parents and public school activists circulate flyers and repeat a well-rehearsed message of dissent. They complain of a new school board majority that is secretive, disrespectful to parents and teachers and irresponsible with tax dollars. They warn of the influence of right-wing groups, some with connections to evangelical Christianity. They complain of a powerful charter school industry, different from the “organic charters” Jeffco parents already send their kids to.

 

Behind every grassroots issue they identify lies a much “bigger thing,” as more than one parent will tell you.

 

It’s a complicated narrative that defies stereotypes and neat polarities. Although the fight is political, Republicans and Democrats are distributed on both sides of the debate. The argument is about education, but it’s not an argument over pro-charter school versus anti-charter. Jeffco has had charters for years, many of which are highly popular with parents. Neither is this a narrative about choice versus anti-choice. Jeffco already allows parents to enroll their children in any school in the district (although there are cases of selective enrollment), and many families do opt for a school other than their neighborhood one.

 

Jeffco is a mostly white, middle-class and suburban school district that hardly resembles the “failing” school systems you’re used to hearing about. According to the district’s website, Jeffco students “outperform the state in all grade levels and content areas” on state mandated achievement tests. Six of the district’s high schools rank in the top 40 of the 2014 Best High Schools in America according to U.S. News & World Report, and 11 elementary schools were listed as 5280 Magazine’s top public elementary schools.

 

And Jeffco is not a community where teachers’ unions are defending their turf from disgruntled parents. Parents, not union operatives, lead the numerous and frequent house parties like the one at Green Mountain Church.
What is also true about Jeffco is that the story unfolding here is one that is recurring across the country, as community after community becomes mired in debates about who gets to call the shots in education systems strained by unending financial austerity and an unremitting “reform” agenda whose intent is unclear to the people in its way….
Who’s Messin’ With Jeffco?

 

Over coffee at a Lakewood Starbucks, Kyle Ferris’ mother Barbara now dismisses the national media’s focus on her son’s activism as “the flavor of the day.”

 

For sure, Ferris supported her son’s actions. “When Kyle came to me saying he and other students wanted to stage a walkout, my input was to encourage him to clearly state his reasons for the walkout,” she recalls.

 

What she values most about the protest is, “It got a group of kids to demonstrate the critical thinking they were taught in class,” she says. “It increased their awareness of other big issues.”

 

What other big issues?

 

“A lot of the problems have risen from the new board that emerged from the recent election,” Ferris explains. “We now have a majority that is influenced by the Tea Party with an agenda right out of right-wing talk radio.”

 

Ferris also worries about the growing influence of charter schools in the district, pointing to recent actions the board has taken to send more money to charter schools at a time when neighborhood schools still haven’t recovered from the effects of the recession. She says parents are still reeling from the impact of fees, imposed after the recession hit, for bus transportation and other services, and she wonders why funding sent to charter schools isn’t instead being used to end the fees.

 

Ferris is quick to add that she is not opposed to the idea of charter schools. But the urgency to establish more of them now escapes her. “Jeffco already has a phenomenal choice system,” she explains.

 

Ferris, an Asian American who decided with her husband to move to Jeffco “for the schools,” now sees a troubling landscape in her community. “We’ve got great schools; we’ve got great teachers,” she says. “I don’t want things to get messed up.”

 

“Everyone believes they are doing the right thing,” she says. “But we don’t believe in the same things.”
Nothing Funny About This

 

One belief most in dispute in Jeffco is the role of community voice in running the schools. That issue is especially central to the parent-led house parties. Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine are two Jeffco parents who often lead those events. In some respects, they’re a collaboration of opposites. Fritzler is a lifelong Republican, while Levine is an avowed Democrat. Fritzler still has children in Jeffco public schools, while Levine’s children have graduated and moved on. The issue that initially brought them together was the chronic underfunding, in their minds, of Jeffco schools. They both actively campaigned for a countywide referendum — a “mill levy and bond” issue — to offset budget cuts from the state. The referendum passed.

 

But the target of their ire now is the new conservative school board majority, elected in 2013. In that election, a slate of three candidates— Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams— ran together and branded themselves “WNW.” The three candidates got the backing of the Jefferson County GOP and an organization called Jeffco Students First, a state-based education advocacy group patterned after the controversial national organization StudentsFirst (founded and formerly led by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, DC public schools). StudentsFirst and its Colorado state version promote an “education reform” agenda that favors charter schools, vouchers, grading schools and educators based on student test scores, and drastically altering teacher compensation, performance evaluation, and job protection….

 

 

So who are the outsiders invading Jeffco schools, and what do they want?

 

Jeffco public school activists describe a strange combination of forces undermining their local control, from right-wing operatives and evangelical Christians to billionaire businessmen and charter school entrepreneurs. The declared intentions of these characters span the culture war spectrum: with some holding high the values of freedom and patriotism and others claiming to fight “the civil rights cause of our time.”

 

But the way these Jeffco parents and educators see it, their community is being picked over the way a glutton works the all-you-can-eat salad bar. He may start off with a small plate, but he’s quickly back for more.

 

The influence of outsiders, in fact, is one of the factors that doomed the new board majority to controversy even before they were elected.

 

Dougco Is Coming

 

As an article in the Denver Post documented in November 2013, days before the election, three wealthy businessmen contributed an out-sized quantity of money— more than $200,000— to school board races in Colorado, including the effort to elect Witt, Newkirk and Williams in Jeffco.

 

None of the three men appears to live in Jefferson County. The first, C. Edward McVaney is co-founder of software company J.D. Edwards and founding trustee of Valor Christian High School, an independent private Christian high school in Douglas County Colorado. McVaney has a propensity for donating to school board candidates around the state who favor school vouchers. The second is Denver businessman Ralph Nagel, president of Top Rock LLC, an investment firm. The third is Alex Cranberg, CEO of Aspect Energy, who Forbes describes as a “Texas oilman.” Cranberg’s notoriety stems primarily from his company’s venture into oil drilling in Iraq.

 

The reporters introduce the trio as, “Financial backers who want school districts to adopt the anti-union, pro-voucher, and school-choice model set by Douglas County.” Another wealthy man, also from Douglas County, hosted a fundraiser to elect the WNW team. According to reporters, the bash raised another $30,000….

 

 

Another major influencer in the public education system in Colorado has been Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization founded by Charles and David Koch. As a report in Politico noted at the time of the Dougco school board race, “Americans for Prosperity is spending big” in support of candidates who favor an agenda of making schools “compete with one another for market share” and allowing tax money to go to religious education.

 

The reporter, Stephanie Simon, wrote, “Conservatives across the U.S. see Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere.”

 

Among those conservatives was former Florida governor, now declared presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, who donated $1,000 to each of the Koch-backed candidates in Dougco. Money raised for those conservatives dwarfed that raised for the challengers, ensuring a conservative win and establishing a theme that has been occurring throughout practically all of Colorado…..

 

 

Why Dougco?

 

There could be some justification for imposing the Dougco charter school model on Jeffco if there were real proof that model could generate genuine academic gains.

 

But based on analysis available at the Support Jeffco Kids website, there’s not much evidence it can.

 

One video posted on the site points out that the student demographics of the two districts are quite different, with Jeffco schools having a far more diverse spread of low-income versus upper-income students. Virtually all research shows that scores on standardized tests, the most commonly used metric for student achievement, are strongly correlated to family income, so taking student demographics into account is essential….

 

Another common argument for expanding charter schools is that they will bring innovation to a school district that has grown lazy due to “bureaucracy” and “complacent teachers.”

 

The influential charter school lobby in Colorado has promised that charters will be more “innovative” than public schools. But anyone who can’t find signs of innovation already in Jeffco public schools simply isn’t looking or has blinders on.

 

In fact, experts at the National Education Policy Center, a progressive education research center and think tank affiliated with the University of Colorado in Boulder, recently recognized two Jeffco high schools for being “Schools of Opportunity,” a designation for having “excellent practices designed to expand student opportunity and access to academic success,” according to the NEPC announcement.

 

NEPC’s School of Opportunity project analyzed schools in two states, Colorado and New York, based on 11 specific principles identified by experts as critical to closing “opportunity gaps” that exist between high-income school children and their lower income peers. Those principles include more and better learning time, a broader and richer curriculum, and attention to students’ individual academic, health and language needs.

 

The two Jeffco schools receiving this recognition were Jefferson County Open School, which received a Gold Medal, and Long View High School, which received Silver….

 

 

“I’m amazed and impressed at what we’re doing,” Fitzler says about Jeffco schools. “Is everything perfect? No. But you don’t tear down what’s working.”

 

Being a Republican, Fritzler initially needed to be convinced Jeffco public schools were being good financial stewards. She was also on the receiving end of the Republican messaging campaign that argued for budget cuts and more outsourcing to charter schools.

 

“So I looked for myself to see if there was any waste,” she says. “I didn’t find it. I was amazed at how far we were getting despite the cuts.”

 

So instead of tearing things down, what would Fritzler like to see instead?

 

“I want my school back,” she answers. “This is our community. We could leave if we want. But these are our schools.”

 

Levine adds, “They look at school governance like it’s a business decision. But it’s not a business decision. You can’t run a school district like a business … I want a board willing to treat community as partners. They go through the motions of doing this but they don’t do it….”

 

 

One thing parents in Jeffco believe for sure is they should have more of a democratic say-so in how their schools are run. Do their adversaries believe the same? Apparently, not so much.

 

*Correction: This article originally identified Lesley Dahlkemper as the current school board president; her correct title is in fact 2nd vice president.

 

The founders of a highly touted charter school in Houston have been accused of embezzling $2.6 million from public funds.

“Five years ago, congratulatory letters poured in from politicians after the Varnett charter school in Houston won a federal “blue ribbon” award for its academic record. It was a standout among schools serving mostly poor, minority children.

“Marian Annette Cluff was the school’s founding and longtime superintendent. Her husband, Alsie Cluff Jr., was the facilities and operations manager.

“The once-heralded couple now faces potential prison sentences and fines after a 19-count indictment, announced Thursday by federal prosecutors, accused them of operating secret bank accounts and pocketing more than $1 million from parents for field trips and school fundraisers. The Cluffs are accused of embezzling more than $2.6 million intended to benefit the impoverished students they enrolled.

“The couple and their son and daughter earned more than $626,000 combined from Varnett in the 2013-2014 school year, according to state records, and the Cluffs own a south Houston home appraised at $1.7 million.”

A study by professor Andrea B. Nikischer of Buffalo State concluded that the education coverage of the city’s only daily newspaper is biased in favor of charter schools and against public schools.

“The study demonstrates that two distinct stories are being told: The first gives readers an uncritical look at charter schools, promoting them as the answer to the perceived failure of the city’s so-called failing public schools, while the second gives an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Buffalo Public Schools, along with their teachers and union.

“As Buffalo has only one traditional newspaper, and virtually no other mainstream media sources in the county provide detailed coverage of the Buffalo Public Schools or school reform, the power of articles published on these issues is immense,” notes Dr. Nikischer, an assistant professor at Buff State’s Adult Education Department.

“Public school supporters have been critical of the News’s coverage, which has, they believe, unfairly and loudly echoed the agenda of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Buffalo Board of Education majority, and the nationwide school privatization and high-stake testing movements. Now, for the first time, they can point to a qualitative study to back these claims.”

Russ Pulliam of the Indystar makes a startling admission: Charter schools in Indiana are mostly low-performing schools. Instead of “saving poor children from failing public schools,” most charters are low-performing.

Pulliam tells the story of Tim Ehrgott, who “was zealous for education reform in the early years.” He worked with Pat Rooney, a businessman who fought for vouchers and created a private scholarship program. He helped build the charter movement and founded his own charter. Now Ehrgott thinks it’s time to crack down on poorly performing charters. Today, Infiana has one of the largest voucher to grams in the nation.

Ehrgott has been schooled by reality.

Ehrgott doesn’t see the overall success that was promised. “Charters in the D-F range should be closed immediately. Those in the C range should not be automatically renewed,” he said. “Produce superior results or be closed.”

“More than half the charters, he added, are getting D or F. “Even when you standardize the results for at risk factors, charters are failing at twice the rate of traditional public schools.”

The hype, spin, and empty promises of the charter movement have run their course. Teach for America’s claims that its inexperienced kids could close the achievement gap are obviously hollow. Chris Barbic’s Achievement School District in Tennessee is a failure. The chickens are coming home to roost. You can’t fool all the people all the time.

Ohio ‘s charter watchdog had to resign because he wasn’t watching charters with vigor. Some charters, especially if they were GOP campaign contributors, barely got a glance from the watchdog.

Stephen Dyer writes:

“Looks like David Hansen, who is the husband of Kasich’s presidential campaign manager, was forced to resign as the state’s top charter school watchdog because he (tell me if you’ve heard this before) rigged the state’s accountability system to benefit big Republican campaign donors. Sad day for Ohio’s kids and another setback for the state’s quality-based charter school community. http://bit.ly/1Kesmgi

​Best,​

Stephen Dyer
Education Policy Fellow
Innovation Ohio
35 E. Gay St.
Columbus, OH 43215
http://www.innovationohio.org

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