Archives for the month of: March, 2017

Carol Burris has been conducting an investigation of charter schools in many states, beginning with her series on California. In this post, she analyzes the remarkable test scores of certain high-performing charter schools in Arizona.

Public schools are supposed to learn from the “innovative” practices of charter schools. So, what can be learned from Arizona’s best charter schools?

1. Choose your students carefully.
2. Give preference to students who are white and Asian.
3. Avoid students with disabilities and students whose English is limited.
4. Minimize the number of children who live in poverty.
5. Make the demands so challenging that the weakest students leave.

The top charter schools in Arizona are the BASIS chain, founded by Michael and Olga Block. The first was founded in Tucson in 1998, followed by one in Scottsdale in 2003.

BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale became top-ranked schools on Newsweek’s “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” list, and later flew to top spots on the Best High Schools list of U.S. News & World Report.

Advocates touted the Tucson and Scottsdale schools as miracles, holding them up as examples of what high expectations, combined with the freedom afforded charter schools, can do. BASIS exploded. There are now 18 BASIS charter schools in Arizona, three in Texas and one in Washington D.C., all managed by the for-profit corporation, BASIS Educational Group, LLC. The same LLC also manages five for-profit BASIS private schools in the United States and one private international school.

Pretty impressive.

But Burris examined the demographics.

In Arizona, 3% of the state’s students are Asian, but 32% in BASIS charters.

In the state, 5% are American Indian, but 0% in BASIS.

In the state, 45% of students are Latino, compared to 10% in BASIS.

In the state, 39% of students are white, but 51% in BASIS.

In the state, 3% are black, and 5% in BASIS.

In 2015-16, only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners. And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced- priced lunch, BASIS had none. Although BASIS may have some students from qualifying households, it chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program.

There are economic barriers to entry:

Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools — along with the lack of a free-lunch program — discourages disadvantaged students from applying. There are also hefty “suggested” parental contributions. BASIS requests that families contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. Enrollees must also pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for activities that would be free if the student attended a public school.

The curriculum is so rigorous that less than 50% of those who enter will remain to graduate.

Only the strong survive, and that boosts the rankings of BASIS in the various magazine rating systems.

And then there is the money!

As the empire grows, the management fees grow. The Blocks opened a private LLC to shield their finances from public views.

Salary and travel transparency disappeared in 2009 when the Blocks opened a private, for-profit limited liability company, BASIS Educational Group, LLC. Now the couple’s salary and expenses are hidden from the public. According to the 990 for 2009, BASIS School Inc. spent $3,902,122 in total on school salaries, and $1,728,000 on “management.” BASIS Educational Group, LLC, the for-profit that contracted with BASIS Schools Inc., received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management, indicating that there were also substantial fees that went to the Block’s LLC.

The latest 990 shows just shy of $60 million going from the non-profit to the for-profit corporation to provide services to BASIS schools.

These are publicly funded private schools whose “owners” generate huge income for themselves.

But as Secretary DeVos reminds us so often, this is child-centric education, and it is not about adult interests. Right.

Thousands of students of the defunct Trump University will recover most of the money they paid for phony courses. The $25 million settlement was approved by Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the jurist attacked by Trump during the campaign as biased and racist because of his Mexican-American heritage.

In advertisements for Trump University, Trump claimed to have hand-picked every instructor. When giving a deposition, he couldn’t name a single one.

Too bad there were no punitive damages.

Veteran journalist Lindsay Wagner writes that Fayetteville’s Trinity Christian School–the state’s largest recipient of taxpayer-funded vouchers–is involved in a major financial scandal. North Carolina places no accountability for how taxpayer money is used or whether students make academic progress. The voucher schools get taxpayer money with neither accountability nor transparency.

North Carolina’s largest recipient of private school vouchers has filed a financial review that lacked basic information consistent with “generally accepted accounting principles,” according to the agency overseeing the taxpayer-funded program.

Because Fayetteville’s Trinity Christian School—also currently embroiled in a separate embezzlement scandal—received more than $300,000 in voucher funds during the 2015-16 academic year, it is required to submit a financial review of their organization.

According to records provided by the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA), the agency tasked with overseeing the voucher program, the financial review submitted last December lacked crucial elements typically found in such statement including a statement of cash flows and a balance sheet. What was included instead was a brief “statement of activities” that only listed top line revenues and expenses as well as a supplemental schedule of functional expenses.

It is remarkable to omit a more detailed balance sheet from a set of basic financial statements, said Mig Murphy Sistrom, a Durham-based accountant whose firm specializes in preparing financial reports for nonprofit organizations.

Because the accounting firm that prepared the financial review for Trinity Christian—Edwards Pechmann & Packer, Inc.—did not include a balance sheet, “it raises a concern that the organization may not have accounting records adequate to produce a balance sheet,” said Murphy Sistrum.

Since 2014, Trinity Christian has received more than $1.2 million in taxpayer funds through the Opportunity Scholarships Program, which provides low-income families money to attend private schools. For the academic year 2016-17, school voucher recipients comprised 60 percent of Trinity Christian’s enrollment, according to state records. The voucher school’s overall school enrollment grew by 25 percent between 2015-16 and 2016-17.

The state places few requirements on private voucher schools to account for how the taxpayer dollars are used to educate students, demonstrate achievement of the students who receive the aid or any transparency to assure the funds are used as intended.

What would Betsy DeVos say? Let the free market figure it out?

I received an invitation to a meeting of municipal analysts in New York City.


Date: Friday, April 7, 2017
Time: 11:30 am – 2:00 pm
Location: Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Avenue, NYC


Can charter schools achieve investment grade status? Despite failures and successes, charter school debt has grown rapidly as facilities’ needs increase— over 5% of national K-12 students attended a charter school in 2014, with much higher percentages in certain inner cities. Investor reception remains mixed, however, in that charter schools can be closed by their authorizers or fail on their own. MAGNY presents a discussion between two experts presenting opposing views. James Lyman, Director of Research at Neuberger Berman, views all charter school debt as having below investment grade characteristics regardless of size and financial performance. Jessica Matsumori oversees about 265 charter school debt ratings as S&P Global sector lead for charter schools, with about half falling into low investment grade categories. Jessica will explain the S&P rating distribution based on S&P criteria and median ratios. After short presentations and a moderated discussion, the floor will be thrown open for questions and further discussion.

David Hitchcock, Senior Director, S&P Global

James Lyman, Director of Research, Neuberger Berman
Jessica Matsumori, Senior Director, S&P Global, sector lead for charter schools

Cost: $75 for members, $85 for non-members

Payment: Event payments are no longer accepted at the door. Register and pay instantly from our website (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Questions: Contact Stephen Winterstein at

If you plan to go, you should be prepared with statements by Moody’s Investors Service, which rates municipal debt.

This one says that charter schools weaken the finances of urban districts.

“New York, October 15, 2013 — The dramatic rise in charter school enrollments over the past decade is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas, says Moody’s Investors Service in a new report. Charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already show a degree of underlying economic and demographic stress, says Moody’s in the report “Charter Schools Pose Growing Risks for Urban Public Schools.”

“While the vast majority of traditional public districts are managing through the rise of charter schools without a negative credit impact, a small but growing number face financial stress due to the movement of students to charters,” says Michael D’Arcy, one of two authors of the report.

“Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs, says Moody’s. As some of these districts trim costs to balance out declining revenues, cuts in programs and services will further drive students to seek alternative institutions including charter schools.

“Many older, urban areas that have experienced population and tax base losses, creating stress for their local school districts, have also been areas where charter schools have proliferated, says Moody’s. Among the cities where over a fifth of the students are enrolled in charter schools are Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Nationwide about one in 20 students is in a charter school.

“One of the four risk factors Moody’s identifies as making a school district vulnerable to charter school growth is that the school district is already financially pressured and grappling with weak demographics.

“A second factor is having a limited ability to adjust operations in response to a loss of enrolment to charter schools.

“Shifts in student enrollment from district schools to charters, while resulting in a transfer of a portion of district revenues to charter schools, do not typically result in a full shift of operating costs away from district public schools,” says Moody’s Tiphany Lee-Allen, the Moody’s Associate Analyst who co-authored the report. “Districts may face institutional barriers to cutting staff levels, capital footprints and benefit costs over the short term given the intricacies of collective bargaining contracts – leaving them with underutilized buildings and ongoing growth in personnel costs.”

“A third risk factor for a school district is being in a state with a statutory framework promoting a high degree of educational choice and has a relatively liberal approval process for new charters and few limits on their growth, as well as generous funding.

“For example in Michigan, the statutory framework emphasizes educational choice, and there are multiple charter authorizers to help promote charter school growth. In Michigan, Detroit Public Schools (B2 negative), Clintondale Community Schools (Ba3 negative), Mount Clemens Community School District (Ba3 negative) and Ypsilanti School District (Ba3) have all experienced significant fiscal strain related to charter enrollment growth, which has also been a contributing factor to their speculative grade status.”

That was in 2013. Last year, Moody’s wrote that the decision by Massachusetts’ voters not to expand the number of charter schools was a “credit positive” for the state.

“Moody’s Investors Service said Massachusetts voters’ decision to reject Governor Charlie Baker’s charter school expansion plan is “credit positive” for the state’s urban governments, freeing them from potential financial pressures had the proposal been approved.

“In an announcement this week, the bond rating agency said the history of charter schools shows they drain money from city governments’ education budgets, citing Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield in particular.

“A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses,’’ the Moody’s report said.

Will Pinkston, a member of the Metro Nashville school board, has long been suspicious about the ability of the charter industry to keep its grandiose promises. Now, he says, charter schools in that city are in crisis.

He writes:

“It was just a matter of time before the wheels came off Nashville’s charter school industry. This year, it’s finally happening.

“Advocates for charters — publicly funded private schools — have long argued they’re the best approach for improving K-12 public education. But national research shows, and now a series of new local developments reinforces, that charters are just a collective ruse pushed by special interests trying to privatize our school system.

“The latest example is RePublic Schools. In March a federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit brought by Nashville parents who complained their families are being subjected to illegal hardball recruiting tactics by the charter chain.

“RePublic allegedly sent text messages to thousands of parents. As it turns out, RePublic harvested student and family contact information from a Metro Nashville Public Schools database, then turned over the personal information to an out-of-state vendor that generated the texts.

“Sending unsolicited text messages is a violation of federal law. In their class-action lawsuit, the parents are seeking damages of up to $1,500 per person — leaving RePublic potentially on the hook for millions in penalties.

“Of course, the irony here is: RePublic — which boasts it’s “reimagining public education” — is at the forefront of a movement that claims students and families are flocking to charters. The reality is: Demand for RePublic is anemic, which is why the chain is sending mass text messages in a bid to draw more students and more public money.

“Rocketship is another charter chain that isn’t living up to its own marketing hype. Worse, Rocketship is failing some of Nashville’s most vulnerable kids and, like RePublic, operating in violation of federal law.

“On March 7 WSMV-TV reported that California-based Rocketship isn’t providing legally required services to students with disabilities and English language learners. A report by the Tennessee Department of Education even found that Rocketship is forcing homeless students to scrape together money to pay for uniforms.”

Yet Rocketship continues to seek more charters.

Another charter chain is in financial trouble.

And all these charters drain money from the Nashville public schools.

How much longer will this ruse continue? We have had charter schools for 27 years, and there is still no existence proof that they are better than public schools, except for their willingness to exclude the kids who might lower their scores.

The Network for Public Education enthusiastically endorses Steve Zimmer for Re-Election to the board of the public schools of Los Angeles.

In the primary, he received nearly half of all the votes, barely missing the majority he needed to avoid a run-off.

His opponent is funded by the Billionaire Boys Club. They are pouring millions into the race in an effort to gain control of the school board and enact Eli Broad’s nefarious plan to put half the children of Los Angeles into privately run charters.

Once again, the billionaires from across the nation are gathering to privatize public education.

Steve Zimmer is their number one target.

He needs your help. Volunteer if you can. Send money if you can.

If 100,000 of us from across the nation each sent him $25, it would make a huge difference. I just sent my second contribution to his campaign.

On Tuesday evening, I flew to Texas to keep a promise to myself. Three years ago, I was chosen for the annual award of the Friends of Texas Public Schools. The day I was supposed to fly to Austin, there was a huge blizzard in New York City and my flight was canceled. All flights were canceled the next day as well. I Skyped in to the event the next evening, and a few weeks later received a beautiful large wooden plaque with my name on it. But I never felt I earned it because I wasn’t physically there. So, I arranged to meet with them again this week. The gods of the air decided not to make it easy, so there was a huge rainstorm, delaying my flight for four hours, and I arrived at 2:30 am the day before I spoke.

This is the talk I gave, no notes, just an informal conversation. I am sorry to say it is posted on Facebook so if you are not on FB, you can’t hear it. I can’t hear it myself as I am not on FB.

After I spoke, I participated in a panel where I learned very encouraging news. I sat with three members of the Texas House of Representatives, two of whom are Republicans. All of them understand the importance of public schools, and all are opposed to vouchers.

To my right was Representative Dan Huberty, the chair of the House Public Education Committee. He is a Republican from Humble, Texas, near Houston. He recently told the news media that voucher legislation would be “dead on arrival” if it passed the Senate. The Tea Party has put a target on his back, and when he runs again, I will do everything in my power to support him because he is a principled supporter of public education. He announced during the panel discussion that his committee had approved a new appropriation of $1.6 billion for public schools (in 2011, the legislature cut more than $5 billion from public schools and never restored the cuts when the economy revived).

Next was Representative Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio. He is charming, smart, and a strong supporter of public schools.

Last to speak was Representative Gary VanDeaver from New Boston, who was a career educator and a superintendent in his community. He has said that he supports school choice in principle, but does not support public money being taken away from public schools to fund private schools, faith-based schools, or homeschooling.

On Thursday, the state senate passed the voucher bill, which will take money from public schools that educate all children and give it to parents for private or religious schooling or homeschooling, with no accountability. The bill passed 18-13. Here is the statement on the bill by our steadfast ally, Pastors for Texas Children.

The usual opposition to vouchers comes from a bipartisan coalition of rural Republicans, who understand the importance of their community public schools, and urban Democrats, who don’t want their schools to be privatized or defunded. The day I arrived, the Senate sponsors of vouchers added an amendment to exclude any district from the voucher legislation with fewer than 50,000 students, to win votes from rural legislators. Experience in other states shows that once a voucher bill is passed, the exemptions drop away and eventually every school district will be starving its public schools, even rural districts.

The bill that passed exempted counties with fewer than 285,000 people, to fool the rural legislators. It excludes homeschoolers. It has no accountability for students with vouchers, so public money will fly out the window with no one knowing how it is spent.

I learned that there is big money promoting vouchers, namely a group called Empower Texans, an organization created by billionaire Tim Dunn to push for lower taxes, less governments, school choice, and the usual Tea Party platform of less for all. Empower Texans has a PAC that endorses local and state candidates, including school board candidates. Anyone who opposes their agenda has to worry about a well-funded primary fight from their right. Empower Texans, to say the least, does not support public education.

Texas has two great forces working on behalf of public schools: one is parent-led organizations like Friends, TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment), Texas Kids Can’t Wait, and many more. The other force is the Pastors for Texas Children, a group of more than 1,000 pastors across the state who support separation of church and state and who actively help their local public schools.

The Facebook page of FOTPS has a photo of Blake Cooper, a recently retired superintendent who now works as a volunteer for Friend of Texas Public Schools, and FOTPS founders Leslie and Scott Milder. Leslie taught high school for 10 years; their children attend public schools.

I had a great time. I even had great barbecue for lunch.

I have great hopes for Texas public schools because it has many organizations of parents and teachers who will fight for what is right, and it has strong bipartisan support in the House. Ninety percent of the children in the state attend public schools. In the 2018 elections, if parents and educators turn out to vote, the face of Texas could change, and it could do right by its 5.4 million students in public schools.

PS: I heard that two pro-voucher Republican legislators held a meeting today in Dallas, and the audience beat them up (rhetorically)

Bruce Baker employs a series of tweets to demonstrate the fallacy of “the money follows the child.” Public money is collected for the public good. Public money supports services and institutions for future generations, not just for those now using them. The oft-heard demand that “the money follows the child” is fallacious. It is used to privatize institutions created for all.

Until 2012, the most celebrated figure in the charter school industry was Ben Chavis of the American Indian Model Schools, a group of charter schools in Oakland, California, that got phenomenal test scores and major national publicity. The networks came to gush over the schools, Governor Schwarzenegger praised them, George Will admired them, and David Whitman called them one of the best paternalistic “no excuses” charter schools in the nation in his book Sweating the Small Stuff (2008). (In 2009, Whitman became Arne Duncan’s speechwriter.)

Chavis was controversial for many reasons, including his outspoken contempt for unions, liberals, multiculturalism, and certain minorities. He also dished out harsh punishments. He was a pioneer of the “no excuses” charter movement. I have written many posts about the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Chavis (see here and here and here, for example).

If you want to know why Chavis was so controversial, read this article in the Los Angeles Times, written in 2009, when he was at the height of his fame.

The story from 2009 begins like this:

Not many schools in California recruit teachers with language like this: “We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.”

That, it turns out, is just the beginning of the ways in which American Indian Public Charter and its two sibling schools spit in the eye of mainstream education. These small, no-frills, independent public schools in the hardscrabble flats of Oakland sometimes seem like creations of television’s “Colbert Report.” They mock liberal orthodoxy with such zeal that it can seem like a parody.

School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the same warmth accorded “self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort,” to quote the school’s website.

Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys’ restroom as punishment.

When Chavis took over the schools, the enrollment was mostly American Indian. But over time, the American Indians disappeared and were replaced by Asian students. And the scores went up and up.

In 2012, a state audit reported that $3.8 million had been reallocated from the school accounts to Chavis’s business accounts. Chavis resigned the next year and moved to North Carolina to work as a motivational speaker.

There are new developments:

Ben Chavis, the controversial former director of three Oakland charter schools, collectively known as the American Indian Model Schools, was charged with mail fraud and money laundering in connection with the schools’ applications for federal grant funds, federal authorities announced Thursday.

Chavis was arrested Thursday morning in North Carolina and has been ordered to appear in federal court in Oakland. He is accused of requesting more than $2.5 million of federally funded grants in violation of conflict-of-interest rules.

This is not the first time Chavis has been targeted for financial impropriety. In 2012, an investigation by the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found that from 2007 to 2011, Chavis had directed $3.8 million from the school to companies he owned for contracts not approved by the school board. He stepped down from the school in 2013. The investigation’s findings prompted the county superintendent to refer the case to federal authorities.

According to the indictment announced Thursday, Chavis, 59, of Lumberton, N.C., and others devised and put into place a scheme from early 2006 through May 2012 to defraud the California School Finance Authority by requesting federally funded competitive grants for three charter schools in violation of federal conflict-of-interest regulations.

From 2000 to 2012, Chavis served off and on as the director and in various additional capacities for three Oakland charter schools — the American Indian Public Charter School, the American Indian Public High School II and the American Indian Public High School — as well as the schools’ umbrella organization, the American Indian Model Schools, referred to as AIMS.

The indictment, unsealed Thursday, alleges Chavis applied for grants to pay the costs of leasing facilities that he owned or controlled through his companies — American Delivery Systems and Lumbee Properties LLC. He is accused of concealing his interest in the facilities in the grant applications.

The indictment further alleges that the schools obtained more than $1.1 million in federal grants as a result of this fraud and that Chavis used fraud proceeds to promote the fraud scheme at each school.

What would Betsy DeVos say? She doesn’t believe in regulation or oversight of charter schools or voucher schools. Let the free market rule. Chavis no doubt agreed.

Peter Greene watched the first full performance of Betsy DeVos playing the role of Secretary of Education and characterizes her “mom with an axe.”

The first thing he notices is the DeVos Look, which he calls “church lady smirk….like it amuses her to imagine that all those Lessers are just having fits that she is this amazing. It is the look for which ‘supercilious’ was coined, and it’s not a good look on anyone, let alone a starched white heiress. Her Trump-approved minder should really help her with that.”

She pushes the idea that while other people believe in institutions and buildings, she believes in children! Got that, you building-huggers? Anyone who disagrees with her is promoting adult concerns, while she on the other hand, cares for children, in her selfless way. If only everyone chooses, without any regulation or oversight, everything will turn out for the best. It worked for her.

It won’t do to fix the schools we have, because Obama tried, he failed, and there’s no point throwing money at them. Ah, says Peter, strange to hear from a woman who throws millions at the schools and causes she does like.

When she and Whitehurst get to the question and answer, he asks some normal questions like, how do you measure the success of your policy of full frontal choice, and she coyly responds that she is not “a numbers person.” As long as parents have many choices, and they are free to choose, things will go swimmingly. Whitehurst asks, but what if academic outcomes get worse under your plan, and she answers, things are so terrible now that they can’t get worse.

Now, questions from the audience. Won’t unfettered choice promote segregation? Answer, of course not. Question, what if parents make bad choices, doesn’t the government have a role to protect them? Answer, parents don’t make bad choices. The free market always works. If parents choose a school, it must be good.

“This is another DeVosian mystery– the implication that public schools are operated by a bunch of lying liars, but charter and private school operators are somehow more virtuous? Or is the belief here that the Free Market somehow forces people to be honest or else they’ll be deselected. Does she believe that people won’t choose you if you’re a big fat liar, because I’m pretty sure DeVos is serving at the pleasure of the living embodiment, the walking proof that lying can actually be a great way to succeed in the Free Market.”

Performance over, curtain falls.

Something tells me this line of thought–if that’s what it is–will be repeated again and again, with an occasional new anecdote about a student who was saved by a voucher or whose life was blighted by a terrible public school.

As the Warner Brothers cartoon series “Looney Tunes” used to say at the end, “That’s all there is, folks.” Was that Daffy Duck or Porky Pig or Bugs Bunny?