Archives for category: San Diego

Perhaps you remember the A3 charter scam in California. The online charter chain managed to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from the state for ghost students. Its leaders were eventually arrested, charged, and convicted. They are still repaying their ill-gotten gains.

Kristina Taketa of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the latest installment of their restitution was $18.8 million.

She writes:

An additional $18.8 million has been paid to San Diego County as restitution for the statewide A3 charter school scam in which the state was defrauded of hundreds of millions of school dollars, the San Diego County District Attorney announced Wednesday.

Sean McManus of Australia, along with Jason Schrock of Long Beach, led a statewide charter school scheme from 2016 to 2019 in which they used a network of mostly online charter schools to defraud the state of approximately $400 million and used $50 million of that amount for personal use. They did so by falsely enrolling students and manipulating enrollment and attendance reporting across their schools to get more money per student than schools are supposed to, prosecutors said.

In total, about $240 million of the $400 million has been recovered. The District Attorney’s Office said it is not trying to get back all of the $400 million because some of the money ended up going to noncriminal actors, such as teachers, youth programs and others, who provided services for the A3 schools and who did not know the money was obtained illegally.

Of the $240 million that has been recovered, about $95 million has been returned to the state treasury, with an additional $90 million expected to be returned to the state within the next few months.

Debbie L. Sklar of the Times of San Diego provided more details on how the scam worked.

More than $37 million in fines has been paid to San Diego County as part of a court judgment stemming from a charter school fraud scheme that took millions in public school funds and led to criminal charges against 11 people, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.

The total fine amount includes $18.75 million recently paid by Sean McManus, CEO and president of A3 Education, who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $50 million in public funds and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Prosecutors say McManus and co-defendant Jason Schrock directed subordinates to open up 19 “A3 charter schools” in San Diego County and elsewhere across the state, and collected state funds by alleging students were enrolled in programs run by the schools.

The District Attorney’s Office, which called the case “one of the nation’s largest fraud schemes targeting taxpayer dollars intended for primary education,” said the men paid for student information and used the info to enroll children in summer school programs at their online campuses. Prosecutors say some parents were unaware their children were enrolled in a charter school at all.

The defendants then took measures to inflate the amount of money the state paid the charter schools by falsifying documentation, which included backdating documents to indicate that students were enrolled in the charter schools for longer than they were or switching students between different A3 schools to increase funding per student or per school beyond legal limits, prosecutors said.

The perpetrators were very clever and very, very rich until they were caught.

In a curious coincidence, I had breakfast at a hotel in January 2019 in Newport Beach, California, with a friend. At the table next to us sat a man and woman discussing education and a business transaction. I tried not to eavesdrop, yet found myself fascinated by the curious combination of topics. As they got up to leave, I stopped the man and said, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you are in the charter school business.” He responded, “Yes, I am Sean McManus, and I run a chain of charter schools.” The boom fell not long after.

Online charters have a history of poor performance: high attrition rates, low graduation rates, low test scores.

Will Huntsberry of the Voice of San Diego reports here that online charters were once again among the lowest performing schools in that city.

Huntsberry writes:

Virtual charter schools – as well as other charters that don’t use traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms – performed among the worst in San Diego County in a new analysis of test scores that took each school’s poverty level into account.

The analysis compared 632 schools across San Diego County. Out of 14 non-classroom-based charter schools, as they are called in education jargon, five scored among the 20 lowest-performing schools. Nine out of 14 schools scored among the bottom 15 percent.

California’s non-classroom-based schools have lived under a magnifying glass in recent years. State legislators placed a moratorium on new non-classroom schools, after executives from one online charter siphoned more than $80 million into their own private companies. Legislators also temporarily blocked the schools from receiving new funds.

The new analysis, performed by Voice of San Diego and the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego Extension, did not just look at a school’s test scores. It compared a school’s performance on standardized tests to other schools with similar poverty levels.

Brick-and-mortar charters performed in line with traditional public schools in the analysis. But non-classroom-based charters scored significantly worse.

These findings reenforce the statewide study of online charter schools in California, prepared by “In the Public Interest.” They have a long track record of failure nationally.

San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten was tapped by the Biden administration to be Deputy Secretary of Education, the #2 job in the Department of Education. The corporate reform lobby was not happy with this choice, and they began making insidious charges that she was uniquely unqualified and didn’t care about equity. All of this was nonsense, of course.

When she was interviewed by the Senate committee, she showed herself to be the well-informed, knowledgeable, thoughtful educator that she is, and it appeared that even some Republican members of the committtee were impressed.

The flimsy claims against her needed to be answered, and it was not her role to do it. Fortunately a San Diego business leader stepped up and dashed all the extremists’ attacks on her record.

Mel Katz wrote in the Voice of San Diego:

After President Joe Biden surprised San Diego with the exciting news that San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten had been chosen to help lead his administration’s Department of Education, some voiced concerns that she had not had success closing San Diego’s achievement gap between students of color and White students or that she had not paid sufficient attention to equity in schools.

I don’t believe the facts back that up.

Marten has devoted her career to eliminating the legacy of systemic racism within public education. She has challenged her colleagues to create an anti-racist school district, and she has put in place concrete policies to improve the academic outcomes for students of color.

Her success has earned praise nationally from the president of the NAACP, at the state and local levels from leaders like Secretary of State Shirley Weber, state Board of Education Chair and Linda Darling-Hammond and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Marten has earned their support from her lifetime commitment to equity. From the time she started a literacy center for low-income families, as a young teacher, to her time as principal at Central Elementary in City Heights, which thrived with improved test scores, high staff morale and increased parental involvement.

The fundamental role of any school system is to educate children, and on that core level, Marten has succeeded where many others have failed. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is considered the gold standard of large-scale assessments, found that San Diego was the only district in 2019 whose tests scores significantly exceeded the average scores of 27 large districts in both math and English language arts on the fourth- and eighth-grade tests. Since 2003, San Diego student scores in fourth-grade math have risen every year except one.

In addition to outperforming the average for urban school districts, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that Black and Hispanic student achievement is increasing faster in San Diego Unified than in just about any other urban district in the country.

A recent study by the Learning Policy Institute found students of color in San Diego Unified schools academically outperform their peers statewide. A companion study by UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools found this success is not accidental, rather it is the result of intentional efforts to provide added counselors and other supports to high-need school communities. San Diego Unified has an equity-based funding model that doubles and triples school-site funding above what the district receives in state allocations for disadvantaged students.

As San Diegans, we can be grateful for all that our students have achieved under Marten. As Americans, we can be optimistic about what she and Miguel Cardona, Biden’s education secretary nominee, will be able to accomplish at the national level — for all children.

Mel Katz is executive officer of Manpower. He founded the Business Roundtable for Education at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and e3 Civic High, the charter high school in the Central Library. He co-chaired San Diego Unified’s construction bond campaign, Proposition M, and its Graduation Strategy Committee.

The Biden administration selected San Diego Superintendent of Schools Cindy Marten to become Deputy Secretary of Education, the #2 job in the Department of Education.

She has a long career as a teacher, as principal of a high-poverty school in San Diego, and as Superintendent of the state’s second largest district since 2013.

Louis Freedberg of Edsource describes her career in this article.

Marten has been superintendent of San Diego Unified since 2013. But before that she had been a teacher for 17 years, as well as principal of San Diego’s Central Elementary School, a school in the diverse City Heights neighborhood where 96% of students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.

It was after several years at Central Elementary that she made the virtually unheard of jump from an elementary school principal to being superintendent of her district — not just any district, but the second-largest district in California and the 20th-largest in the nation.

Derrick Johnson, President of the national NAACP, tweeted his support for her candidacy.

The San Diego chapter of the NAACP, strong supporters of charter schools, has criticized Cindy Marten for the high suspension rates of black students (black students are 4% of the SD enrollment but 12% of suspensions). The critics do not note that the San Diego school board passed a resolution to replace suspensions with programs of restorative justice, which will drive down suspension rates.

No such voices complained about John King, when he was nominated to be Secretary of Education by the Obama administration, after Arne Duncan stepped down. King’s no-excuses charter school in Massachusetts had the highest suspension rate in the nation (nearly 60%), but no one mentioned it. He was “the king of suspensions,” but no one cared.

Marten is committed to child-centered education, with a heaping dose of the arts and play. She is a worthy choice to serve as Deputy Secretary of Education.

The Biden-Harris administration announced the selection of Cindy Marten, superintendent of schools in San Diego for the past seven years, as its choice for Deputy Secretary of Education. I have known her for 15 years. I first met her when she was the new principal of Central Elementary School. This will be the first time in the history of the U.S. Department of Education that the top two jobs were held by people with experience as teachers and principals.

This 2018 article is a good portrayal of who she is.

Read her memo to the transition team here.


There is a charter school in San Diego called the Gompers Preparatory Academy. Since 2018, its private management has been fighting teachers who want to form a union. When the COVID crisis struck and the state planned budget cuts, Gompers laid off more than a third of the staff. By coincidence (!), nearly all the teachers laid off were the very ones who wanted to form a union!

Does the charter management know who Samuel Gompers was? Hint: the first president of the American Federation of Labor and a pioneer of the union movement.

Gompers Preparatory Academy announced Monday it had rescinded a decision made two weeks ago to lay off more than a third of the school’s teachers because of state budget cuts.

The layoffs would have increased class sizes from 19 students to 28 at the public charter school in southeastern San Diego. Ninety percent of Gompers students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and some may be the first in their families to attend college, the school has said.

Some teachers had criticized the layoffs as an attempt to end their recently formed union…

Nearly all teachers who received layoff notices last month were union supporters, a San Diego Education Association spokesperson previously told inewsource. Gompers leaders had maintained the cuts were necessary and said decisions were based on seniority.

Carl Cohn is a veteran educator who served as superintendent in Long Beach and in San Diego. He has received many awards for his service.

The selection of a new superintendent in Long Beach prompted him to write his thoughts about previous crises faced by the district and about the importance of teachers today. No superintendent can succeed without building relationships of mutual respect and collaboration with trusted teachers.

I first met Carl Cohn when he was selected to clean up the damage done by the first effort to disrupt a school district. That was San Diego. At the turn of the century, San Diego was one of the most successful urban districts in the nation—perhaps the most successful—but the school board decided it needed a massive overhaul. They hired lawyer Alan Bersin to disrupt the district. I described what happened there—including demoralization of teachers, and a philosophy of changing everything all at once because (as the saying then went) “you can’t jump over a canyon in two leaps.” The philosophy of the leadership was that change had to be abrupt, immediate, and “pedal to the metal.” Billionaires sent money. Books were written about the “bold” reforms. The infighting and controversy became so inflamed that the public eventually threw out the “reform” school board. San Diego, however, was the model for Joel Klein’s disruptions in New York City, which were the model for the same in D.C., and on and on.

I spent a week in the district interviewing teachers and principals and school board members. My last interview was with Carl Cohn. I saw him as a calming figure whose job was to restore morale, order, and professionalism. He succeeded.

After the collapse of the disruption era, the San Diego school board hired an experienced educator, Cindy Marten, who had been a teacher and principal in the district. Although she has had to impose devastating budget cuts, she has been a steady hand at the tiller. I met her in 2006, when she was a principal, running a progressive child-centered school. When I visited San Diego a few years ago, she took me for a drive, and I surprised myself for taking a paragliding ride at Torrey Pines. Needless to say, I am delighted that San Diego has such trustworthy, experienced leadership again.

I began my book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education with the San Diego story. It is a cautionary tale. If you read one chapter in that book, read that one. It ends with my interview of Carl Cohn.

Will Huntsberry of the Voice of San Diego reports that all the online charters connected to the biggest charter fraud in U.S. history will close.

Huntsberry writes:

An online charter school empire whose leaders have been charged with enrolling fake students and misappropriating $80 million in public funds will be forced to close all of its schools across California.

In May, the San Diego district attorney’s office charged 11 people in a corruption scandal of historic proportions. Prosecutors say Sean McManus and Jason Schrock, who operated A3 Education, were the ringleaders of the operation. Several who worked with McManus and Schrock have also been charged with crimes, including the superintendent of the Dehesa School District in San Diego County.

At its peak, A3 operated 19 online schools across the state, including three in San Diego, according to investigators. One closed before the charges were filed. And two more – one in San Diego and another in Los Angeles – were slated to close. But now a court-appointed receiver has decided to shutter all of the remaining schools.

Students’ records at each of the closing schools will be transferred to their school district of residence by Sept. 30, according to a letter obtained by the Marin Independent Journal, which was sent out to districts associated with the A3 schools. Richard Kipperman, the court-appointed receiver, confirmed to Voice of San Diego that all the schools will close.

How the Scam Worked

Prosecutors painted an intricate picture of a complex organization that managed to turn student records into giant sums of cash. A3 Education enrolled many students who took actual classes, but it also enrolled many students who never did any schoolwork, prosecutors say.

Most of the fake students were participants in summer athletic programs, according to the indictment. Enrollment workers would approach a football program, for instance, and offer as little as $25 a head for each player’s records. The enrollment worker would also get a commission on however many students he or she enrolled. The rest of the money – which totaled in the thousands of dollars for each student – went to companies controlled by McManus and Schrock.

In one instance, Luiz Rigney, an enrollment worker, carried several suitcases of student paperwork, worth roughly $5 million, to one of A3’s offices. Rigney had been asked to backdate that paperwork so A3 could get maximum profit, prosecutors say.

In another instance, two workers texted each other back and forth about the large sums of cash flowing through the company: “I had the weirdest dream last night! One was about us growing all Sean’s schools. I was running all the Facebook campaigns and you were running around my office drinking champagne throwing money everywhere yelling I love bonuses,” the texts read, according to court documents.

It has been widely reported that charter schools enroll fewer students with disabilities and few of the students they enroll have severe disabilities.

The California Teachers Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles reviewed public records to document the enrollments of students with disabilities in charter schools in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

The study is titled “State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students.”

https://www.utla.net/news/new-study-reveals-privately-run-charter-schools-under-enroll-students-disabilities

The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment is 11% compared to more that 14% in public schools. Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate. Consequently these charter policies cost the three districts between $64 million to $97 million each year.

In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services. One celebrated charter in Oakland, the American Indian Model Schools, known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%. The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% of students with disabilities.

CONCLUSIONS:

Advocates for students with disabilities have long held that charter schools do not enroll, and therefore do not serve, students with disabilities at the same levels as public school districts—either in overall enrollment or level of need—which leads to a greater fiscal impact for public school districts.

Our analysis affirms these concerns for the first time in the three California school districts we examined. Because of the structure for funding special education in California—which arguably disincentivizes enrolling students with disabilities in charter schools by funding based on total enrollment, and not need—we have no reason to believe that similar results would not be borne out in other districts throughout the state.

These findings are particularly important at this point in time in California, when a growing body of evidence shows that the rapid growth of charter schools has led to growing fiscal impact for public school districts. As policymakers at all levels of government weigh how to best meet the needs of California students equitably, we hope they will take these findings into account.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS

The aim of our report was to provide an in-depth analysis of special education enrollment to quantify the anecdotal evidence so often cited by public education advocates. However, our analysis affirms the need for policy changes brought forth by advocates that would begin to address the inequities described in this report. The following represent just a few of those proposals:

1. Increase Federal Funding for Special Education: Perhaps the most obvious solution to these inequities would be for the federal government to meet its original 1975 obligation to fund 40 percent of public special education costs. This language is already in federal statute and requires only the political will to push Congress to budget the necessary resources. Federal lawmakers should make the original promise the absolute floor, rather than the ceiling, of funding for students with disabilities.

2. Federal Civil Rights Monitoring: The Office of Civil Rights within the US Department of Education must independently and proactively monitor student access to and service within charter schools across the nation. While some states are capable of effectively monitoring their education systems for civil rights abuses, the federal government’s total abdication of this power to prioritize equity and access has not, and will not, lead to a safer and more responsive system for students and their families.

3. Accountability and Oversight by the CA Department of Education (CDE) and Authorizers:
The CDE should hold accountable both the charter schools that are underserving special education students, and the authorizers who are responsible for their oversight. This would not be the first time a state has moved to protect the rights of special education students, as the New York State Education Department’s Office of Special Education recently investigated and concluded the practices at Success Academy Charter Schools were violating the civil rights of special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both Success Academy and the New York City Department of Education (Success Academy’s authorizer) were held accountable and corrective action was required.8

4. Re-Examine California’s Model for Funding Special Education to Account for Special Education Enrollment Disparities Between Districts and Charter Schools: California’s system of allocating special education funding based on total student population counts, as opposed to targeted counts of students by special education eligibility categories, has led to harmful fiscal impacts for the school districts we studied due to charter schools significantly under-enrolling these students. We have no reason to believe the results would be different for other districts.
This funding model makes two critical assumptions: that need does not vary by network or location, and that all schools are open to serving all students. These assumptions require further serious investigation because the current system actively discourages charter schools from both identifying students with disabilities, and perversely incentivizes the creation of barriers to access through enrollment.

5. Require Charter Schools to Join the Same SELPA as the District in Which They Are Located:

California policymakers should return the responsibility of coordinating special education services for charter schools to local Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), and end the practice of allowing charter schools to opt-out of their local SELPA in favor of remote charter- only SELPAs that are sometimes hundreds of miles away.
As it stands, from a functional perspective, a student moving between schools within the same local area may have inconsistent accommodations and experiences due to schools belonging to different SELPAs. This undermines continuity of services, which is of utmost importance for special education students. This opt-out also undermines the fiscal stability of local school districts which, as our analysis found, are serving a disproportionately larger share of special education students without a larger share of funding.

6. Conduct Educational and Fiscal Impact Analyses When Considering New Charter School Petitions and Renewals: As fiduciaries of their local education agencies, and as elected officials entrusted to protect all students’ best interests, charter school authorizers must make economic and education impact analyses an essential part of both the charter school authorization and reauthorization processes. Elected officials, the authorizing body, and the public must have independent information about the impact of opening a new charter school in an established education community. Information should cover the full learning needs of all students, including essential topics regarding enrollment, retention, discipline, and the financial impact on the community and the neighborhood’s public schools. Districts must be allowed to use the findings of these impact reports as justification for denying new charter school petitions that will have an adverse fiscal impact on district programs and services.

7. Charter School Site-Based Special Education Committees: Coupled with both state and local governance oversight, charter operators themselves can take a proactive role to ensure they are open to and meeting the needs of all children in the community in which they operate. Each charter school campus should create a site-based special education committee. As those who spend the most time with special education students, both educators and parents are uniquely positioned to lead these committees.

 

A judge in San Diego ordered two charter schools in the district to close in response to the school district’s complaint that they were operating without local authorization and could not be supervised. About 40,000 students attend Learn4Life centers statewide.

The Learn4Life charters are appealing the decision.

Judge David Danielsen on Monday granted a motion by San Diego Unified School District to close the two Learn4Life locations operating in the district’s boundaries: Diego Hills Central, a charter school authorized by Dehesa School District, and a resource center for San Diego Workforce Innovation High, a school authorized by Borrego Springs Unified School District. Neither of those schools have active locations in the districts that authorized them.

As Carol Burris reported in Charters and Consequences, the Learn4Life charters are storefronts where students meet a teacher once every 20 days. Their graduation rates are abysmal. Typically, they are authorized by small rural districts to operate in urban districts hundreds of miles away, where they operate without oversight. The authorizing district gets a commission for every student who enrolls.