Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

June 28, 2015

National Charter School Conference: “It looked like every other conference. Fall in line, Black people. We know what’s good for you.”

Filed under: Charter Schools,New Orleans,Privatization,Recovery District — millerlf @ 10:00 am


National Charter School Hoopla In New Orleans

Ashana Bigard The Progressive July 2015

Editor’s Note: The National Charter Schools Conference took place this summer at the New Orleans convention center, on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was, in the infamous words of Education Secretary Arne Duncan “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it forced the community to take steps to improve its low-performing public schools. The mass firing of New Orleans teachers, the dismantling of a city’s public school system and the destruction of local control, has been touted as a model for the nation. The Progressive has reported extensively on the questionable results of the New Orleans charter school experiment. Ashana Bigard, a New Orleanian, advocate, and mother of three, attended the national conference and filed the following report.

I attended the National Charter Schools Conference from June 21 to June 24 in New Orleans.

On Sunday, June 21, as I was checking in, I asked about free spaces for the parents in the community who have children in charter schools. To my surprise and dismay there was no slot open.

The conference kicked off with a Mardi Gras style parade. It was a celebration of charter schools and their success in New Orleans, which is a national model for innovation in education—or so they say.

On Monday, I attended a presentation where Paul Pastorek, the ex-superintendent of Louisiana schools, said that charter schools have “improved the quality of life for the New Orleans community.”

The average reader might say, “What is the problem with that statement?” All over the country people think that New Orleans is a model for public education, that we have done it right. We’re respectable! Successful! Disciplined! Obedient! Ready to go to college! Or work in Walmart, or be a best model prisoner! To be all you can be in today’s Army! That’s us!

We’re a growth district. A lot of our schools have a 100 percent graduation rate. We also happen to have 14,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24, who are not in school or working. They are the lost youth. No, excuse me, I meant to say “opportunity youth.” Somebody clearly has the opportunity to make some money off them.

John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education, said that the state has 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school or working. More than half of them just happen to reside in our “successful” New Orleans all-charter school district. These are not children in alternative schools. These are the invisible kids. They are the kids who, despite all the wonderful educational choices we supposedly have, don’t fit in anywhere.

I want people to understand how big New Orleans is. You have to drive an hour and a half in any given direction to get out of the city.

In 2007, there were 32,149 children enrolled in Orleans parish. The children charter operators at the conference called “opportunity youth,” who experienced the transition to our all-charter district, were between the ages of 8 and 16 at the time.

By 2011 there was 42,657 children enrolled in Orleans parish. Even with that larger number, one-fourth of the children fall through the cracks of our reformed system.

I don’t know about the average person, but I wouldn’t use an investor who told me that they would lose a quarter of my money. There is a big difference between a dollar and seventy-five cents, we can all agree. It feels very peculiar to call that success. But I’m getting off topic, let’s get back to our wonderful conference.

The audience at the charter school conference was very diverse. The panels, however . . .

I went to a panel called “How can we ensure schools build and maintain model diversity?” Four white men explained the network of charter schools they run, and how diverse they are. One panelist said that most of the schools in the network have a fifty-fifty ratio of white children to minority children. “We want to build schools that we would want to send our own children to,” he declared.

He sounded proud. But I wondered, if the panelists at this conference would only send their own children to a small subset of the schools in their network, what are they saying about the rest of the schools?

John White explained that this year, there is “a push to serve all children.”

Why did it take ten years to start a push to serve all children? That is another question we should be asking in our shiny new school reform system.

The conference in many ways reflected the school district in New Orleans. Many people from New Orleans came as attendees, but very few of them were leading the conference. The leaders and presenters were mainly white men.

In my humble opinion, if a city is 68 percent African American, the leadership of the city’s school district should mirror the city’s demographics.

Imagine a conference on LGBTQ issues where the majority of panelists were straight. Or a conference on women’s issues led by men. We know that the majority of public school children in our city are African American. How did so many people from outside our city and from a different background become experts on our experience and how to educate us?

I’m going to start pushing back.

I’m not saying that we can’t have any white teachers or administrators; I’m not saying that we don’t have white children and families in our public schools, because we do. I’m just saying that there is a stark difference in the demographics when you look at leadership, decision makers, consultants, and stakeholders. And when I say stakeholders, I mean the children and the people from the communities who are in our schools every day.

There was good information, and misleading information, and just downright wrong information being distributed at the national charter school conference.

When I arrived I was hopeful and maybe a little naïve. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that having a national charter school conference in New Orleans might change the way we look at our schools.

When we talk about charter schools for people who have not experienced them the way New Orleans did, you think of innovation, creative ways of teaching and learning. Let me be very clear: that is not happening in the majority of New Orleans charter schools. But just for a minute, I allowed myself to imagine a conference where sessions were interactive and fun. Where people got to engage, not just be lectured to.

I allowed myself to imagine that charter school leaders in my community would go to these innovative and engaging sessions—on different learning styles, early childhood brain development, culturally relevant pedagogy, social development fundamentals, learning through play, restorative justice, conflict resolution, nutrition for brain development, how to help cope with trauma through the arts, music, and drama, managing schools that are “zero-tolerance” when it comes to systemic oppression, how to recognize stereotypes and biases within yourself. I imagined attending these sessions with black people, Native American people, women, and youth, and that the sessions would be lead by these types of people.

Instead, it looked like every other conference. Fall in line, black people. We know what’s good for you.

All of the interesting debate and discussions took place outside the regular sessions.

At the end of the conference, African American charter school advocate Dr. Deborah McGriff spoke, as she was being inducted into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Hall of Fame. Here is what she said: “Things happening to us, not with us, for us, not by us, must end!”
– See more at: http://www.progressive.org/news/2015/06/188196/national-charter-school-hoopla-new-orleans#sthash.89Gd4Nz8.dpuf

May 14, 2015

Milwaukee Alderperson Tony Zielinski Calls for End to City Chartering and for City to Partner More Closely With Milwaukee Public schools

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 5:04 pm

PROPOSAL WOULD TAKE CITY OUT OF THE CHARTER SCHOOL BUSINESS

Alderman Tony Zielinski has drafted Common Council legislation that would put an end to the City of Milwaukee’s approval of new charter schools.

The proposal would allow existing city-chartered schools to continue operating, but would allow no new applications to be accepted.

“We certainly do not want to inconvenience or dislocate children currently attending city-chartered schools in Milwaukee, and it is appropriate that we honor our contracts with those schools,” Alderman Zielinski said.
“But I also believe the time has come for the City of Milwaukee to move forward in partnership with, and in support of, Milwaukee Public Schools,” the alderman said.

Current law authorizes the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to approve new charter schools in the city.

The draft legislation has not yet been assigned to one of the Council’s standing committees.

May 2, 2015

Report: Millions of dollars in fraud, waste found in charter school sector

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 2:32 am

By Valerie Strauss April 28 Washington Post
A new report released on Tuesday details fraud and waste totaling more than $200 million of uncovered fraud and waste of taxpayer funds in the charter school sector, but says the total is impossible to know because there is not sufficient oversight over these schools. It calls on Congress to include safeguards in legislation being considered to succeed the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The report, titled “The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities To Waste, Fraud, And Abuse,” was released jointly by the nonprofit organizations Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy. It follows a similar report released a year ago by the same groups that detailed $136 million in fraud and waste and mismanagement in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools. The 2015 report cites $203 million, including the 2014 total plus $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in earlier cases not included in last year’s report.

It notes that these figures only represent fraud and waste in the charter sector uncovered so far, and that the total that federal, state and local governments “stand to lose” in 2015 is probably more than $1.4 billion. It says, “The vast majority of the fraud perpetrated by charter officials will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”
[New York City charters leave thousands of seats unfilled despite exploding demand, study finds]

The report makes these policy recommendations:
■ Mandate audits that are specifically designed to detect and prevent fraud, and increase the transparency and accountability of charter school operators and managers.
■ Clear planning-based public investments to ensure that any expansions of charter school investments ensure equity, transparency, and accountability.
■ Increase transparency and accountability to ensure that charter schools provide the information necessary for state agencies to detect and prevent fraud.
It also says:
State and federal lawmakers should act now to put systems in place to prevent fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. While the majority of state legislative sessions are coming to an end, there is an opportunity to address the charter school fraud problem on a federal level by including strong oversight requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is currently being debated in Congress. Unfortunately, some ESEA proposals do very little reduce the vulnerabilities that exist in the current law. If the Act is passed without the inclusion of the reforms outlined in this report, taxpayers stand to lose millions more dollars to charter school fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

The charter school sector has expanded significantly in the last decade and now educates about 5 percent of the students enrolled in public schools. The Obama administration has supported the spread of charter schools; President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $375 million specifically for charters, a 48 percent increase over last year’s actual budget.

Proponents say charters offer choices for parents and competition for traditional public schools. Critics say that most charters don’t perform any better — and some of them worse — than traditional public schools, take resources away from school districts, and are part of an effort to privatize public education.

The report says that any “effective, comprehensive fraud prevention system” should include:
■ Taking proactive steps to educate all staff and board members about fraud;
■ Ensuring that one executive-level manager coordinates and oversees the fraud risk assessment and reports to the board of directors, oversight bodies, and school community;
■ Implementing reporting procedures that include conflict disclosure, whistleblower protections, and a clear investigation process;
■ Undergoing and posting a fraud risk assessment conducted by a consultant expert in applicable standards, key risk indicators, anti-fraud methodology, control activities, and detection procedures; and
■ Developing and implementing quality assurance, continuous monitoring, and, where necessary, correction action plans, with clear benchmarks and reporting

The report details cases across the country, among them:

The District of Columbia
In February 2015, the DC Public Charter School Board unanimously voted to revoke the charter of the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School. The DC Attorney General is suing the founder, Kent Amos, for diverting public education funding to a private company for his personal profit. That private management company paid Amos more than $2.5 million over the last 2 years. Over the past 10 years, the school has paid the private entity more than $14 million and, while costs to the private company declined over that time, management fees rose. The charter board’s oversight report showed “no pattern of fiscal mismanagement.” Members of the DC Public Charter School Board have described their limited ability to oversee for-profit management companies, which face no requirement to disclose salaries or other pertinent information.

Michigan
In April 2014, Steven Ingersoll, founder of Grand Traverse Academy, was convicted on federal fraud and tax evasion. He did not report $2 million of taxable income in 2009 and 2010. The school’s audit revealed a $2.3 million prepayment to Ingersoll’s school management company. The school’s later decision to write down $1.6 million of the loan put the school in a deficit position for the first time. Ingersoll then used half of a $.8 million loan for school construction to pay down some of his debt to the school.13 After the founder’s ouster, his daughter-in-law continued to handle the finances of the school.

Ohio
In January 2015, the state auditor released a report of the results of unannounced visits by inspectors to 30 charter schools. In nearly half of the schools, the school-provided headcount was significantly higher than the auditors’ headcount. Schools are funded based on headcount, so these inflated figures amount to taxpayer dollars siphoned away from students. Among the seven schools with the most extreme variances between reported head count and the auditors’ headcount, almost 900 students were missing, at a cost of roughly $5.7 million.16 Auditors identified eight other schools with troubling, but less significant variances. In June 2014, a grand jury indicted the superintendent and 2 board members of Arise! Academy in Dayton of soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for awarding a “lucrative” consulting contract to a North Carolina-based company. The contract was worth $420,919 and the charter personnel received kickbacks in the form of cash, travel, and payments to a separate business.

California
In July 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District performed a forensic audit of Magnolia Public Schools. They found that the charter-school chain used education dollars to pay for six nonemployees’ immigration costs and could not justify $3 million in expenses over four years to outsource curriculum development, professional training, and human resources services that the school itself reported doing.

April 28, 2015

Would Alan Borsuk send his grandchildren to a “No Excuses” school?

Filed under: Borsuk,Charter Schools,No-nonsence schools — millerlf @ 2:14 pm

In an op-ed last Sunday Alan Borsuk criticized a vote I took at a school board meeting on April 23. It concerned a proposed charter school that he described as a “no excuses” school. Actually in the world of education, these are called “no-nonsense” schools.

What Borsuk does not tell you is that there’s a huge debate around the country, most recently described in extensive articles in the New York Times (See blogs Parent Testimony on Abuse of “No-Nonsense” Charter Schools and “No-Nonsense” Charter School Model Intentionally Causes Students to Feel “Misery” ) and in an Atlantic magazine article from 12/2014 by the former Journal Sentinel reporter Sarah Carr, titled How Strict Is Too Strict.

Borsuk uses an unfortunate journalistic technique of paraphrasing board members critical of the proposal while quoting those in support. I wish he had given me due diligence by quoting my final comment: “We have Montessori, Language Immersion and IB for white and middle-class students, while low-income African American students get a code of conduct.”

Questions for Mr. Borsuk:
• Would you send your grandchildren to one of these schools?
• Is absolute obedience the objective of good education?
• Do you support the high suspension rates at these no nonsense schools?
• Why did you not explain to your readers that these schools often have high attrition rates, where students leaving the program are not replaced, making it appear as if graduation rates are exceptional?
• Why do the absolute obedience schools have such low special education enrollment?
• Are you aware of the high teacher turnover at these schools?
• Which “discipline matrix” do you support?
• Are you aware of the civil rights complaints registered at these absolute obedience schools in New Orleans?
• Eva Moskowitz will operate 43 “no-nonsense” Success Academy charter schools in New York next year. Are you aware of the debate, described in a number of articles in the New York Times in the past month? (Your readers should be informed about this high profile discussion that is being closely watched by education experts throughout the nation.)
• Does the school board not have a responsibility to put in place programs that protect all children and provide a rich curriculum for all children?

Over the six years that I have been on the school board, I have come to the conclusion that I will always ask myself, would I send my grandchildren to a program I am voting to establish?

I’d encourage Mr. Borsuk to ask the same question.

April 19, 2015

Dissection of the Latest Credo Study on Charter Schools

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 5:13 pm

The recent CREDO (Center for Research on Educational Outcomes) report comparing charter schools and traditional public schools has been described by charter proponents as deciding proof of charter superiority. Blogger Derek Black, with analysis from Bruce Baker, says not so fast.

Education Law Prof Blog: Are Charter Schools Finally Outperforming Traditional Public Schools?

Derek Black March 25, 2015

Probably not, but the news stories surround the most recent charter school study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) would have the public believe so. CREDO’s studies have been a center point in the debate over the efficacy of charter schools since 2009. Charter school advocates used the 2009 study to demonstrate that some charters (17% to be precise) were outperforming traditional public schools. Those advocates ignored the 37% that were under-performing in comparison to traditional public schools. Charter school skeptics hammered that point and backed it up with subsequent studies.

CREDO’s second report in 2013 was more equivocal than the first and moved in a direction to the liking of charter schools. Rather than focusing on raw performance, it sought to identify educational improvement, finding that charter schools in general were showing more growth than traditional public schools. Some argued that larger growth was potentially easier because charters were starting from a lower baseline. The changed frame of analysis also elicited criticism from both sides regarding the methodology of the study.

CREDO is now out with its 2015 report, and its equivocation is all but gone. The study finds that “urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS peers. Specifically, students enrolled in urban charter schools experience 0.055 standard deviations (s.d.’s) greater growth in math and 0.039 s.d.’s greater growth in reading per year than their matched peers in TPS. These results translate to urban charter students receiving the equivalent of roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.”

This finding was met with applause by education reformers, charter school advocates, and the business community. It was met with keen interest by the media. It has been met largely with silence from those formerly critiquing charters (or they have been unable to capture headlines). Does this study and the silent reaction to it mean that charter schools have finally matured and are demonstrating superiority over traditional public schools? Is the debate, in effect, nearing resolution? Not so fast, says Bruce Baker. We still must compare apples to apples, and it is not clear that CREDO has done that.

Those seeking to demonstrate charter superiority have almost always compared apples to oranges. If the student demographics of charters differ from traditional public schools, raw achievement scores between the two cannot be accurately compared. Responding to this problem, newer studies, including CREDO’s, have attempted to account for differing student demographics.

But CREDO’s new study may have done both too much and too little in this regard. CREDO’s new study narrows the field further than every before, largely in the attempt to triangulate some area of advantage for charters. The new study does not compare charters and traditional public schools on the whole, but only urban charters to urban traditional public schools. That comparison is probably correct, but, of course, those are not the only charter schools in operation. Thus, at best, the study suggests that under certain circumstances, charters outperform traditional public schools.

Bruce Baker, however, says the new study still presents a distorted picture in regard to student demographics, even when narrowed to urban schools. The variables the study uses to “match” an urban public school to a charter for comparison “are especially problematic.” It is inaccurate to treat charters’ “poor kids” as equivalent to traditional public schools’ “poor kids.” And it is, likewise, inaccurate to assume that charters’ special education kids are the same as traditional public schools’ kids. In fact, there is a lot of variation within those two categories, and charters may very well have the most advantaged students within those otherwise narrow groups. Baker further explains:

Newark data are particularly revealing of these problems. Charters undersubscribe the poorest students and oversubscribe the less poor, but CREDO treats those kids as matched anyway…

Charters undersubscribe high need special education kids and oversubscribe mild learning disabled (as a share) but CREDO treats those kids as matched.

This creates a severe bias in favor of charters in Newark and in many other cities with similar sorting patters and high average poverty rates.

This perhaps provides partial explanation for why CREDO tends to find stronger charter effects in poor urban centers than, say in suburbs, where their matching measures – at least for income status – would potentially be more useful.

The point is that the virtual record comparison asserts that these kids are otherwise similar, and thus the gains are somehow attributable to “charter” schooling as a treatment. This assertion is deeply flawed at two levels. First, the as noted above the variables they are choosing for matching are nearly useless. They don’t necessarily identify similar kids at all. Nearly all kids fall below the income threshold they are using and thus they might label as “matched” (likely do in fact) a kid in deep poverty/homelessness, etc. in a district school with a kid marginally below the reduced lunch cut point in a charter. They might also label as “matched” a mild specific learning disability kid in a charter (since that’s all they have for disability) with a far more severely disabled kid in a district school (where district schools have disproportionate shares of those kids now because charters have siphoned some of the less needy spec ed kids).

The second level problem here is that the CREDO study doesn’t then account separately for who these kids attend school with – the peer effect. It conflates that effect with “school” effect, by omission.

Deep stuff. It is probably deeper than the average reporter cares to consider, which might explain some of the silence. But these distinctions are crucial in understanding the new CREDO report and suggest the charter school debate is far settled. The National Education Policy Center has commissioned a review of the CREDO study that will add further clarity to the debate. That review should be available later this spring.

Education Law Prof Blog
Derek Black
Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education…
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Parent Testimony on Abuse of “No-Nonsense” Charter Schools

Filed under: Charter Schools,No-nonsence schools — millerlf @ 8:29 am

Below are comments by parents about their children’s treatment at Success Academy Charter Schools, a major charter chain in New York run by Eva Moskowitz.
While there are parents who support the program and claim their children’s success, shouldn’t we all take responsibility for everyone’s children? Or is narrow “consumerism” all that matters in American education?

New York Times April 18, 2015

• José M. Grajales
His son, 5, is in kindergarten at Success Academy Harlem 3 and his daughter, 8, is a second grader at the same school.

We started noticing that our son was coming home soaked in urine in September 2014. Our son was born with a congenital kidney reflux so we thought those accidents were related to this condition. We spoke with his urologist, who gave us a letter stating that our son should be allowed to use the bathroom. We provided the letter to Success Academy, but the incidents continued until recently. We think our son might be urinating himself because of limited bathroom breaks at Success. We have contacted the school on several occasions about this issue. Our son has no problems using the bathroom outside of school.

Our daughter, who has a learning disability, is in second grade at Success Academy. She receives services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy and additional help. Initially our daughter enjoyed going to school. However, after the first few weeks our daughter’s struggles became obvious. Her name was highlighted in a “red” section of the weekly class newsletter for math. She consistently falls into the “red” week after week, and that started to affect her emotional well-being. We placed her in play therapy outside of school because her self-esteem was suffering.

We feel strongly that our daughter can learn if she was placed in a nurturing and supportive environment where she can be challenged. Our daughter needs to be challenged, not in a punitive and public shaming way but with realistic goals and encouragement.

I feel that not all children are a good fit for Success Academy. For those who try and try and can never get out of the “red,” Success Academy is not for them, and parents of special needs children should be wary. We are exploring other options for our children, and we are hoping for better options for the next school year.

José M. Grajales, 40, is a lawyer.

• Maren H.
She has a son, 6, in kindergarten at Success Academy Upper West; her older son, 7, attended first grade there.

I have a kindergartner in a Success Academy school and a child I pulled out in first grade. My older son, who was diagnosed with A.D.H.D., had problems with inattention. In an atmosphere like Success Academy, where children are held to an extremely high standard of constant focus and zero tolerance for any lack of impulse control, my son struggled daily at the school. Children are reprimanded for not sitting with perfect posture or not remaining silent during all instruction. For a child with his diagnosis, these things are impossible. He was beginning to feel under constant attack by teachers.

We watched his self-esteem plummet as he would be reprimanded in front of the class for little things like not looking at students when they spoke in class or for touching his friend’s pencil on the desk beside him. Eventually, this led to him running out of the classroom regularly. My son was suspended roughly seven times over two months for these so-called “unsafe behaviors.”

Success Academy continued to suspend my son despite our pleas that he was just diagnosed with A.D.H.D. We begged for a little time to try to find the right medication and dosage that would allow him to participate normally. All we got in response was, “We hold all children to the same high standard.”

After so many incidences, we pulled him out of Success Academy and put him in our locally zoned public school, where he is doing extremely well. My younger son is still at Success Academy and is doing well. The zoned public school did not have room in its kindergarten class for him after the school year began.

We still believe that the basic philosophies behind Success Academy are admirable. But Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy seem to have zero understanding about how to handle children who might learn differently, or need a little extra patience and understanding.

Maren H., 34, is a psychotherapist and social worker.

• Jessica D.
Her son, 6, attended kindergarten and part of first grade at Success Academy Upper West.

I am a former parent of the Upper West Side Success Academy. I quickly took notice of the abuse in my son’s second year at Success Academy. The children are not permitted to say “hello” to friends in the hallways; they must ”track” the teacher, meaning all eyes on the teacher; and they are not permitted to use the bathroom until teachers are finished with their lessons. Sometimes my son would come home and tell me he had to hold it all day because the teacher was “busy.’’

On one occasion, I was called at home and told my son would receive an infraction for his mismatched socks. I got calls saying that I could only arrange his doctors’ appointments during off-school hours. The school sent my son home with stickers telling me when to put my son to bed.

Another time my son was late by a minute to “breakfast chess” and he had to sit alone in the cafeteria, where he cried. When I met with school administrators, I was told those are the rules of the school — if you’re a minute late you cannot play. There was no feeling that the school cared about my son’s emotional well-being. I pulled him out the next day and placed him in our local public school.

Success Academy does not have a loving environment. The teachers and the students are stressed; it’s a pressure cooker. My son comes home these days and tells me, “Thank you, mom. I love my new school. We have no more checks.” Success Academy is big with constant checks for behavior problems, even though my son has no learning or behavior issues. I truly feel sorry for the kids that don’t have a parent involved.

Jessica D., 39, works in the skin care industry.

April 7, 2015

“No-Nonsense” Charter School Model Intentionally Causes Students to Feel “Misery”

Filed under: Charter Schools,No-nonsence schools — millerlf @ 6:28 pm

Strictly teaching to the test, 50% yearly teacher turnover, absence of arts and physical education, and high suspension rates define Success Academy charter schools.

Excerpts from the article:
“In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.”

Former staff members described students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests, either because teachers did not allow them to go to the restroom, which Ms. Moskowitz disputed, or because the students themselves felt so much pressure that they did not want to lose time on the test.

The high-pressure atmosphere at Success leads to substantial teacher turnover, though the precise rate is unclear. According to the latest school report cards, in 2013-14 three Success schools had turnover rates above 50 percent, meaning more than half the teachers from the previous year did not stay.”

At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics
By KATE TAYLOR APRIL 6, 2015 NYTimes

At most schools, if a child is flailing academically, it is treated as a private matter.

But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.

The boy, a fourth grader, had been in the red zone for months. His teacher, Kristin Jones, 23, had held meetings with his mother, where the teacher spread out all the weekly class newsletters from the year, in which the charts were reproduced. If he studied, he could pass the spelling quizzes, Ms. Jones said — he just was not trying. But the boy got increasingly frustrated, and some weeks Ms. Jones had to stop herself from looking over his shoulder during the quizzes so she would not become upset by his continued mistakes.

Then, one Friday in December, she peeked at his paper, and a smile spread over her face. After he handed in his quiz, she announced to the class that he had gotten a 90. “I might start crying right now,” she said, only half-joking. “I’ve got to call your mom.”

In its devotion to accountability, Success Academy, New York City’s polarizing charter school network, may have no peer.

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

Those kinds of numbers have helped Success, led by Eva S. Moskowitz, expand to become the city’s largest network of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. By next year Ms. Moskowitz, known for her attention-grabbing rallies and skirmishes with the teachers’ union and Mayor Bill de Blasio, will have 43 schools; a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could bring her closer to her goal of 100. That would give Success more schools than Buffalo, the state’s second-largest district.

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Rachel Tuchman, 25, said that during her three years as a teacher at Success, she had friends who worked in the fields of finance and consulting, and she went to work earlier and stayed later than they did.

“You’re being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman while you’re teaching in Harlem,” said Ms. Tuchman, who is now in her first year at Yale Law School.

She also said that she thought the workload was necessary to achieve the results that Success has, adding, “It takes a very specific type of person who can handle the pressure.”

One consequence of the competitive environment is a high rate of teacher turnover. Some teachers who left said that the job was too stressful. Others said they left because they disagreed with the network’s approach, particularly when they believed it was taken to extremes. In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.” Suspension rates at Success schools, compared with public schools, are higher.

Former staff members described students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests, either because teachers did not allow them to go to the restroom, which Ms. Moskowitz disputed, or because the students themselves felt so much pressure that they did not want to lose time on the test.

Jasmine Araujo, 25, who joined Success through the Teach for America program, quit after half a year as a special-education teacher at Success Academy Harlem 3. She now teaches at a charter school in New Orleans. “I would cry almost every night thinking about the way I was treating these kids, and thinking that that’s not the kind of teacher I wanted to be,” Ms. Araujo said.

By the Numbers
Ms. Moskowitz and a number of her teachers saw the network’s exacting approach in a different way: as putting their students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods who had better schools and money for extra help. Success students are generally barred from the city’s best elementary schools because they do not live in those schools’ zones.

“For affluent parents who are concerned about the test scores, they have an exit strategy — their exit strategy is to hire a private tutor,” Ms. Moskowitz said.

No one criticizes those parents, but “when we support our students, we get criticized,” she said.

“And I would argue that it’s not fair that only the kids who can hire private tutors should do well.”

At Success, everyone is measured by whether their students are doing well.

After every networkwide quiz, students’ scores are entered into the Success computer system, which then ranks each teacher. The purpose of this, teachers and principals said, is to identify high performers and to see what practices they are using, and conversely, to determine which teachers might need better practices.

“We’ve never had a conversation where, like, ‘You are 32nd in the network,’ ” said Lisa Sun, the 26-year-old principal at Success Academy Harlem North Central, a middle school. Rather, she said, she discusses with the teacher which skills the students are lacking, as reflected by the data. “ ‘And it’s not because of them, it’s because of you. We have to talk about what you need to fix to make it better.’ ”

A teacher whose students are performing poorly on assessments, or who cannot maintain discipline, might be moved midyear to another grade, an assistant teacher’s position or tutoring outside the classroom. At the beginning of the year, each class is named after the college that its lead teacher graduated from and the students’ expected year of college graduation. Dana Adnopoz’s homeroom at Success Academy Harlem North Central is Dartmouth 2026. Ms. Jones and her co-teacher have Hunter-Siena 2027.

But because teachers frequently leave or move, one teacher who taught at Success Academy Harlem 3 from 2010 to 2012 and left because she viewed it as overly strict recalled that in the spring of her second year, only a few of the classes in the school were still being led by the teacher whose college they were named after.

This teacher, like some other former Success teachers, did not want to be named criticizing the network. These former teachers said they feared hurting their future job prospects by disparaging a former employer or by being identified as critics of charter schools.

Dawn to Dusk
Each school day, Kristin Jones takes a 5:30 a.m. ferry from Staten Island, where she lives with her mother and two younger siblings, to Manhattan. In the winter, the sun is not yet up when she walks into school at 6:40 a.m.

Growing up, Ms. Jones always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She would tape loose-leaf paper to the mirror on her dresser to turn it into a makeshift blackboard and have her cousin and younger brother pretend to be her students.

Beginning teachers at Success are paid comparably with those in city public schools though instead of a pension, they receive contributions to a retirement account. Unlike public-school teachers, who often have to use their own money for basics like photocopies, Ms. Jones and her colleagues do not worry about supplies. The closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens. Each middle school student receives an iPad. Success Academy schools are also rich in the kind of extracurricular activities that have increasingly been cut from public schools, such as art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming.

Success Academy supplements the public money it receives with money raised from private donors. In its 2013 fiscal year, the most recent for which fund-raising figures are publicly available, it received nearly $72 million in public funds and $22 million in donations.

Because so many administrative functions at Success schools are handled by the organization, principals have a lot of time to observe teachers. When William Loskoch, Ms. Jones’s principal, visited her classroom one day in December, he frequently stopped her co-teacher, Sarah Vistocco, 24, who had started at the network in May, to redirect a discussion or ask her to reinforce the rules.

When a student was struggling to come up with an adjective to describe the protagonists of two myths the class had read and Ms. Vistocco moved on, Mr. Loskoch, 34, stopped her and went back to the girl to try to draw her out.

When the students were sitting on the floor and he noticed that they were not sitting properly, he interrupted the lesson and said, “Ms. Vistocco, can you reset your carpet expectations?”

Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still.

“We believe that structure and consistency leads to better outcomes,” Ms. Moskowitz said. The network’s rules, she said, were consistent with expectations of students throughout most of the history of American education.

One doesn’t just get to go to Dartmouth or Yale – it requires hard work, discipline, a strong work ethic, and, yes, even good test scores.

“Maybe some people prefer chaos,” she added. “We don’t.”

Indeed, watching the students at Success Academy Harlem 4 walk to lunch, the scene was anything but chaotic. In their blue and orange uniforms — the girls wear jumpers, and the boys shirts and ties — they walked silently in two lines, starting and stopping at the teacher’s command. If so many children walking in formation was reminiscent of the von Trapp children at the beginning of “The Sound of Music,” the orderliness also meant that no time was wasted.

Likewise, inside Ms. Jones’s classroom, the atmosphere was calm, and she was demanding.

When the students were writing summaries of myths, she scolded the class: “I don’t want to continue seeing names of characters that start with lowercase letters. It’s an indicator of low effort.”

But when she was pleased with a student — as when the boy scored well on his spelling quiz — she radiated pride.

Asked whether she thought the students who were in the red zone would be demoralized, Ms. Jones said, “I’m sure they’re not happy about it.”

“But they’re very resilient,” she added. “And then, as soon as they get a great grade, they’re praised for it,” and, she said, they can see the difference that their increased effort made.

“They don’t want to stay there,” she said. “They want to improve.”

Carrots and Sticks
In 2005, Ms. Moskowitz, then a city councilwoman, ran for Manhattan borough president and lost — in part because of opposition from the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, which was enraged by a series of hearings she held in the City Council that were critical of work rules embedded in the union’s contract.

After the election, she was recruited by a pair of hedge fund managers who were interested in setting up a charter school, and she opened the network’s first, the Harlem Success Academy, in 2006. In subsequent years she opened more schools, first in Harlem and then in other neighborhoods in the city, and now has a total of 9,000 students in schools in every borough but Staten Island.

The Bloomberg administration gave her free space in public schools, often angering parents and teachers in the schools that had to share buildings with Success. Last year, after Mr. de Blasio briefly blocked three Success schools from public space and threatened to charge the network rent, Mr. Cuomo pushed through a law guaranteeing all new or expanding charter schools in the city free space or money to find their own.

Ms. Moskowitz has used her high test scores to argue that she should be allowed to open more schools, and an effort by Mr. Cuomo to raise the limit on the number of charter schools in the state could make it easier for her to do so.

At any given time, multiple carrots and sticks are used in the quest to make sure every student does well on the standardized tests. This system goes into overdrive in late January, as the annual exams, which begin this year on April 14, approach.

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.

On the Friday before test preparations began, a calendar counting down the days to the test hung on the wall in Yale 2025, a sixth-grade classroom at Success Academy Harlem North West. The page for Monday was already displayed; in large type, it said: “53 days left.”

Carolyn Farnham, 24, the teacher, asked her students how they felt about the start of test preparations.

“It has the potential to be both really, really dull and really, really stressful,” she said to her students, adding, “That’s certainly not what I want.”

Some students responded that they did not mind because they had done well on the tests in the past. But several said they disliked it.

“I know that it’s here to help us,” one girl, Maliha, said. “But sometimes when people don’t get the best score, they seem to feel, like, really down on themselves. And when effort academy and detention and stuff like that is introduced,” she said, “one gets — me personally — really angry and upset.”

A boy raised his hand.

“I always get a high three or a low three or sometimes a four,” said the boy, Erick. (A three is considered passing, and a four is the highest score.) “What I don’t like is I have to go to school on Saturdays, so I feel like I don’t get rest, and I get a lot of stress in my neck because I got to go like this all the time,” he said, hunching forward like he was looking at a test paper.

Another girl, Ruqayyah, agreed that test preparations caused anxiety. But “on the other hand, there’s prizes,” she said, “which are really cool and motivate us to do our best.”

“I hope also you want to do your best for you,” Ms. Farnham said, “not just for prizes.”

The network’s critics — including the teachers’ union, which sees Success as taking money and space from public schools — say the network’s high scores are a mirage created, in part, by inordinate test preparation.

The network’s oldest students are still in high school, so it is difficult to gauge the long-term benefits of their education. Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive policy organization, and the co-author of two books about charter schools, said that network’s test scores were impressive, but that the conclusions that could be drawn from them were limited.

“Success Academy’s strong test scores tell us that they have a strong model for producing good test scores,” Ms. Potter said, adding that there could be lessons in Success’s practices for schools that are trying to improve their scores.

She noted that Success schools tend to have fewer nonnative English speakers and special-education students than public schools; those groups tend to score lower on tests. Ms. Potter also said that the network has made trade-offs, including not offering foreign languages until eighth grade, in order to devote more time to math, English and science, the only subjects in which all elementary and middle school students take state tests.

Teachers and principals at Success said that they prepare their students so intensely for the tests because of the opportunities that high scores can present, such as invitations to top public middle or high schools, or scholarships for private schools.

Two documentaries, “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” have captured the desperation of parents trying to get their children into Success through the annual lotteries it holds; this year, the network said, it received more than 22,000 applications for 2,688 seats.

Shakeya Matthew’s sons attended Public School 165, on West 109th Street, before getting into Success Academy Harlem 4 this year. Ms. Matthew, 33, said that her younger son had struggled last year in kindergarten and that his teacher seemed overwhelmed. Now, as a Success first grader, he is reading at a second-grade level. She said that she is in more frequent contact with her sons’ teachers now than when her sons were in the public school. Success teachers will call or send her a text during the day or in the evening with news about how one of her sons did on a test or with other updates.

“It seems like they definitely put forth more effort and go an extra mile,” Ms. Matthew said.

Walking Away
The high-pressure atmosphere at Success leads to substantial teacher turnover, though the precise rate is unclear. According to the latest school report cards, in 2013-14 three Success schools had turnover rates above 50 percent, meaning more than half the teachers from the previous year did not stay.

But Success officials said that these figures were inflated by the number of teachers who move from one Success school to another, or to nonteaching positions within the network. According to its own numbers, attrition from the network from June 2013 to June 2014 was 17 percent. By comparison, attrition from the city’s public school system in 2013-14 was 6.1 percent, according to the Education Department.

Still, current and former employees said departures were common.

Ariadna Phillips-Santos, 34, taught kindergarten and first and second grades at Success Academy Harlem 5 from 2010 until 2012. Having worked in public schools, she was impressed by the academic rigor and the plentiful supplies. But she was raising a young son on her own, and juggling his care with her long work hours was almost impossible, she said. Ms. Phillips-Santos, who is now a dean at a public elementary and middle school in the Bronx, said she recalled asking her Success principal one day if she could leave at 4:55 p.m. — after the students had been dismissed — because her son’s day care had called saying that he had a fever and was vomiting, and being told, “It’s not 5 o’clock yet.”

Ms. Moskowitz said that Success was accommodating to working parents. She said that Success allowed some teachers and even some principals to work part time and that the network offers a month of paid maternity and paternity leave.

Most of the former teachers interviewed, however, said that they left not because of the workload, but because they disagreed with Success’s approach, which they found punitive.

One teacher complained that she was expected to announce all of her students’ scores on practice tests, by asking those who had scored a four to stand up, followed by those with a three and then those with a two. The teacher and her colleagues persuaded their supervisors not to make students with a score of one stand up, but those students were still left conspicuously sitting down, she said.

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break.

“I dreaded going into work,” the teacher, who now teaches in a public school, said.

Other former staff members also described students having wet themselves, in some cases during practice tests. Two former staff members who worked at Success Academy Harlem West, a middle school, in the 2013-14 school year, said that they recalled having to go to the supply closet to get extra underwear and sweatpants, which were always on hand, for students who had wet themselves.

Ms. Moskowitz said that, to mimic the environment of the actual test, when students are not supposed to go to the restroom except for an emergency, Success has all students go to the restroom immediately before practice tests. But students are still allowed to go during tests, she said. She acknowledged that there were sometimes accidents, but attributed them to the challenges of sharing space in public school buildings, which meant the restrooms were sometimes several floors away.

“We have plenty of kids who don’t always prepare adequately,” Ms. Moskowitz said, adding that “very occasionally there are accidents, and we get that it’s uncomfortable for the student.”

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “Teachers get emotional about it.”
Suspension Rates
Several former teachers and staff members said that they had also been uncomfortable with Success’s suspension rates.

At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)

Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school.

Ms. Moskowitz said that the question of what was an appropriate number of suspensions was a complicated one, but that the suspension rate in public schools should not be regarded as “the gold standard.” She said that even very young children could do things that required an intervention, such as bringing razor blades to school or cursing at teachers.

“Often the suspensions are really to get the parents and the school to be on the same team, that there’s a serious issue,” she said. “If we don’t intervene, when they’re 13, that’s going to be a bigger problem,” she said.

The network’s critics say that its performance is skewed by the departure of its most difficult students. In a visit last month to a public school where 4 percent of students passed last year’s math tests, and that shares a building with a Success school where 96 percent of the students passed, the city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said, “We would like to be at that percentage, but we keep all our kids from the day they walk into the building.”

Success students who leave after fourth grade are not replaced because, Ms. Moskowitz said, new students entering at that point would be too far behind their classmates. But even if all those students stayed and continued to do poorly, Success schools would still significantly outperform their neighboring schools on tests.

Dahlia Graham, a teacher who came to Success Academy Harlem 1 in 2009, said that in the public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where she previously taught, there was no clear discipline system. If a student hit another student, he might be removed from class briefly, but then would return, still angry, and disrupt the class again. She said it was a relief when she got to Success, where she said hitting resulted in suspension.

“It made my life so much easier,” Ms. Graham said.

As for the teachers who said they did not like the environment, Ms. Moskowitz said: “Most of the people who leave are a little angry, like they don’t like their work and they don’t seem happy teaching, and we really can’t have people who don’t love it.”

A Demanding Culture
On April 1, 2012, a leadership resident at Success Academy Harlem 2, Lauren Jonas, sent an email to her fourth-grade teachers.

The email, provided by a former staff member, said that the results on a recent, three-day practice test were “not what we had hoped for.”

“You must demand every single minute,” Ms. Jonas wrote. “You must have higher behavioral and academic expectations than ever before.” Every letter was capitalized.

Nine to 12 students had failed to use the test-taking strategies they had been taught, known as the “plan of attack,” Ms. Jonas wrote.

“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

At Ms. Jonas’s school, 64 percent of the teachers the year she wrote that email were not teaching there the next year, according to state figures. Researchers have linked high teacher turnover to lower performance by students on tests, but that is not the case at Success. At Success Academy Harlem 2 last year, 91 percent of students passed the state math tests, up from 76 percent the previous year. At Public School 30, which shares the building with Success Academy Harlem 2, 16 percent of students passed.

Ms. Jonas is now principal of one of the network’s newest schools, Success Academy Harlem North West, a middle school.

When the 2012 email was read to her recently, Ms. Jonas cringed and said that she did not remember writing it. She said that she did not want students to be miserable and described her words as “poorly chosen.”

“I should be certainly more careful in how I’m communicating and how others might misinterpret the meaning behind it,” she said.

But Ms. Moskowitz defended the wording of Ms. Jonas’s email, saying that a reporter was reading too much into it.

“We use that terminology sometimes, meaning, you know, ‘Kids, you got to get it right the first time, and we’re not playing,’ ” she said.

“That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying,” she continued. “Everybody’s working too hard. Parents are sacrificing to get up early. Teachers are working really hard. Simply not trying is not part of our culture.”

February 22, 2015

When Charter Schools Are Nonprofit in Name Only

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 8:17 am

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

by Marian Wang ProPublica, Dec. 9, 2014

A couple of years ago, auditors looked at the books of a charter school in Buffalo, New York, and were taken aback by what they found. Like all charter schools, Buffalo United Charter School is funded with taxpayer dollars. The school is also a nonprofit. But as the New York State auditors wrote, Buffalo United was sending ” virtually all of the School’s revenues” directly to a for-profit company hired to handle its day-to-day operations.

Charter schools often hire companies to handle their accounting and management functions. Sometimes the companies even take the lead in hiring teachers, finding a school building, and handling school finances.

In the case of Buffalo United, the auditors found that the school board had little idea about exactly how the company – a large management firm called National Heritage Academies – was spending the school’s money. The school’s board still had to approve overall budgets, but it appeared to accept the company’s numbers with few questions. The signoff was “essentially meaningless,” the auditors wrote.

In the charter-school sector, this arrangement is known as a “sweeps” contract because nearly all of a school’s public dollars – anywhere from 95 to 100 percent – is “swept” into a charter-management company.

The contracts are an example of how the charter schools sometimes cede control of public dollars to private companies that have no legal obligation to act in the best interests of the schools or taxpayers. When the agreement is with a for-profit firm like National Heritage Academies, it’s also a chance for such firms to turn taxpayer money into tidy profits.

“It’s really just a pass-through for for-profit entities,” said Eric Hall, an attorney in Colorado Springs who specializes in work with charter schools and has come across many sweeps contracts. “In what sense is that a nonprofit endeavor? It’s not.”

Neither National Heritage Academies nor the Buffalo United board responded to requests for comment. (Update: NHA spokeswoman Jennifer Hoff said in an emailed statement, “Our approach relieves our partner boards of all financial, operational, and academic risks – a significant burden that ultimately defeats many charter schools. Freed from burdens like fundraising, our partner boards can focus on governance and oversight … NHA and its partner schools comply fully with state and federal laws, authorizer oversight requirements, and education department regulations – including everything related to transparency.”)

While relationships between charter schools and management companies have started to come under scrutiny, sweeps contracts have received little attention. Schools have agreed to such setups with both nonprofit and for-profit management companies, but it’s not clear how often. Nobody appears to be keeping track.
What is clear is that it can be hard for regulators and even schools themselves to follow the money when nearly all of it goes into the accounts of a private company.

“We’re not confident that sweeps contracts allow [charters schools and regulators] to fully fulfill their public functions,” said Alex Medler, who leads policy and advocacy work at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter regulators. The organization discourages the arrangements. “We think this is an issue that needs attention.”

Officials have gotten glimpses of questionable spending by some firms using “sweeps” contracts.
Take the case of Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, another National Heritage Academies school. In 2012, state auditors tried to track the $10 million in public funding given to the school, only to conclude they were ” unable to determine … the extent to which the $10 million of annual public funding provided to the school was actually used to benefit its students.” From what auditors could tell, the school was paying above-market rent for its building, which in turn is owned by a subsidiary of National Heritage Academies. They also had concerns about equipment charges.
The auditors couldn’t ultimately tell whether the charges were reasonable because National Heritage Academies refused to share the relevant financial details. The firm also refused to provide detailed documentation for $1.6 million in costs recorded as corporate services, claiming the information was proprietary, according to the audit. The board president of Brooklyn Excelsior did not respond to our request for comment.

While the auditors in New York were disturbed by what they found, they could do little more than issue reports with advisory recommendations. “We can’t audit the management company,” said Brian Butry, a spokesman for New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

In Michigan, where NHA is the largest charter-school operator, state education regulators have voiced similar frustrations about the degree to which these private firms are shielded from having to answer to the public about how money is spent.

“I can’t FOIA National Heritage Academies,” said Casandra Ulbrich, Vice President of the Michigan State Board of Education, referring to the right to request public documents from public agencies. “I don’t know who they’re subcontracting with, I don’t know if they’re bid out. I don’t know if there are any conflicts of interest. This is information we as taxpayers don’t have a right to.”

Last year, Ulbrich and the State Board of Education had called for more transparency to be brought to the financial dealings of charter-management firms. They specifically asked the legislature to outlaw sweeps contracts. “Unfortunately,” Ulbrich said, “it fell on deaf ears.”

The Internal Revenue Service has questioned some cases of sweeps contracts, but has not taken a consistent stand on whether the contracts are appropriate.

It’s not just charter regulators and auditors that have reason to be wary of such setups. Some charter-school boards that signed sweeps contracts have found themselves shut out of the operations of their own schools.
In Ohio, ten charter-school boards sued their management firm, White Hat Management, in 2010 after they couldn’t get answers to basic questions about why their schools’ performance lagged and how the school’s money was spent.
Even so, it was a challenge for the schools to take back control. After handing over the bulk of their money to White Hat for years, the schools had little money of their own, said Karen Hockstad, an attorney who’s been representing the school boards in continuing litigation.

“Their hands are tied. They don’t have the money to build brand new infrastructure and get new desks and books and anything else,” said Hockstad. White Hat Management did not return a request for comment.
Some charter-school regulators – recognizing their limited authority over charter-management companies – are beginning to push back, requiring schools to get more information from management firms. Still, that hasn’t stopped some management companies from putting up a fight.

Regulators in the District of Columbia are seeking more legal authority over management firms after two recent scandals. The DC Public Charter School Board has asked the city council to pass legislation that would allow access to the books of management companies under certain conditions. So far, that effort has gone nowhere.
Related coverage: Read about how a chain of charter schools is channeling millions of public education dollars to for-profit companies controlled by the schools’ founder.

If you have information about charter schools and their profits or oversight — or any other tips — email us at charters@propublica.org.

Example of Charter School Regulation in Minnesota

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 8:12 am

When a Wildlife Rehab Center Regulates Charter Schools: Inside the Wild World of Charter Regulation
Charter school “authorizers” are charged with making sure schools can be trusted with kids and with public money. Problem is, many lack the tools to do the job.

by Marian Wang ProPublica, Feb. 20, 2015
Nestled in the woods of central Minnesota, near a large lake, is a nature sanctuary called the Audubon Center of the North Woods. The nonprofit rehabilitates birds. It hosts retreats and conferences. It’s home to a North American porcupine named Spike as well as several birds of prey, frogs, and snakes used to educate the center’s visitors.
It’s also Minnesota’s largest regulator of charter schools, overseeing 32 of them.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded, privately run schools freed from many of the rules that apply to traditional public schools. What’s less widely understood is that there are few hard-and-fast rules for how the regulators charged with overseeing charter schools are supposed to do the job. Many are making it up as they go along.
Known as “authorizers,” charter regulators have the power to decide which charter schools should be allowed to open and which are performing so badly they ought to close. They’re supposed to vet charter schools, making sure the schools are giving kids a good education and spending public money responsibly.

But many of these gatekeepers are woefully inexperienced, under-resourced, confused about their mission or even compromised by conflicts of interest. And while some charter schools are overseen by state education agencies or school districts, others are regulated by entities for which overseeing charters is a side job, such as private colleges and nonprofits like the Audubon wildlife rehabilitation center.

One result of the regulatory mishmash: Bad schools have been allowed to stay open and evade accountability.
“Almost everything you see come up as charter school problems, if you scratch past the surface, the real problem is bad authorizing,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

In 2010, an investigation by the Philadelphia Controller’s Office found lavish executive salaries, conflicts of interest and other problems at more than a dozen charter schools, and it faulted the authorizer – the School District of Philadelphia’s charter school office – for “complete and total failure” to monitor schools. In 2013, more than a dozen Ohio charter schools that had gained approval from various authorizers received state funding and then either collapsed in short order or never opened at all.

“Considerable state funds were lost and many lives impacted because of these failures,” the Ohio Department of Education wrote in a scathing letter last year to Ohio’s charter-school regulators. The agency wrote that some authorizers “lacked not only the appropriate processes, but more importantly, the commitment of mission, expertise and resources needed to be effective.”

Aside from such dramatic implosions, it’s hard to tell how many authorizers are doing at this important public function. They’re generally not required to say much about the details of their decision-making.
Take Minnesota’s Audubon Center. As a group, the schools overseen by the center fall below the state average on test scores. The group has several persistently low performers, acknowledged David Greenberg, Audubon’s Director of Charter School Authorizing, and a few years back, made the tough call to close one. But test scores offer a limited window into how a regulator is performing. The center works with several schools serving high-need students in Minneapolis, and high-need students tend to have lower test scores. A full picture requires a more holistic evaluation – one that the Minnesota Department of Education is just starting this year.

In the early years of the charter movement, charter supporters focused on creating more authorizers, in order to spur the creation of more schools. That’s still true in some states, where charters are taking off. But as the movement has matured, there’s been a realization that “having too many authorizers undercuts quality,” in the words of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter regulators. NACSA has worked to educate states and individual authorizers on what good oversight looks like, while promoting measures such as “default closure” to help bypass authorizers that may be reluctant to close chronically underperforming schools.
While there are promising signs, NACSA acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. “It feels like whack-a-mole, but in the long term, you’re getting closer,” said Alex Medler, the group’s vice president of policy and advocacy. Even if states have some strong authorizers, weak ones can undermine the whole system, as underperforming schools can find refuge with them.
“It’s not how many are good, it’s are there any bad ones left?” Medler said. “If you’re running a bad school, you look for the presence of bad authorizers. You ignore the good authorizer.”
Consider Indiana, a state that has sought to strengthen charter-school accountability in recent years. On one hand, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is widely regarded as a strong charter-school regulator. The schools it oversees have as a group performed better on state tests than Indianapolis Public Schools, and the office has made some tough calls, revoking charters when it sees fit and flagging suspected cheating at its schools.
On the other hand, there’s Trine University, a small private college in rural Northeast Indiana and a charter-school regulator that has taken on schools that left other authorizers, in some cases after those regulators had sought to close them.
(more…)

January 28, 2015

Alberta Darling Proposes “Shock Doctrine: Disaster Capitalism” for Milwaukee

Filed under: Charter Schools,Darling — millerlf @ 9:22 pm

Alberta Darling Proposes “Disaster Capitalism” for Milwaukee. In Naomi Kline’s book, Shock Doctrine, she explains that “free market” policies have come to dominate the world– through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people. There are disaster zones in Milwaukee, but without investment (real money spent) nothing will change. In the Darling proposal it says, “The initiatives…(proposed)…will not cost any taxpayer, at any level of government, a single cent.”

 

GOP lawmakers to craft bill converting failing MPS schools to charters
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel 1/28/15

Some Milwaukee public schools with failing grades on state report cards could be turned into charter schools overseen by a new local board, according to a host of education-reform proposals announced by two suburban Republican lawmakers Wednesday.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) introduced education and economic proposals as part of their legislative agenda for fighting poverty in Milwaukee during an informal meeting with reporters Wednesday.

Some of the ideas will be introduced as individual bills, others may get negotiated into the state budget, Kooyenga said.

One proposal calls for turning select MPS schools with failing grades into independent charter schools that do not employ unionized teachers or answer to the Milwaukee School Board.

Instead, those schools would be overseen by a new local board, which would entertain proposals from charter-school operators and award five-year contracts to operators that present the most compelling plans, according to the proposal.

A spokesperson from Darling’s office said details such as who would head the board and who would appoint or elect the members would be finalized in a forthcoming bill.

Darling characterized the proposal Wednesday as a “partnership” with MPS, and said she hopes to get some school board members and potentially even MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver on the new board.
But Driver said Wednesday during an “On the Issues” interview at the Marquette University Law School that she was not a fan of so-called “recovery districts.”
“To think you can close a school as a traditional school and reopen it as a charter tomorrow and get these great results is really misguided,” Driver told Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy.
“I have 85% of my students living in poverty, we’re 86% students of color and 10% that are English language learners,” Driver added. “There are a number of other things we have to consider in terms of the programs, resources and the teachers that go into those schools besides just whether it’s a traditional school or a charter school.”

School Board Member Larry Miller said the proposals are an attempt to seize schools and flood the market with charters in Milwaukee. “This diversion is coming from the same people who blocked high speed rail (proposals) that would have created jobs and gotten people from the inner city to jobs (in the suburbs),” he said.

Miller added it was “incredibly arrogant” that the proposals to fight poverty in the city were coming from lawmakers representing two of Milwaukee’s wealthiest suburbs.

Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, said in a statement that the lawmakers’ plan for fighting poverty opens the door for handing over public schools to private companies, without offering new resources.
“We will unite with others in massive resistance to this senseless attack,” the statement said.

The other education proposals from Darling and Kooyenga include:
■ Streamline the process for allowing high-performing charter schools to open additional schools.
■ Convert the approximately $40 million MPS receives each year for school integration efforts within the system to a block grant with no state mandates.
■ Redirect $12 million from Cooperative Education Service Agency 1 in Pewaukee to establish a computer-programming charter school for high school students.
■ Allow schools to apply for and receive waivers from certain state mandates from the Department of Public Instruction.
■ Designate an existing staff member at the Department of Workforce Development into a full-time coordinator for dual enrollment programs for high school students at the state’s technical colleges.

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