Tag Archives: Charter schools

3 Huge Problems With the Charter School Movement

hite1Dr. William Hite Jr who was a superintendent in Prince George’s County before applying to Philadelphia caused a similar mess in Prince George’s County. 

Philly.com has a story this week that distills many of the troubling qualities of the charter school movement down to a disturbing essence. All these millions of dollars are being drained in Philadelphia school district under Dr. William Hite Jr (pictured above).

Yes, it’s that bad.

This deeply reported piece by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs zooms in on one school and one deal: the academically well-regarded String Theory Charter School, which is housed in a high-end eight-story office building at 16th and Vine. This is the same building that not long ago was the North American headquarters for GlaxoSmithKline. It would be eyebrow-raising enough if the taxpayer-funded String Theory were merely leasing such high-end digs. But the school — or, technically, a separate nonprofit run by two of the school’s board members — actually owns the tower, and acquired it through a $55 million tax-exempt bond deal.

Writes Philly.com:

It was the largest bond deal of its kind in city history.

It is also the most conspicuous example yet of a risky, expensive, and fast-growing financial scheme underpinning the rapid expansion of Philadelphia charters — a market now worth nearly $500 million. But the bond financing behind the mountain of money gets little scrutiny on whether the debt is a smart use of Pennsylvania’s limited educational dollars.

The lack of transparency can translate into deals that may be unsustainable. Shortly after moving into its flashy high rise, String Theory posted its first operating deficit. After revealing they were $500,000 in the red from paying out millions annually to bondholders, administrators told parents they were cutting certain classes and suspending bus service as cost-saving measures.

Deeper in the story, we learn that the school leases the property from that nonprofit controlled by two board members, and then collects $188,000 a year from the state, which reimburses charter schools for some lease costs. This is, we are told, not at all unusual arrangement.

The story also shines a light on the consultants and attorneys who are profiting off these charter land deals. One New Jersey firm has collected at least $5 million in consulting services for charters that have received municipal bonds to fund capital improvements and property acquisitions.

It’s a complicated story, and you really should read the whole thing.

But here are my takeaways from the piece.

1. Charter school administrators and leaders are every bit as capable as school district officials of making boneheaded financial decisions that saddle their respective institutions with crippling debt.

This isn’t exactly news, of course, but nonetheless the overwhelming public perception is that it’s public school districts that squander taxpayer money, not charter schools. This crippling, false perception makes it politically easier for politicians in Harrisburg to fund public Philadelphia schools at levels well below their needs.

To be sure, there are many charters that are managed responsibly and effectively. These schools are, by their very nature, independent operators, and the bad decisions made by some charters don’t predict bad decision-making by others.

But it’s long past time to set aside the clearly bogus notion that charters = efficient stewardship of public money, and public school districts = waste and fraud.

2. Profit-minded businesses are destroying whatever moral authority the education reform movement had.

I’ve long cringed when ed reform skeptics attacked the motives of charter advocates and others who’d like to see the public school system reinvented (or scrapped). With very rare exceptions, the individuals I’ve interviewed and spoken with in the ed reform movement over the years are True Believers: their fury and impatience with traditional public education is real and righteous. I haven’t always agreed with where they’re coming from, to say the least, but I’ve long dismissed accusations that reformers are in it for the money.

 Now I’m not so sure. There plainly is a large and growing group of interests within the education reform movement that stand to profit as traditional public education shrinks. There have always been the for-profit charter operators, the testing companies and the curriculum consultants. More recent are the reports of non-profit charter operators and leaders who have gotten involved in complicated financial arrangements with the schools they serve. And then there is the emergence of a profitable consulting and legal infrastructure that services the booming charter sector (as chronicled in the Philly.com story).

Wait, you might say, much the same has always been true of publicly-run school districts! And, yes, reports of bad contracts, undisciplined spending and politically-connected consultants were, in the past, commonplace in the School District of Philadelphia.

But that’s precisely the point. Charters were supposed to be different. Traditional public schools were beholden: to teacher’s unions, to political masters, to a powerful class of consultants and attorneys. Charters were supposed to be the indies. But as the charter movement grows, a big corps of financial interests has grown up around it. Increasingly, charters look just as financially beholden to an array of interests, only it’s harder to tell exactly who and what those interests are.

This is a really significant problem for ed reform advocates, and I’m not sure that it can be solved. The moral clarity of the early charter movement — nonprofit, about the kids, self-reliant — well, that’s gone. Increasingly, it seems not just fair to question the motives of ed reformers, but necessary.

3. The charter movement is way too big and way too ambitious to operate on an ad hoc basis.

As Philly.com reports, one of the entities authorizing these tax-exempt bonds for charter schools is PIDC, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. PIDC is an unusually effective organization (they run the Navy Yard, for instance), that’s run jointly by business interests and the City of Philadelphia.

PIDC’s reason for existence is economic development, and while you could make a case that building up charter schools is an economic development good, it’s hardly a slam-dunk, direct-line kind of argument. This isn’t a new Dietz and Watson factory.

John Grady, PIDC executive director, writes to say that the agency hasn’t made charters part of its economic development. Rather, he says, tax exempt financing “is regulated by federal and state law,” and that PIDC’s role is to administer “the legal process for accessing tax-exempt debt as required by, and pursuant to, these laws.” In other words, this isn’t a PIDC initiative, and charters are just using the agency to access tax-exempt bond markets, as is their right under law.

But is there a better way? One of the most interesting quotes in the Philly.com story comes from Bruce Baker, a Rutgers education professor and a frequent critic of the financing mechanisms used to fund charter schools. As Philly.com says:

Baker described the system as one that evolved out of necessity, with little foresight. No concrete financing vehicle was ever created for charters, and many schools had in the past relied on leasing buildings or taking out commercial loans with even higher interest rates.

“Who can blame them?” Baker said. “For each of the parties involved, their behaviors kind of make sense. But it’s still stupid public policy.”

There are 86 charter schools in Philadelphia alone, educating more than 64,000 students. This isn’t a boutique public education side business any more, and it hans’t been for a long, long time. And yet, we still lack coherent policy and mechanisms for something as basic as facilities financing for charter schools.

And it’s not just the buildings. The School District’s charter oversight office is still understaffed and under-resourced. And charter operators frequently bristle at the prospect of more accountability. But something’s got to give here. The charter movement can’t keep growing and eating up tax dollars while operating in the relative darkness.

Read more at http://www.phillymag.com/citified/2015/09/17/charter-school-problems/#gPLkkXcW0HQbI7KP.99

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Relay Looks for a Leg in Memphis, Finds Protest Instead

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Can Relay Graduate School of Education produce quality educators after a one-year teaching residency in one of Memphis’ charter schools?

The University of Memphis is reconsidering this question after faculty senate members have asked university president David M. Rudd to reevaluate the potential impact of a proposed partnership between the university, Relay, and Shelby County Schools/ Achievement School District.

The proposed program is drawing concern from faculty members and people in the community, where charter schools already use young teachers who obtain teaching certification from other non-traditional programs such as Teach for America or Memphis Teacher Residency.

The faculty senate unanimously voted to independently investigate any risks that Relay might pose to current university programs. Additionally, a task force likely to include Provost Karen Weddle-West, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences Dean Ernest Rakow, and Professor of Educational Leadership Reginald Green will be established to offer recommendations for a university partnership with SCS/ASD.

Relay is a one-year teaching residency program available to undergraduates from any major, and while their training period is substantially longer than other alternative certification programs, some feel that it is still inadequate.

“With what they are doing, it is impossible to become a good teacher — especially if you do not have an educational background in areas like the psychology of education,” said Mate Wierdl, a U of M professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a faculty senate member.

Relay’s official website outlines of their curriculum, that includes reviewing recorded classroom footage of student’s teaching interactions, as well as online tutorials. Wierdl, however, is perturbed by other concerns.

“We don’t exactly know what Relay is doing. We know that Relay is a company based in New York. We know that it is four years old. Otherwise, it has no track record whatsoever,” said Wierdl. “It’s just the strangest thing — that somehow charter school teachers can train other charter school teachers, and in New York and now in Tennessee, they can give out master’s degrees.”

The funding of the residency program has prompted other questions. The program is said to have a total cost of $5 million per year, which is roughly the per-year cost of the most expensive departments at the university, such as the Cecil C. Humphreys Law School. Some are a worried that the University is footing the bill – a claim University president David M. Rudd calls “absolutely untrue.”

“The University of Memphis is not funding Relay,” Rudd said in an email. “As mentioned, they are an independent institution. Philanthropists have offered to fund U of M students participating in the program. The $5 million figure is simply untrue. The University has expended no funds on this effort. If students did chose to participate and there was any portion of their costs unfunded by philanthropy, they would have to cover the difference with their own tuition payments.”

Still for Wierdl and other community members, the concerns around the potential three-way partnership go beyond a price tag or a certification. They find the broader matter of the privatization of public education to be the central threat.

“With what they are doing, it is impossible to become a good teacher — especially if you do not have an educational background in areas like the psychology of education,” Mate Wierdl

In the time since the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota, 23 years ago, major cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. have adopted charter schools into their public education systems. Numerous charter school studies have been published, and the divide over whether charter schools are a viable and sustainable educational system has deepened.

In Memphis, the first four charter schools opened in 2003. Now, 12 years later, Memphis is in the top 50 school districts in the nation for charter school development. For non-proponents of charter school systems in Memphis and elsewhere, a primary concern stems from charter school contracts with non-traditional teaching certification entities like Teach for America Memphis or Memphis Teacher Residency.

Mischa Nyberg from Put the People First, a community action group that addresses social justice issues in Tennessee, runs community meetings of parents, teachers, and students. They discuss the current issue of the U of M partnership in informative meetings, so that they may participate in community discussions with U of M officials.

“The Relay Graduate School is part of a much longer, much more complicated narrative of the corporatization of public schools than it seemingly projects, as is the recently announced partnership with ASD,” said Nyberg. The ASD is Tennessee’s state-run school district that takes over schools that perform in the bottom five percent state-wide.

A primary concern for many are the alternatively certified teachers that populate charter schools who, in turn, often replace traditionally certified teachers with more experience. In addition, the retention rate for large entities like TFA is low, with an average of 80 percent of teachers leaving after three years.

“The Relay Graduate School is part of a much longer, much more complicated narrative of the corporatization of public schools than it seemingly projects, as is the recently announced partnership with ASD.” Mischa Nyberg

For Nyberg and Wierdl, this alone is cause enough for concern.

“Relay is not only a threat to the profession of teaching, but it is a threat to a good, quality public education, which we believe is a human right,” said Nyberg.

Wierdl sees the high turnover rate of less-experienced teachers brought into the schools from the alternative certification programs as more than a threat.

“The Relay program is part of a cruel human experiment on the most disadvantaged children of Memphis,” said Wierdl. “It needs to be stopped.”

Put the People First plans to continuously monitor the potential partnership, as well as keep community members abreast of the latest developments.

The newly formed task-force will be holding meetings over the next few months. “This will allow for as much time as needed to identify and discuss all concerns,” said Rudd.

Nevertheless, through its website, Relay has announced that Memphis will be its sixth satellite location. The announcement alarmed those hoping to publicly discuss the university partnership.

However, Rudd says Relay’s announcement does not signal a solidified partnership.

“Relay is authorized as an independent educational provider in Tennessee,” said Rudd. “They do not need University of Memphis approval to operate in Memphis any more than any other institution, such as CBU, Rhodes, etc…”

via The daily helmsman

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LA teachers planning campaign to oppose charter expansion

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UTLA President Alex Caputo Pearl

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said the teachers union is planning an aggressive campaign to oppose Eli Broadand other wealthy foundation leaders who have announced plans for a major expansion of charter schools in LA Unified.

In a wide-ranging interview that focused on the state of charters in the district, Caputo-Pearl was highly critical of the effort, asserting that charters are undermining the ability of traditional district schools to maintain a quality education for all students.

“We’re going to make every effort that we can to organize against the expansion of what are essentially unregulated non-union schools that don’t play by the rules as everybody else,” Caputo-Pearl told LA School Report. “So we’re going to take that on in the public, take that on in the media, engage the school board on it. We’re going to try to engage Eli Broad. We’re going to try to engage John Deasy because we understand he’s the architect of it. It will be a major effort. It is a major concern.”

The charter expansion plans involve three major foundations that have been active for years in education reform across the country: the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the W.M. Keck Foundation. They said they intend to create enough charter schools in eight years to serve as many as half of LA Unified students.

The California Charter School Association has consistently denied that there are separate rules for charters, pointing to the fact that charters have to demonstrate academic achievement and financial stability to remain operating. Many charters do employ non-union teachers, but UTLA in recent years has succeeded in unionizing a number of them.

Caputo-Pearl’s targeting of Deasy evolves from Deasy’s association with Broad before and after he served as LA Unified’s superintendent. Before he was hired in 2011, Deasy attended the Broad Academy, which prepares senior executives for roles in urban education. He resigned as superintendent last year after problems with the iPad program, leading to a federal investigation of the bid process. Currently, he is a consultant for The Broad Center, a separate non-proft organization that helps train future education leaders.

Deasy was replaced as superintendent by Ramon Cortines, who says he intends to step down in December.

“It turns out (Deasy) is involved here with Eli Broad and and this effort, but what really offends us about Eli Broad is that he has been two-faced on issues of public education,” Caputo-Pearl said. “He publicly supported Proposition 30, which was arguably the most important thing in public education in decades in terms of restoring the system. Yet privately was funneling his cash in efforts to defeat it.”

Proposition 30 was a state measure approved by voters in 2012 that raised taxes to support public education.

The Board Foundation did not immediately respond to a message, seeking comment.

Caputo-Pearl and other teacher union leaders, local and national, have fought against the rise of charter schools, asserting that they undermine public education by draining financial support from public education systems and creating an educational caste system that favors some demographic groups over others.

For Caputo-Pearl and UTLA, Deasy personified the challenge for his open support for alternatives to traditional schools.

“We are concerned about these flavor-of-the-day interventions in the school system by billionaires who think that they know things, but really don’t,” Caputo-Pearl said. “The last major intervention that Eli Broad did at LAUSD was making John Deasy superintendent. That didn’t work out too well. We’re under an FBI investigation because of John Deasy. We finally, finally have begun to make improvements to the MiSiS system that spent tens of millions of dollars and had kids out of class for weeks. We of course had the iPad fiasco. We had the beat down of moral of (Deasy’s) autocratic style across the district. Our members are telling us we don’t need another intervention from Eli Broad in LAUSD.”

So strong is UTLA’s animus toward Deasy that Caputo-Pearl said he has urged the school board in its search for Cortines’s replacement to find someone “not out of the Broad Academy.”

“John Deasy was out of the Broad Academy. A lot of the people that he brought in were out of the Broad Academy,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Broad has 120 different people across California that have come out of the Academy who are in high management positions, clearly that’s part of the game that’s being played here.”

While the foundations are formulating their charter expansion plans and UTLA is devising its counter-measures, Caputo-Pearl said he would try to establish a productive working relationship with charter school advocates, such as newly-elected board member Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school executive. He and Rodriguez have met several times.

“One of main issues I raised with him is was that we feel a big part of our strategic plan is around public school accountability and sustainability,” Caputo-Pearl said. “I told him that we want to engage him this issue that all publicly-funded schools need to have common standards we need to adhere to, in terms of equity and access to all students, opportunities for parents to be genuinely involved, adherence to conflict of interest standards, financial transparency, basic common sense apple pie stuff.”

via LA School Report

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Dollars, Details And The Devil: Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms

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“Oh it’s a long, long while from May to December,” Maxwell Anderson’s great lyric tells us, “But the days go short when you reach September.” And with the Ohio legislature’s inaction on anticipated charter school reform, the classic tune also reminds us that “One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”

We already knew that while its citizens waited, the Ohio legislature left town as one festering charter school scandal after another went unaddressed.  In particular, a long-awaited piece of “reform” legislation, HB 2, proposed to address “governance, sponsorship, and management of community schools,” languishes in the wind tunnel located at Broad and High.

But maybe the Cincinnati Enquirer headline “Did dollars or details slow Ohio charter reform”? spoke volumes about the wind tunnel, calm now until September.

The proposed reform legislation would, according to the Enquirer, “prevent failing charter schools from swapping sponsors to avoid closure, require that attendance and financial records be available for inspection, force online schools to track how many hours a student is learning and eliminate conflicts of interest between those who run the schools and the groups policing them.”

The Enquirer article also points out that perhaps $91,726 in timely donations in June and July by charter school leader William Lager might have distracted Republican lawmakers from doing the right thing. After all, isn’t the devil – or is it the dollar – in the details when the subject is Ohio charter schools?

In the meantime, a close look at HB 2 – which is subject to further dissection when the legislature returns – shows that there are many other areas of governance, sponsorship, and charter school management that cry out for reform. So it should come as no surprise that, in reaction to legislative inaction, a group of concerned citizens assembled recently to assist lawmakers in doing the right thing.

In the hope (snicker) of getting some action from our legislators in September, our citizen panel decided to channel the spirit of David Letterman and compile a list of the Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms. Here are the results of our deliberative body.

#10: Cut legal exemptions

Charter schools are exempt from 150 sections of the Ohio Revised Code.

The legislature needs to eliminate at least half of these exemptions by the end of the current session. After all, if proponents like to call them “publiccharter schools,” they should be more aligned to our system of public education and therefore not need so many exemptions from laws which public schools must comply with due to their public nature. If the charter industry objects, we should not let them have it both ways. Charter proponents should stop using the term public charter schools due to their resistance to increased regulation and fewer legal exemptions. In turn, the public should start using the termcorporate charter schools to better define their nature.

#9: Management companies subject to full review by state auditor

Here’s another classic example of the charter industry having it both ways. If you receive public funds, the public has a right to see how their money is spent or misspent. Add to that the requirement that any furniture, equipment, and real estate purchased with public funds is public property, subject to liquidation at auction upon closure of the school, with the proceeds returned to the state treasury. Recall that White Hat Management took the position that such assets were corporate and not public property. JobsOhio is another example of the principle of having it both ways. Public money and the assets purchased with such funds should not be convertible to private assets through a management arrangement.

#8: Eliminate Non-Profit Sponsors

The charter industry is replete with example after example of someone or some entity having it both ways. Non-Profit charter school sponsors follow that tradition. They accept public funds for serving as charter school sponsors or authorizers but tell individuals and organizations seeking information that as non-profits, they are exempt from public records requests. As with Nos. 10 and 9, if a non-profit organization accepts public funds, it should be responsive to such requests and the same scrutiny that other types of sponsors (school district, educational service center, vocational school district, university) accept as a player in the charter industry. The public is tired of the charter world having it both ways.

#7: Celebrity endorsements and cap on advertising

This charter school reform measure is tied in with Nos. 9 and 8. Public funds should not be used to pay for endorsements to promote charter schools. Worse yet, we’ll probably never find out how much ECOT endorser Jack Hanna or anyone else might have been paid because the management companies maintain they are private entities and resist audits and requests for financial information from state regulators.

#6: Accuracy in advertising

If a rose is a rose, a charter school should be called just that. Ohio is the only one of forty states authorizing charter schools that uses the term community school rather than charter. That term by itself – used in the original legislation – is purposefully misleading. My recent article on charter names pointed out that only a handful have the word charter or community school in their official title. The same is true for television ads, where the name charter isn’t used. As the school year begins and you see and hear ads for charters, listen carefully for what you might not hear in the commercial.

The local public school is a community school and a charter is a charter.

#5: School treasurers.  There is a continuing concern about the ability of charter school treasurers to adequately perform their duties when many serve multiple schools. One former charter treasurer , sentenced to two years in prison, was said to have served as the chief financial officer of at least nine charter schools at the same time, though other treasurers have served more than that number in the past. New legislation is needed to cap the total number of schools a treasurer can serve simultaneously.

#4: Governance reform.  With more than a billion dollars in state education funds being diverted to charter schools, it’s time to require greater transparency and accountability for the use of scarce public dollars, and governance reform is one place to start.  In a previous article, I wrote this statement: “The public school district that has the largest number of its resident students enrolled should be entitled to a seat on the board. Since state funds are deducted from the foundation payments for the district’s resident students and sent to the charter school where the student is enrolled, the district is entitled to monitor the performance and operation of the school, particularly when many of these students return to the district at some point.” In addition, lawmakers should require authorizer and parent representatives to be members of the board, with the parent seat filled by an individual selected at an annual meeting of the school parents. An additional part of governance reform would be to require all board members to be registered with the Office of Secretary of State, as is the case with other public school board members.

#3: Administrative qualifications. Incredibly, there are no minimum educational or professional licensure requirements for charter school administrators. This situation needs to be addressed immediately if all charter reform efforts are to be viewed as substantive. After all, school is about education.

#2: Citizenship requirement. In traditional school districts, board members have to be qualified voters – citizens – in order to serve as overseers of public funds. News reports in the last year have focused on one charter school chain where some of the board members and administrators may not be American citizens. If charter proponents want to emphasize the word public in the term public charter school, they should also agree that requiring American citizenship for board members is a no-brainer for the charter industry.

And the Number One Needed Charter School Reform –

Get the money out!

The influence of charter moguls David Brennan an William Lager on the Ohio Republican party are well-known. Money talks, and in charter world, money speaks loudly. Public funds – the profits gained from running privately operated schools with public money – should not be allowed to unduly influence legislators. The fact that HB 2 stalled at the very time that another $91,726 arrived to replenish state Republican campaign coffers is no coincidence.

If Mark Twain was correct when he observed that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” the absence of lawmakers at Broad and High compounds the inaction on charter reform. But if at least two of these Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms wound up being included in this year’s reform package,  that would be a small victory for the life, liberty and property of Ohioans.

What, then? Are these Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms merely pipedreams?

Hardly.

In the meantime, time’s a wasting. The days grow short when you reach September.

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.

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Big for-profit schools, big donations:

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It’s no secret that Harrisburg is a hive of lobbyists, each representing industries and interests that spend millions to persuade state lawmakers to bend laws in their favor.

But perhaps what makes the charter-school lobby unique among the pack, says State Rep. Bernie O’Neill, a Republican from Bucks County, is its ability to deploy children to its cause.

In 2014, O’Neill experienced that first hand after proposing changes to a funding formula that would affect charter schools. Parents and children stormed his office and barraged him with calls and emails.

“They were calling me the anti-Christ of everything,” O’Neill said. “Everybody was coming after me.”

In recent years, as charter schools have proliferated – particularly those run by for-profit management companies – so too has their influence on legislators. In few other places has that been more true than Pennsylvania, which is one of only 11 states that has no limits on campaign contributions from PACs or individuals.

According to a PennLive analysis of donations on Follow The Money, a campaign donation database, charter school advocates have donated more than $10 million to Pennsylvania politicians over the past nine years.

To be sure, charter-school advocacy groups aren’t the only ones spending big to influence education policy in the Keystone State. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 170,000 teachers and related professionals, has spent about $8.3 million over the same time period according to Follow The Money.

But what perhaps makes the influx of money from charter-school groups unique in Pennsylvania is the magnitude of spending by only a handful of donors and, in recent years, some of their high-profile successes in moving and blocking legislation.

“They are mobilized,” O’Neill said. “Let me tell you something: they are mobilized.”

Big schools, big donations

In Pennsylvania, a charter school has to be set up as a non-profit. However, a charter-school company can get around that by setting up a foundation to file the application and then contracting with the foundation to run the school.

While not all charter schools in Pennsylvania are run by for-profit management organizations, many are.

Jessie Ramey, a historian of social policy based in Pittsburgh, said there’s little doubt that charter schools have become big business in Pennsylvania as they have in many states.

For both investors and charter-school managers, as the industry has become more valuable so too has protecting their interests.

“These are big players who have a lot of money,” she said. “And they are playing big Harrisburg politics.”

Among one of the lobby’s biggest donors is Vahan Gureghian, the CEO of CSMI, which manages the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County. According to Follow The Money, Gureghian pumped $336,000 into the campaign coffers of former Gov. Tom Corbett – making him his second largest individual donor over his gubernatorial career.

Gureghian has also donated close to a million to other Pennsylvania politicians and PACs.

Meanwhile, the American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports the growth of charter schools and “school voucher” legislation, has pumped in $3.7 million to Pennsylavania lawmakers. A trio of investors in Montgomery County – Joel Greenberg, Jeffrey Yass, and Arthur Dantchik – have donated about $4 million under a PAC dedicated to similar aims.

Collectively those donations have been spread across scores of Pennsylvania politicians. Generally, that money has flowed to a greater number of Republican candidates but Democrats also have been big recipients.

The biggest recipient of all, by far, is State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat with ties to the charter-school sector. Williams has collected $6 million in donations, the bulk of which came during his 2010 bid for governor. Williams finished third in the Democratic primary, with only 18 percent of the vote, but remains a leading member on the Senate’s education committee.

Bills and appointments

Lawrence Feinberg, founder and co-chair of Keystone State Education Coalition, an advocacy group for traditional public education, said it was easy to see a pattern between donations to lawmakers from the lobby and subsequent votes or actions by lawmakers.

After he was elected governor in 2010, Corbett appointed Vahan Gureghian to two posts on his gubernatorial transition team – a group that plays a critical role in shaping the agenda of an incoming administration. Gureghian was appointed to Corbett’s education committee and as co-chair of his transportation committee.

In his first year of office, Corbett made the passage of a school “voucher system” for Pennsylvania a key priority. Under a voucher system, a parent is issued a certificate, a so-called voucher, which parents of a student can direct toward the school of their choosing – be it inside or outside their district. The legislation is considered part of the “school choice” movement, which shares similar goals and ideological ground as charter school advocates.

Corbett was ultimately unsuccessful in passing that voucher bill, but in 2012 he and other school reformers were able to pass something similar: An expansion of a tax program, called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, that increased money for scholarships for students to attend schools outside their district.

“So the EITC was probably the major thing, the major thing they’ve impacted,” Feinberg said, referring to school reform advocacy groups.

But Feinberg said signs of the lobby’s influence were often subtler.

For instance, he said, language in 2012 was added to a bill that would have shielded charter school operators from disclosing financial information under the state’s public disclosure laws. Philadelphia Magazine reported that the amendment was pushed by Gureghian. The bill ultimately never got off the ground.

One of the more notable examples of the lobby’s potential influence, Feinberg said, occurred around 2012. The Department of Education was investigating four charter schools and 10 school districts for testing irregularities in 2009, 2010, and 2011, including Gureghian’s schools in Chester County. The state found a statistically improbable number of answers had been erased and changed to correct answers.

The state ultimately let Gureghian’s company investigate itself in 2012 and, after its internal investigation proved inconclusive, the state dropped its own investigation. That wasn’t the case for other schools.

“That’s how powerful they are,” Feinberg said. “That’s an example of how powerful.”

A spokesman for CSMI did not respond to PennLive requests to interview Gureghian.

The power of inaction

Critics of the lobbying influence of charter school groups say one of the biggest goals of the lobby, more often than not, is inaction on bills that might affect them rather than action.

O’Neill, the Bucks County Republican, said he was besieged by the lobby after he co-chaired a commission that investigated flaws with how special-education students were funded. As a former special-education teacher, the issue was close to his heart.

O’Neill’s commission found that, statewide, charter schools were enrolling students with minor special-education needs, such as a hearing impairment, but not students with more expensive needs, such as an intellectual disability. That was leading to huge funding inequities in the system between charter schools and traditional public schools.

A 2014 analysis by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a media outlet that covers education, found that Pennsylvania charter schools received $350 million for special education students but spent just $156 million to meet their needs.

O’Neill’s commission recommended a new funding formula that scaled funding for special education students based on the need of the student – but charter schools vehemently objected to it.

“They’re saying, ‘If we lose this money our doors are going to close.’ ” O’Neill said. “Well then, there’s something wrong with your business model if you’re relying on keeping your doors open on the backs of special-education students.”

Before the commission was formed, O’Neill said the lobby had already tried to unseat him because of his advocacy for special education funding reform. In 2012, charter school groups poured $83,000 into the coffers of Brian Munroe, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged him.

Over 2013 and 2014, as O’Neill’s commission’s investigation progressed and its recommendations were released, O’Neill said the lobby intensified its campaign against him.

“What they do is they bring the kids out of school and mobilize them in Harrisburg,” O’Neill said. “The parents and the students believe what they’re told, whether it’s the truth or not, and they bring them by the busloads to Harrisburg and have them do rallies, you know, and have them go visit their legislator, ‘You’re trying to close my school if you do this.’

One parent told O’Neill that her child, who attended a charter school at the time, was encouraged to make posters against O’Neill.

Ultimately, the special-education funding bill was passed in 2014. But O’Neill was still frustrated by a change to it, pushed by the charter school lobby, that meant the formula would be phased in slowly for charter schools.

“So in my opinion,” O’Neill said, “they’re still ripping off the public.”

Charter schools say unions are big donors too

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, argued that while charter operators have donated to campaigns, the teacher’s union also has donated millions in recent years.

“I think it’s unfair to look at just the donations on behalf of charter schools as opposed to all the donations that go to political candidates and legislators from all elements of the public school spectrum,” he said.

Fayfich added that while his group, which represents 120 of the state’s 176 charter schools, does hire lobbyists it doesn’t make campaign donations itself. Although he is aware that charter operators and advocacy PACs do donate to lawmakers

Fayfich said, on that note, that it was worth remembering that charter school advocates are not a homogenous group.

For instance, Fayfich said, his group didn’t represent Gureghian’s company and sometimes opposed items that he lobbied for – such as his push to shield charter schools from disclosing financial information to the public.

“We think that transparency is an absolutely fundamental responsibility you have as an organization receiving public tax dollars,” he said. “So we were at odds with him on that piece of legislation.”

Ultimately, some observers say, be it concern about the spending of charter school groups or teachers unions, their influence won’t be diminished until Pennsylvania tackles the root of the problem.

The fact of the matter, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, is that the state has some of the loosest campaign finance laws in the nation.

“We are just so far behind the rest of the nation in protecting the integrity of our elections and protecting our government from the influence of political money,” Kauffman said. “No wonder people are cynical.”

Via Pennlive

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Los Angeles Charter Onslaught

17470880-mmmainLast Friday, the LA Times brought the news that “a major charter expansion” is “in the works for LA Unified students.”  It might have also noted that the expansion was in the works for parents and taxpayers, but I suppose that’s not as powerful as noting that this is For The Children.

But the lede will give you an idea of whence this wind is blowing:

A prominent local education foundation is discussing a major expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles aimed at boosting academic achievement for students at the lowest performing campuses.

The prominent foundation is, of course, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, though apparently the folks at Keck and Walton are in on this, too, and my hat is once again off to folks who have the chutzpah to unilaterally declare themselves the head of a previously-democratic sector of society. Did somebody elect the Broad Foundation to the school board of the LA USD? No? Well, why let that stop them from going ahead and setting policy. I think I may go ahead and declare myself the chief of police here in my town, stop down to City Hall, and let them know what the new policies are going to be.

“People have been demanding better public schools forever and not getting them,” said Swati Pandey, a spokeswoman for the foundation.”But we say, screw public schools– let’s just replace them with privately owned and operated charters.” Ha! Okay, she’s only quoted as saying that first part. I filled in the rest for her.

Folks who have attended the meetings about this unelected initiative have shared other tidbits, like a goal to enroll half of all LA students in charters over the next eight years. There also seemed to be a lot of looking at maps of where all the students trapped in failing schools are, and discussing how to get charters operating for those students.

Although they note that “an ambitious expansion of charter schools would be costly and would likely face a political fight,” there’s no indication of a discussion about the relative expense of supporting and improving those public schools as compared to the expensive charter-launching approach.

There’s also no indication that any part of this conversation was held with the actual public school system. LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer, whatever his faults, has a quote in the article that shows he understands the problem.

“The most critical concern would be the collateral damage to the children left behind,” he said.

Because this charter plan for a huger private school system (and all the major players, from Green Dot to ICEF are apparently in on this) would get its operating expenses by stripping resources from the public system.

And if you’re a fan of LA school foolishness, you’ll love this final line from the Times article:

The foundation declined to discuss what role, if any, Deasy is playing in the new effort.

Yesterday, the LA School School Report followed up on this “bombshell story” by getting Broad to offer some non-clarification clarification. The foundation sent an email saying, “Some schools bad. All students should have the benefit of contributing to the financial health of a privately operated charter school.” I’m paraphrasing.

Because when you are announcing your intention to launch a hostile takeover of the entire public school system in a major city (or at least a takeover of its funding), the last thing you need to do is clarify yourself to the taxpayers, voters, elected officials, parents, and all those other little people that you don’t have to answer to.

Via Curmudgucation

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Money Talks, Reform Walks: Ohio Fails to Fix Its Nationally Ridiculed Charter School System

281836_5_Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, center, participates in a round table discussion on school choice with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, at Carpe Diem-Aiken, a tuition-free public charter school, Friday, May 16, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

RCEd Commentary by Stephen Dyer

It wasn’t long ago when I wrote here that while there was much hope for reforming Ohio’s nationally ridiculed charter school system, there remained major hurdles – specifically the politically powerful for-profit, poor performing charter school lobby.

Well, it appears that the poor-performing charter school sector has again won the day. A substantive, meaningful reform package that passed unanimously out of the Ohio Senate late last month wasn’t even taken up by the Ohio House in time for the summer recess, even though there were the votes to pass it.

This means the bipartisan, well-thought out Senate package won’t be taken up again (if at all) until the fall, delaying many of the reforms until the 2016-2017 school year at the earliest.

This is a bad setback for the national charter school quality movement. While other states have successfully tightened their laws, Ohio – the “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools – remains the same national embarrassment it’s always been. The hope had been that if Ohio can become a quality-based state, any state could do it.

But instead, Ohio’s story serves as a warning to those who care about quality school choice: If the forces pushing choice over quality are allowed unchallenged political access, as it has been in Ohio, then quality will lose. Always.

Don’t believe me?

Ohio had its largest teachers unions, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Students First, more conservative advocates, more liberal advocates like mine, Innovation Ohio, and editorial pages all agreeing that charter school reform had to happen. Yet it didn’t.

The Real Politick of Ohio charter school reform stems from big campaign contributors William Lager, who runs the nation’s largest for-profit school – the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow – and David Brennan, who runs White Hat Management, which also has an E-School – OHDELA. Between them, they’ve given about $6 million to politicians since the charter school program began. In return, they’ve collected one out of every four state charter school dollars ever spent.

I’ve seen these guys’ legislative influence firsthand when I served two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. No lobby in Ohio is more powerful, especially considering how poorly their schools perform.

The Ohio bill would have done several positive things. It would have had the state (for the first time) keep track of operators and have them account for how they spend money running charter schools. It would have prevented failing charter schools from seeking new authorizers without the authorizer vouching for the school at the state’s Department of Education. It would have prevented charter school board members from sitting on the board if they ran companies that had business dealings with the school. It would have ensured far better transparency.

The bill would fixed much of what is widely acknowledged as a failed charter school system where failing schools thrive and excellent schools languish. More than half the money sent to Ohio charter schools comes from the same or higher performing school districts. And charter schools received more Fs on the last state report card than As, Bs and Cs combined.

CREDO studied Ohio’s system and found that children in charters are significantly behind their local public school peers. Meanwhile, a recent examination of state audits found that no sector misspends money like charter schools.

Despite all this effort, we must work harder to bring needed change to Ohio’s charter school system.

We need to continue forcefully making the public case for reform, as well as talking beyond the current bill. I outlined in my earlier post a way for the state to create a charter school market that financially rewards success and punishes failure, as well as shortening the time failing schools can operate here.

But more than anything, we in the quality-based charter school movement need someone, or a group of someones, willing to invest in political candidates who care about quality school choices.

For in Ohio, the lesson is simple: Without campaign money, even the best, most common sense charter school policies won’t pass. It is a hard lesson in Real Politick. To many of us in education policy, it’s anathema to how we work. For to us, ideas always trump money.

But in Ohio and other places where quality means less to legislatures and governors than choice, we must remove the weeds so our garden and – most importantly – our children can bloom.

And in politics, the best weed killer is money.

I’ll never forget one of my mentor’s favorite sayings: “If they’re getting away with it, it’s your fault.”

Indeed.

charter-school-accountabilityOhio_map

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