Tag Archives: charter schools

It’s Only Money…

There have been some truly jaw-dropping revelations coming from recent Congressional hearings–but most have been overshadowed by the continuing dramas of Trump’s refusal to produce documents demanded by Congress and Barr’s evident fabrications about the Mueller Report.

This one is particularly maddening, if only because allowing clueless Betsy DeVos to run anything–let alone the Department of Education–is infuriating.

In this article in Common Dreams, Jeff Bryant offers one particular example of DeVos’ overwhelming incapacity:

During a series of recent congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had to respond to a recent report finding the U.S. Department of Education has been scammed for hundreds of millions of dollars by fraudulent or mismanaged charter schools. Her responses reveal not only her inability to counter legitimate concerns over the spread of charter schools but also the charter school industry’s resistance to honestly address a chronic problem with its schools.

The report, which I co-authored with Network for Public Education Executive Director Carol Burris, found that up to $1 billion awarded by the federal government’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) went to charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, and fraud. Our calculation was that a least a third of the $4.1 billion spent by the CSP was wasted.

Members of Congress repeatedly referred to these findings when questioning the secretary’s management of charter school grants and her proposal to increase funding for the program to $500 million annually. In response, DeVos first attempted to deny the problem, saying, “You are always going to have schools that don’t make it.”

When her “some schools won’t make it” excuse didn’t seem to convince those doing the questioning, DeVos insisted that the country needs “more charter schools, not less.” And when she was unable to explain her department’s obvious inability to properly monitor the charter grant program, she attacked the authors of the report, claiming that they had a “political agenda.” (She was also unable to provide any evidence that their conclusions were inaccurate.)

Following the hearing at which the monetary losses were explored, the Network for Public Education wrote an open letter to DeVos, in which they pointed out that 250 charter schools in DeVos home state of Michigan had received grant money between 2006 and 2014, and that 109 of those–or 42%–had either closed or never opened, wasting more than $20 million dollars. Despite this abysmal result,  DeVos’ DOE gave Michigan $47,222,222 in 2018 for the express purpose of starting up or expanding charters.

It isn’t only Michigan.

In Ohio, of the roughly 290 charter schools that received federal grants from the CSP during the same time period, 117 schools, 40 percent, also never opened or are now closed. The amount of waste to taxpayers totals $35,926,693.

In Louisiana, 51 of the 110 charter schools, 46 percent, that received funding through the CSP failed.

In California, of the more than 780 charter schools that received grant funds, 297 schools, 38 percent, closed or never opened, resulting in $103,467,332 in wasted education funds.

In Florida, of the some 500 schools getting federal grants, 184 schools, 36 percent, never opened or closed, representing a loss of $34,781,736 in lost federal tax dollars.

It is only fair to point out that this is not evidence that charter schools are all substandard or fraudulent. There are plenty of perfectly good charters, just as there are (propaganda to the contrary) plenty of perfectly good public schools. The data tends to show that overall, charters (which are public schools) perform pretty much the way traditional public schools perform.

Private schools that accept vouchers are another matter.

What this situation does unequivocally demonstrate is that, under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has abandoned oversight, thanks largely to her cozy relationship with for-profit “educators” and her fixation on privatizing  public education.

Under DeVos, DOE is wasting billions of dollars that could be used to actually improve public education.

Her protector and fellow ideologue, Mike Pence, must be so proud…..

 

Normalizing Segregation

George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama,  is most remembered for his defiant opposition to school integration, and his statement “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Reading about his efforts today, we tend to assign him to the wrong side of history and dismiss him, but I’m beginning to worry  that his statement was more predictive than defiant.

A few days ago, I blogged about some illuminating, if troubling, research into the effects of geography on social attitudes. I’m only a few chapters into The Space Between Us, but it has already confirmed what most of thoughtful people realize: the more physically segregated different populations are, the more wary and distrustful of each other they are likely to be.

And let’s face it; America remains segregated. Especially when it comes to blacks and whites, we worship separately, we live in different city neighborhoods, and sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, our children still attend different schools. The institutional arrangements may have changed, but in far too many cases, the results have not.

A recent Brookings Institution report describes how the charter school movement–despite its best intentions–is accommodating itself to racial segregation.

Charter schools didn’t create segregation, but the charter school movement isn’t helping to end it either.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must never adjust ourselves to racial segregation,” he wasn’t suggesting that black kids need white kids and teachers in the classroom with them to learn. King was acutely aware that segregation sustains racial inequality in schools and other institutions. Education reform without an explicit attempt to dismantle the sources of inequality isn’t a moon shot toward justice; it is simply a maladjustment to injustice.

Figures available for the 2014-2015 school year disclose that over a thousand of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

In the all-charter district of New Orleans… virtually no (less than one percent) white students attend schools that have earned a “D” or “F” performance rating. But 77 percent of white students are enrolled in “A-” and “B-” rated schools, according to a new report by non-profit advocacy group Urban League of Louisiana. It is unthinkable that this situation would be tolerated if the students’ races were reversed. It is clear that segregation, and who gets a quality choice, matters.

In all fairness, the charters are simply replicating–rather than remedying–the separate but definitely not equal status of most public systems.

The average public school is 2.6 percent less white, 1.8 percent more black, 0.9 percent more Hispanic, and 0.3 percent more Asian than its surrounding neighborhood,” according to the study. No surprise there.

The segregated state of our schools helps maintain the inequitable funding that determines families’ educational options. When the government-backed Home Owner’s Loan Corporation developed color-coded maps to sort out who could receive mortgage lending, blacks who lived in the red sections of the map were not given loans. And of course, the most well-resourced schools just happen to be located in the most expensive neighborhoods.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they are actually disrupting school districts that were created to be discriminatory, and that their availability improves poor parents’ options. As the Brookings report concedes, providing children who live in segregated neighborhoods a quality education is an excellent goal (although as the research continues to show, it’s a goal as elusive for most charters as it is for too many public schools–charters offer no magic bullet).

Real reform will require us to pay attention to the sources of educational inequity–and that means addressing social ills like poverty and residential segregation. As the Brookings report put it,

In many cases, school district lines are the more potent Confederate monuments that we still need to take down.

 

Pence: Black Is White

National media outlets report that Mike Pence is again touting the virtues of “school choice.” Evidently, in the alternate reality that he and Betsy DeVos inhabit, vouchers and other “choice” programs are working wonderfully.

The evidence suggests otherwise–unless by “working,” they mean subsidizing religious schools and benefitting business’ bottom line.

Two recent reports, one from the Washington Post and another, lengthy investigation from the New York Times, convincingly rebut Pence’s sunny view of these programs. The Post article begins with the contrast between Pence’s reality and the one the rest of us inhabit:

The Trump administration has made the District’s federally mandated school voucher program Exhibit A in its campaign to allow public funds to flow to private schools. Vice President Pence has called the 13-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “case study in school choice success.”

In truth, the performance of the D.C. voucher program calls into question the wisdom of spending upward of $200 million in federal tax money on private schooling in a city where students already have many educational choices. And it’s a cautionary tale of how badly crafted voucher initiatives can hurt the very students they’re designed to help.

The article details “disappointing” student achievement, poor oversight, and a lack of available information that would allow parents to make informed choices. As a result, significant numbers of eligible families turn down the vouchers.

The Times article is a lengthy, detailed look at Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and its embrace of for-profit charter schools.

Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.

The article makes an important point: it’s impossible to understand what happened in  Michigan’s schools unless you recognize that for-profit schools aren’t in the business of education; they are in the business of business.  These charters have become “potential financial assets to outside entities, inevitably complicating their broader social missions.”

The key phrase in the above paragraph is “broader social mission.” Unlike voucher schools, which are private and inevitably siphon resources from the public system, it is possible to operate charters successfully as options within a public school system. I would argue, however, that (a) the use of for-profit entities to manage such schools is incompatible with their social mission, and (b) strict oversight by and accountability to the relevant school board is essential.

The reason we call them public schools is because they serve a critical public function.

In the absence of any credible evidence that privatizing our schools improves either educational or civic outcomes, we should direct our energies–and our tax dollars–to improving our public systems.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to School

We Americans are suckers for bumper sticker solutions to complicated problems. When it comes to education, those who don’t want to deal with the thorny issues of public education reform insist that we can sidestep contentious decisions about curriculum, resources and equity, and just give parents “choices,” by which they mean voucher programs or charter schools.

So how’s that been working out?

In Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court recently struck down a Denver charter school “initiative,” the Denver Post reported that

the district created a make-believe charter school called the Choice Scholarship Charter School that would collect the state per-pupil funds. A portion of that $6,100 per student would be sent to the student’s chosen school in the form of a check to the parent, who would use it for tuition.

It’s not enough that the virtual charter school had no buildings, employed no teachers and had no curriculum. Its students never attended a day of class. The school’s existence was to collect money for private schools.

Sixteen of the 23 private schools under the program’s 2011 pilot phase were religious in character, and 93 percent of the 271 scholarship recipients in 2011 enrolled in a religious school. Fourteen of those schools were outside of the district’s boundaries.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently compiled a report detailing current research on charters, and concluded that “While there’s little difference in the overall performance of charter schools and public schools, charters are riddled with fraud and identified with a lack of transparency that leads to more fraud.”

The problems go well beyond outright scams, however. In Tampa, the state Board of Education has voted to include a new requirement in the charter application process ­­­—  school hopefuls must now disclose which charter groups and companies they have been affiliated with in the last five years. As a member of the  Board explained, although some charter schools thrive, others have experienced recurring problems and closed.

Among them is Newpoint Tampa, which closed in 2013 after declining enrollment and financial problems. School district officials said the school’s board meetings were not being held in public or in an appropriate manner…

Earlier this year, two Newpoint charter schools in Pensacola that were run by the same management company operating the Tampa school — Newpoint Education Partners — were shut down after allegations of grade-tampering and contractual violations, the Pensacola News Journal reported.

Because of stories like these, charter school experts say placing extra scrutiny on operators is a must. The goal is to prevent those who have operated schools experiencing serious problems from opening more.

Oversight, obviously, is critical. But we’re talking about a lot of money, and political clout can counter accountability measures. In Ohio, lobbyists succeeding in delaying passage of a charter school reform measure that had broad bipartisan support. The Columbus Dispatch reported on derailment of a bill to implement significant charter-school reforms after charters had been sharply criticized both inside and outside the state.

Sources told the Dispatch that lobbyists were very active behind the scenes, especially the Batchelder Group,representing the White Hat group, a major for-profit charter-school operator run by David Brennan, an important GOP contributor.

Similar stories from other states are plentiful.

The moral of this story is not that charter schools are bad. Some are, many aren’t. Just like traditional public schools.

The moral of this story is: there aren’t easy answers or magic bullets–in education or any other policy domain. Bumper sticker solutions to complex problems often create more complex problems.

The performance of any school depends upon a large number of factors, none of which have much to do with whether the school is a charter or a traditional public school. If we really want to improve American education, we can’t avoid the hard work of defining desirable outcomes, identifying the qualities that define a good teacher, figuring out how to balance accountability with the school-level autonomy that will allow professionals to do their jobs, and ameliorating the effects of poverty that have been shown to impede learning.

The real “choice” is between fixing or abandoning our public schools.

When Will We Learn?

We Americans believe in magic bullets, in bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems.

Quick-and-easy.

Need to spur job creation? Pass “Right to Work” (for less) laws. Want to address poverty? Make the lives of poor people intolerable, so they’ll take one of those (non-existent) jobs. Want to make government more efficient? Outsource government functions to unaccountable for-profit vendors.

Are our public schools struggling? Let’s take their resources and create a parallel system.

How is that working out?

 A story that appeared at Forbes in late 2013 foretold a lot of what would emerge in 2014. That post “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express To Fat City” brought to light for the first time in a mainstream source the financial rewards that were being mined from charter schools. As author Addison Wiggin explained, a mixture of tax incentives, government programs, and Wall St. investors eager to make money were coming together to deliver a charter school bonanza – especially if the charter operation could “escape scrutiny” behind the veil of being privately held or if the charter operation could mix its business in “with other ventures that have nothing to do with education.”

As 2014 began, more stories about charter schools scandals continued to drip out from local press outlets – a chain of charter schools teaching creationism, a charter school closing abruptly for mysterious reasons, a charter high school operating as a for-profit “basketball factory,” recruiting players from around the world while delivering a sub-par education.

Here and there, stories emerged: a charter school trying to open up inside the walls of a gated community while a closed one continued to get over $2 million in taxpayer funds. Stories about charter operators being found guilty of embezzling thousands of taxpayer dollars turned into other stories about operators stealing even more thousands of dollars, which turned into even more stories about operators stealing over a million dollars.

Does all of this prove that Charter schools are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Many charters are doing exactly what they were established to do–trying new and innovative education models, focusing on particular or at-risk populations, or otherwise offering creative alternatives from which public systems can borrow.

What it does mean is that there is no quick and easy “fix” for what ails education. No panacea.

The mere fact that a school is not part of the traditional public school system is not evidence that it is a good school, or even an acceptable one. Just as there are great public schools, there are great charter schools, but charter schools are not magic bullets. Charters and (especially) voucher programs require careful supervision and oversight–and they aren’t getting that oversight, because Americans think we can outsource all our civic responsibilities.

We can’t.

At some point, that hated government must exercise responsibility.