Roll Up the Failed Charter School Experiment

24 Nov

This month the, NPE (Network for Public Education) released a stunning report called “Charters and Consequences.” NPE Executive Director Carol Burris stated, “… nearly every day brings a story, often reported only in local newspapers, about charter mismanagement, failure, nepotism or outright theft and fraud.” About the report she writes, “This report … is the result of a year-long exploration of the effects of charter schools and the issues that surround them.”

This 50-page report’s conclusion is shared on the last page:

For all of the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support. If the strength of charter schools is the freedom to innovate, then that same freedom can be offered to public schools by the district or the state.

“At the same time, we recognize that many families have come to depend on charter schools and that many charter school teachers are dedicated professionals who serve their students well. It is also true that some charter schools are successful. We do not, therefore, call for the immediate closure of all charter schools, but rather we advocate for their eventual absorption into the public school system. We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards, but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level.”

The Charter School System is Not Sustainable

The report begins with a relatively deep dive into the wild west of charter schools, California. It summarizes:

“Everyone I spoke with accepted that charters have a place in the state, and in many instances, they acknowledged that charters serve children well.  However, all had deep concerns about the lack of charter transparency, accountability, and their fiscal impact on public schools.”

NPE held a conference in Oakland this past October. One breakout session was titled, “Holding the Line, Fighting Charter Growth in Oakland, CA.” The presenters explained why they view charter expansion as an existential threat to public education.

Shelly Weintraub introduced the four members of the expert panel starting with herself:

“I taught in Oakland for 15 years and then coordinated the history social science program for the next 20.

“Jan [Malvin] was a researcher from the University of California and a parent activist who helped gather a lot of data for our presentation.

“Alison [McDonald] taught with me at Fremont High. She became a principal of a small school called Life Academy, and then went on to become the assistant superintendent in charge of all the high schools in our district.

“Renee [Swayne] was an elementary teacher, focusing on 3rd grade. She also helped to run the History-Social Science program and then taught middle school in Oakland Unified Schools.”

Chater schools by city

Weintraub used the graphic above to introduce the subject of the session:

“Why is Oakland important? We feel this graphic helps answer that question. Oakland has a larger proportion of students in charter schools than any other large urban district in California. …. That’s why we fear that we’re reaching a tipping point, beyond which our district will no longer be able to exist as a viable school district.”

She explained:

“Many costs associated with the student stay with the district – for example, the cost of the school itself or the maintenance of the facility. The cost that remains is sometimes referred to as a “stranded cost.” Researchers in other areas have estimated that the stranded cost to a district of a student’s departure can be almost 50%. Thus, Oakland’s huge proportion of charters is leaving us with immense debt that likely means school closures, staff reductions, and more.”

The bottom line is that adding a privately-operated charter school system to public education drives up costs and introduces inefficiencies into the system. As a result, the vast majority of children who attend public schools in cities like Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles have their resources reduced (mainly by larger class sizes and reduced facilities maintenance) to cover the unreimbursed costs engendered by charter school expansion.

Big Profits, Big Salaries and Marketing

“Charters and Consequences” documents the rise of the mall schools:

“In addition, running independent learning centers can be very lucrative. One of San Diego County’s largest networks of independent learning centers is the Altus Institute. It advertises on billboards and runs ads in movie theaters and on television.  Altus operates Audeo Charter, Audeo Charter II, the Charter School of San Diego and Laurel Academy. It has a total K-12 enrollment of about 3,000 students and takes in tens of millions of dollars in state and federal revenue.”

Charter administration pay is amazing. From the report:

“In 2014 compensation for Altus Institute president Mary Bixby was $371,160—exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students. Bixby, a board member of the charters and a full-time employee of one of the schools, also receives compensation for being “on-loan” to two other Altus schools. Such obvious conflicts of interest would be illegal in a public school.”

These mall schools have terrible graduation rates and students that do graduate may have cheated their way to a diploma. One of the big money-making schemes of the last decade is “credit recovery” at learning centers. America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and then drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007. Astoundingly, even with increased graduation requirements rates have shot up.

In 2016, over 83% of California’s freshman cohort graduated on time. In 2012, 81% of the freshman cohort in America graduated on time. These record setting numbers are the result of cheating and credit recovery.

Because of political connections, these absurd practices are not being checked. For example, in 2015, billionaire Penny Pritzker, then Secretary of Commerce, presented Mary Bixby the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award which recognizes U.S. organizations in the business, health care, education, and nonprofit sectors for performance excellence. Naturally, the award is a marketing tool for Bixby’s schools.

Mary Bixby’s salary looks inflated next to a public-school administrator, but others in the charter school industry are making much more as documented in the report:

“In 2014, KIPP co-founder, David Levin received a compensation package of nearly $475,000 from the Foundation. Co-founder Mike Feinberg received $219,596 from KIPP Inc., which manages the Houston charters, and still another $221,461 from the KIPP Foundation. According to the organization’s 990s, Feinberg works 50 hours a week for the Houston Schools, plus 40 hours a week for the Foundation—clearly an impossibility.”

In New York city, Eva Moskowitz runs the Success Academy system of charter schools. Based on test scores, her schools have pundits praising them as miracle schools. No accolade seems too grandiose for the schools run by this former New York City Councilman and Democrat. Moskowitz has cashed in. From the report,

“Levin’s and Feinberg’s salaries are dwarfed, however, when compared with the compensation package of Success Academy’s Eva Moscowitz, who received $600,000 in 2014 as the CEO of 41 charter schools.”

The profits at cyber charters are enormous as this antidote illustrates:

“Profits can become so lucrative, that Pennsylvania Cyber Charter founder, Nick Trombetta was able to siphon off $8 million dollars of taxpayer dollars for extravagant homes and an airplane. When Trombetta was finally arrested, it was not for the exorbitant profits, which were legal, but for tax fraud.”

Newsweek and the Washington Post regularly list Arizona’s Basis schools as the best schools in America. With this kind of publicity, the Basis owners get away with paying their management company, which they own, outsized fees. From the paper:

“BASIS General Administrative costs alone amounted to nearly $12 million for less than 9,000 students, while the six largest public school districts serve a quarter million students for less than $10 million in General Administrative costs.”

The Key to Success in Charters is Not Great Pedagogy – It’s Creaming

Both Basis Schools and Success Academy use the same tactics. Set up methods to selectively enroll more desired students, drive out students that do not meet expectations and do not accept new students into a cohort. See the following tabular evidence prepared from data in the NPE report.

Basis and Success Academy

On Wednesday (November 22), the New Orleans Tribune ran a scathing editorial about the complete failure and the fraudulent imposition of the post Katrina Recovery School District (RSD). The editorial cites the same tactics Basis and Success Academy use as tools employed to venerate some RSD schools. The editor writes:

“We know the truth. Schools like Benjamin Franklin, Lusher, Warren Easton and a few others have always been top performers. They were the schools OPSB were left with after the reformers pillaged and plundered. Decades before Katrina, long before the RSD and even before high-stakes testing became the order of the day, these schools benefited from selective admission processes and extraordinary resources that were not available at many other public schools in the city.”

“So that Lusher and Ben Franklin are two of the top 10 schools in the state does little to impress us. When these campuses get to cherry-pick who they want to educate and weed out others, it becomes a lot easier to get results.”

The Charter School Experiment Failed and It is Time for Change

The New Orleans Times editorial summarizes the after Katrina reality:

“To be sure, some of the same media outlets finally reporting the near truth about the failure of these schools as if it is some eye-opener have been some of the same outlets responsible for driving the false narrative of the reform’s success by either suppressing the truth or pushing falsehoods.”

And continues:

“It’s been 12 years since our schools were hijacked. And 12 years later, many of them are performing just as poorly as they were before they were stolen. To learn that charter operators set up goals they knew were unattainable just to get their charters approved and their hands on public money and facilities is indefensible.”

Public education in America is one of the world’s great success stories. A combination of foolishness, arrogance and greed led to a continuous drumbeat of slander for America’s pillar of democracy, equity and freedom. This nonsense has opened the door to harm for our country and its values. We must again embrace democracy when governing education paid for by public dollars and reject totalitarian schemes. After all, democracy is one of the great American values, if we lose that we lose America.

The NPE paper “Charters and Consequences” is an honest, unbiased study that should be read and shared widely. We should all embrace the papers concluding call for legislative action to institute the following:

  • An immediate moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, including no replication or expansion of existing charter schools.
  • The transformation of for-profit charters to non-profit charters.
  • The transformation of for-profit management organizations to non-profit management organizations.
  • All due process rights for charter students that are afforded public school students, in all matters of discipline.
  • Required certification of all school teaching and administrative staff.
  • Complete transparency in all expenditures and income.
  • Requirements that student bodies reflect the demographics of the served community.
  • Open meetings of the board of directors, posted at least 2 weeks prior on the charter’s website.
  • Annual audits available to the public.
  • Requirements to follow bidding laws and regulations.
  • Requirements that all properties owned by the charter school become the property of the local public school if the charter closes.
  • Requirements that all charter facilities meet building codes.
  • Requirements that charters offer free or reduced-price lunch programs for students.
  • Full compensation from the state for all expenditures incurred when a student leaves the public school to attend a charter.
  • Authorization, oversight and renewal of charters transferred to the local district in which they are located.
  • A rejection of all ALEC legislation regarding charter schools that advocates for less transparency, less accountability, and the removal of requirements for teacher certification.

“Until charter schools become true public schools, the Network for Public Education will continue to consider them to be private schools that take public funding.”

2 Responses to “Roll Up the Failed Charter School Experiment”

  1. ciedie aech November 26, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

    I have always felt that the general public simply can’t do math. If you strategically eliminate those students who might not graduate from your schools through a series of test-score tactics and through the creation of charters/choice, you will then produce the “higher percent” of students who WILL graduate inside your schools — a percent for which President Obama received so much credit and for which he is still lauded.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thomas Ultican: Roll Up the Failed Charter Experiment | Diane Ravitch's blog - December 1, 2017

    […] Ultican writes that it is time to give up on the failed charter experiment. He reviews Carol Burris’ Charters and […]

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