Open Letter to the California Charter Schools Association

26 May

To: Steven Baratte, Managing Director, Communications, Southern California, California Charter Schools Association (CCSA)

Reference: Your May 21, 2018, email message to San Diego Free Press (SDFP)

Your message began, “I am the managing director of communications in Southern California for the California Charter Schools Association and wanted to introduce myself because I have seen an increase of charter-related stories on your website.” Then you claim without evidence, “Many of the stories contain inaccuracies about California charter schools and perpetuate falsehoods.”

Mr. Baratte, don’t you think a serious claim like this deserves a little evidence; a few examples? Every charter school article in SDFP has been rigorously documented and provides hot links to the documentation. One might disagree with the conclusions, but the evidence presented is accurate and well-sourced.

Furthermore, the writers of these articles are not paid. They, unlike paid employees of the CCSA, have no dog in this hunt. Evidence informs them that public education is under assault by the same anti-public-school and pro-privatization forces who created your organization. There is a shared belief among these writers that public schools are an irreplaceable foundation for our amazing democratic form of government. Furthermore, losing them would invite a dystopian future.

You write,

“While I think we can have differences of opinions on the value of charter schools, I also think we all want honest and accurate journalism. Most notably, in California, charter schools are free, public, and open to all.”

Unfortunately, charter schools have become profit centers for real estate developers and charter management organizations. Instead of fulfilling their original mission to be education innovators, they have too often become fraud infested enterprises lusting after tax dollars. It did not have to be this way.

San Diego Schools

San Diego Schools Map Created Using Fordham Foundation School Mapping Tool.

Here is some honest accuracy. Charter schools are not public schools and though theoretically open to all, they have a well-documented history of avoiding more costly students. A 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics supports that claim. This month an even more definitive report published by In The Public Interest was written by University of Oregon’s Professor Gordon Lafer. He offered this example,

“In 2015-16, for instance, charter schools accounted for 28 percent of all Oakland-area students (that is, all students who lived within the district boundaries and attended either charter schools or traditional public schools), and thus, under California’s special education funding model, received 28 percent of all special education funding for Oakland-area students. But they enrolled far less than their share of Oakland-area special needs students—just 19 percent of the total. The imbalance is yet more extreme in the most serious categories of special need. Of the total number of emotionally disturbed students attending either charter or traditional public schools in Oakland, charter schools served only 15 percent. They served only eight percent of all autistic students, and just two percent of students with multiple disabilities.”

Oakland Special Education funding

Calling charter-schools public-schools is false. It is political spin. That is too nice. It is a lie.

When the city of San Diego contracts with a construction company to repair roads, that company is still a private company. When the state of California approves a contract, known as a charter, with a private company to educate students, the company gets paid with tax dollars. It is still a private company and is not required to comply with open meeting laws, elected school boards, much of the state education code and budget transparency like a public school. They are private businesses.

You continue,

“To lump them in with, or call them, private schools is a disservice to those who could benefit from a public charter school and is wrong. And to suggest they are being privatized is also inaccurate. In California, all but a handful of charter schools are non-profits.  We are working on legislation to make all charters in California non-profit.”

Whether they are for-profit or non-profit they are private companies and the distinction between for-profit and non-profit is quite obscure. For example, Mary Bixby, San Diego’s pioneer in the strip mall charter school business, puts children at computers running education software. Very little personal teacher-student interaction takes place but teenagers who don’t like to get up in the morning can go to the strip mall and earn credits toward graduation. In 2015, the non-profit Mary founded paid her a “salary” of $340,810 and her daughter Tiffany Yandell received $135,947.

There probably are some students who benefit from charter schools, but that benefit means students in public school lose. The state attendance money follows the student to the charter school, but the costs don’t all go along. Professor Lafer’s study shows that the lasting impact per student is almost $5,000 dollars or more. In April, Hellen Ladd and John Singleton of Duke University presented a paper documenting similar outcomes in North Carolina. A study at Syracuse University by Robert Bifulco and Randall Reback also reported similar results in New York.

The following chart from Professor Lafer’s report presents the documented impacts experienced by three California school districts including San Diego Unified.

Cost of losing charter students

This chart says that every time a student in San Diego leaves the district there are less per-student resources available for those who remain. It costs more to finance two systems, plus many inefficiencies are introduced.

Isn’t CCSA a Political Organization Representing Wealth Elites and Charter School Operators Supporting School Privatization?

Mr. Barratte, you explained in your message, “They [charter schools] are authorized by school districts, county offices of education, or the state and are accountable to them, their parents and students.”

To address this statement, let me first introduce Carol Burris who retired from an award-winning career as a New York school administrator. She is the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), a coalition of teachers, parents and students working to preserve public education in America. Burris conducted a yearlong study of the California Charter School Industry and last year, published a lengthy report called Charters and Consequences. She noted,

“CCSA does not disclose its funders on its website nor on its 990 form, but given its Board of Directors, who makes the list of big donors is not difficult to guess.

 “The 2017 Board of Directors include New York’s DFER founder, Joe Williams, a director of the Walton Education Coalition; Gregory McGinty, the Executive Director of Policy for the Broad Foundation; Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the Hastings Fund; and Christopher Nelson, the Managing Director of the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund. Prior Board members include Reed Hastings of Netflix and Carrie Walton Penner, heir to the Walmart fortune.

 “The real power, however, sits in CCSA’s related organization, CCSA Advocates, a not-for-profit 501(c)(4) whose mission is to increase the political clout of charter schools on local school boards, on county boards, and in Sacramento. It is at all three levels that charters can be authorized in the state.”

In 2016, CCSA Advocates changed the nature of the San Diego county board of education elections by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into it. Previously it was a low-profile election in which local education professionals with small campaign budgets ran for seats on the board. CCSA succeeded in replacing two board members that they viewed as unfriendly to charter schools.

Now, CCSA Advocates is putting $162,000 behind Eric Lund’s bid to unseat incumbent Alicia Munoz and sending another $162,000 to support Cheryl James-Ward over incumbent Rick Shea. James-Ward is a charter school advocate and wife of ex-San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Randy Ward who trained at the infamous Broad academy. Like many Broad trained administrators, Ward is facing legal issues over money he awarded himself while in the Superintendent’s position.

The San Diego Union ran an issues piece in which Lund and Munoz answered a set of identical questions. The charter schools question read,

“The County Office of Education has been caught up in disputes over charter school authorizations, with some arguing that it has been hostile to applications at the behest of teachers unions which oppose charters. How do you think the county office has handled this issue?”

The CCSA supported candidate, Eric Lund, replied,

“Special-interest teachers unions are engaged in a full assault on great education in our county. They favor teachers before our kids by not assessing fairly each school that comes before the county Board of Education.

 “Past votes related to public charter schools have been directly along the lines of board members supported by unions. This demonstrates that special-interest teachers unions are controlling the board to block charter schools throughout San Diego. This is not in the interest of, or good for, our families and children.”

 Did Lund really say that teachers are against great education? Wow!

Munoz answered,

“A significant responsibility of County Boards of Education is to hold hearings on charter school appeals that have previously been denied by local school districts. The County Board of Education is not hostile to charter schools. In the last four years, the county board has approved one countywide charter application and three appeals. In addition, the board upheld one revocation and denied three appeals.

“The Education Code clearly spells out the criteria County Boards of Education must consider when deciding whether to approve or deny a charter school appeal. To arrive at an informed decision, the board relies on staff recommendations that are derived from hundreds of hours of work reviewing applications and evaluates each appeal based on educational and financial obligations. As public elected officials, board members have the fiduciary duty to protect the county office from financial liabilities, which is an important consideration in the appeal process.”

Does CCSA want rubber stamps for charter schools serving on school boards? It looks that way. Someone looking to protect children and the tax paying public is not appreciated. CCSA will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get rid of them.

Burris reporting about CCSA money said, “Although it is a membership organization, only $1.6 million dollars came from charter school dues.” The rest of the greater than $22 million came from deep pockets (2014 data). When it comes to the California Charter School Association Advocates, the contributions can be verified and are jaw dropping. Since January 2017, nine people have donated more than $10 million dollars to CCSA Advocates and that is just the ones I found in a few hours poking around the state of California major donors data base.

Table of Billionaire Contributions

Nine Wealthy Elites Not from San Diego Who Powerfully Influence Local Elections

While poking around, I noticed that Reed Hastings contributed $2,000 to San Diego Assembly Women Shirley Weber. The note accompanying the donation says, “MADE THROUGH INTERMEDIARY CCSA ADVOCATES FOR GREAT PUBLIC SCHOOLS, FPPC ID# 1392154, 2350 KERNER BLVD., SUITE 250 SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901.” Maybe this donation helps us understand why she is so opposed to teachers having job protections such as due process and seniority rights.

One of the charter authorization appeals that county school board turned down was from College Preparatory Middle School (CPMS). The school in a church basement that was authorized by Steve Van Zant and the Mountain Empire School District. In 2016, Van Zant pleaded guilty to felony charges related to kickbacks. Concurrently the local school district went to court to stop satellite districts like Mountain Empire from authorizing schools out of their own district and won.

CCSA spent more than $70 thousand dollars defending CPMS. In a related case you defended the Van Zant style out-of-district charter authorizations saying, “This ruling will also impact students and parents who attend the resource centers by requiring them to travel longer distances or change programs, in some cases.”

At the same time this charter school scandal was occurring, CPMS was proposing a new school site with a suspicious sounding real estate plan. The San Diego Union explained,

“Under the financial arrangement, a Utah charter school developer and a Delaware subsidiary of a real estate trust headquartered in Missouri would finance the project with millions of California education dollars. College Prep would lease the new campus from the financiers for more than $620,000 a year, or 9.5 percent of the project cost. The charter could buy the campus after five years for 125 percent of the projected $6.8 million cost of the project.”

When seeking a new authorization authority to replace Mountain Empire School district, CPMS was rejected by the La Mesa-Spring Valley school district. It appealed to the county, but staff at the county concluded the proposal was not sound. The County Board of Education turned down the appeal. In March the San Diego Union reported that the California state board of education had authorized the CPMS charter by a vote of 9 to 2.

The Union Tribune report continued,

“School co-founder Mitch Miller said the next step for College Prep is building a larger school on land at 10269 Madrid Way in Spring Valley.

“Miller said construction would take about nine months, with the hope the school would open in January 2019 or shortly thereafter. The school will stay housed in La Mesa until the Spring Valley campus is ready.”

The charter school authorization process with multiple levels of authorization does not offer real protection, supervision or accountability for charter schools. I think we need a moratorium on charter schools while we put them all under the supervision of an elected school board. Only locally elected school boards should be allowed to authorize charter schools and they should operate under the rules of public entities supported by tax dollars.

Mr. Baratte, I see that you are on the board of a newly minted charter school in Linda Vista. You did not make the list of the top ten compensated employees at CCSA; all receiving more than $150,000 per year. However, you are doing well enough to donate $1,000 yearly to the Voice of San Diego. When a person’s large income is at stake, convincing them that what they are doing is wrong is not easy, but destroying public education in America is wrong. And that is what the charter industry is doing.

8 Responses to “Open Letter to the California Charter Schools Association”

  1. Dan Benson (@ddb) May 29, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

    Great read! One typo — “Weather they are for-profit”

    • tultican May 29, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

      Thanks.

      • id4860227.lyfvx.website June 22, 2018 at 8:02 am #

        What ?

  2. id3740224.nongl.website June 22, 2018 at 8:02 am #

    What ?

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