Archive | May, 2019

A Wise and Witty Review of The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch

28 May

By T. Ultican 5/27/2019

Maybe not as witty and wise as I had hoped but definitely positive and impressed. I admit; I am a Diane Ravitch fan-boy and this latest release from Garn Press reinforces that posture. Diane is a warrior of ideas who has stood courageously against lavishly financed purveyors of reactionary ideologies. Billionaires are calling for the privatization of democratically run public schools in America and she won’t have it. This book is a compilation of a decade of her winning arguments that have gone far toward stemming the tide of the theft of America’s public schools. Billionaires call that “reform”.

Wisdom and Wit

The Fundamental Argument

America’s super-wealthy espouse a position echoing the antebellum south. The scholar Johann N. Neem’s book Democracy’s Schools; The Rise of Public Education in America notes, “Because of their political power and the way the tax burden fell largely upon them, slaveholding elites spread an antitax gospel to convince ordinary whites that taxes were a bad thing.” That same gospel is embedded in the Tea Party and other Libertarian movements.

Franklin Roosevelt became President at the height of the Great Depression. In 1935, Roosevelt signed the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance law more commonly known as Social Security. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare extension. In the Social Security administration’s history of Social Security it describes the major challenges to the free market capitalistic system that Roosevelt faced. It claims Social Security Insurance was the least disruptive alternative available to him. The history states,

Social insurance, as conceived by President Roosevelt, would address the permanent problem of economic security for the elderly by creating a work-related, contributory system in which workers would provide for their own future economic security through taxes paid while employed. Thus it was an alternative both to reliance on welfare and to radical changes in our capitalist system. In the context of its time, it can be seen as a moderately conservative, yet activist, response to the challenges of the Depression. (emphasis added)

1936 Dorothea Lange Photo

1936 Photo by Dorothea Lange

Austrian Economist Friedrich Hayek who believed in classical liberalism especially the concept that it is in the common interest that all individuals must be able to secure their own economic self-interest, without government direction. In September 1944, the University of Chicago Press published Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom. It was squarely against government programs like social security and Roosevelt’s “new deal.” Hayek was opposed to Keynesian economics which posited “that government intervention can stabilize the economy.”

In 1950, Hayek left the London School of Economics for the University of Chicago. It was there that Milton Friedman and a host of young scholars met their sole mate, Hayek. They saw government social programs as seeds for tyranny and public education was no exception.

Ravitch picks up this story in the article “Big Money Rules.” The article begins with a quote from her blog,

“Americans for Prosperity opposes all government programs. Its primary purpose is to protect the Koch billions from taxation to pay for any programs that benefit others. If it was up to the Koch Brothers, they would eliminate Social Security, Medicare, and every other social program. They are rabid libertarians who oppose taxation and government. Their interest is protecting the Koch billions, not anyone else.”

She uses data from two books, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean and Gordon Lafer’s The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

MacLean’s book tells the story of economist James M. Buchanan who is associated with the doctrine of economic libertarianism and the “public choice” model of economics. His basic argument is that bureaucrats and public officials serve their own interests. MacLean viewed Buchanan as having “a formative role” in establishing the anti-democratic “stand of the radical right.

While researching, MacLean discovered personal correspondence between Buchanan and the billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch. She found a plan “to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against Brown v. Board of Education and the changes in constitutional thought and federal policy that had enabled it.

Until the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, far right economists like Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, were viewed as part of a small fringe minority. Three of Buchanan’s first doctoral students went to work in Reagan’s administration. Buchanan and his acolytes were responding to the threats democratic institutions posed to the preservation of individual wealth.

Attacking Social Security was a big part of their agenda. Buchanan declared that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme.” In a paper for the Cato Institute he explained if “people can be led to think that they personally have no legitimate claim against the system on retirement” it will “make abandonment of the system look more attractive.” Ravitch observed, “The genius of their strategy was in describing their efforts to change government programs as ‘reforms,’ when in fact they were intended from the outset to result in their destruction.”

Gordon Lafer’s book documents the efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to advance the Koch-Buchanan agenda. Ravitch writes, “In the first decade of this century, ALEC’s leading corporate backers contributed more than $370 million to state elections, and over one hundred laws each year based on ALEC’s model bills were enacted.” Lafer stated, “For the first time ever in 2012 more than half of all income in America went to the richest 10 percent of the population.

Public education is a significant target of the super wealthy. During the first almost two decades of the twenty-first century billionaires like David and Charles Koch (Koch Industries), Bill Gates (Microsoft), the Walton family (Walmart), the DeVos family (Amway), Eli Broad (KB Homes and Sun America), John Arnold (Enron), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Doris Fisher (The Gap), Michael Dell (Dell Computers) and others have savaged public schools while labeling themselves “reformers.” Ravitch counters, “It is perfectly clear that they have no desire to “reform” our public schools but to privatize and monetize them.

Ravitch goes on to state,

“I have nothing against the wealthy. I don’t care that some people have more worldly goods than others. I understand that life’s not fair. I just harbor this feeling that a person ought to be able to get by on $100 million or so and not keep piling up riches while so many others don’t know how they will feed their children tonight.”

Battling the Wealthy and Their Talking Points with Reason and Knowledge

When I came to education in 2001, like most Americans, I was convinced that public education was in decline and that the teaching corps was poor quality and lazy. I had heard a little about a “Nation at Risk” and George Bush’s goals 2000. I remember Bill Clinton pushing charter schools and standards. I heard that the failing school system in Milwaukee was going to allow children to attend private voucher schools. But like most people, I only had a vague conception of the reality of public education and having grown up with a school teacher mom, I still believed in public education.  

By 2005, I was convinced that most of what I previously thought about education was wrong. I quickly learned that almost all of the experienced teachers I met were way better than me and really cared about their students, their schools and their profession. In graduate school, I discovered that the Reagan administration’s “A Nation at Risk” was not a peer reviewed professional article of the kind that normally came from government offices. Rather it was a polemic filled with errors promoting a particular agenda of standards and accountability.

In 2010, when I read Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System; How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, I was thrilled. A powerful voice was speaking up for public education and against the propagandistic attack. However, the veteran teacher in the classroom next door was underwhelmed. Unlike me, he had been teaching and paying close attention to education politics since 1978. He knew Ravitch as a conservative purveyor of top down standards and testing.

Ravitch admits that my colleague was right. She writes,

“By the time I left government service in January 1993, I was an advocate not only for standards but for school choice. I had come to believe that standards and choice could co-exist as they do in the private sector. With my friends Chester Finn Jr. and Joseph Viteritti, I wrote and edited books and articles making the case for charter schools and accountability.”

When Death and Life was published, Ravitch had become completely disenchanted by what she started referring to as “Corporate Education Reform.” She saw hundreds of millions invested in test-preparation while arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign language and physical education became the sad stepchildren of the tested math and English. She says, “Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else.

At the same time, she started to see how destructive of public education – especially to neighborhood schools – the choice movement had become. And worse yet, choice schools had eschewed innovation in pursuit of profits. Ravitch began refuting the conservative agenda. The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch is a compilation of those arguments.

American Students Don’t Test Well

Americans have never done well on international testing. Ravitch highlights Yong Zhao’s book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao says East Asian nations have top scores because of their heavy test preparations. Ravitch reports,

“Our students have never had high scores on international tests, not since the first international test of math was administered in 1964, and our seniors scored last among 12 nations. We went on over the half-century since then to out compete the other 11 nations who had higher test scores.”

She argues that standardized testing identifies poverty; not teaching. Ravitch points out the obvious, “No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers, nor does research support either strategy.” She pithily says, “When it comes to child poverty, we are number 1.

US Rankings reported in Wit and Wisdom:

  • Quality Pre-school #24
  • Good Pre-natal care #131
  • Industrial Nations Child Poverty #1

George Bush, George Miller and Ted Kennedy gave us the No Child Left Behind law. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan gave us the Race to the Top law. Both laws employed the same test based accountability and punish strategies. Ravitch notes we are nowhere near whatever the top is supposed to be and the same children who were left behind in 2001-2 are still being left behind. In 2014, she declared, “Now that we have endured more than a dozen long years of No Child Left Behind and five fruitless, punitive years of Race to the Top, it is clear that they both failed.

Democrats Embraced the Conservative Agenda

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, Democrats were outraged. Michael Bennet who introduced the portfolio model of education management into Denver’s schools and Corey Booker who tried to charterize all of the schools in Newark, New Jersey spoke passionately against the appointment. Ravitch pointed out, “But the resistance of DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth – Democrats have been promoting a conservative ‘school reform’ agenda for the past three decades.” She also wrote,

“Democratic charter advocates – whose ranks include the outraged Booker and Bennet – have increasingly imported ‘school choice’ into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate ‘choice’ with ‘freedom’ – even though the entire idea of ‘choice’ was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.”

“As Democrats learned years ago, support for mandatory testing and charter schools opens fat wallets on Wall Street. Money guys love deregulation, testing and Big Data, and union busting. In 2005, Obama served as the featured speaker at the inaugural gathering of Democrats for Education Reform, which bundles contributions to Democrats who back charter schools.”

Ravitch says that evidenced-based Democrats ought to acknowledge that school choice doesn’t work. Charter schools are a failed experiment that increase segregation and do not increase performance. Students in vouchers schools lose ground compared to their peers in public school.

As Ravitch continued to attack “school reform” nonsense, she also used her blog to elevate the voices of others. Ravitch and friends have dominated social media for a decade. At the Network for Public Education conference in Indiana this October she could boldly open the proceedings with, “We are the resistance and we are winning!”

Diane and Tom

Ravitch States the Elements of Good Education

“Every school should be staffed with credentialed and well qualified teachers. Class sizes should be no larger than 20 in elementary schools, no larger than 24 in middle and high schools. Every school should offer a full curriculum, including the arts, civics, history and foreign languages. Every school should have a library and media center staffed by a qualified librarian. Every school should have fully equipped laboratories for science. Every school should have a nurse and a social worker. Every school should be in tip-top physical condition.”

Wisdom and Wit recounts the arguments about education for the past 20 years. In an open letter to her old boss at the Department of Education, Lamar Alexander, she wrote,

“In closing, may I remind you of something you wrote in your book of advice?

“No. 84: Read anything Diane Ravitch writes about education.”

That seems like excellent advice. Her next book, Slaying Goliath, comes out in January.

Jeb Bush’s A+ Education Reform is a Reform Disaster

15 May

By T. Ultican 5/15/2019

During the 1998 gubernatorial campaign Jeb Bush proposed his A+ Education Reform. This March, Sue M. Legg, Ph.D. produced a paper that studies the results twenty years later. Professor Legg observed,

“It is critically important to recognize whose interests are being served in this school reform process. School reform had little to do with student achievement and everything to do with money and politics.”

The plan had four main components; (1) demanding curriculum standards, (2) annual testing for grades 3 – 10, (3) assigning A – F grades to schools based on testing results and (4) school choice. It was a plan for improving education without increasing spending. Or was it primarily a plan for defeating Democrats, promoting religion and making profits?

Speaking at the 2012 Republican National Convention Jeb Bush made clear his antipathy toward public schools, teachers and their unions. He said,

“There are many people who say they support strong schools but draw the line at school choice.

“Sorry, kid. Giving you equal opportunity would be too risky. And it will upset powerful political forces that we need to win elections.

“I have a simple message for these masters of delay and deferral: Choose. You can either help the politically powerful unions. Or you can help the kids.”

“We say that every child in America has an equal opportunity. ….

“Tell that to a parent stuck in a school where there is no leadership. Tell that to a young, talented teacher who just got laid off because she didn’t have tenure.”

When the A+ Program was adopted in 1999, Florida had consistently scored among the bottom third of US states on standardized testing. The following two data sets indicate no improvement and Florida now scoring in the bottom fourth.

NAEP Rankings

Florida’s Relative Ranking among US States on NAEP Math and Reading Testing

SAT ACT Comparison

ACT and SAT State Rankings and Score Averages

Florida adopted a mandatory third grade retention policy as part of the reform agenda. In 2002-3, fourteen percent of all third graders were retained, nearly twenty-eight thousand children. Since Florida was the first state to have mandatory third grade retention, it is logical that its average scores in a national fourth grade assessment the following year would improve its national ranking. This was a very controversial policy with supporters claiming a huge success while detractors claimed the testing improvement were the result of other changes to reading instruction in Florida. In 2014, the Helios Foundation commissioned a study of the Florida results and concluded,

“While Florida’s third grade reading policy enjoys less definitive evidence of success than its most vocal proponents claim, it has improved retained students’ performance in math and reading up to seventh grade and decreased their likelihood of future retention. It remains unknown what (retention or remediation or the two together) drove the impacts in Florida.

In 1998, while Jeb Bush was running to be the next Governor of the state, there was a constitutional amendment on the ballot calling for all students to have equal access to a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools”. It passed with strong support. Professor Legg stated, “The intent was clear: no public money to private schools.” There has been a constant tension played out in Florida courts between Bush’s school choice ideology and this constitutional amendment. In January, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 against the 2009 law suit challenging Florida’s tax credit voucher program based on the 1998 constitutional amendment.

Last year, 21 percent of Florida’s students were enrolled in private and charter schools. The Florida tax credit scholarships (FTCS) went to 1,700 private schools and were awarded to over 100,000 students. Most of those students are in religious schools. Splitting public funding between three systems – public, charter and private – has insured mediocrity in all three systems.

Privatization Politics and Profiteering

Too understand Florida’s education reform, it is important to realize that its father, Jeb Bush, is the most doctrinal conservative in the Bush family. He fought for six years to keep feeding tubes inserted into Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistently vegetative state. Jeb was the Governor who signed the nation’s first “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law. During his first unsuccessful run for governor in 1994, Bush ‘“declared himself a ‘head-banging conservative’; vowed to ‘club this government into submission’; and warned that ‘we are transforming our society to a collectivist policy.”

After his 1994 loss, Bush joined the Heritage Foundation board. In a New Yorker article, Alec MacGillis wrote, “Bush found a compatible source for ideas on education when he joined the board of the Heritage Foundation, which was generating papers and proposals to break up what it viewed as the government-run monopoly of the public-school system through free-market competition, with charters and private-school vouchers.” The elements of what became his A+ Plan for education reform came from the Heritage Foundation.

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank founded in 1973. Heritage distinguished itself from another successful conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute, with its advocacy of Christian conservatism.

MacGillis further shared,

“Bush’s most influential adviser was Patricia Levesque, a former legislative aide to the state House Republican leadership and a graduate of Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina. (She greeted a new hire in Bush’s administration by asking him if he had “found a church home” yet in Tallahassee.)”

Jim Warford, whom Bush selected to be his K-12 schools chancellor in 2003, said of Bush, “He saw the teachers’ unions as one of the foundations of the Democratic Party, and he saw a great advantage—that anything he could do to undercut the teachers’ union would have a political return.”

It appears that Bush’s school reforms were motivated more by politics and religion than by improving education. However, it is profiteering that has gotten completely out of hand in Florida.

In 1996, Bush founded a charter school with the help of Jonathan Hage. In 2002, the Saint Petersburg Times reported,

“Jonathan Hage, a former Heritage Foundation researcher and political protege of Gov. Jeb Bush, has turned Florida’s charter school program into a growing for-profit business empire. Five years after borrowing $5,000 to start up Charter Schools USA, Hage took in $40-million last year [that’s 2001] — almost all of it from the government.”

In 2012, CSUSA took in $285,000,000. Today on their LinkedIn page they claim,

“Charter Schools USA (CSUSA) is one of the fastest growing education management companies in the U.S. We represent over 70,000+ students and 83 schools in 6 states.”

A League of Women report shared the history of one CSUSA charter school. CSUSA (the CMO) had purchased a former American Telephone and Telegraph (ATT) call center for about $1.2 million. CSUSA flipped the building several times and had the property reappraised. They invested $1.5 million in upgrades. A final appraisal was for $9 million dollars. The charter board signed an escalating lease for over a million dollars per year that in time will surpass the school’s budget. (The County Property Appraiser served a short term on the CSUSA board.)

Bush’s younger brother Neil somehow got out of Colorado after the collapse of his Silverado Savings and Loan cost taxpayers a billion dollars with no legal charges filed against him. Could it be that the President being his father influenced the charging? Neil showed up in Florida in 2002 to sell a new standardized testing preparation program for Florida’s new statewide testing. A progressive weekly report stated, “ Critics say it doesn’t look right for Neil Bush to be marketing his software to Florida schools.”

Professor Legg says that political interests from both sides of the isle see charter schools as a business opportunity. She reports,

“Former Vice President Biden’s brother runs the for-profit Mavericks charters. A Bush family friend launched Imagine schools, Florida’s third largest for-profit charter chain. Several Florida politicians including former Senate President, Joe Negron, and the former Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran launched charter schools.”

“Questions about conflict of interest claims have been made against current and former legislators involved in educational policy e.g. Richard Corcoran, Manny Diaz, Eric Fresen , Byron Donalds, former House Education Chair Michael Bileca, former Senate President Joe Negron, Anitere Flores and others. They all have personal ties to the charter industry and held or hold important education committee positions.”

Several of the politicians named by Legg have formed an alliance to promote the Classical Academy charter schools. Legg described the school and named the players,

“Classical Academies are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. This Michigan private college has a long religious, conservative/libertarian tradition. The DeVos immediate family includes several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundation fund the initiative. According to Salon, the Koch brothers are also contributors.

“Erika Donalds and her husband, Representative Byron Donalds, co-founded one of the Classical Academies in Collier County and were members of its governing board. Donalds formed an alliance with the wife of the 2017 Florida Senate president, Joe Negron, to open Treasure Coast Academy Classical Academy in Martin County. Donalds also filed paperwork for a nonprofit entity called ‘Alpha’. Anne Corcoran, wife of the newly appointed Florida Commissioner of Education, opened a classical academy in Pasco County and assisted with one in Tallahassee. Representative Michael Bileca’s foundation donates to True North Classical Academy in Miami, according to the Miami Herald.”

It has taken money to keep these blatant conflicts of interest and the anti-public education leadership in place. In the fall of 2018, Integrity Florida published a report called The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice. They detail $13,666,531 in political campaign donations from 1998-2016 from the Florida charter school industry. All Children Matter (founded by Betsy DeVos), American Federation for Children, and the Alliance for School Choice raised over $19 million dollars. The Walton family, John Kirtley, Gary Chartrand (member of the Florida State Board of Education), CSUSA and Academica are listed as major donors. This advocacy for a political and religious ideology permeates all aspects of the process of authorizing and expanding charter schools in Florida.

Selling Education Technology and Taxpayer Funded Religious Schools

Bush Levesque

After leaving state government, Jeb Bush launched Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) in 2008. In close cooperation with the Koch funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and his major contributor, Bill Gates, FEE launched Digital Learning Now.

Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise (a Democrat) was selected to lead Digital Learning Now. In a joint article Bush and Wise claimed,

Digital learning can customize and personalize education so all students learn in their own style at their own pace, which maximizes their chances for success in school and beyond. With digital learning, every student—from rural communities to inner cities—can access high quality and rigorous courses in every subject, including foreign languages, math and science.

 Digital learning can also be the catalyst for transformational change in education.

The article, Personalized and Blended Learning are Money Grabs, explains that digital learning is a costly attempt to replace expensive teachers with cheaper and more profitable technology. There are many negatives associated with digital learning and no large scale benefits. Nevertheless in 2011 the state of Florida passed the Digital Learning Now Act. The official description says it “requires full-time & part-time school district virtual instruction program options; provides funding & accountability requirements; requires online learning course for high school graduation ….”

Patricia Levesque is FEE’s CEO leading the charge to privatize public education and direct tax money to religious schools. The Huffington Post described the funders of FEE,

“Bush foundation donors include family philanthropies, such as those established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Corporate donors include Connections Education, a division of global publishing giant Pearson ; Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp ; and K12, a publicly traded company that runs online schools.”

On line education is valued by the growing Christian home-schooling movement.

FEE launched an advocacy group, Chiefs for Change, to promote many of Bush’s K-12 education policies around the country. Membership in Chiefs now includes 1 in every 5 school superintendents in America. In the Public Interest, a D.C.-based non-profit group has released thousands of e-mails that link Chiefs for Change to corporations and education officials who are attempting to help state legislators write laws that will directly benefit their organizations financially. The Contributor reported,

“The emails are primarily between Chiefs for Change and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), which both share a vision of for-profit education fueled by charter schools, online education and standardized testing. The groups share many of the same donors and officials as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is pushing for a similar ‘education’ agenda.” 

Conclusion

Politics, profits and religion are driving the destruction of public education in Florida. The Bush/Heritage A+ education plan has not improved test scores but it has undermined the education of the almost 80 percent of students still in public schools.

To avoid spending more money on public schools, Florida decided that market forces and technology would solve the problems associated with poverty. When voters in Florida voted for class size reduction, Bush responded,

“So please do not confuse Florida’s class-size amendment with reform. Reform is about creating a more efficient, more effective education system that meets the needs of children. The class-size amendment has been a hugely expensive diversion from that goal.”

Betsy DeVos called Florida an example; I agree. Florida has many excellent educators but the political leadership has sent the public education system into a downward spiral. Look at other failed examples like Washington DC, New Orleans, Denver, Detroit, Oakland, etc. All of them embrace the Florida education reform model. Choice is an American right, but taxpayers are not responsible to pay for private choices.

For 200 years, America’s unparalleled public education system has been the foundation for democracy, the center of community life and the fertile soil of creativity. For 200 years, this great good has been under constant attack but it has persevered. The time has come to rally around our national treasure (public education) and turn away the profiteers, religious zealots and political opportunists.

Sketchy Epic Cyber Charter Has Gone National

4 May

By T. Ultican 5/4/2019

Epic is the business name for Oklahoma’s indigenous and fastest growing virtual charter school chain. In 2015, they moved beyond Oklahoma opening a business in Orange County, California and are currently in contract talks with Pulaski County, Arkansas to provide online education. EPIC’s fast growth has been accompanied by continuous legal problems, charges of political improprieties and claims of unethical aggressive marketing.

The Founders

Ben Harris and David Chaney, two long time friends from Oklahoma City, founded Epic.

Harris and Chaney

The Founders of EPIC Virtual Charter Schools

In 1999, One year after Harris was awarded a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University, he and Chaney founded Advanced Academics Inc. Today Pearson Corporation the large British testing and publishing company owns Advanced Academics which sells credit recovery courses and software for virtual classes.

Both Harris and Chaney went to work for Jeb Bush in 2003 at the Florida Department of Children and Families. Harris was soon made the Deputy Secretary in charge of technology. He worked under Secretary Jerry Regier who had previously run health and human services in Oklahoma. It was here that Harris made a name for himself by privatizing the child welfare system. However, all was not well.

Megan Rolland of the Tulsa World reported,

“In July 2004, a whistle-blower investigation revealed that Harris had accepted trips, dinners and other favors from companies looking to contract with the social services agency.

“Harris resigned and a full criminal investigation conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began. No charges were filed.

“The investigation did find that both Harris and Chaney were involved in a number of questionable contracts awarded to vendors that appeared to circumvent the state’s bidding process.

“One of those questionable contracts was awarded to Florida State University’s Institute of Health and Human Services, where Elizabeth VanAcker worked.”

“VanAcker also sits on the board of a nonprofit in Florida that has submitted seven charter school applications for virtual schools that propose contracting exclusively with Advanced Academics.”

“VanAcker’s company — formerly named Edmetrics — created the Epic 1 on 1 Charter School website for Community Strategies Inc.”

Rolland’s Report also shared some founding details about the business originally called Epic 1 on 1 charter schools,

 “Harris is listed as a registered agent for Community Strategies Inc., the nonprofit that is opening Epic 1 on 1 Charter School. He uses his home address on the corporate papers, and he worked behind the scenes to get the school approved by the University of Central Oklahoma.”

In 2009 – just prior to founding Epic – Harris was Chief Financial Officer of Velocity Sports Performance in Irvine, California. The CEO of Velocity Sports Performance when Harris arrived there was Troy Medley, who is now Chairman of the Board for Epic in California.

Epic Found a Way into Orange County, California

Epic is an acronym for excellence, performance, innovation and citizenship. In California the non-profit business name is Next Generation Education. In Oklahoma the non-profit business name is Community Strategies Inc. Neither Epic founder, David Chaney nor Ben Harris, sits on the board of either Next Generation Education in California or Community Strategies Inc. in Oklahoma.

Rather, David Chaney serves as both superintendent of the nonprofit Epic Charter Schools and CEO of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee. Chaney owns the for-profit corporation, which originally had Harris’s home address listed on the incorporating papers.

A report in the Oklahoma Watch described the Epic business structure:

“The nonprofit contracts with Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee of 10 percent of Epic’s gross revenue. Epic Youth Services, in turn, contracts with Advanced Academics, a division of Connections Education, a Pearson company. Calvert Partners and Beasley Technology also have contracts with Epic Youth Services.”

It appears that the structure is the same in California. In the Next Generation Education board meeting notes, Ben Harris is referenced as providing updates from the charter management organization (CMO) which is Epic Youth Services.

This Byzantine structure hides the fact that Epic is a for profit business cloaked in a non-profit’s suit, thus skirting California’s prohibition against for profit charters. It also means that in their tax forms, the non-profit only reports costs and no salaries. For example, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017 Community Strategies Inc. the Oklahoma non-profit reported revenues of $41,487,230 and expenditures of $40,105,203. However, the non-profit reported no salaries because the for-profit does payroll. There is no way for taxpayers to see how many public dollars are going into private hands.

In 2015, EPIC petitioned the Anaheim City School District (an elementary school district) for its first charter outside of Oklahoma. The districts staff investigated the petition, came back with a long list of deficiencies and made a strong denial recommendation. After reviewing the report the district board voted 5 – 0 to deny.

The following three deficiencies are among the more than 20 deficiencies cited:

(1) California charter law requires new charter petitioners to gather signatures showing a demand for the school. When Anaheim City School District started checking the signatures, the majority response they heard was “I don’t know what you are talking about.” They checked 109 of the 526 signatures and these are some of the responses,

“I’ve never heard of EPIC.”

“No, but if you ever need someone to sign a petition to help you with your funding just let me know.”

“I don’t remember signing any petition.”

“I like the school my kids go to, I thought I was just signing a petition saying I am in favor of charter schools.”

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m in China.” 

(2) The plan for special education was almost non-existent.

(3) There was no workable plan for English language learners (EL’s).

A widely held belief says charter schools find ways not to enroll more expensive students to educate such as EL’s. The enrollment data for school year 2017-2018 indicates that Epic still has no viable support for EL’s. That appears to be a feature not a flaw.

EL Percentage

At Epic’s 2015 appeal to the Orange County School Board, Leslie Coghlan speaking for the Anaheim City School District explained their petition denial and concluded with,

We would also like to note that at our public hearings in the Anaheim City School District there were not any members of our community that came out to support the charter school at the public hearings. And one of our final concerns is that the Epic’s Oklahoma program is involved in litigation with the Oklahoma Department of Education and currently the subject of a fraud investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation concerning falsification of records to fraudulently receive payments from the Department of Education.

At that same 2015 hearing, Ben Harris defended Epic against the fraud investigation charge. He said, “This is based off a single news article several years ago that is proven to be false as no findings or issues have been raised.

In a 2016 article, KOSU radio of Tulsa and Oklahoma City reported on Epic’s California problems:

“In 2014, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin requested an investigation in to allegations of fraud at the school. … No charges have been filed, and no information has been released.”

“More recently, controversy over EPIC’s business practices came to light last month in an audit prepared by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), which provides California school districts with financial and management support.

“The FCMAT audit alleges that Sue Roche, the founder of Oxford Preparatory Academy, which has two charter campuses in Orange County, formed an education management company called Edlighten Learning Solutions to launder school funds for personal profit.

“The audit lays out substantial financial ties between Edlighten and Ben Harris and David Chaney’s company, EPIC Youth Services. The audit says EPIC Youth Services received $5,000 a month from Edlighten for consulting services. The report contains emails between Roche and Harris, EPIC’s co-founder, in which they discuss moving personnel between Oxford Preparatory and their management companies to skirt legal issues.”

This February, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation announced that Epic is once again the target of both state and federal investigators. No additional information was released.

At Epic, a yearly $1500 payment is made into each student’s personal “learning fund” to buy school supplies or use for academically compatible activities. The Orange County Register noted, “Though money doesn’t wind up in the hands of parents or students, the learning fund can, for example, pay for horseback riding, music or dance lessons.” Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matsuda called the practice, “predatory marketing.”

Virtual schools like Epic have a history of poor student outcomes. Even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report sharply critical of virtual charter schools. And the Stanford study of online schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia found that during a 180-day school year, virtual students lost an average of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days, or an entire school year, of learning in math.

“Why Would Anyone Support These Horrible Schools?”

A friend asked this question about Epic.

To get their foot in the door, Epic’s Ben Harris was able to use his personal connection with his former boss Troy Medley. Medley is currently President of Prima Health Credit of New Port Beach and he serves as Chairman of the Board for the charity Mortgage Miracles for the Kids. The President of Miracles, Autumn Strier – who previously worked for the Giuliani administration – joined Medley on the Next Generation Education (Epic) board as did another associated from Miracles, Chris Relth – a corporate head hunter.

Completing the five member Next Generation Education (Epic) board are Kenny Dodd, senior pastor at Claremont Emanuel Baptist Church in San Diego, and Alex Arcila of the Orange County Hispanic community. Medley is the board President.

Once Epic established an apparently reputable presence in Orange County, they were aided by the fact that this county is the most pro-business and privatization friendly place in California. For example, in the 2018 election for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond defeated former Charter School executive Marshall Tuck, but he didn’t come close to matching Tuck’s support in Orange County.

OC 2018 SPI Outcome

Orange County 2018 Election Tallies

During the appeal hearing at the Orange County School Board, the board staff concurred with the Anaheim City School District and recommended the appeal be denied. After the staff submitted their recommendations, representatives of the district made a presentation and Epic co-founder Ben Harris made a presentation. Public comment followed the presentations. There were just seven speakers all from Epic; Epic co-founder David Chaney, Epic’s attorney Michelle Lopez and the five Epic board members.

When the board voted on the Epic appeal, Orange County School Board Trustees Robert Hammond, David Boyd, Linda Lindholm and Ken Williams voted to grant Epic a charter.

This vote also reflected the power of billionaire spending on school privatization.

Buying the Election

Billionaire Money is Distorting Democratic Processes in Local Elections

All but one board member who voted to give Epic a charter received large campaign support from billionaires through three independent expenditure committees; California Charter Schools Association Advocates (CCSAA), Orange County Charter Advocates for Great Schools (which is sponsored by CCSAA) and the Lincoln Club of Orange County. David Boyd, Chancellor of The Taft University System, did not receive documented largess from the billionaires but his campaign did have odd financial support. He loaned his own campaign $72,000, got a $50,000 loan from Taft University and a $25,000 loan from Elizabeth Dorn’s campaign. More than $30,000 in loan debt was later forgiven.

In 2016, the Beverly Hills Billionaire, Howard Ahmanson Jr. (state major donor ID 479163) gave the OC Charter PAC $10,000 and the Local Liberty PAC (State ID 1291528) that Ahmanson finances provided them another $18,171.83.

Howard Ahmanson’s name sake father established the Ahmanson Family Foundation in 1952. Today, that foundation has slightly more than a billion dollars in assets. They give extensively to the arts and LA basin charter schools. In 2016, they gave $500,000 to the billionaire funded pro-school privatization youth group Teach For America. Howard runs the Fieldstad and Company arm of the Ahmanson foundation.

Roberta Ahmanson, Howard’s wife, is a serious Christian thinker and writer. She gave a speech titled “What Fundamentalism Gave Me” at the 2018 commencement for Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like Betsy DeVos, she is part of The Gathering. Roberta and her husband see Epic as a tool that benefits the Christian home schooling movement.

Some Observations

The Epic contract with Epic Youth Services calls for an annual $125,000 fee for “development services” plus 10% of net revenue be paid to the for profit managers of the CMO, Harris and Chaney. This means that in 2016 Epic Oklahoma paid Epic Youth Services more than $540,000 for their services; this doesn’t include the California revenue. Ben Harris and David Chaney are becoming wealthy men. Because of aggressive marketing which even led to taking over an entire rural school district in Oklahoma and expansion in California, the 2016 $42 million in revenue probably isn’t a forth of the 2019 projected revenue.

In December, Oklahoma Watch reported, “Epic’s two leaders also outspent the political action committee for the largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, which has 35,000 members across the state.” This looks very much like a replay of Bill Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and his large political contributions leading to the continued fleecing of taxpayers in Ohio.

It is not in society’s interest to have children educated in isolation. Socialization is an important part of education. As Americans, we should have freedom of choice but we should not expect taxpayers to pay for those choices. If people want to home-school or put their children in private schools, that is their choice. It is more than sufficient for taxpayers to provide a world class professionally run public education system. Public money should not be transferred into private profiteering pockets.