Archive | June, 2019

Hired Guns, Scholars and the California School Policy Task Force

15 Jun

By T. Ultican 6/15/2019

California Governor Gavin Newsom created a task force and assigned the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI), Tony Thurmond, to lead a review of California charter school laws and policies.  The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) produced three policy briefs and CRPE founder Paul Hill testified to the task force as an expert witness “sympathetic to charter schools.” The author of “Breaking Point,” Gordon Lafer also provided expert testimony.

Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker reviewed Hill’s claims which were published in three CRPE policy briefs created for the taskforce. Spoiler alert: He found them deceptive.

Thurmond released “The Charter School Policy Task Force” report to the Governor on June 6.

The claims by these scholars and political actions coming from the task force have the potential to influence the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars in public monies by California and billions in spending by the federal government.

The Charter School Policy Task Force (CTF)

The task force was made up of eleven members. Since 90% of the California’s students attend public schools and because the charter industry spent more than $50 million to defeat SSPI Thurmond in 2018, many people expected supporters of public schools to dominate the task force. But that was not the case. Jan Resseger observed,

“It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seem to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.”

Others like Diane Ravitch saw the committee in terms of the charter school industry versus public schools. She wrote, “By my count, six members of the 11-member panel are directly connected to the charter industry, including two from the lobbying organization CCSA.” A seventh member of the eleven member task force also appears to be biased toward privatization. The seven pro-privatization members were:

  1. Cristina de Jesus, president and chief executive officer, Green Dot Public Schools California. This was the same charter system failed SSPI candidate Marshall Tuck previously led.
  2. Margaret Fortune, California Charter Schools Association board chair; Fortune School of Education, president & CEO.
  3. Lester Garcia, political director, SEIU Local 99. Closely associated with Eli Broad. Most recently they took $100,000 from Broad to oppose Jackie Goldberg for LA Unified School District Board.
  4. Beth Hunkapiller, educator and administrator, Aspire Public Schools. A charter school chain.
  5. Ed Manansala, superintendent, El Dorado County and board president, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Diane Ravitch reported, “… Ed Manansala was principal and superintendent of Kevin Johnson’s St. Hope Academy Charter High School in Sacramento before he became County Superintendent in El Dorado.” His El Dorado County Office set up a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) specifically to service students with disabilities in charter schools and wooed charter students away from their local districts.
  6. Gina Plate, vice president of special education, California Charter Schools Association.
  7. Edgar Zazueta, senior director, policy & governmental relations, Association of California School Administrators. During the last election cycle his organization endorsed former charter school executive Marshall Tuck for SSPI.

The other four members – which also included the only two members with classroom teaching experience – were:

  1. Dolores Duran, California School Employees Association.
  2. Alia Griffing, political director, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 57.
  3. Cindy Marten, superintendent, San Diego Unified School District. (A former teacher)
  4. Erika Jones, board of directors, California Teachers Association. (A current teacher serving on the union board)

The immediate response to this committee was anger directed at SSPI Thurmond for the task force makeup. Capital and Main reported, “No sooner did author-academic Diane Ravitch expose this month the charter leanings of Governor Gavin Newsom’s task force studying the fiscal impacts of charters than California schools superintendent and panel chair Tony Thurmond found a Twitter blowtorch pointed his way.” My tweet was part of that blowtorch.

My Taskforce Tweet

A few days later on March 14, Diane Ravitch posted,

I received an email from a reader in California whose credentials are impeccable, who has a direct tie inside the Governor’s office. This person told me that the committee was selected by Governor Gavin Newsom, not by Tony Thurmond.

It is not likely that Newsom personally selected the committee members. It is highly probable that Newsom’s new Chief of Staff, Ann O’Leary, a former advisor to Hilary Clinton, selected them. A Fortune magazine biography of O’Leary noted,

“O’Leary is a diehard policy wonk, especially keen on anything that affects families or education. As Clinton’s Senate aide in 2001, she was at the center of No Child Left Behind—a once popular education initiative that has since soured in the public mind. ‘It was a really important moment,’ she says of the law, which Ted Kennedy crafted and George W. Bush signed. ‘When you look back at what happened, this was serious, bipartisan, constructive work. We were committed to high standards and helping states get there.”’

Ann OLeary

Ann O’Leary – Policy Runner Blog Mount Holyoake College 2016

O’Leary appears to be a heartfelt social liberal who had a key voice in promoting gay rights and paid maternity leave. However, besides her history with NCLB, she supports Common Core State Standards and says they were developed by state governors. She believes in standards based testing and supports privatizing public education with charter schools. She is a neoliberal from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Her professional position and past actions provide strong evidence that she selected the members of the task force.

The CTF Work Product

To begin their work, the CTF received a series of reports on charter schools and their impacts from a variety of sources. Thurmond called this “an attempt to provide some level setting for members to establish a baseline of understanding and knowledge.” Once “level setting” was complete the CTF began brainstorming policy reform proposals. The task force was able to reach consensus on four proposals, reported majority voting support for seven proposals and two proposals did not receive majority support.

Proposals not receiving majority support reflect the impact of giving the charter industry a majority position on the task force.

A California law (Education Code 47605 [b]) states, “the governing board of the school district shall grant a charter for the operation of a school if it is satisfied that granting the charter is consistent with sound educational practice.” Because of the word “shall,” if the proposal is educationally sound few other considerations are relevant and the charter must be granted. The proposal was to replace the word “shall” with “may.” This change could add to the difficulty in obtaining a charter especially in districts already impacted by charters, therefore it failed. SSPI Thurmond wrote, “The proposal to change from ‘shall’ to ‘may’ failed by the narrowest of votes, with the majority position opposing the change.

A managed growth plan that would control growth in highly impacted districts like Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland did not make it to a vote. Thurmond reported, “CTF members were invited to provide an alternative set of caveats for a managed growth plan, however CTF members could not agree on the conditions for limiting growth.”

Current charter school law requires using Academic Performance Index (API) testing data to determine whether a charter school has met the academic testing criteria for renewal. A proposal to update the charter law to reflect that API is no longer used got majority support but not consensus. Why?

There was majority support for ending charter denial appeals to the state, limiting appeals to the county to errors by the district, prohibiting authorization of charters outside district boundaries, allowing fiscal impact to be considered in charter authorization and developing clearer authorization guidelines.

There was consensus agreement that the state department of education should not supervise charters and that school saturation, academic outcomes and statements of need should be part of the authorizing process. There was also consensus that districts losing students to charter schools should receive the same hold harmless provisions a district receives when a student moves out of the area. This $100,000,000 proposal would help mitigate some of the losses districts face when charters are expanding in their area.

The other two consensus proposals add thirty days to the time a district has to respond to a charter petition and create statewide authorizer standards and training.

Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is a Propaganda Mill

Scholar, Bruce Baker reviewed the three policy briefs by CRPE for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. His paper “Costs, Benefits, and Impact on School Districts (Center on Reinventing Public Education, May 2019)” begins,

“The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), based at the University of Washington, Bothell, recently released a series of three policy briefs on the financial impact of charter schools on nearby school districts in California. The briefs arrive at a time when a Task Force convened by California Gov. Gavin Newsom is deliberating on these exact matters. CRPE’s founder, Paul Hill, was a key source of testimony to the task force, serving as an expert viewed as ‘sympathetic to charter schools.”’

John Chubb’s and Terry Moe’s 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, claimed that poor academic performance was “one of the prices Americans pay for choosing to exercise direct democratic control over their schools.”

Responding to Chubb and Moe, Rand Corporation researcher Paul Hill founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and began working out the mechanics of ending democratic control of public education. His solution was the portfolio model of school governance.

The portfolio model directs closing schools that score in the bottom 5% on standardized testing and reopening them as charter schools or Innovation schools. In either case, the local community loses their right to hold elected leaders accountable, because the schools are removed from the school board’s portfolio. It is a plan that guarantees school churn in poor neighborhoods, venerates disruption and dismisses the value of stability and community history.

In July of 2018, former Enron trader, John Arnold, joined forces with San Francisco billionaire Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings. They each pledged $100,000,000 to a new non-profit dedicated to selling the portfolio model of school governance. They call it City Fund. Gates and Dell have also contributed to City Fund.

Little-Sis-Map-of-Reorganization

Big Money Flowing to the Portfolio Model and Public School Privatization (Map here)

Hill’s presentation to the CTF had little to do with scholarly research and everything to do with promoting the privatization of public education. In his review, Professor Baker goes into a detailed refutation of the CRPE assertions. He concludes,

“The first brief is misleading in its assertion that charter enrollment growth is not to blame for district enrollment decline. It is, and has been for some time, whether in districts with declining, stable or growing overall student enrollments. The brief also attempts to minimize the import of the considerable role played by charters in districts’ enrollment loss, offering up the non sequitur that enrollment loss can arise from other sources as well. The second brief relies on overly simplistic comparisons of charter enrollments and county-assigned “fiscal distress” classifications to conclude that there is no association between charter enrollments and fiscal distress. The contention here is that there can’t be an illness if the patient isn’t dead. In order to rely on this problematic approach, the brief erroneously dismisses a significant, more rigorous, detailed, peer-reviewed and published body of research that illustrates the fiscal impact of charter schools on host districts, and how those fiscal impacts may lead to fiscal stress. The third brief, which presents itself as an analysis of costs and benefits, merely touts the benefits of charter schooling as tangible while being entirely dismissive of numerous known and often measurable costs. Taken together, the briefs are useful only in pointing to some important issues that policymakers should consider; their analyses of those issues are, however, generally superficial and misleading.” (emphasis added)

CRPE Graphic

CRPE Graph Showing Fiscal Distress Decreased as Charter Enrollment Increased

Baker’s amusing analysis of this proof that charter schools are not causing fiscals distress says,

“Of course, what Figure 2 actually shows is that the recessionary period from 2008 through about 2013 resulted in a dramatic increase in districts in fiscal distress, which has subsided during the recovery period, swamping any noticeable effects of charter growth and making it impossible to draw any conclusions regarding charter enrollment impact from this broad descriptive data.”

“It’s also true, however, that between 1960 and 2000, the rate of cigarette smoking among women declined by about 30%, while during the same time period, the rate of death from lung cancer increased more than 50%. Should we logically conclude that stopping smoking causes lung cancer? Or might there be other factors at play?”

It seems clear that CRPE is not producing scholarly information. They are simply creating propaganda to sell the billionaire financed positions.

Some Charter School Reform Proposals

After 25-years, it is obvious that the charter school experiment is a failure. Charter schools have been a net harm to public education in America. There has been almost no innovation coming from the charter school sector with the exception of regressive practices such as “no excuses” discipline policies. It is a sector that is rife with profiteering, fraud and abuse. The best charter schools merely match the better public schools and on average charters do worse on testing than public schools.

The charter system adds a layer of inefficiency to public education and creates division in communities. As Peter Greene wrote again yesterday in his blog Curmudgucation,

“The problem here, as with several other choice-related issues, is in a false premise of modern school choice movement. That false premise is the assertion that we can fund multiple school districts for the same money we used to use to fund one single public system.

“This is transparent baloney.”

Charter school reform proposal 1: A complete and permanent moratorium on new charter schools.

Charter school reform proposal 2: Role all existing charter schools that choose not to become private schools into the school district within which they reside.

Pearson Embraces a Digital Knock-Off of Authentic Education

6 Jun

By T. Ultican 7/6/2019

The world’s largest publishing company is betting on cyber education. Great Britain’s Pearson Corporation took a financial beating when common core state testing did not turn into a planned for cash cow and concurrently the market for text books slowed. With its world-wide reach, Pearson’s new play is for digital education to open up global markets. The corporation envisions creating life-long relationships with its customers to provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.

In April, Education International Research published “Pearson 2025 Transforming teaching and privatising education data.” Authors Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan report,

“Pearson aims to lead the ‘next generation’ of teaching and learning by developing digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd). It is piloting new AI technologies that it hopes will enable virtual tutors to provide personalised learning to students, much like Siri or Alexa. This technology will be integrated into a single platform—Pearson Realize™—that has now been integrated with Google Classroom.”

“… [I]ts corporate strategy is premised upon creating disruptive changes to (a) the teaching profession, (b) the delivery of curriculum and assessment and (c) the function of schools, particularly public schooling. These disruptions do not follow a coherent set of educational principles, but capriciously serve the interests of the company’s shareholders.

Two main concerns accompany Person’s new agenda. (1) The privatization of data and infrastructure will turn the commons into private assets. (2) Diminishing the teaching profession will transform education from its broad purposes such as social development and creative thinking into a focus on individual knowledge and skills. And looming over the entire enterprise is the risk of data breach which is sure to occur. Sellar and Hogan note that securing data “can be difficult, if not impossible to achieve, even with the help of advanced privacy preservation techniques.

Pearson currently has a presence in 60 counties. One of their clients is Bridge International for which they provide digital services and scripted lessons for low cost privatized education in Africa. In Diane Ravitch’s new Book The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch, she notes this is the company whose founders claimed it had the potential to become a billion dollar company selling school for between $46 and $126 dollars per year to poor families. Besides Pearson, “the investors include Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank.

Sellar and Hogan note, “At the 2018 AGM [Annual General Meeting], Pearson announced a £750 million investment in new technologies and platforms to provide new digital services, which it claims will provide educators with real-time data and “smart” assessments for their students, blended learning models that partner with existing educational institutions, and new kinds of educational programming.

In the United States, Pearson is concentrating on expanding their virtual charter school business. Mercedes Schneider reported on Pearson’s February 2019 earnings call. She wrote,

“Pearson is focused on expanding its Connections Academy market. Pearson is undergoing restructuring; it has (and continues to) reduce its workforce and has been selling off less-profitable companies in an effort to recover from unrealized profits, including those Pearson expected from Common Core (CC) and CC-related PARCC testing.”

Pearson Call 4

Connections Academy Slide Pearson Presented at the 2019 Earning Call

Virtual Schools Bring Low Costs and Poor Academics

May 28th, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado released its annual report on virtual schools. The report was written by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Najat Elgeberi, Michael K. Barbour, Luis Huerta, Sheryl Rankin Shafer, and Jennifer King Rice. In the report introduction they state,

“Many argue that online curriculum can be tailored to individual students more effectively than curriculum in traditional classrooms, giving it the potential to promote greater student achievement than can be realized in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These claims are not supported by the research evidence; nonetheless, the promise of lower costs—primarily for instructional personnel and facilities—continues to make virtual schools financially appealing to both policymakers and for-profit providers.”

In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 300,000 students were enrolled across 501 full-time virtual schools. Poor academic performance and terrible graduation rates were a consistent characteristic of these schools. The authors recommended, “Slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

Emily Tate interviewed one of the report authors – Michael K. Barbour an NEPC Fellow – for her edsurge.com article, “Despite Poor Performance, Virtual School Enrollment Continues to Grow”. Tate wrote,

“But even as the sector grows, one thing remains constant, Barbour says: ‘Students in these programs—both full-time online programs and blended schools—tend not to do as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.’

“He adds: ‘There’s not really a rationale for the growth, based on performance.’”

In an April EdWeek article, Arianna Prothero and Alex Harwin reported, “Nationally, half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year.” They also shared, “The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”

Prothero and Harwin’s article contains an interactive chart showing which cyber schools in each state did or did not achieve a 50% graduation rate over the past four years. “Out of the 163 schools, in some states, such as Indiana, not a single virtual charter school operating in 2016-17 had a graduation rate over 50 percent in the past four years.

If cyber schools have such poor academic outcomes, what explains parents putting their children in them? One clue can be found in a 2001 interview with Dick and Betsy DeVos at the Gathering, a group that Jay Michaelson describes as the “hub of Christian Right organizing.” Betsy said, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Dick lamented the fact that schools have displaced churches as the center of community activities. He then mentions that Bill Bennett is involved in something that could be quite helpful. He says Bennett’s new K12 Inc. cyber schools although not Christian could be a great help to Evangelical homeschoolers.

California Connections Academy

Map of California Connections Academy Structure

This Little Sis Map Shows the Structure of California Connections Academy in 2017

On September 18, 2018 a Mercury News lead read, “California has just kicked for-profit management companies out of the charter school business.” However, the new law is quite flawed. A for-profit company can create a non-profit to run the schools and then the non-profit in turn hires the for-profit management company to provide operating services and materials.

In 2011, Pearson Corporation purchased the cyber charter school company Connections Academy for $400,000,000. At the time Pearson said that this purchase gave them a leading position in the emerging cyber education arena.

Fortunately for Pearson, in California the Connections Academy cyber business was being run by the three non-profits shown in blue on the map. All three of the non-profits provide a similar explanation of their structure to this one in Capistrano Connections Academy’s 2016 form 990:

“Capistrano Connections Academy has a shared services agreement in place which includes the sharing of school staff and various other expenses between a network of charter schools. This agreement involves three non-profit public benefit corporations Capistrano Connections Academy, Alpaugh Academies, and friends of California Virtual Education. The school has also contracted with a third-party organization (Connections Academy of California, LLC a subsidiary of Connections Education, LLC) to provide educational products and services to the school. Due to delays in the receipts of state funding the school has arranged with Connections Education to process its payroll including the paying of school staff which requires the use of Connections Education, LLC’s EIN number. As part of this arrangement, the school reimburses connections education for paying staff as funding becomes available. As all staff members are reported on the school’s behalf using the EIN of Connections Education, LLC, no employees are listed as part of this return.”

There is some confusion in this statement. For example, Alpaugh Academies is also referred to as California on Line Public Schools (CalOps) and on December 18, 2017, Connections Academy of California, LLC submitted a termination statement to the California Secretary of State. It appears the Baltimore based Connections Education, LLC is now paying the bills and collecting the service fees through its Minnesota office. Also, there are two employees listed on the three non-profit tax form 990’s (Capistrano, CalOps and Friends). Director of Business Services, Franci Sassin receives more than $143,000 yearly and Executive Director, Richard Savage receives more than $225,000 yearly in total from the three non-profits.

There are four Connections Academy schools shown on the Little Sis map in yellow. In addition, a fifth school, California Connections Academy Central Coast is listed by the state as pending opening September 3, 2019. That must be one of the “strong pipeline of 2-5 new schools in 2019” Pearson referenced in their earnings call.

Locally we have been buzzing over the San Diego Union report, “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.” One of the issues cited in this scam was that little 145-student Dehesa School District in the mountains east of San Diego authorized 3 of these-cyber charters all outside of their district boundaries.

The Connections Academy model is not that different. According the 2018-2019 Connections Academy School Profile, “Capistrano Connections Academy is an accredited, virtual public charter school serving students in grades K–12 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.” However, Capistrano Connections Academy is only authorized by one school district, Capistrano Unified. The other three schools have a similar territory outside of their authorizer’s district.

Table 1: Connections Academy Enrollment by Grade

Connections Academy Enrollment

What kind of education are those more than 1,000 students in the primary grades receiving? They certainly are not being socialized with other community members and it is well known that too much screen time is unhealthy for children.

Table 2: Connections Academy Graduation and ELL Rates Compared to the State

Connections Academy Graduation and EL

Sadly, these Connections Academy graduation rates are good compared to their peers in the cyber school industry. However, they are not acceptable as an education policy. In California, English language learners (ELL) are 19.3% of the enrollment which is by far the largest ELL percentage in the nation. As is typical of cyber schools the ELL percentage at Connections Academy is only 3.6%.

In an Education Week investigation of cyber schools, Benjamin Herold called it a “Broken Model” and summed it up this way,

“The schools are based on an educational model that doesn’t work for most kids. Many cyber operators have cashed in anyway, expanding aggressively, often with the help of their boards. Rather than pump the brakes, cyber authorizers have frequently gone along for the ride. And state lawmakers have repeatedly looked the other way, usually at the urging of lobbyists who fight tooth and nail against even modest attempts to improve oversight or limit growth.”

Some Conclusions

Pearson Corporation is an amoral entity that is not terribly invested in much beyond profit margin. They have made another bad bet. AI is science fiction and central to their latest education initiative is the Orwellianly labeled “personalized learning”. A Child sitting at screens responding to computer generated algorithms is as impersonal as it gets. Students hate it.

Policy makers like the cyber concept because they see the possibility of reducing the largest costs in public schools, teachers’ salaries and facilities. Reactionaries see cyber charters as one more positive step toward ending public education. However, people are catching onto this attack on the commons and do not like it.

Making war is not a legitimate central purpose of government; education is. Reduce the embarrassing military industrial complex and put some of those savings into revitalizing public education. Our children deserve small classes in top notch facilities that are well maintained and staffed with certificated professional educators.

It does not take much to see that a wide deployment of taxpayer-funded lightly-regulated cyber schools is a horrible idea. They already have a stunning history of corruption and bad outcomes. If homeschoolers choose to use cyber education, that is fine but there is no need for taxpayers to fund that private choice. There is a small legitimate need for cyber education, but those schools should be administered by elected school boards and not by profiteering corporations.