Archive | October, 2019

Is Inspire Charter School the Next A3 Education?

9 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/9/2019

Inspire Charter School mirrors the methods of A3 Education. It employs practices strikingly similar to those that led to May’s 67-count indictment against A3’s leaders. Furthermore, the California Charter School Association (CCSA) took the unusual step of sharing concerns about Inspire and A3 with California authorities. Both are virtual schools that concentrate on obtaining authorization from small school districts. These systems have a similar structure in which a central organization controls the schools that are contracting with it and they transfer funds among multiple organizations making it difficult to monitor their activities. Students at Inspire and A3 struggle academically.

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The First Inspire Charter School Opened in 2014

The Acton-Aqua Dulce Unified School District is infamous for authorizing suspect charter applications while not having the resources to adequately monitor those schools. It enrolls 1085 public school students and 14,734 charter school students. Acton-Aqua Dulce authorized Inspire’s first charter school which was located in Los Angeles County. Strangely, Inspire Charter grew from 151 students in the 2014-15 school year to 4,321 students in the 2018-19 school year and then closed up shop this June 30th.

Founder Nick Nichols needed a program that would service his target audience of home school students.  The Inspire 2016 tax form shows that he purchased curriculum from Academic Arts and Action for $149,625. This is notable because the chairman of Academic Arts and Action was Jason Schrock and the President was Sean McManus. That is the same Schrock and McManus indicted in the A3 scandal.

The education writer for the San Diego Union Tribune (UT), Kristen Taketa, has been relentlessly pursuing the Inspire story. She explains one of the the charters selling points,

“Inspire parents have been able to spend state-provided money on expenses they say are educational, from Disneyland annual passes to private ice skating coaching. The list of places where Inspire parents could spend school funds has included Costco, Amazon, Big Air Trampoline Park, Medieval Times, Guitar Center and the DNA testing company 23 and Me, according to Inspire’s list of approved vendors.”

Inspire provides each parent $2600 to $3000 to spend on field trips and other educational resources.

In 2015, Inspire rolled out a successful but legally questionable method for attracting students. They offered parents $200 paid out of enrichment funds for every student they recruited and they incentivized staff $100 in extra work hours for each learner they signed.

Last year Nick Nichols oversaw nine schools with 23,300 total students. In the 2016-17 school year, Inspire took in $76,018,441 yet their debt was skyrocketing. Their pay for officers went from $65,318 for the 2014-15 school year to $2,011,898 in the 2016-17 school year. Nick Nichols did especially well.

Inspire Income-Debt-Wages-Table

Data from Inspire Tax Documents

The UT’s Taketa reports, “Inspire expects to pull in $285 million in state funding this school year.”

Inspire just secured another $50,000,000 loan from the California School Finance Authority. With booming student daily attendance income and large financial backing from the state, it is strange that Nick Nichols chose now to take a temporary leave of absence. Former Mount Diablo Superintendent of Schools and Inspire’s chief operating officer, Steven Lawrence, is taking over as executive director.

Unethical and Academically Miserable

It is not just the CCSA but other destroy-public-education (DPE) groups like APLUS+, who labels itself “the leading voice for the personalized learning choice” are alarmed by Inspire. Aplus+ director Jeff Rice stated, “We are all concerned about actors like this who are repeatedly violating generally acceptable best practices.” Rice removed Inspire as a member school in 2016.

In March of 2018, the Winship-Robbins school district threatened to rescind Inspire North’s charter because of what then-Superintendent Laurie Goodman called “gross financial management.” Taketa revealed, “Four months after she issued the notice of violation to Inspire, Goodman left her job at Winship-Robbins and became Inspire’s director of leadership development, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

Inspire Charter School Network

Authorizing Districts are Small with Histories of Lax Charter Oversight

Shortly after the A3 Education indictments, Carol Burris, writing in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet observed, “From 2009-2015, McManus was the CEO of the Academy of Arts and Science Charter Schools for which he served as CEO from 2009-2016, developing his model of using cash-strapped, small districts as authorizers of online charter schools that draw students from all over adjoining counties in exchange for fees.” Herbert “Nick” Nichols has followed the same strategy at Inspire.

With the coming 2-year moratorium on virtual schools in California, it appears there was a big push to get six new schools authorized before 2020. Taketa shared, “Inspire has been submitting petitions to districts this summer to open new schools, but it withdrew at least two after district officials questioned Inspire’s practices.” Irvine Unified School District had their lawyer respond to Inspire’s charter school petition. The lawyer presented more than 100 requests for more information including:

“What systems, policies, and procedures does Inspire have in place to ensure that public school charter funds are being spent in a proper manner and that a gift of public funds is not taking place?”

“Does Inspire require parents to produce receipts for all purchases?”

“Has Inspire conducted an audit of these funds to be sure that they are properly spent?”

“Is the charter school required to contract with Inspire or may it contract with other vendors for services?”

Four Inspire Charter schools changed their name this summer. San Diego’s Inspire South became Cabrillo Point Academy and Inspire Central is now Yosemite Valley Charter. Inspire North has changed to Feather River Charter and Inspire Kern’s new name is Blue Ridge Academy. They all removed Inspire from their name. Attorney Sarah Sutherland who has represented school districts in charter school litigation noted, “They can morph their existence and change their names faster than anyone can keep up with recognizing they’re the same organization.”

Charter school competitors believe Inspire is using unethical practices to poach from other schools. Terri Schiavone, the Founder and Director of Golden Valley Charter School in Ventura said her school is one of many that are losing students to Inspire Charter.

Schiavone claimed on NBC channel 39, “They target a school and then they try to get as many of their teachers and students as possible.” She said families and teachers are given incentives like using instructional funds to buy tickets to theme parks and there is a lack of oversight and accountability. Schiavone also points out that parents can buy whatever they want from vendors who she says are not fingerprinted or qualified.

The UT’s Taketa observed, “There are virtually no state rules about how home school charter families are allowed to use enrichment funds, partly because home school charters are not well-known outside of home school circles.”

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An Enrichment Opportunity Posted on the Inspire Facebook Page

Poor academic performance plagues Inspire. The graduation rate was only 69 percent last year and just 7 of 209 graduates met California state college admissions requirements.

In 2014, California adopted the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System. These Smarter Balanced assessments are new computer-based tests that measure student knowledge of California’s English and mathematics common core standards. The results show 2 categories for students who achieved an arbitrary expectation level and 2 categories for students who did not. For simplicity the 2 met expectations results are added together. Using these results, the following comparison data table was constructed.

Testing Data Comparison Chart

CAASPP Data Comparing Inspire Results with California Results

Standardized testing does not do a good job of measuring school quality, but it does a very good job of identifying poverty and language learners. That is what makes these results so stunningly awful for Inspire. California data shows 60.9 percent students in poverty and 19.3 percent English language learners. Inspire schools report 38.8 percent students in poverty and 2 percent English language learners. With their demographic advantage, it is difficult to explain away Inspires miserable testing results.

Opinion

There are a few obvious questions about Inspire Schools that need an answer. Why did Nick Nichols step down in September? Why did Inspire close its oldest and apparently lucrative school? Is any district attorney currently investigating Inspire? If not, why not?

Terri Schiavone also mentioned on Channel 39 News,

“It’s very desirable for some parents to enroll in schools in which nobody’s looking over their shoulder. They can utilize whatever curriculum they want, including religious curriculum, which is illegal if using public dollars.”

The National Center for Education Statistics did a 2003 study on why parents choose to homeschool their children. They found that 72% cited being able to “provide religious or moral instruction”.

In 2001, Dick and Betsy DeVos sat down for a lengthy interview at The Gathering which Jay Michaelson described 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 says that Bill Bennett’s new K12 Inc. cyber schools although not Christian could be a great help to evangelical homeschoolers.

I have always felt that it is an Americans right to choose where their children are educated. I also believe in free universal public education. However, it should not be the responsibility of taxpayers to pay for people’s private choices. If parents do not want their children in the free taxpayer funded school system, that is fine, but that choice should not be subsidized by the government.

Cyber schools have consistently achieved horrible academic results and at the same time been the center of amazing corruption and greed. Just look at what happened at A3 Education. It is time to end public spending on cyber education and to remember President Ulysses S. Grant’s admonition,

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”

New Orleans Education is Inefficient Expensive and Sad

2 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/2/2019

New Orleans’s public schools were targeted by the destroy-public-education (DPE) movement even before hurricane Katrina struck. Today, they are the national example of a privatized school system. DPE operatives like Neerav Kingsland, the former chief executive of New Schools for New Orleans and Managing Director of the secretive City Fund, use New Orleans to promote the portfolio management theory of school governance and to attract philanthropic dollars to their cause. However, the reality is that New Orleans’ schools are inefficient, undermine communities, have extremely high management and transportation costs, and still struggle academically. They are a sad but typical example of market-based education reform.

In 2002, George Bush signed into law the update of the Elementary and Secondary Education act known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). Alfie Kohn published a 2004 article, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow; Using Accountability to ‘Reform’ Public Schools to Death.” In it, he discussed the idea that the NCLB accountability measures were purposely designed to open a path for privatizing schools. He wrote,

 “We now have corroboration that these fears were entirely justified. Susan Neuman, an assistant secretary of education during the roll-out of NCLB, admitted that others in Bush’s Department of Education ‘saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda – a way to expose the failure of public education and blow it up a bit’’’ (Claudia Wallis, ‘No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?’, Time, June 8, 2008).”

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George Bush Signs NCLB Law January 8, 2002 – Ron Edmonds/AP-File

In 2003, Louisiana state government passed a school take-over law aimed at the low scoring schools in New Orleans. The law created the Recovery School District (RSD) which would manage the schools the state took. School performance scores (SPS) were given to schools based on testing data, attendance, dropout rates and graduation rates. Receiving an SPS rating of academically unacceptable four years in a row made a school vulnerable to takeover.

By the end of the 2004-2005 school year, the state had taken over five New Orleans schools. RSD turned all five into charter schools operated by four groups: University of New Orleans; Middle School Advocates, Inc.; Knowledge Is Power Program; and Institute for Academic Excellence. All set to begin in the 2005-06 school year.

However, privatizing five schools did little to solve the corruption problem endemic in the Orleans Parrish School Board. There were six interim superintendents between 1998 and 2005. With a lack of stable central leadership, corruption, graft, and incompetence persisted. An FBI investigation led to 11 indictments in 2004 and by end of the school year in May 2005 the district was effectively bankrupt.

In July, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) contracted with Alvarez & Marsal, a financial turnaround firm from New York City with little experience in public schools. The first Alvarez & Marsal status report said,

“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is (sic) unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck.

Aug 30 2015 Photo by David J. Phillip - AP

August 30, 2005 Photo by David J. Phillip/AP

Before Katrina, OPSB, which ran the public schools in New Orleans, operated 123 schools; in the spring following the storm, it was running just four.

With OPSB out of the road and RSD in charge, philanthropies like the Gates and Broad foundations were ready to help. According to Mayor Ray Nagin who is in prison,

“They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans. But we don’t want to go through what you’ve been through. All that struggle you’ve been having with that school board. We don’t want to do that. We want to come in clean.’”

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klien labeled the action of these school reform philanthropists a prime example of “disaster capitalism” which she described as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” She also observed, “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.”

In 2010, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan infamously said, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”

In 2009, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) made it more difficult for schools to remain academically acceptable, effectively ending most of the remaining public schools in New Orleans. BESE raised the minimum SPS score for Academically Unacceptable status to 65 for the 2010-11 school year and 75 for the 2011-12 school year. In the coming school year 2019-2020, there will be no public schools in New Orleans. RSD has transferred management of charter schools to the Orleans Parish School Board which has renamed itself NOLA Public Schools.

NOLA Public Schools is Inefficient and Ineffective

At the 2016 Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of CUNY, Andrea Gabor, presented at a breakout session. She was working on a book subsequently published in 2018 with the title After the Education Wars. Andrea made it clear that she was not anti-charter school and in her book she presents the story of one particularly successful charter school, Morris Jeff, which exemplified the Deming approach to business management. She had just returned from New Orleans where she encountered many black families who were initially positive about the new charter schools after Katrina, but were now angry.

One New Orleans parent at the North Carolina session explained that during her eighth grade year she was in a class with 55-students. Their room was not air-conditioned and they were restricted to running the fan 10-minutes each hour to save on electrical costs. With the news of large scale spending on schools in black communities, residents did not care about the governance structure. It was the first significant spending on education in their neighborhoods in living memory.

OPSB was established in 1841 with a large assist from the champion of common schools, Horace Mann. However, Louisiana was a slave state and it was illegal to educate slaves. Gabor noted, “In 1867, Robert Mills Lusher, a new state superintendent of education and a ‘rabid Confederate and outspoken racist,’ argued that all-white schools should be ‘properly preserved as a bastion of white supremacy.”’ With the end of reconstruction in 1877, the schools in New Orleans were resegregated and remained that way until the 1960s.

Charter school advocates talk about the corruption and dysfunction in OPSB, however Gabor stated:

“But you don’t hear much talk these days about the legacy of white supremacy that disenfranchised the city’s majority-black residents and sought to keep them in ignorance. (As recently as the turn of the millennium, 50% of the city’s entire population was functionally illiterate.) Nor will you hear much about how the city’s white citizens fought hard against integration well into the 1960s and then, when the gig was up, fled the schools.” (Emphasis added)

Six percent of k-12 students in New Orleans are white, yet the academically top ranked and most sot after high schools are Lusher Charter School which is 53.2% white and Benjamin Franklin High School which is 40.2% white.

One more quotation from Andrea Gabor’s After the Education Wars:

“Since 2006, the average renewal rate of charter schools has been 64.8 percent. That means well over one-third of the charter schools launched since Hurricane Katrina have failed so badly that they have either been taken over or closed.”

Professor of Economics Doug Harris and his team at Tulane University are contracted to study school performance in New Orleans. It must be difficult to maintain neutrality when sharing office space on the seventh floor of 1555 Poydras Street with the pro-privatization group New Schools for New Orleans. Harris claims public schools improved considerably after Hurricane Katrina. In his new study, he attributes that success to performance-based closures and takeovers, as well as charter openings.

However, hurricane Katrina created major changes in New Orleans. The Enrollment was about 62,000 before the storm, and is 48,000 now. It is not only smaller, but less impoverished, with less concentrated poverty. Many of the poorest families left and never returned. Originally, per student spending was increased dramatically to get the schools back up and running. Now, the student spending is $1,400 per student more than before Katrina.

Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reviewed Harris’s study and disagreed with his conclusion. He thinks the post Katrina changes were so ubiquitous that before and after comparison studies will never be dispositive. Baker says,

“I’m not convinced that the data available have sufficient additional precision to answer any more useful policy questions. Perhaps more importantly, the uniqueness of the policy context, conditions and changes induced by “the storm” will always severely limit any policy implications for other settings.”

Today in New Orleans, it is not uncommon for students living within view of a school, to get on a bus and travel five miles to their assigned schools. Writing in the Washington Post, Emma Brown explained, “Students were no longer assigned to schools via attendance boundaries; instead, they decided where they wanted to go and entered lotteries for a chance to enroll.” The concept of a community school that a student and all her neighborhood friends and family attended has been eliminated. Brown also shared:

“It was state officials, elected by the state’s white majority, who took over the schools from the local school board, elected by the city’s black majority. The teachers who were fired were mostly black; many of those teaching now are white, and they come from somewhere else.”

“Students traveled an average of 1.8 miles further to get to school in 2011-2012 than they did before Katrina, according to the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans.”

“One in four students attended a school more than five miles away from home.”

Transportation is not the only inefficiency in the privatized system. Since each of the charter school organizations are stand alone learning education agencies, they must have their own set of administrators. Administrative costs have dramatically risen for NOLA education. However, the cost for teachers has been reduced by replacing the formerly experienced black educators that constituted 73% of the teaching staff with mostly white Teach For America corps members who have no academic training or experience in teaching.

A huge problem with low attendance bedevils the privatized system and an extraordinary 30% of NOLA teachers resigned last year. The latest state test scores (LEAP) were released, and the scores in New Orleans stalled or dipped.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch sums up:

“So, here is the New Orleans model: Close almost all public schools. Replace them with private charters. Fire all the teachers. Replace most of the teachers with inexperienced, ill-trained TFA recruits. Close low-performing charters and replace them with other charters. Keep disrupting and churning. In the first two years, scores will go up, then stall. By year eight, “quality” will stagnate or decline. The schools will be highly stratified and racially segregated. The few high-performing schools will have selective admissions.”