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.

Inspire picture 5

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.”

Inspire picture 2

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.”

8 Responses to “Is Inspire Charter School the Next A3 Education?”

  1. ciedie aech October 10, 2019 at 6:15 pm #

    I never stopped to consider this essential point as part of the current backlash to the “liberal” public school growth after WWII: “Dick lamented the fact that schools have displaced churches as the center of community activities.”

    • tultican October 11, 2019 at 3:26 am #

      I was struck by that comment as well. Betsy also talks about homeschooling her daughters in the Gathering interview.

  2. Mary Cheraz October 12, 2019 at 6:33 pm #

    Interesting article – one has to be so careful about citing test scores. A closer look at most brick and mortar traditional public schools with similar demographics may actually reveal similar test scores. If would be more fair for someone to evaluate do a comparison of statewide test scores across all schools. The author of this article clearly has an agenda to push.

    • tultican October 12, 2019 at 7:36 pm #

      I am missing something here. The data set was state wide. I agree that testing data is difficult to get convincing results from but in this case Inspire had a large demographic advantage over the state wide data.

  3. Rachel October 15, 2019 at 9:51 pm #

    I’ve studied the California Charter School conundrum very carefully for a while now. It is much more nuanced than many think. There are actually many good things coming from it, though the bad apples certainly get more air time. Work is being doing by state and charter school leaders to fix holes in the legislation without gutting it completely. Charter schools save the state millions every year and most of them out-perform the local district schools. If they can be honed as the law originally intended instead of simply given up on, we my have something truly revolutionary on our hands. If anyone has specific questions I’d be happy to address them.

  4. tultican October 15, 2019 at 10:07 pm #

    I have to quibble with you a little. I do not see any savings to the state coming from the charter industry. In fact they are having such a negative financial impact on public school districts, that it is more likely that charters are driving education costs up. Secondly, charter schools do not out-perform local school districts. Even the new report from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education shows that on testing they do no better. And here we are only talking about testing data which is a very flawed method for measuring school quality. Charter schools are a neoliberal privatization agenda that strips democratic rights while providing no net benefit.

  5. Nicole October 19, 2019 at 12:05 am #

    I homeschool my children through a charter school and my reasons do not and have never included religious instruction. In fact, we aren’t allowed to purchase anything religious with our funds. I’m not the only parent either with these feelings. We have a significant group of LBGTQ and atheists that are homeschooling their children through our charter for their own reasons. There are some concerns and they need to be corrected but this article is biased because it doesn’t tell all sides of the story and doesn’t include the benefits.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tom Ultican: Will Inspire Charters Be the Next Big Scandal? | Diane Ravitch's blog - October 14, 2019

    […] Ultican sees a striking similarity between the Inspire charter chain, which enrolls home schoolers, and the A3 chain, which went up in flames with a loss to taxpayers of […]

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