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Charter Scandal a Product of Shabby Law and Ignored Oversight

7 Jul

By T. Ultican 7/7/2019

Notoriously clever operators of an online charter empire were indicted for allegedly stealing $50 million dollars. The Grand Jury of San Diego County heard the testimony of 72 witnesses and voted out a 67-count indictment against Sean McManus, Jason Schrock, Justin Schmitt, Eli Johnson, Steven Zant and six others. The charges were centered on the byzantine operations of the A3 Education organization which took full advantage of weak charter school laws in California.

From the indictment,

“Conspirators knowingly obtained state funding for children who were not assigned certificated teachers as required by law, were not in contact with the charter school, and who were not provided any educational services during the dates claimed.”

“Conspirators themselves, and through subordinates courted small school districts across California who were suffering budget woes and suggested they authorize charter schools as a means to generate additional state funding for the district in the form of oversight fees.”

The Small District Authorizer Model

Carol Burris was one of the first people to identify McManus as a predator. In her 2017 investigative report “Charters and Consequences”, she wrote about the Wise school which calls itself a Waldorf inspired charter school. She noted,

“No one really seems to be wise to Wise—except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project.”

“The former Academy of Arts and Sciences CEO, Sean McManus, described Wise as “a boutique program that people usually have to pay for, so to be part of a free charter school appeals to a lot of people in the area.” Wise and the state funding it brings left the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so did Sean McManus, who is now listed as the CEO of a new corporation–California STEAM Sonoma.”

“Despite its classroom schedule, Wise refers to itself as a ‘learning based resource center.’ This classification allows California STEAM Sonoma to sponsor the program, and the Liberty School District to acquire the cash cow.”

Wise is still in operation under the name Heartwood Education Collaborative. McManus exited the Academy of Arts and Science (AAS) in 2016. AAS renamed itself Compass Charter Schools. Shortly after leaving AAS, McManus cofounded A3 Education with Jason Schrock.

Heartwood Educational Collaborative

Heartwood (AKA Wise) Education Collaborative Independent Journal Photo

Carol Burris recently posted,

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.”

“And who gave the seed money to start this adventure?”

“The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) did.”

“Eleven Academy of Arts and Sciences charter schools that used the for-profit K-12 curriculum received a total of $2,825,000 from the CSP state grant to California. Today, all 11 schools are closed.”

McManus and his associates at A3 implemented the small district authorizer model with a vengeance.

Previously, one of McManus’s first forays into using small district authorizers was with New Jerusalem Elementary School District which authorized the Academy of Arts and Sciences – San Joaquin and CalSTEM – San Joaquin. For unknown reasons, AAS closed both those schools and its renamed successor Compass Charter Schools has departed San Joaquin County. New Jerusalem only had 22 Public School Students this year but it had 4,809 Charter School Students, few of whom lived in their Tracy, California area. New Jerusalem appears more sinister than just a cash strapped small district.

Apparently, part of the problem McManus had at AAS was that some of their schools were blended learning academies which meant they had physical addresses. This led to a law suit by Los Angeles Unified School District for opening schools in their district without notification and the closure of some schools. A3 Education has been careful to only implement Independent study; AKA 100% cyber schools with no physical addresses for students.

A3 Small District Model

Based on California Department of Education Enrollment 2018-2019

All of the schools listed above with the various districts have the same business address, 3300 Irvine Ave. #330 Newport Beach, Ca 92660 which is A3 Education’s business address. The non-profit tax filings available for theses schools all show this address and have some combination of Rob Sikma, Kevin Tu, Eric Johnson and Klarc Kover on their boards. As an example see these legal documents for California Steam San Bernardino, California Steam Sonoma, University Prep and Uplift California.

Board member Eric Johnson is probably the person indicted in San Diego under the name Eli Johnson. Board members Sikma, Tu and Kover all testified before the grand jury investigating A3.

Various California news sources reported details about the alleged scheme to steal $50 million. San Diego’s Courthouse News wrote about the funding of the charter schools,

“The funds were then transferred to multiple companies owned by McManus and Schrock, including A3 Education, A3 Consulting, Global Consulting Services and Mad Dog Marketing. The money was spent on start-up investments and real estate and some funds were wired directly to themselves or family members, according to the indictment.”

“Another co-defendant, Steve Van Zant, 56, created the company EdCBO to provide back office services for A3 Charter Schools. He hid his involvement with EdCBO and McManus by filing all corporate paperwork under another person’s name, prosecutors say.”

The Los Angeles Times stated,

“From the affiliated businesses, at least $8.18 million went into personal bank accounts, some in Australia, and into charitable trust accounts for McManus, Schrock and their wives, and $500,000 went to a family member of McManus, according to the indictment.”

“McManus and Schrock also used $1.6 million of A3 Education’s funds to buy a private residence for McManus in San Juan Capistrano, the indictment states.”

“The alleged violations included Valiant Academy paying A3 about $3.6 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year. The invoices were approved for payment by McManus at A3 and another man, neither of whom were employees of the charter school, according to the district’s report.”

“The school also paid Mad Dog Marketing — a company that has common ownership with A3 — $288,000 during the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the report.”

The Voice of San Diego added,

“An early step in establishing the A3 empire came when Steve Van Zant, a former superintendent of Dehesa Elementary School District, “brokered” the sale of an online nonprofit charter school to A3 for $1.5 million, prosecutors say.”

“In winter 2017, Chris Thibodeau was performing an annual audit of Cal Prep Sutter in Sutter County …. He noticed that McManus was listed as the CEO of Cal Prep Sutter, but that the school was also doing business with McManus’s company A3 Education.

The Voice of San Diego explained that prosecutors allege McManus and Schrock fabricated a set of minutes dated July 6, 2016 that said McManus was replaced as CEO by codefendant Eli Johnson. They purportedly used these false documents to allay Thibodeau’s concern about “related transactions.”

Sean McManus appears to have fled the country and is thought to be in his native Australia. The other 10-defendents have entered not guilty pleas.

State Charter Law was Designed to be Weak

Cyber Charters in California can serve all of the students in the home county of the authorizing district plus all of the students from bordering counties. That means these eight small school districts gave A3 access to millions of students.

A3 Athorizer Map

Voice of San Diego Map of Counties Served by A3

In the school year 2018-2019, Dehesa Elementary had 5010 students in online only schools. Of those 2267 were in kindergarten to third grade or 45.2% of the total. There were similar numbers in the other districts. Why would people put babies in front of computer screens? It must be that the main attraction for these cyber schools is home-schooling.

Since home-schooling does nothing to build community and is driven mostly by religious convictions, why should taxpayers fund it? All Americans should have freedom of choice, but taxpayers should not be expected to pay for private choices. The public already provides the world’s best public education system for free; taking funds from those public schools for the benefit of a small minority is inequitable.

The state of California puts more than $80 billion annually into k12 education. Because that money is a natural target for profiteers and scammers, extra vigilance is needed. However, California’s charter school law was developed to provide minimum vigilance.

During its early stages, several billionaires like Carry Walton Penner, Reed Hastings and Arthur Rock made sure the California charter school law was designed to limit governmental rules and oversight. For example, charter schools are not required to meet the earthquake standards prescribed in the 1933 Field Act, which holds public schools to higher building code requirements. Since that laws enactment no public schools have collapsed in an earthquake. The picture of the Education Collaborative School above is evidence that students in a known earthquake zone are now at increased risk of injury and death.

A few weeks ago Louis Freedberg observed that a key weakness in California’s chartering law is that there are no standards for authorizers and a lack of expertise. He also wrote about the number of charter authorizers saying, “unlike many states, California has hundreds of them: 294 local school districts, 41 county offices of education, along with the State Board of Education.” Among these 336 authorizers, several are school districts of less than 1,000 students which have neither the capacity nor training to supervise charter schools. Some of these small districts look more like charter school grafters than public school districts.

A state audit dated October 17, 2017 reported,

“ActonAgua Dulce Unified’s and New Jerusalem’s decisions to authorize the outofdistrict charter schools we reviewed may have resulted partly from weaknesses in the districts’ authorization processes. Specifically, neither of the two districts has an adequate process for ensuring that petitions comply with state law.”

This state audit which was promptly ignored by Governor Brown and the legislature was pointing directly at the weaknesses in California’s chartering law that A3 Education is accused of exploiting. A3 is not the only organization that is using these weaknesses. K-12 Inc. is selling products into both A3 and California Virtual Academy. Furthermore, K-12’s relationship with California Virtual is legally questionable. Pearson Corporation is using Connections Academy to market their online products and Epic is also looking to expand their own dubious online schools.

Not only are state officials not reacting to warnings from auditors, they are providing the offenders loans through the Charter School Revolving Loan program. The A3 schools have received over $2,000,000 in loans through this program.

A majority of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Charter School Policy Task Force supported banning authorizing charter schools outside of district boundaries. Secretary of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond explained,

“Prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools located outside of district boundaries would allow for greater local control and oversight of charter schools. In addition, such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”

In addition, the task force unanimously backed a call to “create a statewide entity to provide training for authorizers.” A majority also proposed enacting “a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.” Concerning this last point Thurmond’s report said, “There  has  been  growing  concern  that  virtual  charter  schools  are  operated  without  appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students …”

A Few Points and Observations

A3 Education was looking to expand across the country. In 2016, Johnson, Schrock and McManus put together a proposal for Ohio Steam Columbus. The Colorado group Thompson School District Reform Watch reports that Justin Schmitt is still involved with Foundations Learning and Colorado’s Online Charter’s. They also note that Schmitt has virtual charter school interests in Arizona. Schmitt brought Mosaica virtual schools to California which A3 purchased and evidently Schmitt was part of the purchase. It is also interesting that A3’s Marketing Director, Mary Clare Coyle, lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

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.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.”

The charter school experiment is a national disaster. It has clearly failed and virtual charter schools have a lengthy history of corruption and poor performance. Shut them down and only allow elected school boards to provide online education. It is time for an extended moratorium on new charter schools while existing charter schools are carefully transitioned to management by elected school boards.

Maybe Alice Walton and Charles Koch think property rights are the only freedom to be valued. Maybe they want to end public education. Maybe they think markets are a magic elixir that never fails. I don’t! I agree with the statement in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains,Market fundamentalism – the irrational belief that markets solve all problems ….” I believe in democracy, human rights and public education.

 

The Billionaire Financed Racist Attack on Camden’s Schools

26 Jun

By T. Ultican 6/25/2019

The rape of public education in Camden, New Jersey is a classic example of “segrenomics.” In 1997, one of the only functioning organizations in the city of Camden was the public school system. This city often labeled “the most dangerous city in America” had 19,303 students registered into Camden City School District (CCSD). Ninety-five percent of those students were either Black (56.5%) or Hispanic (38.9%). In 2018, CCSD had 6800 students registered into its public schools.

In her masterpiece Cutting School, Noliwe Rooks defined “segrenomics.” She noted that to lift all children up requires racial and economic integration and she encourages us to educate poor students with wealthy students; not falling for the separate but equal fallacy. Unfortunately, today, poor children experience a recurrent push towards vocational education. Their schools often employ “cost effective” forms of funding and delivery such as cyber schools, students at screens and blended learning.  Rooks observes,

“While not ensuring educational equality, such separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education have provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling schooling. I am calling this specific form of economic profit segrenomics. Segrenomics, or the business of profiting specifically from high levels of racial and economic segregation, is on the rise.”

Camden

Camden Images

Camden, New Jersey Images

When crossing the Delaware River from Philadelphia on the Ben Franklin Bridge, you arrive in Camden, New Jersey. The small city of 77,000 was incorporated in 1828. It was a prosperous manufacturing center up until the 1950’s when its population peaked at 125,000 and manufacturing jobs started leaving.

By the 1990’s corruption and violence were wracking the city. In December of 2000, Mayor Milton Milan was convicted of taking bribes. Ralph Natale the former boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob turned state’s evidence against Milan. The Mayor’s predecessor, Arnold Webster pleaded guilty to illegally paying himself $20,000 in school district funds after he became mayor. A former CCSD board president pled guilty to embezzling $24,000. Worst of all, homicides were becoming common.

In 2012, the Daily Mail, a publication from the United Kingdom, ran an article about Camden, “The most dangerous town in America: Inside Camden, New Jersey where 39 people have been murdered this year.” It gave these bullet points:

  • 13 homicides in July – the most deadly month since a shooting spree in 1949
  • Murder rate was ten times New York City in 2011 — and on pace to be even higher this year
  • More than half of children live below the poverty line as city is ravaged by drugs
  • Police department forced to cut one third of officers in 2011 and arrests dropped to less than half of what they were in 2009

The web site Neighborhood Scout tracks violent crime in America. They state, “Our research reveals the 100 most dangerous cities in America with 25,000 or more people, based on the number of violent crimes per 1,000 residents.” From 2012 until today, Camden has been in the top 10 most dangerous American cities.

  • 2012 – 5th place
  • 2013 – 2nd place
  • 2014 – 3rd place
  • 2015 – 1st place
  • 2016 – 2nd place
  • 2017 – 4th place
  • 2018 – 4th place
  • 2019 – 8th place

To go along with political corruption and out of control violent crime, Camden is poverty racked. New Jersey TV 13 reported,

“Camden, N.J., is the poorest city in the nation. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 32,000 Camden residents live below the poverty line. For a family of four, the poverty line is an annual household income of about $22,000.”

The Public Schools Are Failing – Really?

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 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability measures were purposely designed to open a path for privatizing schools. He wrote,

“As Lily Tomlin once remarked, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.’”

“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).”

In 2006, the state of New Jersey appointed a fiscal monitor to oversee all actions taken by the CCSD board. This was motivated in part by a cheating scandal and corruption concerns. As Mark Weber who blogs as the Jersey Jazz Man wrote, “The state appoints a fiscal monitor for the Camden district after members of the Legislature are shocked — shocked, I tell you! — that a city that has been under the thumb of a political machine for years might have some corruption.”

There appears to have been two types of cheating at CCSD. In type one, certain administrators were getting bonus for improved graduation rates and in the other type teachers were being pressured to cheat on the NCLB related testing.

The big downfall of high stakes testing and merit pay is they both drive unethical behavior. It is now clear that standardized testing only measures economic status. That explains why exclusively schools in high poverty areas have been closed for poor testing results. The tests of course do not measure the quality of the closed schools; they reflected average family income.

In 2011, Camden’s testing results and graduation rates were miserable. Only 45% of the student body graduated in four years and just 60% had graduated after five years. Graduation rates of less than 50% had persisted since the 1990’s. However, there have been success stories matriculating from Camden’s schools like Tevin Wooten of the Weather Channel.

It is disingenuous to blame Camden public schools, teachers and students for these poor outcomes.

Doctor Kerry Ressler is the lead investigator of the Grady Trauma Project. He has been interviewing inner-city residents and found that about two-thirds said they had been violently attacked and that half knew someone who had been murdered. At least 1 in 3 of those interviewed experienced symptoms consistent with PTSD at some point in their lives — and that’s a “conservative estimate” said Dr. Ressler. He stated,

“The rates of PTSD we see are as high or higher than Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam veterans. We have a whole population who is traumatized.

Marie Corfield who is “that teacher in that Chris Christie You Tube video” interviewed Doctor Keith Benson for her blog. Benson wears many hats. He is an Adjunct Professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, President of the Camden Education Association, Education Program Specialist for CCSD, Education Chair Camden NAACP and has a decade of classroom teaching experience. In the interview, he responded to a question about teaching traumatized children,

“When you’re dealing with children who live in concentrated poverty and a lot of violence, there are a lot of residual effects. … And that’s something that’s given very little regard by ‘reformers’ but it’s a very big hurdle in the educative process between teacher and student. So a lot of what we’re doing is building up students as individuals; showing love and care. And until we do those things, teaching content is a waste of time.”

“Some of these violent occurrences are in students’ families or their social network, so they bring those stories, that pain, that hurt into the classroom. What does that do to a child’s perspective on the future when people they care about have been seriously hurt or killed or incarcerated?”

In 2011, even while the Camden police and fire departments were imploding due to Governor Chris Christie’s budget cuts, the CCSD continued to take care of and educate the children. However, the schools had no control over the violence and poverty that their students were facing. Far from being failures, they were making heroic efforts to save as many children as possible. Those are the children and communities of color that politicians in New Jersey had turned their back on.

The Billionaire Attack

In January 2010, a big fan of privatizing public education, Chris Christy, assumed the the office of New Jersey Governor. In 1999, Christy had been a lobbyist for Chris Whittle and his Edison Schools. That is when Edison Schools had their Initial Public Offering. Their claim that Christy was touting said that they could educate America’s children at a profit and do it both cheaper and better than public schools.

The Jersey Jazz Man, Mark Webber, says the takeover of Camden schools was not inevitable. He claims, “The dismantling of Camden’s public school system was planned years ago, and that plan was funded by a California billionaire with an ideological agenda.

The California billionaire is Eli Broad. To advance the cause of public school privatization, Broad founded The Broad Academy, an unaccredited administration training program.

Broad’s theory is that public school administrators and elected school boards lack the financial background to run large organizations. Motoko Rich’s Times article explained, ‘“The new academy,’ he said, would ‘dramatically change this equation’ by seeking candidates in educational circles as well as recruiting from corporate backgrounds and the military, introducing management concepts borrowed from business.” He believes school leaders do not need expertise in education; consultants can be hired for that.

Broad was able to place several of his trainees into New Jersey including Bing Howell and Rochelle Sinclair. Howell served as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reported directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick. Howell’s proposal for Camden suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options.

The Urban Hope Act is a 2012 law that created a new class of charter schools called renaissance schools. It also has a teacher professional development component. Of all the excellent graduate schools of education in the state, the Act hands over professional development to Relay Graduate School, the fake graduate school started by the charter school industry.

The portfolio model posits treating schools like stock holdings and trimming the failures by privatizing them or closing them. The instrument for measuring failure is the wholly inappropriate standardized test. This model inevitably leads to an ever more privatized system that strips parents and taxpayers of their democratic rights. It was created through billionaire funding as a systematic way to remove democratic control of schools from local communities.

Governor Christie took control of Camden’s schools in March 2013. CBS News stated, “Christie says he’ll appoint a new superintendent and the state will ensure every student has books and technology.”  The state took control in June and in August, True Jersey reported,

“The city of Camden could soon be getting a new superintendent. Gov. Chris Christie announced his selection of Paymon Rouhanifard as the first State Superintendent of the Camden School District.”

At the time Rouhanifard was 32-years old. He had 2-years teaching experience as a TFA corps member and no experience leading schools. From 2009-2012, he worked for the NYC Department of Education. Mark Weber described his job,

“Rouhanifard’s job at the NYCDOE was to go around New York and close neighborhood schools so they could be replaced with charters. Obviously, this is why then-Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Christie picked him for the job: he knows how to dismantle a public school system and turn it over to privatizers.”

Rouhanifard left his superintendent’s job in 2018 to become an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Walton Family Foundation. He also completed the Broad academy administration program in 2016.

Gates, Sackler, Arnold and the Walton Family have all joined Eli Broad in financing the privatization of Camden’s schools. Gates sent $2,700,000 to 50Can and $27,000,000 to the Charter Fund which are both organizations supplying money to privatize Camden’s schools. Jonathan Sackler sent $1,050,000 to 50Can. John Arnold sent $6,189,000 to the Charter Fund, $100,000 for common enrollment in Camden and $290,000 to Teach for America in Camden. The Walton family is the Charter Funds major donor and gives direct support to the charter school management companies in Camden.

Schools Disappearing

Privatization Chart Compares 2003 Enrollment Data with 2018

What chance does a small city that is poverty stricken and dominated by minority populations have against Billionaires who are out to end their right to vote on the control of their schools? This is what segrenomics looks like.

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.

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.