Tag Archives: Charter School Growth Fund

Sweetwater Schools Financial Problems Became Political Cudgel

9 Jan

The newly hired Chief Financial Officer of Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), Jenny Salkeld, discovered a significant problem with the budget she inherited. She presented her findings to the Sweetwater leadership team in early September which forwarded her report onto the County Office of Education (COE). The SUHSD board also called in all bargaining units to suspend contract negotiations and inform them of the budgetary uncertainties. Sensationalism and subterfuge became the new reality in Chula Vista, California.

An October San Diego Union article reported,

“On June 25, the school board approved a budget for this school year that assumed the district had spent $328 million in unrestricted funding last school year and had $17 million in reserves going into this school year. In September, Salkeld presented a report showing that the district actually had spent $20 million more than that and started this school year with a negative reserve balance of $4 million.

“On top of spending more than previously estimated, the district received $6 million less in one-time state funding than it had expected.”

salkeld brief bio

After receiving Sweetwater’s alert about the accounting errors, the COE officially disapproved the 2018-19 budget the district had submitted. The reasons for disapproving the budget were the reasons Salkeld had reported. The county’s September 18 letter stated,

“The disapproval of the adopted budget is based on an assessment and analysis of the following major components of the district’s budget.

  • Preliminary 2017-18 negative unrestricted General Fund ending balance
  • Projected 2018-19 revenues overstated
  • Projected 2018-19 expenditures understated
  • Structural deficit in current and upcoming fiscal years
  • Cash concerns”

Apparently someone at the county leaked the budget information to the Voice of San Diego. The district which was in the process of understanding the extent of the problem did not have that opportunity. Instead they were faced with a withering public attack in both the San Diego Union and The Voice of San Diego. The headlines implied that a group of incompetent people at SUHSD were incapable of managing their affairs and were involved in possible fraud.

In the more than twenty reports in these two publications from September through December, it was obscured that it was the Sweetwater District which found the problem and informed the county. It was also never pointed out that budget analysts at the COE failed in their oversight responsibilities.

In November, the county approved Sweetwater’s revised budget.

Budget Shortfalls Throughout the State

Kristen Taketa reporting for the San Diego Union noted,

At least 10 districts in the county are projecting that they will not be able to meet their financial commitments next school year, including Chula Vista Elementary, Jamul-Dulzura Union, Mountain Empire Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Diego Unified, San Marcos Unified, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista Unified. More districts won’t be able to meet their financial commitments after next year.

Teketa provided three reasons for what is a statewide public school funding problem:

  1. Rising pension costs: To address looming pension debt, the state in 2014 started increasing school districts’ share of pension costs. In 2013-14, school districts paid 8 percent of their teachers’ salaries to the state’s teacher pension fund. This year, they had to pay 16 percent.
  2. Rising special education costs
  3. Declining enrollment: Oceanside officials estimate that they can only compensate for 40 percent of revenue lost when they lose students. The student enrollment losses are attributed mostly to charter schools. California, unlike some states, does not financially mitigate the burden caused by charter schools on public school districts. The only option districts have is to reduce services to the remaining students.

Last May, In the Public Interest published a paper by University of Oregon’s Professor Gordon Lafer called “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts.” He looked specifically at the impact of charter schools on San Diego Unified School District. Lafer found that the annual impact of student losses was $65,902,809 and that the cost per charter school student was $4,913.

By taking the 5500 students in charter schools instead of Sweetwater schools and multiplying that number by a conservative estimate of $4,000 in cost per student the total is $22,000,000 in stranded costs for the district; more than the budget error Salkeld discovered.

enrollment graphs

Charter Student Growth Compared with District Enrollment

What Caused the Budget Error?

Gene Chavira, President of the Sweetwater Education Association (affiliate of the California Teachers Association) said he believes this budget problem has roots that stretch back to the early 2000’s when Ed Brand was serving his first term as Superintendent. Chavira referenced some strange land sales from that period. Later, during Brand’s second stint as Superintendent, he and SUHSD CFO Diana Russo established two charter schools; another move Gene found suspicious.

The two charter schools were elementary schools belonging to SUHSD. The neighboring elementary school districts were unhappy and reacted by expanding their own charter schools to include the grades 7 – 12 that were serviced by Sweetwater.

After Brand came Jesus Gandara. In 2006, two Sweetwater board members, Jim Cartmill and Arlie Ricasa, flew to Texas and personally interviewed Gandara before he was hired as the Superintendent of Sweetwater schools. It appears that the board members and their search firm ignored some obvious warning signs when they made the hire. In 2011, the board voted to fire Gandara for abuse and brought back Ed Brand to lead the district. Another odd decision, since he had just been forced out as Superintendent of San Marcos Unified under accusations of nepotism.

In April of 2014, four of the five Sweetwater board members (Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez, Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa) plus Superintendent Jesus Gandara pled guilty to corruption charges and resigned.

In 2015, five new board members and a new superintendent took leadership of SUHSD. Chavira recalled vividly that he and many others called on the new board to conduct a forensic audit, but the board – though for it in principal – rejected spending the more than $1,000,000 required. Chavira feels that was one of two big mistakes made. The second was that they did not replace the existing finance team.

board group photo 2018

2018 SUHSD Board – Standing from the left: Arturo Solis, Frank Tarantino, Nicholas Segura, Kevin Pike. Seated from the Left: Paula Hall, Student Member Brenna Pangelinan, Superintendent Karen Janney. Photo from District

Throughout the lead up to this current budget problem, the new board has been extremely popular. In the 2018 election, Hall, Solis and Tarantino ran for reelection unopposed. Professor Karen Janney was a student, a teacher and an administrator in SUHSD. She was forced out of the district by then Superintendent Gandara. After which, she taught education leadership at San Diego State University.

This group has accumulated some amazing talent and support. The 2016 audit committee added two new members, Maricela Garcia-Centeno and Bill Kowba making this a power house committee. Existing committee member, Trustee Paula Hall, works as a financial analyst in San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Garcia-Centeno is a Certified Internal Auditor and Certified Fraud Examiner. Bill Kowba is a retired Rear Admiral who served both as Chief Financial Officer and Superintendent of SDUSD.

The audit committee’s 2016 report showed concerns regarding transparency and the need for more light shined on budget internals. They stated, “We are recommending the District direct the audit team so that work is not disproportionally focused on well regulated programs but performs a ‘deeper dive’ into areas that have potential of higher risk.

In 2017, the audit committee was recommendingdeeper testing for certain elements of the 2016-17 audit along with a recommendation for a special audit focusing on accounts payable, purchasing and contracts including ….” The implicit message was that the committee was not happy with the answers they were getting or perhaps not getting.

CFO Karen Michel and three members of her small team retired upon completion of the 2018-19 Sweetwater budget. All indications were that these were planned retirements.

After Salkeld’s report showing a $20,000,000 budget error, the county called in the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assist Team (FCMAT). On December 17th the FCMAT study was presented to the Sweetwater board. The Voice of San Diego reported,

“FCMAT’s chief executive officer Michael Fine told board members that 302 entries in the district’s accounting system were doctored to create the impression the district had more money than it really did. ‘That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up,’ he said, …”

This is a puzzling statement. In the report Fine says, “While the district prepares budget revisions throughout the fiscal year, detailed information provided by the district shows that budget revisions totaling millions of dollars include negative budget entries that lack sufficient supporting documentation.”  His study comes to several conclusions tending against Sweetwater that lack strong evidentiary basis and it has no details about what he later labeled “a cover-up.” Now, Fine will be conducting a fraud audit. If he does not find fraud, won’t he be open to a libel charge? Can his audit be trusted?

A December 21st Voice of San Diego headline states, “County Ed Office Takes Control of Sweetwater’s Board.” The county had issued a “stay and rescind” order which gives them veto power over some decisions made by the SUHSD board. This begs the question, why did the county which dropped the ball here jump so quickly into this drastic step when the district team which found the problem has been addressing it aggressively?

The SUHSD web-site has a response to the issues raised. The opening paragraph says,

“Over the past few months the Sweetwater Union High School District has faced significant challenges with respect to our organizational budget. … We realize that these issues may seem insurmountable at times, but we want to assure you that despite some of the doubts being cast in the public, we are moving forward with a stabilization plan that will ensure positive financial health.”

There is also a letter from Superintendent Janney about the “stay and rescind” order. She cites remarks by Dr. Mark Skvarna, a financial advisor from the county, about the limitations on the order. Janney writes, “This authority is specific to the actions that are ‘inconsistent with the district’s ability to meet its financial obligations.’”

The San Diego Union and the Voice of San Diego are Biased Against Public Education

Editorials in the San Diego Union continually attack teachers and their unions. An editorial leading up to the 2018 general election called for a former banker and charter school chief as Secretary of Public Instruction (SPI). Following a familiar destroy public education (DPE) script; another editorial created a false crisis as the predicate for an urgent plea to elect charter school executive, Marshall Tuck, over California State Assemblyman, Tony Thurmond.

In 2005, Buzz Woolley founded Voice of San Diego. It was the first digital nonprofit news organization to serve a local community in the country. Besides his interest in using new technologies for media, Woolley also is enthusiastic about education technology in the classroom. In 2013 Woolley’s Girard Foundation sent over $500,000 to companies developing software for “personalized” education and competency-based education.

The year before starting the Voice of San San Diego, Woolley and Gap Founder Don Fisher established the Charter School Growth Fund. John Walton (Walmart heir) and Greg Penner (Walmart heir) joined the board. In 2016, that fund had assets of $217,176,094 with a yearly income of $95,184,785.

A local media watch dog report tells the story of an education reporter losing her job while perusing a store about the COE. Blogger Maura Larkins wrote,

“Voice of San Diego dropped its coverage of SDCOE attorney shenanigans, and laid-off its stellar education reporter Emily Alpert.”

“Voice of San Diego benefactors Buzz Woolley and Irwin Jacobs [founded Qualcomm], who claim to care about education, could have easily paid Emily’s salary with their pocket change if they’d wanted her to stay.”

“It seems Buzz Woolley, Irwin Jacobs and Emily Alpert weren’t on the same page.”

Some Concluding Words

Superintendent Janney may have been wrong to retain the inherited financial team; however, in 2015 she had a lot on her plate. A Trustee said that Janney began by focusing on education leadership in the district. There was a widely shared belief that several administrators were in positions by dint of cronyism and that many of them were incompetent. When she was alerted to the budget issue, Janney reacted professionally. She immediately informed stakeholders and the COE.

The budget error appears to have originated within the financial department. FCMAT Director Fine claimed it was a “cover-up.” Maybe he is right but he did not present much convincing evidence; only reporting that some entries that subtracted from the deficit were not sufficiently documented. It is hard to see the motive for financial professionals engaging in this “cover-up,” but people sometimes make strange decisions.

Two mainstream media outlets in San Diego that have regularly promoted privatizing public education and “corporate education reform” have been ruthlessly attacking SUHSD. They have indicated that the leaders in Chula Vista are incompetent and corrupt. The obvious dog-whistle here is that there are too many non-whites in SUHSD leadership.

The truth is that the SUHSD team is highly competent and has delivered a refreshing era of ethics and openness to the South-bay. Karen Janney is an educator with deep knowledge and experience, plus she is a gifted leader and public speaker. The present financial team led by Jenny Salkald is much more impressive than the county or state teams who have been nothing short of unprofessional.

The real investigation should be into whom or what is motivating this unjust attack on SUHSD? Also, why are we paying all those bloated salaries at the San Diego County Office of Education and for what?

Thrive Charter Schools All Hat and No Cattle

17 Nov

Excellent public relations and marketing mask a substandard educational program at the inappropriately named Thrive Public [sic] Schools (TPS). The misleading name indicates that this private business is a public school. It is not. Four years of assessments confirm that both San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and the County Office of Education (COE) were correct in 2014 when they denied TPS’s charter petition.

January 7, 2014 SDUSD staff felt that TPS was not ready to open and reported to the board, “Staff recommends approval of the petition to establish Thrive Public School (Thrive) Charter School, for a five-year term beginning July 1, 2015 and ending June 30, 2020.” TPS leaders wanted a charter starting July 1, 2014. SDUSD board concluded TPS is “demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program” and denied the petition.

Founder Nicole Assisi turned to Voice of San Diego which was founded by one of her benefactors, Buzz Woolley. They ran her public complaint in which she declared,

“It was not the finest hour for the SDUSD board of trustees, which ignored district staff diligence and its own existing policies to deny a school that would have served the influx of families in Mission Valley. The neighborhood, by the way, does not currently have a single public elementary school. Families drive miles to get to their ‘neighborhood’ school.”

“Thankfully, the County Board of Education has an opportunity to right this wrong when our appeal comes before them next week.”

March 27, 2014 COE staff reviewed the appeal and concluded TPS presents an “unsound educational program and does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of required elements.” Interestingly, one of the reasons for denial was that the petitioner did not clearly identify the intended location for the new school. None of the four current TPS schools are in Mission Valley.

On July 9, 2014, the State Board of Education (SBE) which has gained a reputation for rubber stamping charter school petitions approved the TPS charter unanimously. Many of the Brown appointed SBE board members come directly from the charter industry.

This November 13, the SDUSD board took up TPS’s new petition for a five year charter beginning July 1, 2019, and ending June 30, 2024. Trustees unanimously rejected TPS’s renewal. In case of rejection the SDUSD staff  notes say, “Thrive must submit its renewal documents to the SBE by December 2, 2018, to comply with the SBE’s renewal submission timelines.”

Kristen Taketa reporting on the TPS decision for the San Diego Union said the state requires charter schools to either perform as well as comparable district schools on state testing, or it must improve its test scores over time. Taketa reported,

“The district’s analysis found that Thrive met neither of those benchmarks. … Thrive’s test scores have also declined every year since it opened in 2014.

‘“Where it may not capture the true value of what is happening and taking place at this school — as we’ve already said, the school is more than a score — it is the standard that we are stuck with,’ Trustee Mike McQuary said of the test scores at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“At the same time trustees claimed their hands were tied in denying Thrive’s renewal, however, trustees said Thrive was failing to meet an “extremely low bar” that all but two[out of 44] San Diego Unified charter schools have been able to meet in the past five years.”

In the Public Interest (ITPI), a bay area think tank, took a look at TPS’s charter renewal petition and noticed that the comparison schools listed were inappropriate because they did not serve a similar population. Even so, TPS outcomes were deficient.  ITPI stated,

“When comparing TPS to schools with similar student populations, the results are even starker. Below we examine TPS performance compared with a set of schools in San Diego Unified School District with similar student populations ….”

The ITPI policy brief is packed with charts that show Thrive students are not testing well. Three of their graphics follow.

Thrive Data Set 1

California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Adjusted Peer Group Comparisons

Thrive Data Set 2

TPS and SDUSD Math and English Performance over Past Four Years

SDUSD’s staff report on the TPS petition contained many similar damning data sets. The TPS outcomes have fallen every year since its opening four years ago and schools in the peer group all significantly outperform TPS.

That data looks bad and even more troubling are the reports of uncontrolled bullying of SDUSD students by TPS students.

Thrive was the Creation of Big Money and Political Influence

Nicole and Danial FB

Daniel Assisi on his Facebook Page with TPS Founder and Wife, Nicole Assisi

Nicole Assisi, the founder of Thrive Charter Schools attended Coronado High School, a public school in Coronado, California. She matriculated to UCLA where she earned a multi-subject teaching credential. Her first teaching job was leading English classes at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High School in the 2002-2003 school year.

In 2003, she moved on to High Tech High where she worked until 2005 or 2006. Her linked in profile says she worked at High Tech until 2006 but it also says that in 2005 she went to Los Angeles to be an Assistant Principal at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. Her husband Daniel was director of Information technology at Camino Nuevo from 2006 to 2008.

In 2008 Nicole became Principle on special assignment at De Vinci Schools (Formerly Wiseburn 21st Century Charter). At DeVinci Schools, she worked with Don Braun who played a key role in undermining the Inglewood Public School District. That same year her husband Daniel Assisi went to work for the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA).

Nicole left De Vinci schools and returned to San Diego in 2013 to start TPS. The 34-years-old Nicole was provided with $8,960 from the Charter School Growth Fund and $100,000 from the Gates supported Educause to start her “non-profit.”

Once she obtained the charter authorization from the SBE, money flowed. The known list of 2014 donations:  Buzz Woolley’s Girard Foundation granted her $108,000; Gate’s Educause sent $254,500; Charter School Growth Fund kicked in $175,000 and the Broad Foundation delivered $150,000 for a total of $688,000. The next year, Broad gave another $50,000 and the New Schools Venture Fund pitched in $100,000. There is another $144,000 promised from Educause.

Destroy public education (DPE) careers pay well. Tax records reveal that Nicole’s start up “non-profit” has been lucrative. Her pay: year one $122,301; year two $133,747 and year three $142,541. Her husband holds a senior management position at the CCSA which means DPE money flows his way as well.

In 2017, TPS announced its big plan which stands to make founder and CEO Assisi a wealthy woman. A San Diego Union report said,

“The 35,000-square-foot facility will be the fourth San Diego campus for Thrive Schools and will open in about 12 months at the former site of Bayside Community Center at 6882 Linda Vista Road.”

“The project’s cost became more affordable for Thrive through the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which gives tax credits to for-profit businesses that are helping revitalize low-income communities.”

“Civic San Diego was eligible for the program and was allowed to sell the tax credits to whoever was making the investment. In this case, the credits were sold to the bank lending money to Thrive to buy the site.”

Although paid for with tax money, the deed will belong to Thrive Public Schools and CEO Nicole Assisi. This spring, ITPI published “Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools” which noted,

“Schools constructed with private funding subsidized by New Market Tax Credits or acquired with private funds but whose mortgage payments are reimbursed through the Charter Facilities Grant Program (known as “SB740”) are typically owned without restriction.”

All Hat

The old cowboy expression all hat and no cattle perfectly describes TPS. Their team is politically connected, supported by deep pocketed foundations intent on privatizing public education and has excellent marketing support but their schools are not very good.

TPS has developed support from neoliberal and conservative politicians. Their listed supporters:

  • Dede Alpert,  Former Assembly Woman and State Senator
  • Ben Boyce, Manager of Public Affairs at Southwest Strategies
  • Lisa Corr, Partner, Young Minney and Corr, LLP
  • Rod Dammeyer, Chairman, CAC; Board Member, Ca. Charter Schools Ass. & High Tech High
  • Tom Davis, Director of Events and Corporate Sponsorships, CALSA
  • Jon Dean, Chief Information Officer, Summit Public Schools
  • Donna Elder, Dept. Chair of Educational Leadership and Teacher Education, National U.
  • Kerry Flanagan,Cheif of Staff, California Charter Schools Association
  • Stanley V. Heyman, President, Heyman & Associates
  • Ben Hueso, State Senator
  • Heather Lattimer,Associate Dean, USD School of Leadership & Education Sciences
  • Diane Levitt, Director of K-12 Education, Cornell
  • Chet Pipkin, Founder, President and CEO of Belkin International
  • Robert Schwartz, Senior Advisor, New Teacher Center
  • Rebecca Tomasini, Founder and CEO, The Alvo Institute
  • Tom Torlakson, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California
  • Jed Wallace, President and Chief Executive Officer, California Charter Schools Association
  • Matthew Wunder, Chief Executive Officer, Da Vinci Schools
  • Mark Wyland, State Senator

Looking elsewhere on their web-pages one finds that Boyce, Davis, Elder, Heyman and Flanagan are Thrive board members. With few exceptions, the other supporters are either school privatization friendly politicians or active participants in the DPE movement.

TPS’s board member and public affairs guy, Boyce, generates excellent media coverage. For example, KPBS ran two articles that appear to take TPS claims and publish them without fact checking. One of their articles describes how Thrive is doing a wonderful job with special education children. It claims, “At Thrive, students are in the 96th percentile for academic growth, meaning while all the students may not be at grade level, they’re improving more quickly than the majority of their peers nationally.”

The same PBS article stated, “Since opening three years ago, TPS’s special needs population has grown from 11 to 16 percent of the student body.” However, based on TPS’s report to the state the 2017-2018 school year special education student percentage was 9.2 percent.

A few years ago the former on camera CNN reporter, Campbell Brown, started a publication supporting privatized education called The 74. It is primarily funded by the Walton Family Foundation which was formed by the heirs of the Walmart fortune. The Walton’s also fund the Charter School Growth fund and other DPE organizations. Earlier this year The 74 ran a puff piece with the title “Thrive Schools: How an Innovative California Charter Network Grew to 700 Students & 4 Campuses in Only 4 Years Through a Focus on Math, Literacy & ‘the Light of Kindness’” Surprisingly, they described a co-located Thrive elementary school,

“The Juanita Hills campus is co-located with Carver Elementary, a pre-K-5 school that enrolls much higher proportions of disadvantaged students and English learners than Thrive. The two facilities share the same lot, but a long blue line has been painted down the center to separate them. A Thrive parent complained that though Carver had its own library on-site, Thrive kids couldn’t use it.”

The biggest national publicist for TPS is Tom Vander Ark. He has a long history of championing students at computer screens. He was also the first education advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Vander Ark described the TPS education program,

“Curriculum such as Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop and CGI Math provide collaborative opportunities for small groups to work directly with the teacher, while other students work on Chromebooks or iPads.

“The middle school team uses Google Classroom to make and manage assignments. Math software includes ST Math and Zearn.

On October 26 the New York Times ran three articles about the dangers of screen time for children. One was called, “The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected.” The header for the article reads,

“America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.”

The children trapped inside the TPS schools are being sacrificed to the toxic ed-tech agenda.

Some Final Points

Thrive Public [sic] Schools is a private business that does contract work for the state government. There are two requirements for the label public school. One is being financed by tax payers which TPS is. The other is being governed by an elected body that sets and collects taxes which TPS is not. TPS is not a public school just like Hazard construction doing work for the county is not a public construction company. The public in the name is simply deceptive marketing.

For most of two centuries, public schools in America have been the incubators of democracy. Privatizing public education is undermining American democracy.

It costs more to run two or more school systems. Charter schools are in essence school districts. To finance multiple systems requires either higher taxes or per child spending in public schools must be reduced. The second option is the one being used. The experience of Kansas City Public Schools illuminates this issue.

Bad schools like TPS survive because they are good at marketing; have deep pocketed benefactors and political allies.

Charter schools have developed a history of fraud, abuse and instability. It used to be “another day another charter school scandal.” Now, it’s multiple scandals every day. Sure there are fraud and scandal associated with all large organizations but the charter industry is out of control.

We urgently need a moratorium on new charter schools until the obvious harm being visited upon communities by the charter industry is understood and students are protected.

School Choice is a Bamboozle a Hornswoggle a Flimflam

3 Aug

Two central ideologies behind school-choice are markets always make superior decisions and the cost of having local control of schools is poor outcomes. Both ideas are demonstrably untrue, but big money and power politics keep them alive.

In 2017, a national survey showed a dramatic drop in support for charter schools. A related Chalkbeat article said,

The survey, conducted by the school choice-friendly journal Education Next, found that slightly more Americans support charter schools, 39 percent, than oppose them, at 36 percent. But that marks a drop from 51 percent support just last year — one of the biggest changes in public opinion seen in the long-running survey, according to Harvard professor and the magazine’s editor-in-chief Marty West.

An internet search of “charter school growth slowing” brings up articles from around the country concerning the charter slow down. Education Week noted, “Last year, more charter schools closed than opened in the Bay Area for the first time since California passed its charter law in 1992. (California was the second state to allow charters to open.)”

To address this choice crisis, two Billionaires are starting a new national organization. A July 31, 2018 Chalkbeat article by Matt Barnum explains,

“The City Fund, as the group is being called, will push cities to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy. It represents a big increase in visibility and influence for advocates of the “portfolio model” of running schools, a strategy that’s been adopted by cities like New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis.

“The group was announced Tuesday morning on the blog of Neerav Kingsland, who leads education giving at The Laura and John Arnold Foundation. According to a separate presentation created by the group and viewed by Chalkbeat, the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund have already given the group over $200 million.”

Reed Hastings (Netflix Founder and CEO) is a charter school advocate who served on the board of the California Charter School Association; was the primary advocate of California’s charter school co-location law; and was also a key supporter for lifting charter school limits in California. He is a primary investor in DreamBox Learning, a company creating software to teach kids at computers. He famously stated that elected school boards need to be done away with.

John Arnold made his fortune at Enron and a hedge fund. He retired at 38-years-old. His private non-profit, the Laura and John Arnold foundation supports privatizing schools and ending democratic local control. He gives lavishly to charter schools (example: Gifted the Charter Growth Fund – $13 million).

The portfolio model of school reform calls for viewing schools like assets in a stock portfolio. Based primarily on the results of standardized testing the bottom scoring 5% of schools should be closed and replaced with new charter or innovation schools (charter like district schools). A serious flaw in this plan is the problem of error causes standardized testing to be useless for evaluating schools or teachers. Testing is a terrible ruler.

Former Assistant US Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, reacted to Arnold and Hasting promoting portfolio districts noting,

“Bonafide Reformer Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas has written several posts arguing that the portfolio model is a failure and that it is no different from a school district (although it is privately controlled). Read here. and here. The latter post is advice written to the Arnold Foundation about why it should not invest in the portfolio model. Sad. They didn’t listen.”

Innovation schools are promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They are district schools which present an operation plan for improving test outcomes and then receive autonomy to carry out the plan. Whether innovation or charter, local control of schools by democratic means is ended.

Disruption is not a good feature in education. The portfolio theory violates the need for stability. Brooke Havlik writing for Nova Education’s “Science and Learning” published “Psychologists Find School Stability a Factor in Achievement Gap.” Brooke stated, “Two new studies published this month suggest that changing schools may have a negative impact on cognitive development and student performance, especially for students experiencing chronic, high-levels of poverty.” (emphasis added)

In cities like Denver and Indianapolis, the portfolio model almost exclusively effects schools in poor and minority communities. In other words, the students most negatively impacted by this theory have their schools closed and the community loses its democratic rights.

A New Paper from In The Public Interest (ITPI) Documents the Flimflam  

This spring, ITPI published “Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools.” The report documents $149,000,000 fraudulently purloined by factions of the California charter-school industry. The total of stealing stated is a summation of cases cited in media reports. The actual amount stolen is much larger.

The ITPI report also reveals how fortunes are created by gaining control of publicly financed assets. The report discloses,

“While charter schools constructed with general obligation bonds cannot be sold or used for anything other than the authorized school, schools constructed with tax-exempt conduit bonds become the private property of the charter operator. Even if the charter is revoked, neither the state nor a local school district can take control of this property. Additionally, schools constructed with private funding subsidized by New Market Tax Credits or acquired with private funds but whose mortgage payments are reimbursed through the Charter Facilities Grant Program (known as “SB740”) are typically owned without restriction.”

The American Federation of Teacher (AFT) released a new white paper, “Report on the Aftermath of the Great Depression: A Decade of Neglect.” It shares,

“Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to “pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.” As a result, charter schools also can add to school district credit risks, increasing the cost of borrowing. A growing body of research documents this impact.”

  • “Los Angeles: Each student leaving for a charter cost the district $3,900 in lost services.
  • “Philadelphia: Two different studies in Philadelphia found the cost of lost services to be between $4,828 and $6,898 per pupil leaving.
  • “North Carolina: A student leaving an urban North Carolina school district costs between $500 and $700 in lost services. The effect is smaller in non-urban districts.”

A Case Study in Destroy Public Education (DPE) (Part 1)

R.B. Buzz Woolley is a wealth philanthropist and venture capitalist from La Jolla, California. A San Diego Reader report from 2011 said of him,

“On the political front, meanwhile, Woolley personally donated $6500 to the California Charter Schools PAC in March and $25,000 to the Alliance of California Charter Schools Independent Expenditure Committee in June. In May, he also kicked in $10,000 for Californians Against Special Interests, a primarily GOP group mounting an initiative for a so-called paycheck-protection measure banning direct deductions of labor union dues.”

Buzz and The Mushroom House

In 2015 Woolley Purchased the Mushroom House for $5 Million

In 2005, Buzz Woolley and longtime columnist Neil Morgan founded Voice of San Diego. It was the first digital nonprofit news organization to serve a local community in the country. Besides his interest in using new technologies for media, Woolley also is enthusiastic about education technology in the classroom. In 2013 Woolley’s Girard Foundation sent over $500,000 to companies developing software for “personalized” education and competency-based education.

In 2004, Buzz Wooley was the President of the then new Charter School Growth Fund. That year, Don Fisher (Gap Inc.) and Wooley each contributed $100,000 to the fund. They were the only contributors. John Walton (Walmart) and Greg Penner (Walmart) joined the board. The next year, Buzz Wooley resigned as President.

Charter Fund Officers 2005

Image is from the Charter School Growth Fund 2005 Tax Form

The other important figure in the Thrive Public Schools case study is Nicole Assisi. Nicole attended Coronado High School and UCLA where she earned a multisubject teaching credential. Her first teaching job was leading English classes at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High School – 2002-2003 school year.

In 2003, she moved on to High Tech High where she was a teacher and project-based learning trainer until 2005 or 2006. Her linked in profile says she worked at High Tech until 2006 but it also says that in 2005 she went to Los Angeles to be an Assistant Principal at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. In 2008, she moved on to be Principle on special assignment at De Vinci Schools (Formerly Wiseburn 21st Century Charter). She left De Vinci schools and returned to San Diego in 2013.

Nicole_CMO

Nicole Assisi from the Thrive Public Schools Web-Site

Along the way, Nicole earned a master’s degree in English and Communication/Media Studies from University of San Diego – 2004 and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California – 2010.

A Case Study in Destroy Public Education (DPE) (Part 2)

The 34-years-old Nicole was provided with $8,960 from the Charter School Growth Fund and $100,000 from the Gates supported Educause to come to San Diego and start a charter school.

In the fall of 2013 she submitted a charter proposal to San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and then withdrew it. Soon after, she did the same thing at the Grossmont School District. Finally, in November, she resubmitted her completed proposal to San Diego Unified.

SDUSD’s charter review committee recommended her proposed Thrive Public Schools be authorized to start September 1, 2015 instead of 2014. They felt she needed more time to get a school organized and populated. In a surprise move the SDUSD Board voted 3-2 to reject the petition.

The next day Buzz Woolley’s Voice of San Diego ran an opinion piece by Nicole. She called herself “a sacrificial lamb” and said the Board “made a mockery of the entire charter-approval process, which I worked diligently to navigate.” She also wrote, “Thankfully, the County Board of Education has an opportunity to right this wrong when our appeal comes before them next week.”

The county also turned down the charter with a 3-2 vote. The county review committee had recommended against approving the charter.

Nicole really had no worries because the pro-school-privatizing State Board of Education (SBE) would come to her rescue. Though the law encourages the SBE to respect the decisions of counties and districts, it seldom does. In the spring, SBE voted 9-0 to authorize Thrive Public Schools.

The money started flowing Nicole’s direction. The known list of 2014 donations:  Woolley’s Girard Foundation $108,000, Gate’s Educause $254,500, Charter School Growth Fund $175,000 and the Broad Foundation $150,000 for a total of $688,000. The next year, Broad gave another $50,000 and the New Schools Venture Fund sent $100,000. There is another $144,000 promised from Educause.

Nicole has opened two more schools and a fourth set to open in September. Choice promoting publication, The 74, describes a co-located Thrive elementary school,

“The Juanita Hills campus is co-located with Carver Elementary, a pre-K-5 school that enrolls much higher proportions of disadvantaged students and English learners than Thrive. The two facilities share the same lot, but a long blue line has been painted down the center to separate them. A Thrive parent complained that though Carver had its own library on-site, Thrive kids couldn’t use it.”

Tom Vander Ark is a well-known promoter of education technology and public-school privatization. He described the Thrive education program,

“Curriculum such as Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop and CGI Math provide collaborative opportunities for small groups to work directly with the teacher, while other students work on Chromebooks or iPads.

“The middle school team uses Google Classroom to make and manage assignments. Math software includes ST Math and Zearn.

Kids at computers running software programs is lifeless, boring and de-personalized. It is bad education.

Thrive has actively developed the support of many neo-liberal and conservative politicians. Among their listed supporters are: State Senator Ben Hueso (D); Dede Alpert (D), Former Assembly Woman and State Senator; Kerry Flanagan, Chief of Staff, California Charter Schools Association; Tom Torlakson (D), Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California; Jed Wallace, President and Chief Executive Officer, California Charter Schools Association; Mark Wyland (R), State Senator. These people are enemies of public education supporting the same benighted policies as Betsy DeVos.

The three existing Thrive schools opened in the administrative area of SDUSD known as the Crawford Cluster. Like most cities, it is in San Diego’s poor and minority communities where the privatization efforts are focused. One of the reasons SDUSD’s Board rejected the Thrive petition was to protect the existing schools. There were already four charter schools within the cluster boundaries.

Crawford Cluster Map

Crawford Cluster Map from SDUSD

In 2017, Thrive announced its big advance which stands to make founder and CEO Assisi a wealthy woman. The report in the San Diego Union says,

“The 35,000-square-foot facility will be the fourth San Diego campus for Thrive Schools and will open in about 12 months at the former site of Bayside Community Center at 6882 Linda Vista Road.”

“The project’s cost became more affordable for Thrive through the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which gives tax credits to for-profit businesses that are helping revitalize low-income communities.”

“Civic San Diego was eligible for the program and was allowed to sell the tax credits to whoever was making the investment. In this case, the credits were sold to the bank lending money to Thrive to buy the site.”

Although paid for with tax money, the deed will belong to Thrive Public Schools and CEO Nicole Assisi.

Some Ending Observations

Thrive Public Schools is a net negative for San Diego. SDUSD is far more professional, stable and capable. Thrive undermines SDUSD budgets and divides people like the students at Carver Elementary. The charter school experiment has failed. It was a bad idea and needs to end.

Put these schools under the supervision of elected school boards and quit stealing tax payer money. School choice truly is a Bamboozle; a Hornswoggle.