Thursday, October 3, 2013
DC now adds itself to the growing list of cities that have experienced a charter school scandal over the past few months. Tuesday, the DC attorney general filed suit against three managers at Options Public Charter School, alleging they had diverted $3 million in charter school funding to enrich themselves. Also implicated is the chairman of the school's board of trustees. The diversion of funds allegedly comes from the awarding of bus transportation and school management contracts, along with the huge bonuses the school's managers received at the end of their terms for a job purportedly well done.
Putting this lawsuit in national perspective without just lumping on charters is difficult. There has been no shortage of large scale scandals with charters over the past few months. But traditional public schools have had their own scandals over the past year or so too, particularly in regard to cheating on standardized tests. Yet, given the number of traditional public schools in operation, these scandals would not appear reflective of a systemic trend in public education. They do, however, reveal the mounting pressures being placed on all teachers and the predictable results that can follow in some places.
The charter school scandals are, likewise, small in regard to the overall number of charters, but given the relatively small number of charters, the number and frequency of the scandals over the past few months is troubling. Just as the pressures on teachers in traditional public schools create certain incentives, the large sums of money and the lack of government oversight create another set of perverse incentives in charter schools. Unfortunately, these incentives are having a stronger effect, or the media (and bloggers) have turned on charters and are all too happy to have bad news on which to report.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Last week, I posted on the release of Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. I am eagerly awaiting its arrival and will post a review once I read it. In the meantime, she offered us a fuller taste Friday in an interview with NPR. The interview indicates a no-holds-barred attack on charters, vouchers, and other reforms of the past decade, which she, of course, signed onto during the Bush administration, but now thinks better of. Speaking of school choice and charters, she threw several hard blows:
When people pay taxes for schools, they don't think they're paying off investors. They think they're paying for smaller class sizes and better teachers. . . . [Charters] have become part of the movement to turn education into a consumer product rather than a social and a public responsibility....What I mean is that you go shopping for a school. I don't believe in school choice. I believe that every neighborhood should have a good public school. And if the parents don't want the good local public school and they want to send their child to a private school, they should do so — but they should pay for it.
After this stinging critique, she emphasized that our schools are not in some new crisis. Rather, they are performing better than ever before. With that said, we do have significant pockets of dropouts and low performance. But these results are not a product of our schools somehow having sunk to new lows in terms of the education they offer. She cites the problem as the continuing presence of concentrated poverty. "Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty."
Much to my chagrin, she does not, however, seem to propose policies to deconcentrate poverty. Maybe she considers them unrealistic. Instead, she prescribes smaller classes, pre-k, and arts programs. I would agree that those are important programs that can provide significant help, particularly pre-k. I just hope she is not giving up on remedying the root cause of the problem.
Monday, September 30, 2013
Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, and Caitlin C. Farrell have published In Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective (Harvard Education Press, 2013). The book analyzes more than 400 journal articles and think-tank papers regarding charter school innovation, student performance, accountability outcomes, competition and more.
Cribbing from the press release:
On student achievement, which Wohlstetter calls the “lightning-rod issue,” she says “the-big finding that continues to hold up in state after state” is that “charter schools are over-represented at both the higher and lower ends of student achievement.” Which raises the policy question: “Why are we not replicating schools at the high end, and why are authorizers not closing down schools at the low end?”
On the question of how charter schools use their autonomy, the answer seems to be: not much and not terribly well.
Friday, September 27, 2013
In a recent post about the federal indictment of Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest cyber school, Derek said that “the incentives for bad behavior, whether it be fraud or just low quality services, appear to run high in cyber schools.” Recently, the media, some school districts, and investors are seeing Derek’s point. The largely uncontrovered evidence is that children in full time virtual schools are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. Cyber student graduation rates are less than half of traditional schools. Industry leader K12 Inc., has been hit with a flurry of lawsuits in 2013 by investors for lying about its financial forecasts and about student outcomes. Apparently, the market is getting skittish about cyber charters. This week a hedge fund manager warned investors away from K12 Inc., telling Reuters that the school is overagressively recruiting students who are unsuited for online learing. But despite growing evidence that cyber charter schools are delivering abysmal academic outcomes, states continue to funnel billions of tax dollars to the nation’s 311 full time cyber schools. This week, Politico explores why the money is still flowing to virtual education as brick-and-mortar schools face austerity measures here and here.
There has never been much proof offered or required that virtual schools are as good as traditional schools, so cyber schools are now going direct to consumers. K12 Inc. is pushing its products to moms on radio and late-night commericals on women-centered cable TV stations such as Lifetime and Oxygen. This commercial in K12's fall campaign features a tearful mother who says that her son was "stressed out" in 5th grade and that his demeanor changed since starting K12. That ad also has an unidentified person saying, "That student has no way to fall through those cracks at all because the teacher and the parents are working together so hard together that they're going to succeed."
In full disclosure, I have been somewhat skeptical about the premise of full time online education for children. I wonder if most kids, especially kids with learning disabilities or behavior problems, can sit in front of a computer screen all day without social media, Candy Crush Saga, or Grand Theft Auto competing for their attention. I am willing to suspend my disbelief if there is proof that cyber schools work on a large scale, but that evidence has been scant. Evidence justifying skepticism, however, is abundant. Read more after the jump.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Monday DOJ filed a motion to amend its complaint in the ongoing saga over Louisiana's voucher program. Some interpret this as a softening of DOJ's position from an attempt to block the voucher program to a simple attempt to monitor and verify that the program is operating in compliance with desegregation orders. In addition, if this is a position shift, DOJ indicates it is only in response to Louisiana's new-found willingness to comply with information requests and be otherwise cooperative. These two events suggests a deescalation that will allow the parties and the courts to address the merits in the case and remove it from the daily news feed. Governor Jindal, however, is still displeased, calling DOJ's recent actions and statements a "PR stunt" and "disingenuous." I wonder whether it is Jindal who is enjoying the politics and media coverage of this dispute. Maybe, he doesn't want this case to fade into the legal process and an analysis of the merits. Regardless, this finally seems to be where this case is heading.
Even though Louisiana's fiscal effort levels rank at the bottom of the nation, its funding formula is slightly regressive (sending less money to the neediest districts), and many of its school facilities can only be described as deplorable, litigants have never been able to break through with a school funding victory. Courts have fallen back on the notion that the state constitution only requires a "minimum" education. See, e.g., Jones v. State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, 927 So.2d 426 (La. App. 1 Cir. Nov. 4, 2005); Charlet v. Legislature of the State of Louisiana, 713 So.2d 1199 ((La. App. 1 Cir. 1998). Although not an attack on the state's funding practices as a whole, litigants did get a victory earlier this year in Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State, 2013 WL 1878913 (Supreme Court of Louisiana, 2013). See also LaJuana's post on the case from earlier this summer.
The case was brought by teachers, school boards and parents. The primary theory of the case was that the state's voucher program diverted funds away from public schools to non-public schools in violation of the state constitution. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed, reasoning that while the state constitution only mandates a minimum education program, once the state determines the cost of the minimum program, it cannot then take a portion of those minimum funds and give them to nonpublic schools. Doing so necessarily drops support of the public schools below "minimum."
I revisit this case for two reasons. First, it is an example of courts' willingness to intervene in school funding if they can identify a technical violation, even if they they have previously indicated an unwillingness to address substantive questions of school funding. Recognizing this technical versus substantive approach, we have seen a few other cases this summer attack charters and/or vouchers on technical constitutional grounds. Second, this victory early this summer adds further context to the current DOJ lawsuit to block the voucher program (although it is not softening on the notion of "blocking" the program). The DOJ suit is based on federal desegregation law, whereas Louisiana Federation of Teachers is based on state law, but the plaintiffs victory this summer shows how embattled the state's voucher program is. Right or wrong, the Governor is understandably testy over one of the state's signature programs. He is obviously unwilling to let it sink without a big fight.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD) is among the most hailed charter school experiments in the nation and is considered a template for national education reform. Newsweek tells the New Orleans RSD story this week in The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’ schools a model for the nation—or a cautionary tale? I summarize part of the article here: More than 75 percent of New Orleans kids are educated in the Recovery School District, which is dominated by charter schools. Hurricane Katrina swept away the public schools that ranked among the lowest-performing districts in the nation. Post-Katrina, New Orleans fired many of its unionized and veteran teachers and replaced them with Teach for America graduates (about 400 TFA grads teach in New Orleans; 42% of RSD teachers have been teaching less than three years). Today, 79% of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education, but that is not for lack of trying. The per-pupil funding post-Katrina was about double what it had been in the two years immediately preceding the hurricane and 50 to 100 percent greater than it was for the rest of Louisiana during the same period. Oprah Winfrey gave RSD’s flagship high school, Sci Academy, a $1 million check on-air. RSD's schools are also putting in lots of time. At Sci Academy this spring, classes were regularly suspended for added studying for the ACT, which included tutoring for seniors who scored below 20 on their ACT at a cost of $1,000 per student. Sci Academy’s teachers put in 16-hour workdays to try to prove that charter schools are the right choice for a solid education and a pathway to college for low-income students. And it is working, depending on what you measure. Sci Academy got a B in the state’s grading system. But its out-of-school suspension rate was 49 percent in 2012, the second highest in the city. Even with all of the money and teacher hours, achieving a district-wide turnaround is proving to be more complicated than originally thought. Large numbers of New Orleans’ students are still not graduating and are not likely to make it through college. Read The Great Charter Tryout here.
Friday, September 20, 2013
Laws passed this year in Virginia and Texas have stripped control from state education boards in matters that are traditionally school board functions. In Virginia, school boards sued last week challenging the constitutionality of a law that moved oversight of certain schools from local districts to a statewide school policy board. This summer in Texas, legislators removed the State Board of Education’s power to approve charter schools.
Virginia’s Local School Boards Sue State Over Creation of Statewide School Policy Board
The Virginia General Assembly created a new statewide school division called the Opportunity Educational Institution (OEI) and the Opportunity Educational Institution Board (Senate Bill 1324) in the spring. The new legislation requires the OEI Board to take over the supervision and operation of any school in a local school division that has been denied accreditation and permits the OEI Board to take control of any school that has been accredited with warning for three consecutive years. The OEI Board can control the school for five years or until the school achieves full accreditation.
Last week, the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) and the Norfolk County Schools sued the OEI Board in state court, asking the court to declare that the OEI law violates Article VIII of Virginia's Constitution, which provides that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” The VSBA alleges that the law violates another section of Article VIII, which provides that the State Board of Education shall create school divisions. Because the General Assembly, rather than the State Board, created the OEI Board as a statewide school division, the VSBA argues that the OEI law is unconstitutional.
The VSBA says the law is a school-takeover measure that usurps the power of local school boards to a policy board in the executive branch. In fact, the authorization for the OEI falls under the part of the Virginia code that covers higher educational institutions rather than elementary and secondary schools. Local school boards in Alexandria and Newport News have joined the lawsuit. Newport News Board’s Vice Chairman Jeff Stodghill told a local newspaper that the legislation removes local school control, and that “[u]nder this arrangement, [parents] might have to drive up to Richmond if [they] have a problem with [their] child's schedule." The OEI law is a part of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's 2013 education agenda. In his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Governor McDonnell said that the OEI was a part of a “zero tolerance” initiative to “turnaround failing schools… and provide a brand new approach to a broken system.”
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli agrees with local school districts that the OEI Board is unconstitutional and told the governor in a letter in late August that his office would not defend it in court. (For those unfamiliar with Cuccinelli, he is no bleeding-heart. Cuccinelli is the Republican candidate for governor this fall and two election talking points have been his crusade to reinstate Virginia’s crime-against-nature statute (the Supreme Court struck down a similar anti-sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas) and his controversial running mate—and future lieutenant governor of Virginia—who tweeted this spring that gay-pride month made him feel “icky” and once suggested in one of his books that yoga could lead to satanic possession, although he has since backed off that statement in his campaign.)
Texas charter school licenses jump after approval authority shifts from the State Board to the Education Commissioner
Texas' new law shifts the power to authorize charters moved from the elected State Board of Education to the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, appointed by Governor Rick Perry. State Senator Dan Patrick, who sponsored Senate Bill 2, said legislators approved the shift out of concern that the State Board “already has enough to do setting academic curriculum and approving textbooks for use in classrooms.” At a recent meeting with the State Board to explain the shift, Board members expressed annoyance with the new procedure, noting that they were elected by voters, rather than appointed by the governor. The new law also raises the maximum number of charter school licenses from 215 to 309 and streamlines the application process for existing charter operators.
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
When I first posted on DOJ's motion to enjoin vouchers in Louisiana until the district court could determine whether they had the effect of violating standing court ordered desegregation, I assumed that no one but the few remaining desegregation junkies and the few students affected by it would pay it much attention. DOJ's motion was standard fare for a desegregation case and, in comparison to other current desegregation battles, is of relatively small importance. I seriously underestimated the politics of this case, which explains why I am a law professor.
I have no doubts on the law here, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that no one else really cares what the law is. All that seems to matter are the politics and, rather than a story dies quickly, this one has legs due to the ratcheting up of the politics. Two cases in point. The Chicago Tribune issued a stinging editorial on Sunday titled United States v. minority children. Now, former Governor Jeb Bush, U.S. Senator Tim Scott, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education are joining Governor Jindal in hosting a press conference at the National Press Conference tomorrow to discuss the lawsuit. Earlier, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, asked why Obama wants to keep poor kids out of good schools.
Maybe, the escalating politics suggest a new answer to the question in my second post: why is Louisiana seeking to delay the hearing in this case? The new answer may be that it gives the state more time to turn up the politics and distract the district court from the legal question, which is a slightly different game--albeit still a game--than the one I posited earlier.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Yesterday, the Brookings Institute released an essay by Grover Whitehurst arguing that DOJ's attempt to block school vouchers in Louisiana "undermines civil rights." (For more background on the lawsuit, see my earlier posts here and here.) Whitehurst argues that the numbers of vouchers are too small to have any meaningful effect on the districts and that some of those using the vouchers are African American. Thus, the net effect is to deny African Americans choice. He then likens what the DOJ is doing--trying to control and direct the assignment of a few student based on race--to what the districts in Parents Involved in Seattle Schools v. Seattle School District were doing, which the Supreme Court struck down.
This essay shows how little some appreciate the practical dynamics and legal principles of desegregation. Or, it shows how school choice advocates respect no rules that might stand in their way. First, Whitehurst assumes a tremendous amount of facts (and admits to doing so) in reaching his conclusion that the voucher program poses no threat. As I indicated in my earlier post, the point of desegregation law is to affirmatively promote integration and prevent backsliding. These are not things we can do after the fact. Thus, one of my points was to let the legal process play out. If Louisiana is in the right, the facts will bear it out and they can move forward. We cannot, however, take their word for it, particularly since the state did not seem to even consider the segregative impacts the program might have until now.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
A new and robust study of 20 years of data from Australia--The Myth of Markets in School Education--concludes that its schools do not operate as markets. The conclusion/assertion rests on two major factual findings: most public schools do not face any real competition because there are no competitors; and the connection between school autonomy and student performance is weak. I am sure that opponents and supporters of school choice, charters, and the like will seize on or discount this report in the coming days. In the end, I am not sure how much it can tell us about our own system.
Most obviously, it is from Australia and based on a different system, geography, and demography. Putting those differences aside, it seems to conceptualize different issues than the ones we often debate here. For instance, while many in the United States support school choice and charters on the premise that they will increase competition and reform the whole system, a major motivation of those policies in the United States is based on individual autonomy and exit strategies. Some would go further and claim that this global reform is just window dressing for policies really meant to undermine the traditional public system. Even short of this extreme claim, the effect on the education system as whole is a secondary concern for major school choice constituencies. For them, the primary motivation is to allow parents to choose/decide their children's educational fates. Thus, choice, charters, and vouchers are ends in an of themselves. If this is the case, the Australian study may address points that are potentially irrelevant to many here.
My quibble with the report itself is that it seems to equate operating like a market with operating like an effective and beneficent market. To the extent school autonomy and competition policies do not have a positive effect, the report concludes there is a market myth. In my article, Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Public Good, I frame the problem slightly differently. Charters, vouchers, and choice necessarily create a market in the places where they exist. The question then is what effect--positive or negative--these policies have on education systems, whether it be global or local. My analysis, like the Australian report, finds little evidence of an effective and beneficent market, but, unlike the Australian report, finds a market of sorts anyway. This market, however, can operate to the detriment of public schools because public schools are premised on concepts of the public good that are antithetical to markets. That these policies have nonetheless gained so much traction in public policies is a testament to the fact that they resonate so deeply with those concerned about personal autonomy. It also highlights the importance of making moral, or pseudo-moral, claims in education, a point which I argue civil rights advocates need to remember here.
Monday, September 9, 2013
The litigation in DOJ's suit over Louisiana's voucher program is moving fast. For the state, it is a little too fast. Two weeks ago, I posted on DOJ's claim that Louisiana's voucher program impermissibly interfered with standing desegregation orders. The district court quickly set a hearing for September 16. Now the state has responded that it wants to delay the hearing until November 15, claiming there is no rush because the new voucher applications will not start arriving until January. Louisiana's motivations for the delay are unclear. Maybe, the state is not prepared for the hearing. Maybe, it has ulterior motives.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
It has been a summer of bad news for cyber charters. Earlier this summer, I posted abote three states ending or curtailing their cyber charters. LaJuana also posted on increased scrutiny and reports detailing problems with cyber charters. Now the news has only gotten worse. In Pennsylvania, a state where cyber charters have possibly been the most contentious, federal investigators have secured an indictment against Nicholas Trombetta, the operator of the biggest cyber charter in the state. His charter enrolled over 10,000 students and yielded $100 million in revenue in 2012 from the state. The indictment accuses him of creating a ponzi scheme of sorts in which he created various different fake businesses and entities for the purpose of extracting funds for his and others' personal benefit. In total, the indictment includes 11 fraud and tax charges, which total $1 million of theft from the state.
The indictment will only fan the flame of controversy in the state. Cribbing from the Post-Gazette:
"So we've been vindicated then," said Karen D. Beyer, a former state Republican legislator who for years raised concerns about cyber charter school funding in general and Mr. Trombetta in particular. "I'm so delighted. Look, the taxpayers had an opportunity and the Legislature had an opportunity with that cyber charter bill to control this years ago, and they failed to act and now we're seeing the results of that."
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment and instead issued a statement through the state Department of Education, saying Gov. Tom Corbett "renews his call for comprehensive charter school reform."
To be fair, schemes of this sort are not unique to charters. Some may recall similarly egregious kick back schemes by superintendents like Prince George County, Maryland's a few years ago. But as suggested in my earlier posts, the incentives for bad behavior, whether it be fraud or just low quality services, appear to run high in cyber schools.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Vouchers v. Desegregation: U.S. Department of Justice Seeks to Block Vouchers in Desegregating Districts
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spearheaded the expansion of the state’s voucher program from New Orleans to the entire state this year. He did not, however, bother to assess how the program might affect student assignment and enrollment in districts that are still operating under court orders to desegregate. Now, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a motion in district court to block the application of the voucher program to those districts. The motion argues that students in at least 22 districts that are still under desegregation orders have received vouchers “without authorization from the appropriate federal court frustrates . . . .” Those vouchers “imped[e] the desegregation process in school districts operating under federal desegregation orders.”
Gov. Jindal responded on Meet the Press, stating
We’ve got a scholarship program. One hundred percent of the kids are low-income. One hundred percent of the kids are in failing schools—C, D, or F schools. Ninety percent of the kids are minorities. Eight thousand of those parents have chosen to take these dollars and send these kids to better schools, to other schools where they can get a better education, where it’s a better fit for their children. Now the Department of Justice, using the same rules that were there to prevent discrimination against minority children, is going after some of these parents and some of these kids and saying, ‘We don’t know that we want to allow you to make this choice. We want you to go to a federal judge.’
School choice advocates are also lambasting DOJ and the role this would play in impeding choice. They seem to ignore, however, that it would be impossible to enforce desegregation orders if districts and states were free to create exit options and exceptions that would undermine desegregation. In fact, various creative exit options, albeit race-neutral on their face, were a major stumbling block to the initial creation of integrated schools in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Or, choice advocates assume that the voucher program will have no negative effect on the demographics of these school districts. Even if their assumption proves to be correct, it has always been standard procedure to verify the effect of new policies on student assignments in desegregating districts, rather than wait until after the fact when the damage is already done. While the state and districts are largely free to assign students, however, they see fit in “unitary” districts, there are constitutional constraints on other districts for good reason.
Gov. Jindal's full interview is here.
In July, I posted on a new challenge to the constitutionality of Washington's charter statute here and here. I noted that these challenges had not been particularly successful in the past, but that the specific nature of Washington's state constitution and the charter law made that case a potential winner. Now, some in Tennessee seem to have the same feeling about their charter law and constitution. John Borkowski, a long time education law attorney, who represents large school districts in civil rights and other major cases, argues that Tennessee’s 2002 charter law in violates the state constitution because it “seems to impose increased costs on local governments with no offsetting subsidy from the state.” Cribbing from the Tennessean (the state's major newspaper):
A section of the Tennessee Constitution says that no law shall impose “increased expenditure requirements on cities or counties” unless the Tennessee General Assembly ensures the state shares those costs. Under the state’s charter school funding formula, the combined state and local per-pupil dollar amount follows students to their new schools. This equates to about $9,200 per student in Nashville.
“The charter school receives all of the state and local per-pupil expenses, while the [local districts] still must cover existing fixed costs,” Borkowski wrote, adding: “There does not appear to be any state subsidy to share in these increased costs.”
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
As a followup to my post yesterday on the lawsuit challenging the Alabama statute that provides a $3600 tax credit to those transferring out of failing schools, I wanted to share today's story by the Montgomery Advisor. The newspaper also made the above video of the news conference available. Included is the plaintiff telling her story, which we don't always get. Kudos to SPLC for stepping back and letting her speak in her own words. Unfortunately, the Montgomery Advisor cut the clip short while she was in the middle of her story.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Earlier this summer LaJuana posted on Alabama's voucher/tax credit program (here and here) that would allow students to transfer out of failing schools and give them a $3500 tax credits toward tuition at a private school or transfer costs to another public school. LaJuana pointed out the disparate impact and flaws in the law.
Her concerns must have also rang true with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). SPLC filed a lawsuit against the state yesterday, alleging that the law created two classes of students: "those who can escape [failing schools] because of their parents’ income or where they live and those who cannot." SPLC argues that this violates equal protection. I was hoping to get some hint of SPLC's specific legal theory in the complaint, but couldn't entirely surmise it. Some of the facts suggest an intentional discrimination theory, while others seem premised on rational basis review (presumably rigourous rational basis under Plyler v. Doe).
SPLC's press release is after the break.