School Turnaround: Caught Between the Crosshairs

In a news report on President Obama’s legacy, one commentator stated that is focus on eliminating failing schools would survive.  These are the ‘turn around’ schools where most students do not meet state proficiency levels.  Some say that the goal to have all students be proficient is like assuming all students must be ‘above average’.  Proficiency standards, however, are set at levels most but not all students are expected to reach.  The expectations are an ever increasing target.  As achievement goes up, standards go up.

It is a trap, however, to excuse low performance because students have not been expected or even required to do better.  Is there an escape hatch?

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Time is Money or Maybe Not!

wrist-watch-941249_640Suppose you are a really good teacher and can prove it.  You notice that a neighboring district has a pay for performance plan where high quality teachers with less experience earn more money than average teachers with more experience.  Would you change districts?  In today‘s Gainesville Sun, a local economist, Dave Denslow, summarized a study by Barbara Biasi, a Stanford graduate student, who compared school districts in Wisconsin that used a ‘pay for performance plan‘ with districts that did not.   The result?

 

 

 

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Pay For Charters that Do Not Succeed?

priority-1714375_640The 2015 Florida legislature tied charter capital outlay funds to their academic success.  Charters have privately owned school facilities paid for from public funds.  The new rules would disallow facility funding not only for charters that have consecutive failing grades but also for those with consecutive ‘D’ school grades.  The rule affects thirteen charters with consecutive ‘D’ grades.  Charter owners are protesting. An administrative judge has agreed with them, and they will get their money.  How much?  $408,500 since school began this fall.  Multiply it out and it would be over a million and a half dollars per year for 13 schools.

Let’s think about this.  Charters located in low income areas are given more facility money.  Public schools facility funding located in the same areas has steadily declined for years.   If the State shifts money from publically owned schools to privately owned failing charters, who wins?  Not the children.

Suppose a charter operating in the same neighborhood has a higher school grade than the local public school.  Is the charter doing a better job?  Or, do they enroll fewer children with learning disabilities?  Do they dismiss children who do not ‘fit their school norms’.  Do they draw the children from families at a higher income level?  It is no secret that if you want a higher performing school, select higher performing students to begin with.  This is a process called ‘creaming’.  These schools do not make students better, the students make the schools better.

What does make students better?  more time in school, tutors, support services, and good teachers and principals

Giving charters rent money is a much cheaper way to go.  The problem is that nothing changes for most kids who need a place to go.  School choice just moves children around; they go in circles leading nowhere.  We could fix this.

 

 

 

 

Single Gender Charters in Trouble

boy-160168_640Duval County has four single gender charter schools; two for boys and two for girls.  Evidently, there are just not enough parents to make them viable.  Total enrollment for the four schools is 349 middle and high school students.  It is not enough, the schools are $333,000 in debt.  Staff cuts are being made and donors are being sought.

Superintendent Vitti doubts the non-profit management company, Profectus Learning Systems,  operating the schools can survive.  He said that even with cuts in staff, debts are likely to grow.  The schools may not be able to provide the required academic programs.

Many people like the idea of small schools.  Some children simply do better with more personal attention and less distraction.  Others thrive on the diversity and opportunities larger schools provide.  Providing an affordable balance is difficult.  Similar problems are  occurring in other communities where charters and private schools siphon off students from local public schools.  Soon, all schools are small and underfunded.

 

Unequal Access to Charters: It is Illegal!

directory-466935_1280Subtle and direct violations of law have been documented in charter admissions policies.  Empty seats are supposed to be filled by lottery.  Yet, which student applications make it into the lottery is frequently questioned.  For example, some parents and/or students are required to submit essays.  Or, parents may be required to certify they will contribute a certain number of hours or donate money to cover school fees.  If all else fails, charters may counsel parents that their child may not fit ‘the mission of the school’ and practice constant suspension for trivial offenses to discourage unwanted children.

In this article released by the ACLU in California, and reported by Education Justice, an expose of wide spread civil rights violations is reported.

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Charter School Parents Have No Rights

justiceIn charter schools, parents may have choice but no rights.  What does this mean?  In this brief from the American Bar Association, the rights that parents assume they have are valid for public schools but not charters.  According to recent court decisions in a California Appeals Court and a U.S. District Court in Hawaii, charters have the right to dismiss students in a manner that would be unconstitutional in a regular public school.

As the number of charters grows, charter parents need to beware.

 

 

 

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Charters: Deregulation has gone too far!

business-257880_1280In a new brief, William Mathis, head of the National Education Policy Center, argues that market based accountability for charter schools just does not work.  At first glance, Florida’s policies are better than in some states.  There are, however, some fatal flaws.

He makes the case for better oversight and regulation.  His recommendations take a national perspective and include these general process requirements:

authorizers, those who approve charter contracts, control the criteria for granting charters and the length of time charters are in effect.  Authorizers (in Florida, are the local school boards) must also specify the accountability mechanism for charters, and the state should fund oversight. 

The basic difference between Florida’s policy and this recommendation is that in Florida, districts are the authorizer of charters, but they have little control over the criteria charters must meet and little access to information about charter fiscal policies and practices.  The State legislature defines criteria for granting charters which are so broad that districts are not able to designate which charters are needed and actually are innovative.

The Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education hold the reins of power.  Thus, oversight is by design, minimal.  No one ‘close to the store’ is watching what is going on behind the scenes.  Even many charter school oversight boards have little knowledge of school practices.  The press and whistleblowers ferret out problems that fester.

The brief also addresses operational policies i.e.:

Governance including budget, admissions procedures, discipline practices, and civil rights protection should be transparent.  Annual reports and audits must be publically available and facilities must meet building codes and inspections.  Staff background checks should be required.

Again, these recommendations, on the surface, are mostly met in Florida’s charter school policies.  Annual audits are  required.  Admission lotteries for vacant seats are mandated.  Monthly budget reports are available.  What is missing?  Basically two loopholes, aa mile wide, exist.  The first problem is that there is no corrective action for fiscal mismanagement that does not reach a crisis level or for lapses in operations that impact which students enroll, retention of teachers, or suspension or dismissal of students.

The second problem is the lack of transparency that for-profit charter management firms enjoy.  Budgets of their charter schools lack the detail of where and how money is spent.  These companies control the entire budget, but financial records of for-profit privately run companies are shielded from public view.  Thus, the public has access to charter school facility costs, for example, but no access to how these costs are generated.  In some cases, it is like giving a blank check that may be nearly half of the budget without explanation of where the money ended up.

The one consolation in all of the exposure of charter mismanagement is that it is now becoming part of the public discussion about school choice.  Privitizing schools may give the appearance of facilitating innovation, but the reality is too often that it results in the loss of public trust.

The Racial Divide in Charters

directory-281476_1280Today’s New York Times delves into the divide within communities over charter schools.  The NAACP is calling for a moratorium on charters because they are increasing not only the racial divide but also the economic divide.   Charters in some cities, particularly cities with fewer charter schools as in Newark, Boston or Washington tend to do better than in cities with many charters, but as the number of charters increases, achievement decreases.  The reasons become clear:

Charters are viewed by some parents as an ‘escape’ from schools that must serve children with discipline and other emotional problems.  Charter educational programs may be no better than in traditional schools, but ‘problem’ students are either screened out or suspended.  Suspension rates are higher in charters and disproportionately impact minority students.  Achievement for those who remain may rise giving the appearance of being better.

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When is Poor Really Poor?

raccoon-1510501_640Which children do charter schools serve?   Students are identified based on their demographics including free and reduced lunch (FRL) status.  Yet, half the student population in Florida qualifies.  FRL status may just mask what is really happening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children who qualify for FRL are not all alike.  Nearly half of the FRL children, about 950,000 live in deep poverty.  The difference is between families of four earning about $47, 000 vs. about $24,000 i.e. those who qualify for reduced cost lunch and those who qualify for free lunch.  How many truly poor children attend charters?

Remember the post about Duval County charters?  Between  2013 and 2014, the percentage of students classified as economically disadvantaged dropped in most cases about  30%.  The reason was a change in the definition of economically disadvantaged by their charters.  Skewed enrollment in charters has become a civil rights issue.

In  a report from the August 14th New York Times, 14% of all children persistently qualify for free lunch (not reduced cost lunch) over time.   A University of Michigan study shows the achievement gap of the persistently poor is a third larger than generally reported by NAEP and other measures.  Grouping children in FRL together masks the real achievement gap between lower and higher income groups.

In Florida, 24% of all children fall below  the federal poverty level. This includes about 950,000 children below the age of 18. Another 25% qualify for reduced lunch.  These are not just statistics.  They are real children with lives complicated by the trappings of poverty.    If charters are ‘skimming’ students from the public schools, their percentage of students who qualify for free lunch not just for reduced cost lunch, will be much lower.

Charters are supposed to find innovative ways to solve academic problems.  They may just be masking them. It is time to take the mask off and see which children are being served.

 

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