Local Control Issue Finds Tennessee

by Anne-Marie Farmer

in the Voter from Nashville League of Women Voters

In response to the Nashville school board’s denial of the Great Hearts Academies charter application, the Tennessee legislature passed the state charter authorizer law, which gave the State Board of Education (SBOE) the power to authorize and oversee a potential charter school whose application was rejected by the local school board. Last year, the SBOE used this authority for the first time, overriding a decision by local officials in Nashville to deny the application for an additional KIPP charter school. That means that, while the funding for the additional KIPP school will come primarily from local funds, the school will not be under the supervision and authority of the local school district, but instead be accountable only to the SBOE. Another charter appeal, currently pending before the SBOE, will test whether the SBOE intends to expand its role in opening charter schools over the objection of the local school district.  This is an important test.

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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.

Management Priorities for Charters

communication-73331_640What should our legislative priorities be?

 

 

 

 

 

Two years ago, the League made a statewide call for better oversight of charter schools.  Major reports on charter fraud, waste and abuse made national headlines.  The FBI raided charter schools across the country.  Just this year, a new scandal erupted in several Florida cities.  The U.S. district attorney has brought charges.

The problems extend beyond corruption and enter the realm of civil rights.  The U.S. Department of Education and the President cautioned the charter movement about its tendency to increase racial and economic segregation in its schools. Charters, moreover, under represent children with disabilities.  Critics claim that these enrollment policies reflect charter school management companies’ profit seeking priorities.

Lack of charter oversight is a design feature, not a bug says PR Watch.  Charters were to be given free rein to ‘change the system’.  Accountability was to be based on student academic achievement. The appWearance of academic achievement, however, is easy to manipulate.  If charters attract strong students to begin with, their schools will be successful.  Under the school grade system, good students, not good teachers, make good schools.  Concerns about screening out students abound.

Charters have been operating long enough for the consequences to become apparent.  Federal and state authorities have begun to officially recognize the abuse in the system and make marginal efforts to correct it.

FEDERAL ACTIONS

  • The Federal Office of Inspector General reported  many incidences of conflicts of interest between charters and their management companies as well as problematic fiscal and management practices.
  • In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to all state education leaders calling for better charter oversight to correct conflicts of interest, related party transactions, and improved transparency between charter and management company practices, stronger authorization practices to ensure operational and academic quality.  States were charged with investigating civil rights violations by charter schools.

STATE OF FLORIDA ACTIONS

  • During the 2016 legislative session, former Senate President Gaetz said it was ‘time to end charter school self enrichment policies’.  He followed up with strong corrective measures; some passed:
    • weighted additional 25% in facility capital outlay (PECO) funding for charters who enroll 75% Free and Reduced Lunch qualifiers and 25% students with disabilities
    • required charter applicants to provide a financial and academic history
    • required automatic closure of charters receiving two consecutive ‘F’ grades
    • required that students not be dismissed for low academic achievement.
  • Florida Department of Education set up a data base to track the history of charter school applicants.

UPDATED LEAGUE STUDY

  • The Hillsborough County League reopened its study of for profit charter management company business models.  Its interim report was the basis for an article in the Tampa Bay Times which received inquiries from ABC and CBS News interview.
  • The  League is reviewing charter  ‘student push out incidences’  that may have civil rights implications.

SCHOOL DISTRICT ACTIONS

  • Palm Beach County Schools Lawsuit against CSUSA over the right for districts to require charters fulfill an unmet need in the district.
  • Escambia County Schools investigation of Newpoint Charter Schools that resulted in criminal indictments.

Florida officials have taken small steps to improve charter school laws, but the lack of oversight over how these laws are implemented remains.  School districts authorize charters but have limited access to information about how they are run.

What more needs to be done to improve the system?

  • create guidelines for charter school facility lease and bond costs
  • improve transparency of charter management company practices to inhibit self dealing
  • improve measures to guarantee independence of charter board member from charter management companies
  • report charter school student dismissals and resignations and review civil rights violations
  • document need for new charter schools to improve financial efficiency and innovative programs
  • revise data reporting for free and reduced lunch program due to new federal guidelines that obscure the definition of economically disadvantaged students.

The next legislative session may, once again, tackle the charter school management and oversight problems.  In the past, legislators have proposed everything from creating a charter school institute to be housed at Florida State University to forming charter school districts.  There are sporadic efforts to improve collaboration between charters and local public schools, but they are often stymied by the inherent competition between the two systems.

WOULD A NEW STUDY OF CHARTER MANAAGEMENT HELP?

Identifying successful collaborative efforts, if any, could be instructive.  A 2013 Center for Reinventing Public Schools report on a Gates Foundation initiative was not hopeful.   Some argue that the Washington D.C. model is effective, but it too has had large scale scandals. The seven member D.C. Public Charter School Board is appointed by the Mayor.  A 2015 Washington Post article reports on the need for more transparency in D.C. charter school management.  It appears D.C.  has the same mismanagement problems as those in other  cities.

There is a report on different oversight models in the country.  Minnesota and New York have ‘hands on’ oversight models.  Others states are much more passive.  The U.S. has a public school management and oversight system that has survived for about 100 years.  If we need some schools to do a few different things, one would think that some incentives could be provided without using a wrecking ball to destroy one system in order to replace it with a more imperfect system over which the public has no control.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are Florida’s teachers leaving in droves?

teacher-403004_1280 (1)In an Orlando Sentinel article, Scott Maxwell cites alarming state records.  Forty percent of Florida’s new teachers leave within five years.  This rate is 15 to 20% higher than the national average, he reported.  I found a U.F. report about charter school teacher attrition.  Something is going wrong.  We know that.  Will the legislature listen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Charter School Sues Itself?

money-40603_1280Have you ever known something did not smell right, but you could not find the source?  A court in Missouri found it.

In Renaissance Academy for Math and Science vs. Imagine Schools, the court ruled there was hidden self dealing.  The judge fined Imagine Schools one million dollars.  This was just one school in trouble in St. Louis,  Missouri at the time.  Thirty-five hundred children had to be relocated when all Imagine charters were forced to close in St. Louis.

We all need to know how this can happen.  It is not unusual.

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Fla. High Impact Charter Network Bill Advances

Legislation

Legislation

The devil is often in the details, and this bill HB 830 Stargel has many provisions.   In a nutshell, it requires better background checks and more transparency for charter providers.  This is good, right?  It also gives the State Board of Education the ability to authorize High Impact Charter Networks.  Maybe this is not so good.

Charter providers in approved networks apply to districts, but if they are already authorized, is this simply smoke and mirrors?  In a way, this is a mini version of the bill to amend the constitution to create a separate charter system.  It takes away local control.  The constitutional amendment will not make it to the ballot, but the High Impact Charter Networks are likely to become law.  If I were a betting person, I would think this is another effort to attract and expand KIPP schools.

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Parents Fight New Charter School

list-428312_1280This proposed charter  for 1100 students is not needed, Avalon parents say.  Our schools are ‘A’ rated.  Why bring in competing charters?  Kathleen Oropeza posted a petition that parents have created to stop the for-profit Charter USA school from being built.  Over 1100 parents have already signed it.

If the parents are successful in blocking the new charter in their district, they may have to face the approval process by the State Board of Education.  As currently construed, SBE members tend to approve charters even if they are not needed.  The message needs to go beyond local school boards.

When parents get this organized, the legislature might even listen.

 

 

Charter Fraud: Ohio Style

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Florida has charter fraud problems and so does Ohio–among other states.  Privatization of schools opens up opportunities for profiteering without oversight.  The federal government has finally gotten involved in the Ohio charter scandals.  It took awhile. They are holding up a $71 million grant to they had awarded to expand charters.   This is one of those scandals from which the Governor cannot hide.

 

 

 

 

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Charter School System Amendment Advances

The constitutional amendment to create a state charter school system passed the House K-12 subcommittee this morning.  We really do not want this.  Contact your legislators.  It would take a 60% vote in the Florida House and Senate to put it on the November ballot.

State of Florida Independent Charter Authorizing constitutional amendment to be put before the voters November 2016.
Parents, Teachers, Principals, and Non-Profit Governing Board Members,
The House K-12 Subcommittee met this morning to discuss House Joint Resolution (HJR) 0759. The resolution proposes amendment to State Constitution to require SBE to establish statewide system for approval of charter schools.
Our Director of Government Relations, Ralph Arza, was present to support the bill. HJR passed its first hurdle. There is still a battle ahead before this House Joint Resolution passes  and goes before voters. We will keep you abreast with the latest updates. The vote was as follows:
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