Something is Happening in Chicago

Chicago’s children, all children, show dramatic gains in test scores, according to a Stanford University study.

Their achievement gain from third to eighth grade was six grade levels compared to five levels nationally. Third graders also had higher scores in recent years. Chicago test scores are still about 1 to 1 1/5 below the national average, and the achievement gaps remain even though Hispanic achievement grew faster than white students.

About 49% (415) of Chicago’s schools remain zoned neighborhood schools, and most of these are elementary schools in affluent areas. Three fourths of high school students do not attend neighborhood schools. There are 265 no zone elementary schools of which 130 are charter schools. A Chicago Tribune article described the impact on neighborhoods. Choice made public schools less bureaucratic but now it is overkill; we are just competing with one another. To improve enrollment, some district schools are becoming community schools like one that includes the IB program. It now stays open on Saturdays and evenings and holds classes of interest to parents.

Some schools develop new STEM or other specialized programs to attract parents, but the effect is that other schools have a high percentage of students who struggle academically and have disabilities. An administrator asks: What is the cost for the neighborhood and for the kids who stay behind? There is a loss of social networks because children in the same area go to so many different schools. The schools they attend may not be much different from the one they left, but parents do not know. They don’t connect with one another. What they do know is that those zoned schools in affluent areas have no room for them.

The expected explanations e.g. declining population and high student retention (14%) do not account for the achievement gains, at least on the surface. Improvement happens in all socio-economic groups. The Stanford researchers call for a deeper dive into the migration of students into and out of the city. The percentage of minority groups remains the same, but are they somehow different? Do the children who struggle the most leave Chicago, thus the children who stay have, on average, higher scores? Do school choice policies have an impact? The study calls for more studies.

A lot is happening in Chicago, but we cannot explain it. Let’s hope that there will be a deeper dive into the schools. Are the children who were pulling down the scores leaving at a higher rate than others? Does leaving behind the students who struggle the most actually improve the school climate? It does not seem like this is the explanation simply because schools in affluent areas have not been impacted by poverty, and their scores are also improving.

The CRC Wrecking Crew

In 1998, the Constitutional Revision Commission strengthened Florida’s education system. Twenty years later, the current CRC is called a wrecking crew in the Orlando Sentinel editorial.

What is at stake?

Martinez proposes to end the separation of church and state. Can you believe this: The Chair of the State Board of Education, Marva Johnson, is proposing to abolish the prohibition to fund private schools with public money. Other CRC members would allow public funds to be used for services in private schools. Even more unbelievable is the proposal by a member of the Collier County school board, Erika Donalds, to allow charters without having school board approval. And then, Martinez would totally get rid of the provision for a uniform system by creating charter school districts.

There’s more. The only hopeful thing is that Florida’s voters have rejected many of these same ideas before, more than once. Voters will have to turn out in droves in November 2018 to say once more that all children must have access to a free, high quality education.

NPE: Charter Management Exposed

The Network for Public Education summarized the dangers inherent in charter school practices that hurt children and communities. They give detailed examples. Here’s a quick list of problems and an important list of recommendations to manage the chaos that the choice system has created. Adherence to a free-market, no regulation philosophy is not necessary to have reasonable choices for children. Unregulated school choice is creating a monstrous problem with:

Charters that are not free public schools.
Charter students who need not attend school to graduate.
Charters for the wealthy..
Charters with secret profits
Seedy charters in storefronts.
Charters paying kids.
Religious charters.
Charters for political parties.
Charters faking achievement data.
Charters shedding students.
Shady charter business practices.
Charters that exacerbate segregation.
Charters that exclude students with disabilities.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE. The NPE list of recommendations represent a growing consensus:

Impose a moratorium on charter expansion.
Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.

Make charter management companies’ accounting systems transparent.
Ensure students’ due process rights in admission and dismissals.
Ensure enrollments are representative of community demographics.
Require openly disclosed bidding processes.
Review property leases and bond issues for appropriate costs.
Revert ownership of closed charter facilities to districts.
Strengthen local district authorization and oversight of charters.

With little or no oversight, abuse is given free rein. Which is the greater evil, reasonable rules or exploiting students and families for personal gain?

Popping the Balloon: D.C. Reform Fiasco

There is a lot of hot air about the impact of school choice on student achievement. Washington D.C. is often the example touted by unwitting journalists. John Merrow, retired PBS education reports on the ten year reign of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. The achievement gap has widened under their ‘test and punish’ administration. Merrow states: “The education establishment wants everyone to believe that D.C. is a success story. It is not. To the contrary, it is a story of wide spread failure and untold damage to human potential.”

NAEP eighth grade reading scores improved by one point, 232 to 233. Non low-income student scores climbed 31 points from 250 to 281. Similar small gains were observed for fourth grade low income students. The achievement gap widened from 26 to 62 percentage points.

A National Research Council report in 2015 said that most of the achievement gain in D.C. was most likely due to the influx of white affluent families moving into D.C. and sending their children to public schools.

How do D.C.’s charter schools fare in this report? They include 40% of the city’s schools. D.C. schools are intensely segregated by race and class in both the district and charter run schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charters were classified as ‘apartheid’ schools (less than 1% white). Voucher schools heightened the segregation.

So what are the recommended solutions? Orfield, one of the authors of the NRC report indicated that magnet schools learned something charters had not. You need recruitment across racial and ethnic lines, free transportation, strongly appealing and distinctive curriculum, admission to all groups of students, integrated faculties etc.

Federal housing policies have exacerbated residential segregation. Neighborhoods that are already diverse or all white support their local schools. Offering choice to everyone else has created a propaganda campaign but no significant improvement in schools. The challenge is to create a sense of opportunity for all students. To do this, housing patterns must become more diverse. Economic opportunity must be real for all racial/ethnic and income groups. Schools must symbolize this opportunity.

Class Size Manipulation: Voters May Decide

Editorials decry the latest assault on the class size amendment. How large classes are matters to children. How many small classes there are matters to politicians. Small classes cost more money. When the class size amendment was first passed by voters in 2002, districts had to meet limits of 18 students in preschool through grade 3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students for high school core courses by 2010.

There’s a very revealing chart on the Florida DOE website about the real issue. Small classes mean more teachers and more classrooms. The funding list from 2002 shows no facilities funding after 2007-8. This was the same time that the legislature cut the local millage for property tax support for school facilities by 25%. Funding for class size dropped significantly. It has never caught up to the 2007-8 level.

Patricia Levesque, head of the Jeb Bush Foundation for Florida’s Future joined with another member of the Constitutional Revision Commission Roberto Martinez, to file yet another assault on class size. Levesque and the Bush foundation have long been champions of school choice.

This latest amendment legalizes the preference charter schools already enjoy. Individual core classes could be smaller or larger as long as the school average by grade group met the required limits. Charter schools already have this option. In 2013, the legislature allowed district managed magnet schools or other choice programs to average class sizes, but not other schools.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. District managed schools have been struggling for years to meet class size limits, but funding levels just do not cover costs. Some districts preferred to pay fines for not meeting class sizes; it was less expensive than meeting the requirements.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. The solution? The legislature cuts corners. The voters will have their say if this latest constitutional amendment is on the November 2018 ballot.

Beware of Koch Messengers Bearing Gifts in Florida

The Koch brothers latest strategy is to target Hispanic families, according to Politico. They call it the Libre Initiative, and they were recently in Collier County. Hispanic families in south Florida have the largest percentage of students in charters and tax credit scholarship programs.

The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity. They are concentrating on Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Their presence takes many forms. Watch for everything from donations to school board races, charter and voucher expansion efforts and state election campaigns. In Florida, the November 2018 constitutional amendments already filed to attack school boards and eliminate the Article IX provision for a unified school system have already been filed by Erika Donalds, a CRC member from Collier County. She openly supports choice while serving on the Collier County school board.

Americans for Prosperity hosted House Speaker Richard Corcoran in Collier County as part of Corcoran’s Blueprint for Freedom tour of Florida. This is a well organized effort, both the targeting to families and the showcase events are slick.

There is something about billionaires trying to control public schools that just does not compute. Yet, the influence of money can suffocate reason if we are not alert. Are you holding local events to send a more constructive message to support the public interest?

NPR: Grading Charter Schools…Did NPR make the grade?

I love NPR, most days. When it comes to charter schools, however, I wonder where their objectivity is. On Innovation Hub this morning, Kara Miller’s guests were David Osborne and Chester Finn. Both have written books advocating for school reform. Miller did ask questions that reflected criticisms about charters, but accepted their responses with no follow up. Where were the knowledgeable experts on the negative impact of charters on communities? Where was the discussion about the profiteering? Where was the admission that few charters are innovative and most duplicate what already exists?

The end result of the interview was the usual propaganda that if only there were more and better charters, education would improve. At least there was a reluctant admission that school choice had no substantive impact on school achievement. I took a few notes on the other questions asked.

Political support for charters was one of the most interesting and perhaps revealing questions asked. Conservative Republicans support charters for other people, not themselves. Their suburban district schools are good, and charters help their children the least of all. Liberal Democrats, many of whom are from urban districts are no longer so supportive of charters, even though charters are supposedly helping those children the most.

The switch in allegiance by Democrats was attributed to the fact that the teacher unions realized that charter teachers were not joining the union, so the charter movement lost union support. The fact that charter teachers sign ‘at will’ contracts and can be fired for no reason was not mentioned as a reason those charter teachers did not join unions.

Could it be that parents and educators in areas where charters have proliferated are best equipped to recognize their shortcomings? Parents want the best for their children, but resegregation and the destruction of whole communities may be tempering enthusiasm. Parents may be recognizing that pulling out a few children for special treatment may turn out not to be so special. Their political representatives are listening.

Charters have made no significant academic improvement based on test scores was acknowledged. Some cities are purported to have been successful e.g. Boston. Their success was attributed to the small number of charters that met stringent authorization qualifications. In too many other places, such as Dayton, Ohio, anyone can open a charter and the quality can be abysmal.

Improvements in district-run public schools is the rational for providing competition from the charter sector. Osborne did slip in a comment about more district operated charters are likely in the future. This option is worth exploring. This could result in better authorization standards and oversight.

Charters pull money away from district schools was denied. I loved this response. If districts are under enrolled, the district should get creative and lease out the building to charters. If that is the best example of creativity, charters have a long way to go to make their case.

The ‘creaming of students’ charge was given short shrift. Beware of slipping into worst case scenarios arguments was the response. To be fair, they did state that a good school is not enough. The example of the trauma that children experienced from the aftermath of Katrina was cited as a need for more support.

The conclusion was that achievement is not getting better fast enough. David Osborne admitted that test scores are not the sole indicator of good schools. What should be used? Graduation rates, parental opinion, and qualitative assessments by independent evaluators…..sounds expensive. This argument, I believe, may be the weakest of all. The premise that evaluation will drive instruction is wrong headed. It is not working….school grades don’t improve schools; they destroy them.

Listen to the broadcast here.

Send comments here: wgbh.org Innovation Hub

Facilities and Fresen: What a cozy arrangement

You know that former Florida Representative Erik Fresen is going to jail. In this Palm Beach Post article, some other facts about this champion of for-profit charter schools are revealed. Not only did he fail to file his income tax returns for his eight years in office, he:

  1. was a lobbyist for Academica, the for-profit charter chain that his sister and brother-in-law run.
  2. earned $150,000 a year as a consultant for Civica which is the land use company that builds charter schools for
    Academica.
  3. fast tracked the bill to force local districts to share the tax money they received with charters and then capped
    the amount of funding districts could raise.

The education crisis Florida faces that has resulted in a major lawsuit filed against State and is a direct result of the influence peddled by a man who now is going to jail. What remains to be seen is how the current legislature responds.

Florida Must Take A Closer Look At Charter Schools

In today’s Sun Sentinel, see the League’s opinion piece on Gulen for-profit charter schools. This is a unique chain. The profits go to support an international religious movement. The article explains how profits are generated in an example from River City Science Academy in Jacksonville.

Gulen is a Turkish Imam who had a falling-out with the Turkish President Erdogan. He moved to Pennsylvania and is the head of a movement that has 170 charter schools in the U.S., twelve in Florida. The leaders bring in Turkish nationals under ‘specialty occupation’ visas for positions that are questioned as a violation of the intent of the visa program. In Florida, 195 visas were given for Turkish men to work in Gulen schools, even if their mastery of English was very limited. Their business practices in Georgia resulted in their expulsion.

The for-profit charter industry has a complex web of real estate dealings that make millions for the management company at the expense of tax payers. The Gulen schools, managed in Florida as Charter Educational Services and Resources, have cover names. In Jacksonville, they are River City schools. In other areas they are often tied to names like math and science academies. Gainesville had two Gulen schools–Sweetwater Branch–that closed for poor academic performance and low enrollment. Their teacher salaries on average were lower than the beginning salary for new teachers in the district. I happened to speak, the other day, with a former teacher at a local Gulen school. She was dismayed at the way the school had been operated. They never knew from day to day which teachers would show up; the leadership was disorganized and disinterested. At least it closed, but not before it became profitable.

The League has long recognized Florida’s lax oversight of charter school management practices. The legislature must respond.

Charter School Moratorium Proposed

Some things make my eyes light up. Tighter controls or the elimination of for-profit charters is one. Another is a moratorium on the expansion of school choice. New York is ahead of Florida on these issues. The state eliminated the expansion of for-profit charter management several years ago. Now, three elected members of the Buffalo school district have asked for a moratorium on charter growth. It is the usual problem, as charters grow in number, resources dwindle for everyone.

The Buffalo charter sector wants to expand. Its response to the school board decision for a moratorium, however, might not be what you would expect. The spokesperson for the Northeast Charter Schools Network said: “We understand that charter schools are not perfect; they’re not the magic answer”. He went on to say that if parents want them, they should not be denied the choice.

There is a fundamental flaw in the argument that choice is more important than the common good. We all have to ask, How much is enough? I keep going back to the private sector competition model that creates 13 kinds of Cheerios and nearly 200 TV stations. We pay for those, but we don’t use them. Soon the private sector starts to cut corners to cut costs. If you are sensitive to consumer market surveys, you might have recognized that some brands of coffee are sold in 12 ounce packages, not the one pound packages we expect. The price is the same. There is some truth to the old adage that there can be too much of a good thing.