I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Charter Cheerleaders Can't Be Referees

Blogging's been light this past week, largely because I've been finishing a big project with Bruce Baker about charter schools that we hope to tell you more about later this year.

Let me state this one more time: I am not against charter schools. I started my K-12 teaching career in a charter. There is an appropriate place for "choice" and "innovation" within the public school system, and there is a good case to be made that charter schools can, when properly authorized and monitored, provide beneficial educational services to a community.

It's that "when" phrase, however, that seems to create all the problems:
The current uproar about the actions of David Hansen, the former Ohio Department of Education executive director and “charter czar” who rigged sponsor evaluation scores to allow more favorable ratings for the most politically favored authorizers, brings to light a perfect storm of factors that should have made his actions predictable at the time of his appointment two years ago.
Hansen, the husband of Beth Hansen, Governor John Kasich’s chief-of-staff, was put in place by the governor’s team to head the Office of Quality School Choice. His background, as head of the right-wing Buckeye Institute, famous for maintaining a database detailing the salaries for thousands of public school teachers and devoid of salary information for CEOs of national for-profit charter school chains and other privatizers, is now being examined by charter watchdogs as they discover a series of conflicts-of-interest that raise basic questions about his actions.
Here are a few morsels:
“Hansen and ODE were ignoring the big fish,” Stephen Dyer observed. “And that was, unfortunately, Hansen’s undoing. None of these crackdowns were against schools run by big Republican donors — David Brennan of White Hat Management or Bill Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — whose schools rate among the worst in the state and who educate about 20% of all Ohio charter school students.
Plunderbund readers, in fact, were informed several days ago that Hansen is a serial data offender.
“This isn’t the first time Hansen has been caught altering charter school data to improve the image of these charter school operators. Hansen was President of the Buckeye Institute in 2009 when they put out a report on Ohio’s dropout recover schools.  Similar to the current incident, Hansen’s group altered data to improve the apparent performance of the charter schools.  The shady data changes resulted in “a dramatic overstatement of the graduation rates at the charters.” Many of the schools in the 2009 report were owned and operated by White Hat Management.  Meanwhile, White Hat owner David Brennan was quietly contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the Buckeye Institute through his Brennan Family Foundation.”
Moral of the story: don’t bite the hand that feeds you – particularly from one job to the next. And if the numbers don’t come out right, make stuff up. Which is apparently what Hansen did.
This takes me back a couple of years to the shenanigans of Tony Bennett, formerly of Indiana's and Florida's education departments, who resigned in disgrace when accused of altering Indiana's school grading formula to favor the outcomes for a charter school whose founder was a big Republican donor (here's an update on Bennett).

Bennett's actions, like Hansen's in Ohio, were extreme, and it was appropriate in both cases to drum them out of office. However, as I pointed out about Bennett in real time, the issue wasn't simply that he had gamed the system; it was the system itself. In effect, Bennett was comparing schools that should not have been compared, and that gave his favored charter an advantage. Even if he hadn't interfered directly, his department had set up an oversight regime that inherently favored charters.

I've seen this same behavior here in New Jersey. When the Newark Public Schools went to a universal enrollment system, they published school ratings on the registration form that were clearly biased towards charters with no regard for how student demographics might impact test-based outcomes.

This shouldn't be a surprise in a state-run district like Newark; after all, as we learned this week, the NJDOE does not use the same accountability measures for charter schools that it does for district schools. And, as I pointed out years ago, the state makes no effort to hold charters accountable for the differing student populations they enroll compared to their host districts.

How could this be? Maybe it's because Chris Cerf -- the guy who ran the NJDOE for years and has now taken over NPS -- is a huge proponent of charter schools and worked for many years at Edison Learning, a high-profile school management company.

He's not alone. John King, New York's reformy former education commissioner, headed up the Uncommon Schools charter chain before taking his job with the state. He then proceeded to give them a pass on using the teacher evaluation system district schools had to use. Kevin Huffman, Tennessee's reformy former commissioner, basically turned a blind eye toward the infiltration of for-profit charter management groups into his state. Hanna Skandera, New Mexico's reformy current commissioner and a protege of privatization guru Jeb! Bush, overruled her own Public Education Commission to allow three low-performing charter schools to continue operating.

Of course, public officials should be free to pursue the policies they believe are in the best interest of their constituents. But putting charter school ideologues, many with connections to the school privatization industry, in charge of regulating charters is just asking for trouble. These people have sold a tale of district school "failure" as a way of allowing charter schools to flourish; does anyone really think they are going to easily change their minds when confronted with evidence that some of their beloved charters just aren't cutting it?

Putting foxes in charge of henhouses hasn't worked out well for other areas of public life, and it's certainly not going to help education. I'm not sure what the exact answer is here, but giving ideologically biased state education departments carte blanche to oversee charter schools is clearly not working out.

Don't worry, I got this...

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