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, August 25, 2016

The Sick Consequences of "Competition" in Education

ADDING: Big props to @pippi longstocking for guiding me to this story.

 There are two ways to get you to buy my product:
  1. Convince you my product is good.
  2. Convince you the other guy's product sucks.
Sure, there are plenty of companies that base their marketing strategy around a positive message. But if my product isn't really that good to begin with, it's going to be hard to convince you to fork over some cash for my stuff. It's probably easier, and more effective, to just bad-mouth my rivals.

Now, we are currently living in the golden age of competition in public education. Milton Friedman's dream of pubic schools having to compete for students has finally come true. Which means charter schools have to go out and make their case for enrollment, either by extolling their virtues, or by denigrating the public schools with which they compete.

The problem is that when you're opening a brand new charter school, it's hard to prove to people you're better than the local public school district -- the same school system that has been at the heart of the community for generations. The same district that brings America Friday night football games and kindergarten Halloween parades and high school spring musicals and all the other traditions tightly tied to our nation's identity.

That pretty much leaves you only one choice:

This is an actual mailer sent to families in the Bethlehem, PA area, recruiting for the Innovative Arts Academy Charter School. Sara K. Satullo, reporting for lehighvalleylive.com, picks up the story:
A promotional mailer claiming to be from a new Catasauqua charter school paints Liberty High School students as drug users, sparking outrage among many Bethlehem residents. 
Innovative Arts Academy Charter School denies it had anything to do with sending out the promotional mailer, which lists the school's return address. 
The postcard references the September 2015 drug arrest of a 17-year-old Liberty student and asks "Why worry about this type of student at school? Come visit Arts Academy Charter School. Now enrolling grades 6-12."
It shows a stock image of a teenager holding their head in their hands and reprints a Morning Call headline: "Teen busted by Liberty HS officials with more than $3,000 of heroin, cocaine."
Photos of the mailer spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter and led some to share their disgust. [emphasis mine]
Drugs are a serious problem in America's schools, no question. Of course, about five minutes on Google will probably give you all the examples you need of drug busts in affluent, "nice" schools, including private schools. But they aren't the ones competing with charters (yet).

IAACS says it had nothing to do with this outrageous attack on the local public school:
Fennick, the school's attorney, sent a letter to The Express-Times on Saturday saying that The Morning Call has twice run ads, most recently in Saturday's newspaper, to purportedly recruit students for the school. 
"The school did not write, authorize, approve, nor pay for either of those ads. The school did not have knowledge that these ads would be published," Fennick wrote in the letter.
"We do not know if there are ads in the pipeline with your publication. The purpose of this letter is to advise you that we do not consent to any advertising being run without the express written authorization of the Board of Directors (Kelly Bauer, President) or the chief executive officer (Loraine Petrillo)." 
Now that's very curious -- for a few reasons. First: this story ran on August 21, 2016. But just four days later, Petrillo, the CEO, handed in her resignation:
The CEO of the new Catasauqua charter school embroiled in controversy over an unauthorized mailer quit Thursday morning amid concerns about the landlord's involvement in the school. 
Innovative Arts Academy Charter School is set to open Sept. 6 at 330 Howertown Road in a building owned by developer Abe Atiyeh. About 330 students are enrolled in the grades 6-12 school. 
On Tuesday, Chief Executive Officer Loraine Petrillo announced she planned to resign once a replacement was found due to concerns about outside forces undermining her efforts. 
In e-mail messages obtained by lehighvalleylive.com Thursday morning, Petrillo announced her resignation was now effective immediately and raised major concerns about Atiyeh's involvement in the school and charter school board members' ties to him. 
Atiyeh agreed to loan $100,000 to the fledgling charter school after its application for a line of credit was denied, Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy said. 
Roy said he learned of the loan in a conversation with Petrillo. The school has borrowed $75,000 from Atiyeh so far, according to Roy. 
Reached by phone Thursday, Petrillo declined further comment but confirmed she sent the emails. 
"Those emails were internal emails," Petrioll [sic] said. "I am very, very upset that they were leaked." [emphasis mine]
Oh, I'm sure you were -- almost as upset as the good people of Bethlehem, PA, who would have had access to these emails as public documents had they come from a public district school superintendent.*

And so we return, once again, to a key difference between public and charter schools: Because they aren't state actors, charter schools are not subject to the same standards of transparency as public schools. Petrillo could have simply walked away from IAACS had these emails not leaked, and we wouldn't be any the wiser.

Which is the next curious aspect of all this: why did Atiyeh, who owns the building, loan the school money? Could it be that it's worth it to him to keep the school afloat so he can collect his rent? Is that why Petrillo resigned? It's a fair question given what's in her emails:
Petrillo does not identify the landlord in the emails. But the building at 330 Howertown Road, Catasauqua, is owned by a limited liability corporation associated with developer Abe Atiyeh. 
"For the life of me, I don't understand why the board is still seeking the landlord or associated company's involvement in our financing after this past weekend. It might be 'legal' but certainly, in my humble opinion, unethical," Petrillo wrote. [emphasis mine]
Oh, my. Well, was this an isolated incident for Atiyeh?
Atiyeh, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has become one of the greatest advocates of local charter schools. 
He owns three buildings used by charter schools in the Lehigh Valley – Innovative Arts, Arts Academy Elementary Charter School at 601 Union St., Allentown, and Arts Academy Charter School at 1610 Emmaus Ave. in Salisbury. 
Medical Academy Charter School was housed in his Howertown Road property before closing in June amid discipline and academic issues. 
In May 2014, Atiyeh told The Morning Call he has shelled out "a couple hundred thousand bucks" for each proposed charter. 
"I don't have a limit on how much money I can put into a school," Atiyeh told The Morning Call. 
Nearly three years ago, he upset the Allentown School Board over his recruitment practices after the board first rejected the application for the Arts Academy Elementary Charter School. After the rejection, Atiyeh hired Fleck Consulting, Mike Fleck's now defunct firm, to drum up 1,000 signatures from community members that its revised application needed. 
Atiyeh also offered $30 for every student Fleck Consulting signed up to attend. Then-Allentown School Board President Robert E. Smith called it "dirty" and "unethical."
So here we've got a guy who has repeatedly closed deals with charter schools to rent out his buildings, and then went out and recruited kids -- hard. He counts on enough students enrolling so those charters can get public funding and make their lease payments to him. If they don't get enough students, he's out of luck, isn't he?

Which leads to the third curious thing about this whole mess:
Days after a mysterious mailer sparked outrage by slamming Liberty High School, an employee of developer Abe Atiyeh filed a public records request seeking 10 years of student arrest records for the Bethlehem school. 
Records show that on Tuesday, David Harte, of Willow Race LLC, filed a Right-to-Know request with the Bethlehem Area School District seeking a list of all the times and reasons police were called to Liberty High in the last decade. The school district provided lehighvalleylive.com with a copy of Harte's request in response to the news organization's own Right-to-Know request. 
Harte also sought all incident reports for activity that required a police response to the high school. 
Harte is vice president of business development for PA Venture Capital, an Atiyeh company. He did not return a e-mail message seeking comment Thursday. His request did not say why he wanted the records and is not required to specify that. [emphasis mine]
Oh, I'm sure he was just a curious citizen, eager to know all about the police activity at a local high school. I mean, who doesn't like to curl up with a nice cup of tea and peruse arrest records...

I think Petrillo herself sums this whole nasty business up best:
"I now believe some of you thought you hired a puppet who would not ask questions and go along with things," Petrillo wrote. "When asked recently about where we stand with financing, I have been told...'I got this...I am speaking to people I know, I don't need to know this;' when questioned."
Petrillo said she was soured and disturbed by recent developments.
"It is sad that this has worked out the way it has," she said as part of her email chain with the charter's board and lawyer. "Something sinister has been going on behind the scenes, and I am not going to take anymore of a hit for whatever arrangements have been made with the landlord." [emphasis mine]
To recap: IAACS is set to open in mere days in the Bethlehem area. Its CEO, however, has resigned, apparently over what she perceives as "something sinister" going on with the landlord. That landlord, who has repeatedly struck similar deals with charter schools in the region, will not get paid unless the charter actually opens and enrolls students; for this reason, he has loaned the school hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition, one of his employees sought police records related to the local public school, which will "compete" with IAACS for enrollments. In a remarkable coincidence, a flyer has been distributed around the community highlighting a drug arrest at the public school.

Quite the story, huh? But let's step back a bit, because there are two big issues on my mind:

1) When you move school governance away from state actors, don't be surprised when private operators spring up with the sole mission of moving taxpayer monies into their own pockets -- as quietly as possible.

Is anyone actually surprised this crap goes on all the time in Pennsylvania? The last governor's biggest campaign contributor runs a charter school; according to Harrisburg insiders, he basically wrote Corbett's education policies.

Oh, but I know, charter cheerleaders -- you think this is an outlier. This isn't reflective of what's really going on across the charter sector, right?

Baloney -- Profit taking is the new status quo in the charter sector. Even so-called "non-profit" schools are far too often shell corporations set up to allow deals like this one to go through.

This isn't "innovative," it's not "cage busting," and it's sure as hell not "all about the kids." What happened here, as Bruce Baker and Gary Miron have explained so well, is the inevitable outcome of an education policy that introduces market forces into public education. It's the logical consequence of moving schools away from being civic institutions and toward being places of commerce.

2) When you introduce market-style "competition" into public education, don't be surprised when that competition turns nasty.

Did you really think, charter cheerleaders, that it was all going to be good, clean contest, complete with hearty pats on the back and a "Great game, fellas!" at the end? That the people whose fortunes are riding on charter school investment schemes were simply going to shrug their shoulders and go away if they didn't get the returns they expected?

Did you really think the charters, which you set up to compete with public schools, were going to quietly fold up their tents and move on if they couldn't convince enough families to "vote with their feet"? Especially after you let them set up these byzantine, secretive real-estate and management deals -- even in the states with "good" authorizers and overseers?

I know a lot of you folks haven't actually run businesses, so let me explain how this works: not everybody goes down without a fight. Some people, when they see that things aren't going their way, play dirty. And they know they'll get away with it if the federal, state, and local education officials who are supposed to be monitoring them are, in reality, ideologues who can't be trusted to be fair arbiters of the system.

Are you shocked by that mailer above? If you are, let me be the first to tell you something: you've been completely dishonest with yourself.

Of course this was going to happen -- it has happened before, and it will happen again. The satellite dish folks make their money by convincing people that cable stinks. The cell phone providers are happy to remind folks of all the places the other carrier doesn't cover. The Apple people ran an ad campaign for years telling us PCs were nerdy and defensively neurotic.

The difference here is only a matter of degree. Bad-mouthing public, district schools is the new status quo.

Look for a mailer just like the one above in your mailbox soon -- very soon.

The great Rob Tornoe.


When Eva Moskowitz takes to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and paints the public schools as "fight clubs" that are out of control...

When Campbell Brown takes to the pages of the NY Daily News to make the NYC schools appear to be staffed by hordes of perverts...

When Philip Anschutz bankrolls a major Hollywood movie whose plot revolves around a failing public school that is saved by charter conversion...

Tell me, charter cheerleaders: Is that functionally any different than the flyer above?

Just this once, see if you can answer me honestly.


I have to give a shout out to Sara Satullo, who's been reporting on all of this. Local reporting like hers is the only thing that's keeping these guys from completely bilking the system.


Just looking again at the flyer: "Why worry about this type of student at school?"

Can we finally please admit that nearly the entire appeal of charter schools is wrapped up in a student's peers? That "innovation" and "freedom from regulations" has nothing to do with why people sign their kids up for charters?

I have said repeatedly that I will never, ever fault a parent for enrolling their child in a charter school if they are doing so because they perceive it is a better option. But I have no patience for charter cheerleaders who refuse to acknowledge that peer effects are a huge part of the lure of charter schools.

Some on the pro-charter side, like Michael Petrilli, have acknowledged this, and I respect them for it. I wish more of his compatriots would joint him -- then maybe we could have a serious conversation about segregation, privilege, and "choice." Lord knows we're long overdue for one.

* Ken Libby, who knows quite a bit about this stuff, says via Twitter that charter school emails are supposed to be subject to PA's open public record laws. But it doesn't appear that happens in practice the way it should.

Of course, as private companies, Atiyeh's LLCs aren't subject to any of these laws. So a request for emails related to advertising for the charter by the charter's leaseholder isn't going to be fulfilled.

Is everybody fine with that?

Charter Schools: A Few Bad Apples, Or a Whole Barrel?

Charter school advocates are not happy about John Oliver's last show, in which he documented the many problems with charter schools:

Profit-taking, corruption, lack of transparency, mediocre-to-poor performance... doesn't sound like "freedom from the education bureaucracy" is all that great after all.

Predictably, the professional charter cheerleaders rushed to disavow all that Oliver had uncovered. Here's a statement from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, as reported by Valerie Strauss in The Washignton Post [all emphases in this post are mine]:
“The August 21 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver examined the critical importance of strong charter school authorizers and laws. The program began by spotlighting one of the thousands of high-performing charter schools that are opening doors of opportunity for students – especially those living in low-income communities. High-quality charter schools like these are the norm, giving families access to local, public, and effective educational options in communities where traditional district schools aren’t meeting the needs of students.
“Most of the program focused on charter schools in three states that were engaged in practices that were either questionable or unethical. These practices are unacceptable, but are not representative of charter schools nationwide. Furthermore, many of the examples featured are years-to-decades old, and fail to reflect the significant progress that the charter school movement has made in the areas of oversight and accountability.
Nelson Smith, Senior Adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and former CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, feels likewise:
If this stuff were actually typical of charter schools, I would have bailed out of the movement years ago. But it’s not, and I haven’t.
Now, the writers at Last Week Tonight probably aren’t statisticians, but this is known as an Unrepresentative Sample. Except for a brief nod to KIPP’s graduation rate, the entire segment was a parade of horror stories, including one dredged up from 2010. Not since Dick Cheney got hold of the Iraq briefings have we seen cherry-picking on this scale.
Why, it's just not fair for Oliver to focus on the "bad apples" -- look at KIPP! It's the real representative of the charter sector! Sure, we need to get rid of those few bad actors, who might be moving funds away from the classroom and into profits. But the charter sector as a whole is full of "high-quality" schools!


As I've explained repeatedly, it's difficult to make any claim, positive or negative, about charter operators when the vast majority are running mom-and-pop schools with small numbers of students. KIPP, beloved by the sector's defenders, enrolled about 1.7 percent of all charter students in 2011-12 (the last year for which I have a reliable database of Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs). That is a tiny portion of all charter school enrollments.

As I've also repeatedly pointed out, we have plenty of research on the effects of KIPP schools on student performance. They do a decent job, although no one, so far as I'm concerned, has shown their effects can't largely be explained by extra spending and a longer day -- things we could conceivably do with any school -- as well as peer effects and self-selection -- things we couldn't bring to scale.

It's also worth noting that KIPP isn't exactly squeaky clean in its own operations:
Here are some of the key details from KIPP's 2013 tax filings (uploaded below):
  • KIPP received more than $18 million in grants from American tax dollars and more than $43 million from other sources, primarily other foundations;
  • KIPP spent nearly $14 million on compensation, including more than $1.2 million on nine executives who received six-figure salaries, and nearly $2 million more on retirement and other benefits;
  • KIPP also spent over $416,000 on advertising and a whopping $4.8 million on travel; it paid more than $1.2 to the Walt Disney World Swan and Resort;
  • It also paid $1.2 million to Mathematica for its data analysis; that's the firm that was used to try to rebut concerns about KIPP's performance and attrition rates.
But I'll set that aside and admit here that, whatever qualms I may have, KIPP is one of the better actors in the sector. But are they "the norm"? For every shiny, red KIPP, how many "bad apples" are there in the charter world?

Let's make this simple and compare KIPP to all the other large CMOs for 2011-12 (click to enlarge).

First of all, let's be clear: KIPP is not the largest CMO in the sector. That distinction belongs to K12 Inc., the virtual charter operator. Further, if you put all of the charters linked to the Turkish expatriate cleric Fethullah Gulen together, they make the largest chain of brick-and-mortar charters in the nation.

Now, it's a funny thing: whenever I hear charter cheerleaders mention a charter chain that represents "the norm," they never seem to mention K12, or the Gulen-linked charters, or Imagine Schools, Inc., or any of the others -- save KIPP -- in the chart above. Why is that, I wonder?

K12 Inc.
At K12, Inc.'s stockholder meeting in December, its own investors criticized the schools' lamentable academic performance and voted down its executives' proposed salary increases. This is just the latest piece of bad news, which has been coming in rafts for K12 since 2013.
Gulen-linked charter schools:
The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked education officials in Texas and California to investigate publicly funded charter schools in those states that it says are linked to a Muslim cleric living in the United States, a man the government alleges was the mastermind of a coup attempt this month. The Turkish government also is planning to bring more complaints in other parts of the U.S. 
Turkey alleges that the Harmony schools are part of a network of more than 160 charter schools in more than 25 states started by Turkish men, all said to be inspired by Fethullah Gulen, the preacher who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania. The complaint in Texas alleges, among other things, that the schools have abused public funds, funneled money to Gulen’s movement — known as Hizmet (or Service) — violated legal requirements surrounding open and competitive bidding, and discriminated against employees on the basis of national origin and gender.
Here's some more on Gulen-linked charters.

Imagine Schools, Inc.:
A national charter school chain under fire for its management practices has been ordered to pay nearly $1 million to the local board of the now-closed Imagine Renaissance Academy in Kansas City.
Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc. recruited and manipulated the local school board, according to a federal court ruling, then profited from a “double-dealing” lease scheme.
National Heritage Academies:
National Heritage Academies, Michigan's largest charter management company, has an unusual arrangement with its schools. The for-profit company — and not the schools — owns the contents of its school buildings, even though those desks, computers, books and supplies may have been purchased with taxpayer money.
The company also owns most of the buildings where it manages schools. NHA fronts the money to build or renovate those properties, recouping its investment through rents charged to the schools. Those rents, paid with public dollars, generally don't come down even after NHA has recovered its initial investment, according to an eight-part series — "State of Charter Schools" — the Detroit Free Press published in June.
Ownership of both the school building and its contents means charter school boards have little leverage to remove the company if they are unhappy with NHA's stewardship. If NHA is fired, it could take school property with it.
More on NHA's practices here.

Cozy political connections, favorable tax treatment and little public oversight has allowed Miami charter school chain Academica to exploit Florida's laws, build a successful chain of schools, and profit off taxpayer dollars, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

* The South Miami company receives more than $9 million a year in management fees just from its South Florida charter schools — fees that ultimately come from public tax dollars.
* More than two dozen other companies are controlled Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, including more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.
* These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.
Charter Schools USA:
UPDATE: School board members on Wednesday denied the Renaissance Charter School chain’s application to open its first high school in the county. The vote was 6-0, with board member Mike Murgio absent.
ORIGINAL STORY: The Palm Beach County School Board is poised Wednesday to deny the Renaissance Charter School chain permission to open its first high school in the county, heightening tension with a company it has been in a legal and rhetorical battle with for nearly a year.
Tired of the spread of the Renaissance schools and their for-profit management company, Charter Schools USA, county school board members in December rejected the management company’s application for a new school on the rationale that it was not “innovative.” That decision was overruled by the state and is now tied up in the courts.
A little more:
Picture this: the superintendent of your public school system makes so much money that he’s tooling around in his own 43-foot yacht on the weekends.
Hard to believe, right?
A public school superintendent has to report to his board of directors, the school board, who would think twice about paying lavish sums of money on the taxpayer’s dime. However, if you’re the founder of Charter Schools USA, no one bats an eyelash.
Charter Schools USA founder Jonathan Hage and his first mate Edward Pozzuoli, attorney for Charter Schools USA who is also president of the law firm Tripp Scott, have registered a yacht under the name of “Fishin’ 4 Schools” as well as formed an LLC under the same name.
 The Leona Group:
The charter school where Ana Rivera sent her two sons, Cesar Chavez Academy, added a second elementary school, even though its existing one fell below 98 percent of schools on the most recent state rankings, in 2014. The Leona Group, the Arizona-based for-profit operator that runs it, also runs some of the worst-performing schools in Detroit. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country, found that students in the company’s schools grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools.
Edison Schools:
Twelve years later – and 20 years after the national Edison experiment began – the company was fired in Dayton. There was none of the fanfare and public notice that accompanied Edison’s entry. In that sense, Edison’s experience in Dayton ended better than it did in other places, where there have been heated public meetings and recriminations.
But the rationale for the firing was not a new one: the company, now known as EdisonLearning, never delivered.
So there you go: In the largest charter management organizations, profit-taking, mediocre-to-bad performance, a lack of transparency, and self-dealing are "the norm."

Why would anyone be surprised at this? As Gary Miron and Bruce Baker point out, the system is set up to reward this sort of behavior:
In this brief, we identify four major policy concerns:
  1. A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain, creating substantial inefficiencies;
  2. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of “public” education;
  3. Charter school operators are growing highly endogenous, self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction which further compromise the future provision of “public” education; and
  4. Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations, ethical concerns, or merely bad policies and practices are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers or litigation brings them to light. 
It seems clear that the financial incentives embedded in state law, combined with the need for most of the companies to make a profit, have led EMO-run schools to operate in ways that are often at odds with the goals of charter school reforms and, ultimately, the public interest.  
When it comes to large charter school managers, KIPP isn't "the norm" -- it's an outlier. It's one of the few (relatively) unspoiled apples in the barrel -- so far as we know.

And maybe that's the biggest problem in all this: How can we be sure all the mom-and-pop charters operating today are actually behaving in the public interest? Given what we know about the biggest charter operators, aren't we taking a huge, unwarranted leap of faith to believe that the charter sector, as a whole, is serving us well?

Maybe we should stop focusing only on KIPP, cut a few more of these charter school apples open, and find out what's inside.

Is the charter sector ready to reach into the bottom of the barrel?

ADDING: Here's the predictably reformy Richard Whitmire:

Finally saw J Oliver. Puzzled. If I strung together the six worst tradit pub schools and called that the norm, would that be good reporting?

No, Richard, it wouldn't. But when the largest CMOs are engaging in profit-taking and/or self-dealing, and when the entire system is marked by a significant lack of transparency, I'd say "the norm" was unacceptable. And it's amazing to me that you're just fine with it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Chris Cerf's Late Conversion On School Funding and Testing

UPDATE: Looks like Chris Cerf went a little too far this time:
On Monday, Christie’s former education commissioner Christopher Cerf, who is now running the Newark school district, told NJ.com that the governor’s funding plan would be “catastrophic” for the city. Christie said he had a “spirited discussion” with Cerf last night.
"Spirited," huh?

I wonder how much more "spirit" Cerf can take...

* * * 

Chris Christie's "Fairness Formula" is so blatantly unfair and illogical that even Chris Cerf -- Christie's former Commissioner of Education and current State Superintendent of Newark Public Schools -- can't support it:
The superintendent appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to run Newark's state-controlled school district said a 60-percent cut in aid projected under a new funding formula proposed by the governor would be "catastrophic" for the district.  
"I don't mind saying explicitly that a reduction in our budget of 60 percent would be catastrophic," said Superintendent Christopher Cerf, a former state education commissioner under Christie, who appointed Cerf to run the state's largest district last year.
Cerf's comment was in response to a reporter's question about the impact on the district of a projected 60 percent cut in aid under the new Fairness Formula proposed by Christie.
The formula, unveiled in June, would dole out precisely the same amount of aid per pupil — $6,599 — to all New Jersey school districts, regardless of affluence, resulting in a savings for 85 percent of the state's property taxpayers, while translating into dramatic cuts in aid to poor districts that rely on the state to fund a much higher proportion of their school budgets. 
An analysis by NJ Advance Media found that aid to Newark and some other poor districts would be cut by 60 percent or more under the governor's proposed formula. [emphasis mine]
As I pointed out last October, this is quite a shift in thinking for Cerf. When he was in Christie's administration, he used to go around the state saying NJ's urban districts were getting way too much money:
Pumping more money into our worst-performing districts has provided us with moral cover, persuading us that we have met our obligation to the students in those districts while allowing us to under serve them.More money has permitted past governors and legislatures to avoid the politically difficult reforms – like implementation of an educator evaluation system, tenure reform, and ending the pernicious “last in, first out” policy – so critical to turning around our lowest-performing schools. And more money has likewise allowed the Department of Education to be satisfied with a role as district compliance-monitor rather than district partner, collaborator, and, where necessary, instigator of seismic reform. [emphasis mine]
Funny how actually running a district causes you to think about this stuff a little differently, isn't it? This, among other reasons, is why I said years ago that Cerf wasn't qualified to be the Commissioner: he had never run a public school district, let alone one with many students living in poverty, so he had no idea of the challenges faced by district leaders who saw their state aid plummet under Christie.

But Cerf's flip-flopping isn't limited to school funding. The State Superintendent was interviewed last week on NJTV, where he laid out his terms for what should constitute "success" when judging the Newark schools:
Williams: Speaking of QSAC, every district in the state is governed, is tested by, is accessed by QCAS — you won’t be. Newark is going to be accessed by growth. That’s pretty broad. 
Cerf: One of those five domains I was mentioning is called instruction in program, and that one we applied for what’s called — I’m sorry for the technical terms — an equivalency waiver. Essentially what that is is measure us by student outcomes, but measure them predominately by outcomes that are based on growth rather than absolute proficiency. [emphasis mine]
Wait -- is 2016 Chris Cerf saying it's unfair to ask a district with many students in poverty to be judged by the same standards as a district with few of those students?

Because 2012 Chris Cerf was tired of those "excuses":
Some would say we should not put such effort into these schools. They will say these schools are low-performing because of poverty, and that until we fix community and family issues, we can’t do much better in the schools.  
Of course, poverty matters. And of course, it affects a child’s experience in schools. But rather than allowing these circumstances to be used as an excuse for inaction, we should redouble our efforts as educators to make sure we do everything in our power to provide great options for these students. We have too many examples of schools and great teachers overcoming the constraints of poverty to believe we can’t do any better. 
I refuse to work within a system that accepts that the circumstance into which a child is born should determine his outcome in life. And I refuse to believe that great public school teachers cannot make a difference in a child’s life. 
Let’s work together over the next several years to give all students in New Jersey equal opportunities for success, and let’s hope that the support of expert educators in our RACs will help to turn around low-performing schools. [emphasis mine]
In fact, 2012 Cerf "proved" that poverty could be overcome with his magical graph that showed poverty doesn't matter! Bruce Baker called it out in real time:
Now, it’s one thing when and under-informed tech CEO goes all TED-style on us with big screens, gadgets, bells and whistles and info-graphics that just don’t mean crap anyway. But, it’s yet another when a State Commissioner of Education presents something not only equally ridiculous… but arguably far more ridiculous, disingenuous, unethical and downright WRONG.
This is a graph for the ages, and it comes from a presentation by the New Jersey Commissioner of Education given at the NJASA Commissioner’s Convocation in Jackson, NJ on Feb 29. State of NJ Schools presentation 2-29-2012
The title conveys the intended point of the graph – that if you look hard enough across New Jersey – you can find not only some, but MANY higher poverty schools that perform better than lower poverty schools.
This is a bizarre graph to say the least. It’s set up as a scatter plot of proficiency rates with respect to free/reduced lunch rates, but then it only includes those schools/dots that fall in these otherwise unlikely positions. At least put the others there faintly in the background, so we can see where these fit into the overall pattern. The suggestion here is that there is not pattern.
Note: this graph may not even be the worst one in the presentation. You decide!
The apparent inference here? Either poverty itself really isn’t that important a factor in determining student success rates on state assessments, or, alternatively, free and reduced lunch simply isn’t a very good measure of poverty even if poverty is a good predictor. Either way, something’s clearly amiss if we have so many higher poverty schools outperforming lower poverty ones. In fact, the only dots included in the graph are high poverty districts outperforming lower poverty ones. There can’t be much of a pattern between these two variables at all, can there? If anything, the trendline must be sloped uphill? (that is, higher poverty leads to higher outcomes!)
Note that the graph doesn’t even tell us which or how many dots/schools are in each group and/or what percent of all schools these represent. Are they the norm? or the outliers?
Well, here’s what the pattern really looks like with all schools included:
Hmmm… looks a little different when you put it that way. Yeah, it’s a scatter, not a perfectly straight line of dots. And yes, there are some dots to the right hand side that land above the 65 line and some dots to the left that land below it.
2012 Cerf says those red diamonds prove that schools can "overcome the restraints of poverty." Well, if that's true, 2016 Cerf, why don't you think NPS should be judged on absolute measures of student proficiency? Why should "growth" be how your schools are judged four years after you told us all "we have too many examples" of schools beating the odds?

I really can't think of a better example of why state and federal education policy leaders should have significant classroom and/or administrative experience before they are nominated. Not that experience guarantees they will promote good policies; however, a state commissioner who has actually been down in the trenches and understands how difficult it is to improve public schools is much less likely to indulge in fantasies about how schools will perform in the face of chronic poverty, inequality, racism, and declining funding.

If Chris Cerf ever rises to another leadership position in education policy, I hope he remembers just how tough it is to effect change in a district like Newark. I hope he won't make excuses for politicians like Chris Christie who won't give schools what the state's own law says they need. I hope he won't tut-tut at teachers and administrators who point out that while schools can and should improve, they certainly can't overcome, on their own, a host of problems they never created.

Accountability begins at home.

Monday, August 22, 2016

John Oliver on Charter Schools: A Supplement

John Oliver's piece last night on charter schools is getting a good bit of attention in the education policy bloggosphere:

I may have some more to say about it later, but I thought some of you might enjoy some further reading about some of the issues Oliver brought up.

- Pitbull and Charter Schools:

Charter Schools, Pitbull, & Money, Money, Money

Make Big Money Building Charter Schools: Joe Bruno Shows You How!

Pitbull Speech at Ntl Charter Schools Convention - The Remix (this remains a personal favorite if only because it was one time I let my snark run truly free)

- KIPP and its "Success" in Context:

The KIPP Propaganda Machine and Its Willing Saps In the Media

The Public School "Jewels" The Media Ignores

Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part II (skip to the "KIPP" section)

And it's worth pointing out once again that KIPP, no matter what you think about their "successes," is a tiny part of the entire charter sector:

- The CREDO Studies (which Oliver cites to claim charters and public schools are about even in performance):

Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part II (skip to "CREDO" section). This is how charter effects, as reported in the CREDO studies, compare to the effects of economic inequality:

- General Charter School Myth Busting: 

- Florida Charters:

Miami-Dade's Charters Don't Serve the Same Students

Are Miami-Dade's Charter Schools Really "Impressive"?

Does DFER Support Pitbull-Zulueta Values? (Click through the link in the post for the Miami Herald's terrific series "Cashing In On Kids")

-Why Pennsylvania's Charter System Is Such a Mess:

The Selling Out of Camden's Schools: Part I (yes, this does concern PA -- trust me, and read Part II)

- Why John Kasich's "Pizza Shoppe" Analogy Makes No Sense:

Democracy, Markets, & Charter Schools: Part I

Again, I may have some more to say about Oliver's piece, which I thought was good if necessarily incomplete. Until then, see you at the pizza shoppe.

More pepperoni, please.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Last Thing Atlantic City's Students Need Is School Vouchers

Atlantic City is in big fiscal trouble, and that includes its schools. So what do its leaders think the state should do? An infusion of aid? A new approach to curriculum? A full-frontal assault on childhood poverty?

Nope -- what the kids really need is "choice"!
Atlantic City’s MUA debacle (part of the larger state takeover debate) overshadowed a major development at Wednesday night’s council meeting, Save Jerseyans. 
This November, when voters in A.C. head to the polls, they’ll pass judgment not only on the state-wide casino gaming referendum but also a pair of city-specific school choice ballot questions. 
The questions will read as follows:

Shall the State of New Jersey designate the City to begin offering vouchers to families with children ages 6-16 so they can select the school they want their children to attend?

Shall the State of New Jersey designate the City of Atlantic City to begin offering property tax credits to families with children ages 6-16 who choose to home school?
The resolution (see attached here) was passed unanimously by the Democrat-dominated body and was filed with the Atlantic County Clerk by the August 19th deadline for submitting a non-binding referendum in time for the November ballot. It’s the brainchild of our friend, freshman GOP Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who is himself an NJEA member at Atlantic Cape Community College.
Yes, they are completely serious:
Besides the obvious benefit to students in one of the state’s largest struggling education districts, Councilman Kurtz sees massive near-term and long-term gains for taxpayers.
“It both gives poor families the means to receive the education of their dreams and would save taxpayers between $12,000-to-$15,000 per student who leaves the public school system and opts for a voucher — $5,000 for elementary, $8,000 for high school — not to mention the opportunity for educational innovation with the small private schools that would pop-up to offer different educational options and compete for the vouchers.”
Councilman, can I point out something you probably should have considered before you put this cockamamie idea before the public?

Last year, Atlantic City Public Schools enrolled 7,130 students. By contrast, the two private schools in AC that were listed in the NCES Private School Universe Survey enrolled a total of 168 K-12 students. Not one was in high school.

If, magically, these two schools were able to double in size, they would still only be able to enroll about 2 percent of Atlantic City's students -- again, not one of them would be in high school.

Our Lady Star of the Sea, the far larger of the two, is a Catholic school. Oh, your family's not Catholic?

Too bad.

Of course, we could open up all of Atlantic County to the high school kids. Problem is there are only three schools in the whole county that enroll more than 30 students in a class (all are Catholic). All require admissions applications; one explicitly states it receives more applications than it can accept (and has a tuition of $16,900 a year, not including transportation). What do you think the odds are that these schools can make room for all of ACPS's 1,948 high school students? Especially if they're only getting $8,000 a student in tuition?

The idea that "small private schools would pop-up to offer different educational options and compete for the vouchers" is a libertarian fantasy that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Atlantic City's public school students need well-funded schools right now -- not when some dopey Ayn Rand-ish dream comes to pass, but today.

The last thing Atlantic City should do is divert already scarce funds into a voucher program that would, at best, move a few children into religious schools that would need extra (and costly) oversight after having received public monies.

Someone should tell Councilman Kurtz and the rest of the city council to stop with these goofy schemes and get serious about properly funding their city's schools.

Didn't work out so well, did it?

ADDING: Here's the state's education commissioner on what it would be like to move AC's students to other districts:
New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe said Tuesday he is charged with ensuring that the school district receives the local tax levy revenue the city collects on its behalf.
"That money is the school district's money, and, without that, I will have to close the schools of Atlantic City," he said. "Not sure what that moment in time is, but I can tell you I have already started that process by not paying certain vendors of the school district."
If the schools close, Hespe said, moving students to other districts is doubtful.
"There is not much capacity in that area for moving large numbers of children, and that would be very disruptive to their education, and exactly the reason that we went to court because there aren't any solutions," he said. [emphasis mine]
But somehow Kurtz thinks he can find a way to move lots of kids to private schools, and that won't be disruptive. Totally makes sense...

Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

ADDING MORE: You might wonder why Councilman Kurtz wants to include homeschoolers in his voucher scheme. After all, current homeschoolers aren't a burden at all on the city's finances; why give them extra funding at a time when the city is in crisis?

Yes, it's exactly as bad as you think: Kurtz is homeschooling his own children. I've confirmed this from two sources.

I have to wonder what the good people of Atlantic City think about this.

When It Comes To Schools, Money DOES Matter -- Even in Michigan

I've become something of a connoisseur of a particular genre of opinion writing: the "We can't just throw money at schools!" op-ed. These pieces have a style all their own: they use the same talking points, the same context-free data points, and the same appeals to the same authorities. 
The goal of these pieces isn't to give a nuanced view of the role of funding in public education. Instead, they exist to place just enough doubt into the reader's mind about the need for equitable and adequate school funding so the status quo of public schools with mushrooms growing on the walls seems almost acceptable -- or, at least, better than the alternative.
Here's a fine example of the style -- Ingrid Jacques in the Detroit News:
Michigan is at an education crossroads. As its public schools continue to plummet in performance, state leaders can either demand proven accountability measures and smart investments — or they can take the easy way out.
In this case the easy way is to call for more money. And that’s exactly what school unions and administrators are doing. The State Board of Education is also singing that tune.
Jacques undoubtedly knows that calling for increased funding for any government function these days is hardly "easy." Decades of conservative rhetoric (transmitted through outlets like Jacques' editorial page) have made it nearly impossible for even the most liberal politicians to advocate for significant tax hikes to support public programs, especially education.

The "easy" way to justify the horrible conditions found in Detroit's (and Michigan's other disadvantaged cities') schools is to pretend that all sorts of vaguely described "accountability" systems must be put in place before necessary funds are allowed to flow to public education. Because, as everyone knows, we spend so very much on our schools:
Austin is right about how Michigan students are falling behind. Studies have shown how the state’s students are often in the bottom 10 for performance in key subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And that includes all students — regardless of race or income.
But he’s wrong when he tries to pin most of the blame on money — and a Republican governor and Legislature. This year’s School Aid Fund budget has increased to over $14 billion; students across the state are getting a boost.
OMG! $14 billion! That's obviously insane!!!

$14 BILLION dollars!

Rather than citing utterly useless a-contextual figures, Jacques should have gone to the School Funding Fairness Report Card, and seen for herself how Michigan actually compares with other states in its effort to fund schools:
The National Report Card 4th Edition

Funding Level 


Michigan is right in the middle, when judged by figures appropriately adjusted for regional differences. And yet the state is quite mediocre when it comes to distributing funds to more disadvantaged communities where it's needed the most.

These op-ed pieces also inevitably bemoan the poor performance of the author's "high spending" state:
It’s helpful to look at how Michigan compares with other states that are getting good returns on investment.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 Michigan came in 20th with $12,856 in total K-12 per-pupil revenue (state, local and federal funding). Massachusetts ranked eighth with $17,896 per student. Yet Tennessee, another state often upheld for the academic progress it’s making, is 46th at $9,284.
When a state’s personal income data is thrown into the mix, Michigan lands at 23rd — and Massachusetts falls to 29th. Tennessee is 47th.
Both Massachusetts and Tennessee (along with the majority of other states) outperform Michigan on national tests.
Let's first acknowledge that cherry-picking Massachusetts and Tennessee for a comparison is suspect on its own. Further, it's quite a stretch to say Tennessee is beating the pants off of Michigan:

The way Jacques wrote her piece might lead a reader to think MA and TN are in the same category when it comes to student achievement. But clearly they are not: TN is actually much closer to MI when it comes to national test scores. In fact, while TN edges out MI in Grade 4 scores, the two states are indistinguishable in Grade 8.

Of course, simply comparing scores without controlling for student characteristics is wholly unwarranted. When making a simple adjustment for poverty, MI is about where we'd expect on its test score outcomes (see p.16 here). Could MI do better? Of course, but it's hardly the outlier you would think it was from reading Jacques' op-ed.

In any case, Jacques would have us believe that her highly selective data points contradict a large and growing body of empirical evidence that supports the claim that funding can and does significantly affect student outcomes. Each year, more evidence piles up that schools can and do improve when they have adequate resources. It's become increasingly untenable to deny this -- so Jacques, like all writers in this style, tries to muddy the issue by saying how schools spend is more important than how much they spend:
State Superintendent Brian Whiston also got on board with the adequacy study, calling it a good start, but he included caveats, suggesting longer school years and more professional development for educators.
“We can’t just pour more money into the current way of doing things,” Whiston said in a statement.
Massachusetts didn’t rise to the highest-achieving state overnight. It started two decades ago crafting strong accountability measures and a detailed budget plan — spearheaded by state business leaders. This group, which still exists, created budget proposals for a wide range of districts. While the state did increase funding as part of these reforms, it targeted the money to the districts that needed it most — accounting for poverty and special education.
OK... so what?

If Jacques is saying that money needs to be targeted where it's needed the most, you'll get no argument from me, or anyone else who studies this stuff. But you can't spend money you don't have! Jacques herself notes Massachusetts increased school funding. Granted, it takes less effort for a high-income state to increase its school spending; still, Massachusetts did increase its effort over the years to get more funding for education.

No one thinks we should just throw money at schools. But school funding doubters take this obvious point and twist it to justify inaction on reforming school funding. How much "accountability" does Jacques need before she's willing to stand up and call for Michigan's urban districts to finally get the funds they need to do their jobs?

Jacques' piece ends with what all opinings like this seem to require: a quote from "The Merchant of Doubt," economist Erik Hanushek:
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, warned against Michigan’s adequacy study. As an expert in the economics of education, he has shown that it takes much more than increased funding to influence performance.
Yet he highlights Massachusetts as a state that was able to reap rewards from its larger school investment.
“Massachusetts combined strong standards, assessment, and accountability with increased funding,” Hanushek has found. “The basic problem with most school finance systems, both those in existence and those proposed, is that funding is separated from education policy.”
Again, the evidence that funding does matter has piled up so high that not even Hanushek can argue against it. The current tack, instead, seems to be making the case that we need more "accountability" before we open up the purse strings.

But just how much "accountability" do folks like Jacques and Hanushek need before they call for more money for Michigan's disadvantaged schools? How "strong" do the standards have to be? How many more biased, noisy tests do the kids have to take?

Lord knows Michigan's school system could use more oversight, starting with its disastrous charter school sector (which is such a mess even charter cheerleaders say it needs a huge overhaul). But even a rigorous accountability system requires adequate funds. I mean, you have to pay the overseers, right? So where's the call for more funding for that?

For Jacques, and the others who opine about "throwing money at schools," there will never be enough accountability -- because accountability is nothing more than an excuse. Like the obsessions with teacher tenure and charter schools and merit pay and all sorts of reformy reforms, increased "accountability" is just another way to put off some hard truths: Schools need money, disadvantaged schools usually don't have enough, and states are going to have to raise more revenues to get those schools what they need to educate their students.

Ingrid Jacques and her fellow travelers can fret and worry all they want about vague notions of "accountability" -- but that's the easy way to avoid the truth.

Detroit News Editorial Board.