DAMAGING THE BRAND
Charter schools and their networks desperately need a HALL OF SHAME. What’s more, the push to create it should be coming from the charter school community.
I have been observing what is called the ‘charter school movement’ from Day One, a historic meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988 that I moderated. Back then, the dream was that every district would open at least one ‘chartered school,’ where enrollment and employment would be voluntary and where new ideas could be field-tested. Successes and failures would be shared, and the entire education system would benefit.
That naive optimism would be laughable if it were not for the harm that has befallen many students and the millions taken from public treasuries by some charter school operators (regardless of whether their schools are ‘for-profit’ or ‘non-profit).’
As I see it, the term is in danger of becoming toxic, and I think the blame falls squarely on the leadership in the charter school movement, and on politicians who are indifferent to the needs of children but responsive to constituents motivated by ideology or greed.
Of course, the movement has a HALL OF FAME, to pat each other on the back and share success stories, so why not establish a HALL OF SHAME?
Who’s ripping off the system? Who belongs on a Charter School HALL OF SHAME? Here’s a smattering of stories from a few states.
South Carolina: http://www.thestate.com/news/local/crime/article32398251.html
North Carolina: http://www.propublica.org/series/evaluating-charter-schools
New York: http://www.propublica.org/article/ny-state-official-raises-alarm-on-charter-schools-and-gets-ignored
President Obama and his Secretary of Education are always careful to say that they support ‘good’ charter schools and oppose ‘bad’ ones, even as they approve spending federal funds to support charter schools. I question whether that qualifies as strong leadership.
Studies indicate that, at best, half of charter schools do better academically than traditional public schools, and half do not, but that’s only using the narrow measure of test scores. Shouldn’t the strong charter schools be leading the dialogue about what constitutes quality, instead of falling in line to worship at the altar of standardized test scores? Shouldn’t they be upset about all the bad apples?
The leading national organization of non-profit charter schools, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is conspicuously silent on the ripping off that’s going on. To me, that group’s failure to make a stink makes it part of the problem. I communicated my concern to Nina Rees, the organization’s leader. She responded by laying the blame on authorizers and on those responsible for enforcing the rules.
“States are supposed to take the lead on regulation and supervision. Ideally, a state should speak up when a charter school screws up. Maybe I should elevate the noise to a national level, but our focus is national and on states with either weak charter laws or no law at all. Most states that have charter schools also have rules, but unfortunately they are not always enforced.
Is there a trend of financial and other bad behavior? Perhaps in the for-profit side. However, I do not have an issue with for-profit charter schools generally, as long as the school is good. If the school is good, who cares?”
The weak link in the system is the authorizers.”
Greg Richmond, the thoughtful leader of the national group of charter authorizers, believes there’s plenty of blame to go around, adding that “(M)ost of it belongs to the bad schools themselves, but parents, legislators, courts and authorizing bodies often work in ways that keep bad or fraudulent schools going.”
He went on:
“I’m frustrated by the bad actors in the charter school community. There are several forces that keep those schools around. In most cases, parents at those schools fight the closure of those schools, just like parents anywhere oppose the closure of their school. If an authorizer closes the school anyway, courts often step in to keep these schools open. Also, in a few states, some companies that run charter schools are major donors to state legislators, which enables them to write laws that are weak on accountability. Finally, most authorizing bodies are school districts and most school districts do not pay enough attention to charter schools. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but many school districts would rather complain about charter schools after a problem surfaces instead of putting in place oversight systems that could prevent the failure.”
Richmond raised an interesting point: Perhaps the number of scandals (too many, he said) hasn’t increased; perhaps it’s better reporting that digging out and identifying the bad actors.
He concluded by defending his tribe, the authorizers.
“There are other types of data that suggest that things are getting better – authorizers are doing their job better, perhaps catching more fraud and perhaps preventing problems before they occur. For example, over the past few years, much larger percentages of authorizers report implementing NACSA’s Essential Practices for authorizers. http://www.qualitycharters.org/for-authorizers/12-essential-practices/ 100% of the authorizers we surveyed now require an annual audit from each school. A few years ago, that was about 80%. 97% of authorizers have financial monitoring systems in place in addition to the audit.”
When I asked the leaders of several well-known charter school networks for responses, a pattern emerged.
Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of KIPP:
“The scandals we’ve seen recently and historically have all been very sad. And so have the scandals we’ve seen in the traditional school districts as well. The silver lining with the public charter scandals is that they seem to be resulting in charters closing down. It’s too bad we don’t see the same swift and absolute reaction to similar scandals on the traditional school district side as well, as all of us in the public should have zero tolerance for any behavior that hurts our public schools and students.”
He added: “I’m not familiar with details of the scandals all over the country but certainly know about what’s happening in Texas, where I’m proud of what the state has done in the recent years to crack down on poor performance by both public charters and districts alike. We supported the SB2 legislation which passed in 2013. SB2 gave the state move power to close down poor performing public charter schools, as we now have a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy: 3 years in a row of poor academic or financial performance, and the state no longer may close a public charter, but rather, shall close a public charter.
Furthermore, the state has vastly improved its authorizing in the past decade from what it looked like in the 90’s and early 2000’s, where it was far too easy for anyone to receive a charter. The process today is much more rigorous, and while perfection isn’t possible, it’s much more unlikely that a public charter approved today will be in the hands of fraudulent people.”
Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of the Success Academies charter school network in New York City:
“I condemn fiscal mismanagement and impropriety and corruption wherever it exists…and it exists obviously across whole swaths of society let alone types of public schools, whether district or public charters…scandals occur daily in the NYC district school system…sometimes multiple times a day! But where ever it occurs it is wrong.”
And Ms. Moskowitz reacted to my reference to the charter school ‘brand.’
“‘Brand’ is an interesting choice of words…I do not think of it that way…I am committed to parent choice and educational excellence not a brand. I do my absolute best every day to wake up and contribute to making schools better for kids and for expanding parent choice…”
I also wrote to Carl and Gail Icahn, whose network of Icahn Charter Schools has been expanding in the Bronx. She responded:
“Can you send a link to the scandals to which you refer? We must have missed them….”
Why aren’t the leaders of acclaimed charter management organizations on the barricades? National groups, KIPP, Success Academies, Icahn Charters and other well-known CMO’s have the prestige in the movement and could make a difference. And so too could the large foundations like Broad and Walton that support charter expansion. But they are largely defensive, often saying the equivalent of “maybe we have problems, but it’s worse in regular public schools”–if they say anything at all.
How far does the taint have to spread before those folks wake up?
Other industries are quick on the draw when it comes to exposing charlatans and frauds. Suppose I exploited my Doctorate from Harvard and began offering–as Dr. Merrow–psychological therapy for ‘stress reduction’ and treatment for ‘test anxiety,’ ‘math phobia,’ ‘marital discord,’ ‘A.D.D. related issues,’ and other medical-sounding problems? My degree is in “Education and Social Policy,” but who’s to know? How long would it take for the legitimate psychiatrists and psychologists to come down on me, hard? They would, rightly, see me as a fraud offering phony cures, and a threat to their legitimacy. They understand that, just as bad money drives out good, so too do frauds weaken, cheapen and debase those who are honorable.
Associations of insurance agencies, roofing contractors, et cetera are vigilant about their products and services, so why aren’t the legitimate charter schools operators and their supporters outraged by the widespread wrongdoing?
Here’s another analogy, using the noun ‘restaurant.’ Precisely what information does that noun convey? Very little; in fact, the word tells you only that food is served there at a price. To learn even the most basic information (kind of food, prices), you would need to scrutinize the menu. To ascertain anything about quality, however, you would want to have at least one meal there, and probably go on Yelp or some other website to read reviews.
Sadly, the term ‘charter school’ has become equally generic and virtually meaningless. The name over the door tells you almost nothing about what goes on inside the school. The charter school behind those walls could be a model of innovation, but it is just as likely to be a “drill-drill-drill” machine or a profit-making engine for greedy entrepreneurs.
Charter Schools need a HALL OF SHAME.
10 thoughts on “DAMAGING THE CHARTER SCHOOL BRAND”
I started developing my Milwaukee Village School in 1991 and implemented it in 1995. At the time charters weren’t allowed in the Milwaukee Schools system. However, with the support of then Superintendent Dr. Howard Fuller we were able to break through barriers and enter the system as a full public school with union. It was called an innovative school and an innovative school committee on the school board was formed to allow access to those who wanted to improve education.
Shortly after, charter schools were allowed and I was excited at the prospect of a wide range of school using innovation to reach their goals of quality education. Under this plan several Milwaukee Public Schools became charters fully within the public school system.
This was exciting for a minute or two and then everyone was applying for charters to start their own schools. Most “innovations” were financial, the ability to provide their own buses to save money as an example. Even though their was minor innovations, the charter system almost immediately ran amuck. A wide range of political agendas prevailed and the rest is history.
If I were charged with the approval of charter schools less than 10% would have been approved. Yes there were a few that did well but most were built under the warmed over concept that has failed for years. Now many seem to believe that simply changing the name of a school, manipulating enrollments data was all that was necessary to make a “good” school.
Now innovation is unheard of in many charters often due to the lack of fully certified teachers that are able to teach to the whole child. Teach to the test and following a script may be easy for teachers with minimal background and education in the field.
The time is now for public schools teachers to take back their profession and put innovation in the forefront. Innovation can be defined as finding the best way for each individual child to learn and at their best rate. And let someone with knowledge review and close down artificial charters that are not innovating. Close down charters that are not teaching to the whole child. Close down charters that are excluding the arts, physical fitness, and home ec and shop type activities such as auto shop and other skills that help students live better lives.
And the same goes for traditional public schools. Don’t close them down based on their test scores, allow and assure all schools are innovators. If they don’t innovate and they simply teach to the test, they must go also.
And I would love to be the one that closes down teach to the test schools and supports opening and maintain those schools who teach to the whole child, at that child’s best rate.
National Alliance Responds to CREDO’s Virtual Charter Schools Report
Washington, D.C. – Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, released the following statement in response to the CREDO report about full-time virtual charter public schools:
“The National Alliance is disheartened to learn of the large-scale underperformance of full-time virtual charter public schools. While we know that this model works for some students, the CREDO report shows that too many students aren’t succeeding in a full-time online environment. It is a call to action for authorizers and policymakers.
“We firmly believe that individual charter public schools that are failing their students should be closed. This is an essential piece of the charter public school model in which schools are given more flexibility to innovate in exchange for a higher level of accountability for student achievement. Therefore, we call on authorizers of full-time virtual charter public schools to dramatically improve oversight of their schools, which, in some cases, will mean closing them.
“Though serving only six percent of the students in charter public schools, the breadth of this underperformance convinces us that states may need to change the parameters within which full-time virtual charter public schools can operate. Those changes will depend upon the sophistication of a state’s student funding, attendance, and achievement systems. Subject to the circumstances in each state, one or more of these provisions will be most relevant:
1. Only permit statewide authorizers to oversee full-time virtual charter public schools that serve students from more than one district, while still allowing districts to oversee full-time virtual charter public schools that serve students from within their districts.
2. Require authorizers and schools to jointly determine goals regarding student enrollment, attendance, engagement, achievement, truancy, attrition, finances, and operations, include these goals in charter contracts, and require authorizers to make renewal decisions based upon a school’s progress against these goals.
3. Explore whether authorizers and full-time virtual charter public schools should establish and implement legally permissible criteria and processes for enrollment based on the existence of supports needed for student success.
4. Investigate funding full-time virtual charter public school students via a performance-based funding system.
“It’s important to note that the research only addresses full-time virtual charter public schools and does not address variations such as blended learning, which have proven to be highly effective in raising student achievement and innovation in our space.
“We believe that full-time virtual charter public schools are meaningful and beneficial options for some students. In fact, this report shows that between 30% and 40% of students in full-time virtual charter public schools are performing better than their virtual twins. Notwithstanding these success stories, these schools aren’t working well for enough students at this point in time. The National Alliance stands ready to work with authorizers and policymakers as they embark on making the tough changes necessary to ensure that this model works for many more students in the future.”
I saw this but did not include it for reasons of length. I do think, however, that it supports my point that the National Alliance is not doing enough to protect the brand. Many virtual charter schools have huge ‘churn rates’ and sometimes are allowed to keep a sizable portion of the public funds when the students leave them and return to traditional public schools.
Some 70% of these schools are set up to make money (eg, K-12), and their graduation rates are generally abysmal.
Shouldn’t those who want quality charter schools be outraged?
John — everyone should be outraged at failing schools. Your particular jeremiad against those run under charter laws is awfully selective.
Dmitri, I have been a supporter of decision-making at the school level for years, as long as there is financial and educational transparency. I continue to think that charter schools represent a great hope for education but fear that the good guys are behaving irresponsibly by being content to celebrate. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; it’s also the price of quality in deregulated schools.
If I were ever asked to advise a school board or a superintendent on policy, I would say “Embrace choice, variety and leadership at the school level. Make it clear where schools and students have to get to, give them the resources, develop a monitoring system that is minimally intrusive, and then get the hell out of the way.”
John, that is good to hear. Here are my thoughts, as a Success Academy parent, but also as a progressive who cares about public education.
Success Academy is certainly is not perfect and should not be shielded from criticism. But your recent PBS Newshour report about SA seems paints a picture, that things at SA are so bad overall, that no-one in their right mind would send their child there.
What you didn’t say, is that, with all of SA’s problems, if you live in most poor neighborhoods with a high concentration of the worst performing traditional public schools, Success Academy is a substantially better option for most (not all) kids, which is one of the reasons that it receives 10 applications for every open spot.
All in all, in economically impoverished neighborhoods, Success Academy if often a better public education option for kids (compared with the alternatives), moving the educational needle forward. But, having seen your Newshour report, an average viewer will not get that impression, I am not sure that you yourself believe that (I might be wrong on this).
On the Charter school brand. Charters in the U.S. are so different, and, as you correctly pointed out, many are for-profit organizations, some good and some bad, and I don’t think it is helpful at this point to think of all charter schools as a single brand, in the same way that you would not think of all traditional public schools, good and bad, zoned / magnet / gifted / special ed etc… as one category. It would simply lead to unhelpful over-generalizations of the “charter schools” vs “traditional public schools”, just as you wrote above, that I make sure to never personally engage in.
On top charter schools policing the entire charter sector. As i said, I question the need for a single brand for charter school, but there is another consideration here. Charter schools in NY, especially Success Academy, are under siege by the media and the politicians, under criticism which is often (not always) either inaccurate, unfair or biased. Some of this is Eva Moskowitz’ own fault for waging a negative PR campaign against failing public schools, but a lot of it is politically motivated by the teacher’s union and others, mostly on the political left.
I will compliment the The New York Times here for their well researched, fact-based reporting about Success Academy. As a Success Academy parent, I might not fully agree with their relative emphasis of the bad vs the good at SA, but they are informational and very solid on the facts. Most other media coverage from the left, unfortunately, is not as accurate and often feels like advocacy, rather than objective reporting.
The problem is – the toxicity level of the discourse is so intense, that it’s hard to find room for a productive, meaningful dialogue about improving the quality of all schools. And the more biased the press coverage, the more defensive the reaction from the charters – unfortunately, that is the political climate we are in, and every unfair article contributes to that.
John — thanks very much for this post.
As the member-run advocacy group for “independent” charter schools in NYC, we also believe that our “brand” has suffered. The stream of scandals hurts, but the mudslinging between charter network advocates and their adversaries has probably had worse consequences in terms of the degeneration of dialogue — at least here in NYC. “Shaming” wrongdoers, however, sounds a bit puritanical and may not be the most effective way of dealing with a problem. Expecting the charter associations to enforce better behavior is also not going to happen. The main interest of trade associations is in growing the sector or, as folks like to say in the charter world, “scaling and replication of successful models.” Quality and integrity are casualties of policies predicated upon rapid growth.
In many ways it’s a very American predicament: we’re drawn to bubbles — and now we’ve created one in the charter world in which there are networks that are “too big to fail.”
Some of this is the result of a huge influx of money from corporate and philanthropic investors who simply see scale as the answer to everything. And, as others in this thread have pointed out, there is no real innovation in what are essentially franchise models, so this type of growth in many ways defeats the original purpose of charters.
And then there are the stories of failure on a micro level. Many educators would love to start their own schools, and love to do so in the public sector. But it takes a lot of skills and resources to do a startup school — and often these folks aren’t prepared for real issues of governance. Network operators, however, are very good at starting up new schools so there’s a well-founded bias towards them in places that want to grow the sector.
We still believe deeply in the original charter paradigm: autonomy for accountability. And to a great degree the schools in the NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools are amazing exemplars of how that autonomy can foster innovation and excellent community-based public schools. But the great work our schools are doing is falling under the shadow of the discord and misdirection of the movement.
NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools
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[…] Now Merrow is looking at charter schools. He explains that he has been covering charter schools since they were first discussed back in 1988. Here is the vision he remembers described at a conference he moderated: “(T)he dream was that every district would open at least one ‘chartered school,’ where enrollment and employment would be voluntary and where new ideas would be field-tested. Successes and failures would be shared, and the entire education system would benefit.” Merrow continues: “That naive optimism would be laughable if it were not for the harm that has befallen many students and the millions taken from public treasuries by some charter school operators (regardless of whether their schools are ‘for-profit’ or ‘non-profit’).” […]
[…] parade of toxic stories about charter schools prompted former PBS education correspondent John Merrow to recently suggest a “Wall of Shame” for the industry, as an attempt to come clean […]
[…] 3) The reluctance of charter school leaders to weed out scammers and profiteers in the world of non-profit charter schools. I have written about this on my blog. […]