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.
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.