Unleashing Charter Schools with False Claims & Lots of Money

Just as the re-election of President Obama or the election Mr. Romney is coming to a head, so is the potential of charter schools being unleashed in several states around the nation.  Georgia and Washington State have very similar laws on the November ballot, and if you live in either of these states, you know that the issue is before you.

I have reported on this blog that the Georgia bill was a model bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right leaning partisan group.  The Georgia bill is ghostwritten copy of the ALEC model charter bill.  And we have reported that the legislators in Georgia who introduced and back the charter amendment are also ALEC members.

To get an idea of extent of the charter school issue across the country, here are some headlines that were extracted from the web recently.  Themes that run through these headlines are central charter authority, for-profit charter management companies, billionaires influencing legislation, lack of facts about charter schools compared to public schools.

The Big Charter School Debate

This weekend, the Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Press Club co-sponsored a debate among four panelists.  On the pro-amendment side were Jan Jones (state representative), Kelly McCutchen, founder of Tech High Charter School.  Opposing the amendment were Alvin Wilbanks, Superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools (Georgia’s largest district), and Valarie Wilson, president of the Georgia School Board Association.

This is a link to video of the one-hour debate.

Moderating was Donna Lowry, WXIA-TV, and Maureen Downey, education reporter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Seventeen people were in attendance at the televised debate.

Jan Jones’ name has come up on this blog before.  It turns out that Representative Jones was one of three reps that introduced the amendment to change the Georgia Constitution that would put back in place the Georgia Charter School Commission that would have the power to create its own stream of schools, even without local school district approval.  The more important fact here is that Rep. Jones is a member of ALEC, and one can assume that she used the ALEC model bill to “write” the Georgia bill.

Arguments for the Amendment

Jones argued that we need the bill because some local districts are turning down charter applications.  She claims this means that parents will have no other place to send their kids if the local schools are failing.  She also uses this very powerful statistic:  Because Georgia ranks 47 out of 50 in graduation rates, Jones feels that if more students were enrolled in charter schools Georgia students might move up in the league standings.  Her comments were rife with political-speak, and it was clear she was shielding us from her ties to ALEC.  She was evasive about the content of bill when pressed on whether the bill includes the provision for a state appointed charter commission. It does.  She  said it didn’t, and she wrote the bill.   I think she is wrong and  is not telling the truth.

Kelly McCutchen, founder of a charter school, and president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation ( a conservative group), argued for charter schools because around the state there are some dysfunctional school boards, and by having a state appointed charter commission, parents in these districts could have a “choice” if charters were formed in their dysfunctional district. McCutchen, whose interests are in having the state expand charters, pulls the “parent choice card” when ever he can in the debate.  To him the best option is to  give parents a choice of schooling options,,even though parents already have choices.  He also claims there is plenty of money, and that’s a good thing.  Too bad his facts are wrong.

Arguments Against

Both speakers at the outset said they were not against charter schools, per se.  However…

Alvin Wilbanks, Superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools was vehement in his opposition to removing the power to create schools away from local boards of education.  He also argued that this was another expansion of government, and it would result in two separate school “systems,” one at the local level, and the other at the state level.  It would be costly not to the state, but to local districts who would be fiscally responsible.

He also argued that the language that voters will see on the ballot is misleading.  The question on the ballot is Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?.  Local schools already are allowed to create charters.  And the Georgia Department of Education has the right to approve charters as well.  What this bill really is doing is reinstating the Georgia Charter School Commission, an appointed board with the power to approve its own set of charters.

Valarie Wilson, president of the Georgia School Board Association, a school board member of the Decatur City Schools argued that this bill will cost the state and local districts money.  Wilson also challenged Rep. Jones on the issue of funding, and made it clear that over the past five years, Georgia schools have received fewer funds, not more, and indeed, many school districts are operating in a deficit.

Wilson also challenged McCutcheon claims that some school boards are dysfunctional, and that some schools are failing.  Wilson referenced data from NAEP that shows Georgia schools showing a steady increase in achievement.  She also pointed out that Georgia students rank 13th in AP scores.  As Wilson infers, Georgia schools have shown a steady improvement over many years, and references the NAEP scores in mathematics and science, which we have reported here.

Arguments Left Out of the Debate

The charter ballot issue is about money and power.  The panelists did talk about money, but not the money that private for-profit charters would make if the amendment passes.   The power to set up charters will be in the hands of an unaccountable charter commission appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House.   Most of the money to support passage of the amendment has come from out-of-state from power groups, and billionaires, and the appointees will be political appointees.  These two issues were not discussed by the panel.

Another argument left out of the debate is what role did ALEC play in the amendment.  Although we know the answer, it was not part of the actual debate.  During the panel’s debate, Maureen Downey was interacting via the Internet with viewers, and one question asked was this one from Jeff:

Can Jan Jones explain what relationship, if any, ALEC has with this issue. Also, why is so much money from outside of Georgia being spent to push for this amendment?

Unfortunately the influence of ALEC was not discussed, nor was it mentioned that Rep. Jones is a member of ALEC, and one of the Georgia legislators who introduced the bill.

Also left out of the debate was the effectiveness of charter schools and the unintended consequences of charter schools. It should have been mentioned that charter schools are not so hot when compared to public schools.  An interesting graphic that could have been used in the debate is one from Dr. Michael Marder’s research which shows the relationship between SAT scores and poverty comparing charters and regular public schools.  Representative like Jan Jones continue to ignore data that show that public schools are by far much more successful, academically and in many other areas of school life.

Figure 1. This graph might be disappointing to advocates of charter schools. The graph shows the percentage of high school graduates meeting SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted against the concentration of poverty. Each disc is a high school; the red dots are charter schools, the grey are public schools. In general, charter schools simply to do not compare favorably to public schools, regardless of poverty concentration.

Here some other facts that the proponents of charter schools failed to mention that were based on a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford.

  • Of the 2403 charter schools investigated, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools.

They also might have mentioned that the majority of students attending charter schools would have fared better if they are gone to a public school. And in the case of Georgia (one of the 15 states in the study), the results were mixed, or no differences were found between the charter schools in Georgia and the public schools.

False Claims

If you listen to the politician and the owner of a charter school, public schools do not know how to meet the divergent needs of Georgia students.  As one of them said, “one size does not fit all.”  Professional educators know this instinctively.  Furthermore, teachers in public schools (and independent schools, by the way) have worked with researchers who are on the cutting edge of the learning sciences.  This two-way interaction between teachers who have experiential knowledge of the classroom and students, and researchers who take themselves out of the ivory tower to work with teachers to seek answers to questions about how students learn.

The supporters of the charter amendment do not have the interests of parents or students in mind.  They make the false claim that charters will put schooling back into the hands of parents, when in fact the charter school movement has led to putting taxpayer money in the accounts and hands of charter management companies.  Parents and students are being used to secure this end.

The politician and charter owner lost this debate.  Who would know?  Only 17 people were in attendance.

The vote for the passage of the charter amendment will be very close, as it will be for the re-election of President Obama.

8 Myths About Charter Schools

Empowered Georgia has identified 8 myths as reasons to oppose a charter school law that might go into effect in November. Is your state next in line to follow the chartered school path in Georgia at the expense of public schools–it’s parents, students, and teachers?

Georgia will decide on November 6 to change the constitution permitting an appointed Commission to create and fund charter schools throughout the state without local school approval.  Two years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in the case Gwinnett County School District v. Cox that only local schools have the authority to set up schools. As a retaliation, the Georgia legislature passed  a law to reactivate the authority of the appointed Commission to create its own charter schools.  However, in order for the law to take effect, the citizens of Georgia must approve the law.

As the Georgia Supreme court noted in its ruling in Gwinnett County School District v. Cox,

It is thus for this Court alone to decide whether legislation enacted by the General Assembly is inconsistent with the Constitution and where, as here, such an inconsistency has been determined to exist, it is irrelevant whether any rational basis exists for the legislation.

Further the Court recognized that the Commission to create charter schools is appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, and are not accountable in any way either to the parents or the taxpayers.  On the other hand, local school boards consist of members who live in their schools’ districts and are elected to their positions by the parents and taxpayers residing in the areas from which the students are drawn and the local schools taxes are raised.

When politicians talk about charter schools they always pull the choice card.  In their words, charter schools give parents a choice in determining their child’s education.  Even the National Parent Teacher Association has joined in with many politicians by arguing that giving entities (read Georgia Commission on Charter Schools) other than local school boards the right to approve charter schools and therefore supports the

But wait, charter schools run on a set of myths that when analyzed shows that public schools are a better choice for  parents.  But you’d never know that by listening to the Georgia Republican party.

Following is research conducted by Empowered Georgia, an organization of parents and educators, that identified 8 myths about charter schools.  If you follow this link, you will find more details about the myths identified by Empowered Georgia. Here we’ve only identified the myth, and one fact that repudiates or questions charters.

Myths about Georgia’s Charter Amendment

  1. Myth: The State Does Not Have the Power to Approve Charter Schools That Were Denied by Local Boards  Fact: The Georgia Department of Education currently has the authority to review and approve state charter applications.
  2. Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible  Fact: Charters are allowed to “kick out” students for behavior or academic reasons.
  3. Myth: State Charter Schools Will Not Take  Funds Away from Traditional Public Schools Fact: If the proposed charter amendment passes, charter schools authorized by the Commission will be 100% funded by the state. 
  4. Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools Fact: There are many elements of charter schools that make them appear more private than public.
  5. Myth: Charters Serve All Students Fact: Many charter schools use lotteries to avoid qualifying for AYP testing, making it difficult to compare their success to public schools. 
  6. Myth: Charters Seek to Put the Interests of Families and Students First Fact: Proponents of the proposed charter amendment wave the banner of  families and children, while advocating the interests of business interests over students’ interests.
  7. Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement Fact: Multiple Studies and Reports Call Into Question the Effectiveness of  Charter Schools.
  8. Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition Fact: Passage of the charter amendment does not guarantee that charters would be added to areas that have chronically underperforming schools.

One of the consequences, if the charter amendment passes, is the loss of local control of some educational policies. If the amendment is approved, then the state commission will run a parallel school system that will take more than $400 million from the already stretched education budget in the state. Money and decision-making are at the heart of the charter school issue in Georgia, not the improvement of education or options for parents and students.

If the Georgia charter amendment is approved it will result in an increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in each state. Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold here. Firms will come in to buy land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA. Boston recently worked out a deal in the interests of corporate investors.

And finally, we’d add a comment made by the Georgia School Superintendent, John Barge, who changed his mind and now opposes the amendment.  Here’s why:

that until all public school students are in school for 180 days, until essential services such as student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not direct one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, the cost of adding seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years.

What do you think about the Georgia charter Amendment?  Do you think citizens of Georgia should approve or reject the Amendment?

 

Give Us Charter Schools, Or We’ll Amend the Georgia Constitution

In the November 2012 election, citizens of Georgia will vote (charter school amendment) to re-establish the State Charter School Commission which will have the power to create charter schools anywhere in the state, even without local school board approval.

A few days ago, Dr. John Barge, Georgia’s State School Superintendent broke ranks with the Georgia GOP and announced that he opposes the charter school amendment on the November ballot.  Barge, who is a Republican and former teacher, previously supported the state’s right to create charters.  Now he’s changed his mind.

Governor Deal is mad.  The Georgia House majority whip is really angry.  And a host of other GOP legislators are quite mystified.

Give us charters, or….

This is not the first time I’ve written about the charter school controversy in Georgia.  Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition is the answer to solving problems facing our schools.

I want to revisit the issue again to put into perspective this issue that is facing educators, school boards, and the citizens of Georgia.

Context

In 2009 and 2010, seven Georgia public school systems (Gwinnett, Bulloch, Candler, DeKalb, Atlanta, Griffin-Spalding, and Henry) filed a constitutional challenge to the 2008 Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act.  The districts contended that the act was unconstitutional because it violates the “special schools” provision of the Georgia Constitution of 1983 which includes the principle that only local school districts can establish schools.  In the Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act, the state is authorized to create competing State-created general K-12 schools.

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of Georgia in the case Gwinnett County School District v. Cox, ruled that charter schools must be approved by local school boards of education.  Many legislators and charter school lobbyists were not pleased by decision of the court to neuter the state commission on charters.  During the 2012 legislative session, GOP legislators submitted a bill that would  avoid the court’s decision by making an amendment to the State’s constitution.

In March, 2012, the Georgia legislature passed a bill (HR 1162) that amends the Georgia State Constitution by establishing state-wide policy that will enable the Georgia General Assembly to set up special schools that will include charter schools without the approval of local schools.

The Georgia Senate , needing 120 votes, narrowly passed the bill 123 – 48.  Republican senators got three Democrats to join them in the vote.  Three days before the vote, the GOP did not have the votes, but over that weekend, several Democratic senators changed their minds, fearing a back-lash from constituents. This blog contacted each democratic member of the Georgia senate to urge them not to change their vote.

On May 3, 2012, the governor of Georgia signed a bill that will restore the state’s power to approve and finance charter schools without local school district approval. The legislation, however, needs voter approval in November because this bill is a constitutional amendment.  On November 6, 2012, Georgia citizens will vote on the Georgia charter school amendment.  In a March 30 poll by McLaughlin & Associates, 58% of those polled were in favor of the amendment, 23% opposed, and 19% undecided.

Consequences

One of the consequences if the charter amendment passes is the loss of local control of some educational policies.  If the amendment is approved, then the state commission will run a parallel school system that will take more than $400 million from the already stretched education budget in the state.  Money and decision-making are at the heart of the charter school issue in Georgia, not the improvement of education or options for parents and students.

If the Georgia charter amendment is approved it will result in an increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in each state. Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold here.. Firms will come in to buy land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA. Boston recently worked out a deal in the interests of corporate investors.

John Barge, State School Superintendent says:

that until all public school students are in school for 180 days, until essential services such as student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not direct one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, the cost of adding seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years.

According to Barge, more than 4,000 teachers have lost their jobs since 2008, and this does not count furloughs.  And today, President Obama is calling on Congress to release billions of dollars in funds to counter the effects of teacher layoffs on student-to-teacher ratios which have risen by 4.6%.

The conservative editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kyle Wingfield charges Barge with turning on the GOP, and of not telling the complete picture of the charter amendment.  You read Wingield’s article here.  Wingfield has it wrong, not Barge.  The charter amendment will open the flood gates to investors who see a cash cow in Georgia.

Last year when the Georgia legislature was debating the amendment, State Senator Doug Stoner, who voted against HR 1162, believes that the charter schools amendment would set up a dangerous system.

He wrote this in his newsletter:

To change the Constitution to create a charter school or any “special school” favored by current or future state bureaucrats, and forcing local school districts to accept such schools would set up a very dangerous system that clearly violates the concept of local control. I cannot support such a state government mandate, especially when the legislative majority has slashed local school funding by more than $1 billion in recent years.

Locally elected school board members across the state have spoken out against HR 1162, which comes as no surprise. It is certainly reasonable to ask why the state is creating a new funding stream for charter schools while reducing financial support for other schools, forcing reduced education calendars, elimination of programs and teacher furloughs.

These are decisions that should be made by school districts at the local level, not from a high-rise office tower in downtown Atlanta. The sponsors of HR 1162 say it is necessary to overturn a Georgia Supreme Court ruling against state-mandated charter schools. But common sense says the court got it right. That’s why I will oppose HR 1162 if it comes to a vote in the Senate this week.

Money

According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, “charter schools are touted as the reform model that will boost student achievement by allowing schools to be creative and by having parents, teachers, and the community more a part of the decision-making.” But as you will see below, charter schools simply do not do as better as their public school counterparts, and indeed, students would be better off going to public schools.

But what is odd, is that politicians, from governor’s houses to state legislatures, are willing to “sell off” public entities, and turn them over to other interests. In fact, Michael Klonsky claims that powerful conservative forces are pushing for less regulation over charter schools, and more teacher evaluation largely on student test scores. These moves by the Georgia legislature will result in the overall weakening of Georgia Public Schools. Pushing teachers to the sidelines, and moving corporate interests into public education is a huge mistake.

Corporate interests? Yes. Behind this move to make it easier to set up charter schools are for-profit charter school organizations who are ready to move in and use state and local funds to manage charter schools. In some states, new charter schools receive start up funds at a time when public schools are having furlough teachers and administrators to try to meet the budget.

According to a report by Dick Yarbrough, charter schools appear to be about money and politics and influence peddling. He wonders why, with the Georgia Department of Education reporting that charter schools don’t perform as well as traditional public schools and their graduation rates are no better, the Georgia legislature is so bent on changing the State Constitution to allow charters to be created by an appointed state commission.

As Yarbrough reported, the Miami-Herald did a study of charter school operators in Florida, and found that is nearly a half-billion dollar business, and one of the fastest growing in Florida. According to the newspaper report, the charter school industry, is “backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians” and “rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.”

In Florida almost two-thirds of charters are run by management companies. The management companies charge fees that sometime exceed $1 million per year per school. And another interesting aspect, is that these management companies own the land and/or the buildings, and then turn around and charge either the state or the local school system.

Research

Although not likely to change the minds of the proponents of charter schools, research shows that charter schools do not fare well when compared to regular public schools.

At the University of Texas, Dr. Michael Marder, Professor of Physics, analyzed data looking at academic performance in all Texas schools.   One of Dr. Marder’s significant findings in his research on educational outcomes is that

Nothing makes sense in education except in the Light of Poverty.

Dr. Marder found that when he plotted poverty concentration in Texas schools and percentage of students in each school meeting SAT Criteria, he found that schools with low concentrations of poverty did well on the SATs, but students from high poverty schools did not do well.  As seen in Figure 1, there is an inverse relationship between poverty concentration and academic performance as measured by SAT scores.

When he looked at the type of school, charter vs regular public school, he found the results to be quite dramatic.  If you look at figure 2, there are 140 charter schools in Texas with 11th grade data.  As you can see in Figure 2, most of the charters form a flat line at the bottom of the graph indicating that except for 7 charters off the flat line, the rest of the charters are doing worse than the regular public schools. Dr. Marder has analyzed data from California, New York, and New Jersey and found that charter schools do not do better than regular public schools in any of these states.

Figure 1. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Colors indicate the percentage of minority students in school. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.
Figure 2. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.

In a second major study of charter schools, we turn our attention to Standford.

In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning. The approach CREDO followed to carry out this study is described here:

CREDO has partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student?level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin is created based on students who match the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison is used to test whether students who attend charter schools fare better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.

The results raise serious question about the efficacy of charters, and reaffirm the central importance of a strong public school system. The results also are in agreement with the findings of Michael Marder’s study: Failure of U.S. Secondary Schools in Mathematics: Poverty is more important than Teacher quality.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools

Outcome

The outcome of the charter amendment in Georgia will not be known until the evening of the Presidential election.  Polling data shows that the amendment will pass.  If so, school districts around the state should be prepared to challenge the constitutionality of enabling unelected and non accountable appointed bureaucrats to create their own school system.