About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

UPDATE: Brockton’s Charter Fiasco Continues As Controversial School Prepares to Leave Town

After multiple construction snafus that kept a controversial charter school from opening in Brockton, MA, the commissioner of Massachusetts public schools granted conditional approval yesterday for the school to temporarily move to a site in Norwood, 22 miles away from Brockton.

The decision to allow New Heights Charter School its last-minute move to Norwood is “political,” wrote Sue Szachowicz, the recently retired long-time principal of Brockton High, in an email. It shows how badly the Massachusetts department of education “wants to be sure that this school gets its opportunity.”

Adds Szachowicz:

This will be interesting to see what happens.  Norwood is a pretty affluent town, and not particularly easy to get to.  Parents who thought they would be sending their kids to school in downtown Brockton will get their kids to school over twenty miles away in Norwood???   I do not understand this one!  Politics, politics…”

Mitchell Chester along with Jim Peyser, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education and Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, are all major proponents of an upcoming ballot initiative, known as Question 2, which would raise the Bay State’s cap on charter schools.

Chester did impose a number of conditions on New Heights, according to The Enterprise, the local newspaper: The school must offer two days of childcare to make up for pushing back the start of school. It must also establish occupancy in Brockton by January 3 or face charter probation or revocation. The school also must issue daily reports on student attendance on each of the first seven days of school, followed by weekly updates on enrollment counts, staffing and monthly financial statements.

“While it is not unusual for a new school to have challenges with a single site, it is rare to have it happen at two places,”said Jacqueline Reis, a spokesperson for Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Nonetheless, this is not the first charter school to open temporarily outside its region. … While a temporary site is not ideal, families appear willing to try to make it work.”

The Enterprise writes:

There will not be any additional taxpayer cost from the move, Reis said. Based on the maximum first-year enrollment of 315 students from the sixth to eighth grade, New Heights is receiving $3.96 million in combined state and local funds for its first year, which it supplements with grants and privately raised money.

Here is more background on Brockton-now-Norwood charter fiasco from an earlier post:

Amid an escalating battle over a statewide ballot initiative, this November, that would lift the cap on charter schools in Massachussetts, the Brockton charter mess highlights the greatest fears of charter skeptics, including:

–A sloppy approval process, and this in a state that prides itself on having the most rigorous charter approval process in the nation.

–A political establishment that ran rough-shod over the wishes of the local community.

–As families give up on the charter, which has enrolled about 200 students so far, well below its expected first-year enrollment of 315 students, for grades six through eight, they have already begun to return back to the public school system, wreaking havoc with enrollments.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights charter was approved earlier this year over intense local opposition and after the organization’s first charter was derailed in 2015, at least in part, by the school’s failure to address Brockton’s large population of English Language Learners. At the time, in a scathing 14-page analysis of New Heights Charter School’s application to the state board, local officials, including School Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Mayor Bill Carpenter, urged the state to reject the application noting that the proposal “lacks services and supports for English language learners and students with disabilities.”

Within a year, New Heights had renewed its request for a charter, having addressed some of the flaws in its former proposal. Once again, the opposition was widespread. Opponents of New Heights’ application include the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It included the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents—lots of them.

The New Heights Charter School will not serve Brockton’s diverse educational needs,  charged Tom Minichiello, vice chair of the Brockton School Committee: “Let’s look at what students the charter school wants: not our 30-plus percent English language learner population or our approximately 14 percent special education population. No, charter advocates want students from our grades 6-12 student population that testing shows are making progress. The data shows that the longer students remain within the Brockton school system, the more successful the test results.”

Indeed, Brockton is home to the largest and one of the poorest high schools in Massachusetts, and one of its greatest public school success stories .

The new charter, which plans to add high school grades, threatens Brockton’s steady trajectory. Were the charter to open, the Brockton school district expects to lose $10 million in funding, about 6 percent of its annual school budget. Tight budgets already have led to a net loss of funding at Brockton during the last two years. In the 2014-15 school year, Brockton High had to cut four teachers who taught electives in nutrition, cooking and personal finance. The school also has lost teachers via attrition. The result of a new charter, which expects to add high school classes, may be larger class sizes, which for many subjects at Brockton High already average around 35 students per class, according to Brockton’s new principal, Sharon Wolder.

New Heights has already postponed the start of school once. Yet, its founder is unapologetic. This is what Omari Walker, executive direc tof the New Heights Charter School told The Enterprise, the local newspaper: “The only thing I care about is the opinions of my family, friends, and families from my school.”

That disdain for the impact Walker’s school will have on the local community and its public schools, pretty much sums up a major critique of charter schools in general. It’s a disdain that Chester, Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, all major proponents of the upcoming ballot initiative, seem to share.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy, such as a draft law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement. The Rise Act, which went no where, sought, among other things, to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters to have parents on their boards and by increasing the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities.

Had Brockton had that power, the New Heights fiasco would never have happened.

 

 

Posted in Brockton, MA, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brockton’s Charter Fiasco Continues As Controversial School Prepares to Leave Town

A controversial charter school that was approved for Brockton, MA against overwhelming local opposition is now preparing to leave Brockton. The New Heights Charter School is now awaiting approval from Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of Massachusetts public schools, to move to a temporary location in neighboring Norwood, after multiple construction snafus in Brockton have kept the school from opening there, prompting local residents to wonder: How was this fiasco-of-a-charter ever approved in the first place?

Or, as Sue Szachowicz, the former principal of Brockton put it, in an email to me yesterday:  “I can’t believe this bumbling group was granted a charter.”

Amid an escalating battle over a statewide ballot initiative, this November, that would lift the cap on charter schools in Massachussetts, the Brockton charter mess highlights the greatest fears of charter skeptics, including:

–A sloppy approval process, and this in a state that prides itself on having the most rigorous charter approval process in the nation.

–A political establishment that ran rough-shod over the wishes of the local community.

–As families give up on the charter, which has enrolled about 200 students so far, well below its expected first-year enrollment of 315 students, for grades six through eight, they have already begun to return back to the public school system, wreaking havoc with enrollments.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights charter was approved earlier this year over intense local opposition and after the organization’s first charter was derailed in 2015, at least in part, by the school’s failure to address Brockton’s large population of English Language Learners. At the time, in a scathing 14-page analysis of New Heights Charter School’s application to the state board, local officials, including School Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Mayor Bill Carpenter, urged the state to reject the application noting that the proposal “lacks services and supports for English language learners and students with disabilities.”

Within a year, New Heights had renewed its request for a charter, having addressed some of the flaws in its former proposal. Once again, the opposition was widespread. Opponents of New Heights’ application include the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It included the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents—lots of them.

The New Heights Charter School will not serve Brockton’s diverse educational needs,  charged Tom Minichiello, vice chair of the Brockton School Committee: “Let’s look at what students the charter school wants: not our 30-plus percent English language learner population or our approximately 14 percent special education population. No, charter advocates want students from our grades 6-12 student population that testing shows are making progress. The data shows that the longer students remain within the Brockton school system, the more successful the test results.”

Indeed, Brockton is home to the largest and one of the poorest high schools in Massachusetts, and one of its greatest public school success stories .

The new charter, which plans to add high school grades, threatens Brockton’s steady trajectory. Were the charter to open, the Brockton school district expects to lose $10 million in funding, about 6 percent of its annual school budget. Tight budgets already have led to a net loss of funding at Brockton during the last two years. In the 2014-15 school year, Brockton High had to cut four teachers who taught electives in nutrition, cooking and personal finance. The school also has lost teachers via attrition. The result of a new charter, which expects to add high school classes, may be larger class sizes, which for many subjects at Brockton High already average around 35 students per class, according to Brockton’s new principal, Sharon Wolder.

New Heights has already postponed the start of school once. Yet, its founder is unapologetic. This is what Omari Walker, executive direc tof the New Heights Charter School told The Enterprise, the local newspaper: “The only thing I care about is the opinions of my family, friends, and families from my school.”

That disdain for the impact Walker’s school will have on the local community and its public schools, pretty much sums up a major critique of charter schools in general. It’s a disdain that Chester, Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, all major proponents of the upcoming ballot initiative, seem to share.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy, such as a draft law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement. The Rise Act, which went no where, sought, among other things, to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters to have parents on their boards and by increasing the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities.

Had Brockton had that power, the New Heights fiasco would never have happened.

Posted in Brockton, MA, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

In July, I found myself back in the East Harlem cafeteria shared by Global Technology Preparatory and P.S. 7. The occasion for my visit was a reunion of Global Tech’s first class of eighth-graders, who were now, four years after their middle-school commencement, graduating from high school.

I was eager to return and see how the students had fared. I knew from my ongoing contacts with the school and its students that several had endured more than their fair share of tragedy, including homelessness, violence and depression, and yet many were getting ready to go to college.

Global Tech, as the middle school became known, was one of the first public schools that I began to follow as part of my research on how business ideas, especially those of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would influence K-12 education. I also was curious to see how a school that was seen, in many ways, as a Bloomberg-era success story was faring under the administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio, and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. A number of changes, some driven by the new administration’s desire to merge small schools—a major departure from Bloomberg policy—may foreshadow significant shifts at the school.

Here is the story I published this week in Gotham Gazette.

Below are some photos taken of Global Tech alumni at the reunion, in July, and during their frequent visits to the school, over the last few years, where they have maintained close ties with their former teachers.

Chrystina Russell, founding principal of Global Tech with (from left) Quentin, who is going to Monroe College in New Rochelle; Travis, who is going to New York City Tech/CUNY; and Dariel who has been studying to be an auto mechanic and will attend Duchess Community College

Chrystina Russell, founding principal of Global Tech with (from left) Quentin, who is going to Monroe College in New Rochelle; Travis, who is going to New York City Tech/CUNY; and Dariel who has been studying to be an auto mechanic and will attend Duchess Community College

Kaira Bridge and Matthew1

Kaira (right) who was valedictorian at the iSchool and will be attending John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY in the fall, chatting with her former teachers at the reunion. Jhonary Bridgemohan (left) still teaches ELA at Global Tech. Matt Fernandez came to the reunion from Long Island where he now serves as a police officer.

Jackie Pryce-Harvey helped found Global Tech with Russell, and now serves as interim-acting principal of P.S. 7; the two schools share a building.

Jackie Pryce-Harvey, at the Global Tech reunion, helped found the school with Russell, and now serves as interim-acting principal of P.S. 7; the two schools share a building.

 

PizzaParty1 - Copy

Reunited at an alumni pizza party in 2015

Raven and Baiz - Copy

Raven gets help with her high school homework, in 2014, from David Baiz, her former math teacher, who succeeded Russell as Global Tech’s principal.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Snafu At Controversial Bay State Charter

For the second time this month, construction has stopped on the controversial New Heights Charter School in Brockton, MA. Yesterday, the city of Brockton slapped a bright orange “stop work violation” order on the outside of the school’s new location at 1690 Main St. , for lack of adequate permits, according to Enterprise News.

The school already had won a four-day reduction in the school year from the state due to work stoppage at the school’s earlier site at 141 Main St., about 2.5 miles away. For more on the charter and why it has been so controversial see here .

The latest snafu comes just two weeks before the school’s delayed start date of Sept. 6. The school’s website posted the following notice to parents and families:

Dear Parents and Families,
We wanted to provide an update on the circumstances reported in the media yesterday.  We apologize for the manner in which the information was relayed to families. The media reported the situation at the same time that we were being informed. We apologize for the delay, but we wanted to confirm all facts prior to releasing any further information.

Yesterday, building officials issued a stop work order at our 1690 Main Street location. It appears that the contractors needed to submit and/or complete additional paperwork in order to be in compliance with all codes and regulations for the project. We met with the architect and the building owner, and they assure us that they are addressing all issues raised by the building officials. Our goal is to resume the renovation to the site as soon as possible. Once we are allowed to resume work, the contractors will take all necessary steps to ensure that the building will be ready. At this time, we are proceeding with our planned opening date of SEPTEMBER 6th, 2016.  New Heights Charter School of Brockton is excited that we will soon open our doors to students and families.

Please check our website for further updates. We look forward to serving all of you in the very near future.  Thank you for your patience.
Sincerely,

Omari Walker

Posted in Brockton, MA, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bay State Charter Campaign Gets A Black Eye in Brockton: New Heights Charter Unlikely to Open on Main St.

Merian New Heights

When New Heights received its charter from the State in June, executive director Omari Walker (second from right) posed with Commissioner Mitchell Chester (second from left) and Secretary of Education Jim Peyser (far right.)   Photo from New Heights website

The controversial New Heights Charter School won’t be moving into the space above the tuxedo-rental store and shuttered bridal shop on Main St., in downtown Brockton, MA., this September.

“They are not moving in; not coming into this building,” says John Merian, whose family has owned the building on Main St. for over 30 years. Merian won’t say more about how New Heights’ plan to renovate and occupy the Main Street space went awry, noting there are legal issues to be resolved.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights proposal was approved by the state despite overwhelming opposition from the community, which is home to Brockton High, the states largest high school, as well as the single most successful school turnaround in Massachusetts history, which I’ve written about here and here.

So far, New Heights has said only that it is postponing its move-in date, according to The Enterprise, a local newspaper:

“New Heights recently submitted an amendment request to the Department to shorten year one of their school year from 184 days to 180 days to accommodate renovation delays,” said Lauren Greene, assistant to the chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in an email to The Enterprise. The request is still under consideration by the state, Greene said.

The New Heights website requests that applicants send mail to a post office box, noting “our building, 141 Main Street, is under construction.”

But the phone listed on the school’s website is a non-working number.

Omari Walker, executive director at New Heights, has said of the Merians—John runs the business with his brother Paul: “They have been some of the only folks to stand beside us…. ”

Merian, by contrast, insists that the decision to rent space to the charter school was “just a real estate deal.”

Adds Merian, a compact man with black hair and carefully trimmed door-knocker goatee: “I continue to be supportive of Brockton Public Schools, always will be.”

Merian 1

John Merian with three of his four children, all of whom attended Brockton public schools, on the eve of his daughter’s Brockton High prom

Merian has become an unlikely protagonist in a years-long battle against bringing a charter school to Brockton, a once thriving industrial city that, years ago, lost its storied shoe industry to foreign rivals. Once a working-class city of mostly European immigrants, like Merian’s Armenian grandparents who fled Turkey in the early 20th century, the  city now has a large population of newcomers from Haiti and Cape Verde.

Today, Merian is the rare business leader who supports his city’s public schools. Although Merian’s parents, who started the family bridal business, sent him to a local private school, Merian chose to send all four of his children to Brockton public schools; three of his children are now in college, a fourth is still in middle school. Paul sent his two children too. “Every public school system should look at what Brockton did,” says Merian, referring, in particular, to the high school from which six Merians will have graduated.

Indeed, Merian has worked closely with two principals at Brockton High—Sue Szachowicz who led the school’s legendary turnaround, as well as Szachowitz’s successor Sharon Wolder. Merian, who rents tuxedos for Brockton proms, also runs the school’s dress-for-success day and has worked with the school’s entrepreneurship classes on developing marketing skills.

Merian Sue

Sue Szachowicz, former principal of Brockton High, stopped by the Marien’s home shortly before the senior prom, just months after she had retired in 2013.

Over the years, most local businesses have either closed—like the bridal business that was started by Merian’s mother, Alyce Reizian—or moved out of Brockton. But the Merians have doubled down on their down-at-the-heels hometown.

Each winter, Merian dons a red cap trimmed in white fur and runs the annual Holiday Day parade down Main Street as the self-appointed chief elf, a post-Thanksgiving event that he calls “the ultimate community gathering” in a downtown with little left to boast about except that it once had the first department-store Santa. Edgar’s, originator of the department-store Santa and Brockton’s last major retailer, closed in the 1980s

But the decision to stay in Brockton has been challenging. Merian recently opened a fire restoration business that helps salvage clothing damaged in fires. He has diversified and now sells suits. And he uses the internet like a teleflorist, he says, to expand sales state-wide, taking measurements of tuxedo customers online and then visiting schools to deliver the suits and do last-minute adjustments.

Leasing the 30,000-square-foot space above the family’s store to New Heights promised to bring in $281,295 annually. A steady stream of kids and teachers and families trooping through Main Street each day also would help revitalize the downtown, Merian hoped.

That doesn’t look likely now. Whatever its real estate problems, New Heights also has fallen short of its enrollment targets.  In its first year, New Heights had expected to enroll 315 students, from grades six through eight; eventually the school expected to double in size and add high school grades. But as of the July 19, the Brockton School Committee had received only 170 required transfer requests for grades 6 to 8. The school is also expecting to hold another lottery for new students on August 23, prompting one reader of the local newspaper, the Enterprise, to post: “Why are they holding a FOURTH lottery if they have only a little over ½ the seats filled. Shouldn’t it be just first come, first served at this point?”

Merian building

New Heights was to lease 30,000 square feet above the Merians’s tuxedo store and the new-shuttered bridal store founded by the family matriarch, Alyce Reizian

New Heights problems offer an ironic twist to one of the highest-stakes charter-school dramas in the country. This November, Massachusetts residents will vote in a referendum on whether to lift the Commonwealth’s cap on charter schools—a measure backed by Charlie Baker, the state’s Republican governor, and Jim Peyser, the secretary of education; both men are said to be charter-school zealots. The ballot initiative comes complete with a multi-million dollar publicity campaign designed by the firm that developed the notorious Swift-boat ads that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and financed, in part, by deep-pocketed charter advocates from out of state.

Once again, Brockton residents find themselves on the front lines of the battle over education reform. Nearly 25 years ago, a class-action lawsuit filed by a student at Brockton High, charging that Massachusetts was failing to provide “adequate” funding for its schools, led to the Commonwealth’s historic education reform act of 1993. The Massachusetts reforms, in turn, helped spark the historic turnaround at Brockton High.

Now, a new generation of reformers are convinced that what towns like Brockton need is competition in the form of charter schools. Except this time, Brockton residents are fighting the reformers. The town defeated New Heights’s first proposal two years ago, at least in part, because of the school’s failure to address Brockton’s sizeable English Language Learner population. Opponents of New Heights Charter School’s latest proposal, which was approved last February, included the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It included, the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents.

The State pushed through approval of the Brockton charter, arguing in part, that there is great demand for schools like New Heights. Brocktonians beg to differ.

Posted in Brockton, MA, Business, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Massachusetts Learn from Michigan’s Charter Calamity?

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is one of the best bloggers on education. She is no ideologue and increasingly has come to the give voice to rarely listened-to local folks, especially in poor minority communities—including kids—who are most impacted by the tsunami, er “portfolio”, of education reform ideas.

In a recent post, Berkshire interviewed David Arsen, an expert on education finance at Michigan State University, about a new study he has coauthored on the financial mess that has ensued from Michigan’s school-funding and liberal “choice” policies.

Berkshire, who writes from Massachusetts, the birthplace of public education, was interested in the implications that Michigan’s story has for other states that are looking to open lots of new charter schools. Massachusetts, which rose to the top of the nation’s education performance with an education-reform strategy that kept a tight cap on charters, is in the process of dismantling its successful reforms; see here and here.

This November, Massachusetts is facing a highly controversial ballot initiative to significantly increase the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth.

In this post, I review Arson’s key findings, as well as the highlights of his interview with Berkshire. I then segue to the escalating fight over whether, and how, to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts.

Arsen’s study addresses the crucial “tipping point” question that every municipality with a sizeable number of charter schools confronts, but that few policy makers—in Michigan, Massachusetts or elsewhere—have been willing to address: What is the tipping point at which fostering charter schools, where students are more affluent and have fewer special needs, undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?

Arsen’s study also shows that one result of Michigan policy has been to strip local school districts of control of their finances. As a consequence, the study shows, the poorest districts, which are predominantly African-American, are disproportionately impacted; their schools are most likely to be taken over by the state and, in many cases, handed over to charter operators.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of Arsen’s study and his interview with Berkshire, here’s some cautionary context on how Michigan’s education policy has played out in Detroit, where the forces of unbridled market competition were let loose on the city’s schools years ago.

Just a few weeks ago The New York Times published a scathing investigation of Detroit schools, which found the city with “lots of choice,” but “no good choice.”

The article by Kate Zernike concludes: “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.”

Importantly, Zernike points out, that when the charter law passed in 1993, Detroit was neither in financial nor in academic crisis. Rather, a Republican governor, John Engler, driven by free-market ideology and a hatred of unions, embraced a marketplace for schools with as much competition as a Turkish Souk. “[O]ver the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.”

“[T]he unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

The charter landscape in Detroit is so bad it makes New Orleans, which has the largest concentration of charters in the country and, a decade after Hurricane Katrina, more than a few growing pains—see here and here and here and here look like a well oiled machine. While there is little transparency or regulation in either city, Detroit has so many charter authorizers that when a school’s charter is revoked for poor quality—as has often happened—they need only go shopping for a new authorizer; New Orleans, by contrast, has had only two main authorizers.

Arsen’s study, which looked at every school district in Michigan with at least 100 students and followed them for nearly two decades, found “that 80 percent of the explained variation in district fiscal stress is due to changes in districts’ state funding, to enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment of high-cost, special education students.”

To put it simply, Arsen told Berkshire: We found that, overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

Arsen points out that Michigan has one of the most “highly centralized school finance systems” in the country. “[T]he state sets per pupil funding levels for each district, and most operating revenues follow students when they move among districts or charter schools. Districts have very limited authority to raise additional tax revenues for school operations from local sources.” Consequently, when enrollments decline, either because families move out of the district or put their children in charter schools, local authorities have little choice but to reduce spending.

Arsens study—see chart below—shows that the impact of this funding formula hits the mostly African-American central cities the hardest, with a 46 percent drop in inflation-adjusted school funding revenue between 2002 and 2013.

Arsen

Poor districts suffer the greatest funding cuts

Says Arsen: “With numbers like that, it doesn’t really matter if you can get the very best business managers—you can get a team of the very best business managers—and you’re going to have a hard time handling that kind of revenue loss. The emergency managers, incidentally, couldn’t do it.”

The significance of Arsen’s study is twofold: First, the study addresses the tipping point problem, in which the state funding formula creates a zero-sum game in which increased charter penetration leads to ever greater financial stress on local public schools. Looking at districts with 15, 20 and 25 percent charter penetration, the study reveals that as charter penetration increases, the stress level on local public schools also goes up significantly. “What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20% or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances,” says Arsen.

One reason for this tipping-point problem is that increasing charter penetration turns the traditional public schools into “dumping grounds” for the neediest kids. Arsen’s study confirms that the number of special-education kids in public schools soars in districts with the highest charter-school penetration rates. Yet, Michigan covers less than 30 percent of the required costs of special education, so “these are costs that have to be absorbed by the school district’s general fund or through other local or county-level revenue sources.

The same thing happened in Harlem where 25 percent of kids now attend charter schools. See more on the tipping point in Harlem here and chart below:

EastHarlemSouthIEP%

Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Second, Arsen argues, the state funding policy is designed to create a fiscal argument for wresting control of school districts from local officials. Now, instead of just using the low test scores of poor minority districts, state policy has created a fiscal bind that makes it virtually impossible for the poorest minority districts to stay above water. Like payday lenders who impose exorbitant interest rates on poor clients, trapping them in a cycle of debt from which they may never escape, Michigan has locked the poorest districts into ever-accelerating fiscal crisis.

Says Arsen: “The law presumes that financial problems in these districts are caused by poor decision making of local officials, and this justifies their displacement through emergency management.  Yet our findings suggest that state school finance and choice policies were in large part responsible for the underlying financial problems. Once in control, however, emergency managers have moved aggressively to change district operations, closing schools, laying off administrators and teachers, cutting employee compensation, outsourcing services, and in two cases transferring the operation of the entire district to private charter management companies.”

Thus, the crisis of Michigan’s poorest, mostly African American school districts, are in a vicious cycle engineered, in large part, by state policy.

Berkshire’s interest in Michigan’s charter travails isn’t just academic. Massachusetts is facing enormous pressure, including a new ballot initiative in the November elections, to greatly expand its own charter sector. The charter push is led by Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, and is backed by Baker’s secretary of education, James Peyser, who helped lead a ballot initiative in 2010 that would have eliminated the Commonwealth’s charter cap entirely. That ballot question was eventually scraped; in its place the cap on urban charter schools was raised from 9 percent to 18 percent, as part of the state’s successful Race-to-the-Top bid for $250 million in federal funding.

Lifting the charter cap is highly controversial in Massachusetts because charter schools played virtually no role in improving education in the Commonweath under its 23-year-old Education Reform Act. Massachusetts has only about 80 charters—though state law permits 120.  Massachusetts charters are, for the most part, high performing, as measured by test scores, although in Boston, as in Harlem and elsewhere, charter-school demographics don’t look anything like that of their traditional-public-school counterparts. For example, charter schools in Boston still enroll only about 13 percent English Language Learners, compared to about 30 percent in public schools, according to Cara Stillings Candal, a researcher at the pro-charter Pioneer Institute.

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than charter schools

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than at charter schools, represented by bottom line

Local education experts on both sides of the charter divide argue that Massachusetts charters work as well as they do partly because authorizers carefully scrutinize charter performance and ensure that only the best charters survive. Those opposed to raising the charter cap also argue that a tight cap has created an added incentive for authorizers to closely scrutinize charter operators.

While Boston charters outshine public schools on test scores, graduates of Boston public schools are more likely to graduate from college than do their charter counterparts, according to the Boston Opportunity Agenda 2015 annual report card, which is funded by, among others, the pro-charter Boston Foundation. The study sums up traditional public school college achievement with almost breathless praise: “The 27 Boston Public high schools are making tremendous progress on college completion. Since the baseline class of 2000, the percentage of students who complete a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years of high-school graduation has grown from 35% to 50%. Additionally, the number of students enrolling at public institutions in Massachusetts who require developmental education or remediation is also declining.

Moreover, charter schools that produced college-graduation rates of 42 percent, eight points below their public school counterparts, have graduation classes dominated by girls. Somewhere along the way, the boys disappeared. In fact, among all these charter schools, only about 15 boys took home a sheepskin, according to…you guessed it… Jennifer Berkshire, who took a deeper dive into the numbers.

The bottom line, again, is that in Massachusetts, charter schools are a minuscule part of the ed-reform story. Indeed, given their small number, and the rigorous process for approving charters in Massachusetts, the real questions is: Why are college-completion rates for charter schools so low. Also: What happened to the boys?

Long gone are the days when Democratic state legislators in a grand bargain with a Republican governor, William Weld, hammered out the 1993 Education Reform Act. The battle over how, and by how much, to raise the charter cap has resulted in legislative deadlock with no compromise between two rival bills—a House bill in 2014 and a Senate bill in 2015—which would both have raised the cap by 23 percent, though the Senate bill included more checks and balances on charters and improved funding for all schools. The result is an all-or-nothing referendum, which would authorize 12 new charters a year, mostly in low-performing districts and “exempt” all “[n] ew charters and enrollment expansions approved under this law…from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them, and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.”

The battle over the Bay State’s ballot initiative will heat up this fall. The highest stakes are in Boston where the public schools will lose an estimated $119 million this year, and endure sharp cuts in education programs, teachers, and in some cases “resources for the most vulnerable special needs students.

The budget squeeze is due at least in part to the funding drain created by the 7,100 students who have enrolled in charter schools, about 12 percent of Boston’s 5,700 public-school enrollment. With 22 charters in Boston, and an additional four in Cambridge, the Boston metro area has over one quarter of the state’s charter schools. (A dozen additional charter schools have opened and closed since the 1990s.)

In Massachusetts as elsewhere, school funding follows the child. Because the loss of students is spread unevenly across the system, the funding cuts have large ripple effects. When a new charter school attracts, say, 100 sixth graders, the losses don’t all come from a single school. Instead, they will be spread, potentially, across Boston’s 40 elementary and middle schools with sixth grade classes, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to consolidate classes. Instead, the district has to start cutting programs. Massachusetts has put in place “shock absorbers” that are intended to provide the public-school system with a funding cushion, but these have worked “imperfectly, at best.”

In opposition to the budget cuts, Boston students staged protests last this spring. Jahi Spallos, a charter-school student and the leader of both public- and charter-school students who staged a walk out in response to the expected cuts, explained the impact on his school, Boston Green Academy, in a post on Edushyster: The school was “going to lose science classes, even though they are a core part of the curriculum and four years of science is a graduation requirement.” The school will also lose “extra curricular activities that could provide students with a full scholarship to college in the future.”

The referendum is being met with skepticism in many towns and cities that fear local schools will “lose funding when their students transfer” to charter schools. See here and here and here and here.

As the battle heats up, it is increasingly partisan. “What’s interesting is that, while charter advocates like to paint charter expansion as a progressive cause, there are signs that the issue is beginning to break along more traditional political lines,” says Berkshire.

The pro-charter lobby is backed by deep-pocketed business people, among them Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments, and John Kraft, president of the New England Patriots, who have pledged to spend up to $12 million on a ballot campaign.

Out-of-town billionaires are also joining the fight. Dimitri Melhorn, a DC-area venture capitalist, recently “slammed” a Boston parent who opposes the cap and blogs under the moniker “Public School Mama” likening her to opposition to that of a white supremacist.

The pro-charter lobby has reserved $6.5 million in ads for the week leading up to election day in November–ads that will be produced by SRCP Media of Washington, the firm best known for creating the “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, which made “swift-boating” synonymous with the worst sort of underhanded attack. “The decision to hire a media firm responsible for bringing down, not just one Massachuestts presidential contender (Kerry AND Dukakis), raised some serious eyebrows,” adds Berkshire.

Meanwhile, Save Our Public Schools, an anti-referendum organization backed by a variety of labor organizations and the NAACP, is also planning to mount an ad campaign.

Whether the referendum passes or not, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy. Notes Stanley Rosenberg, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and his colleagues in an OpEd in Commonwealth magazine: “Ballot questions are blunt instruments. The ballot question on charter school expansion is no exception.

The OpEd authors drafted the Senate’s charter law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement, as well as the cream-skimming of the best students. Key features included:

–Echoing the Commonwealth’s Education Reform Act, which tied significant increases in public school funding to accountability, in what became known as the “grand bargain,” the Rise Act ties a gradual increase in charter schools in the lowest-performing districts to roughly $20 million-per-year in additional school funding—for both charters and traditional public schools—over a seven-year period beginning in 2019. The bill’s sponsors argued that increasing the charter cap alone would cost the Commonwealth $1 billion and impact less than 10 percent of its children.

–The bill increases transparency, a major problem in many jurisdictions with charter schools, by requiring “public disclosure of charter school finance, contracts, policies, and board meetings consistent with disclosure requirements for traditional public schools.”

–It aims to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters and parents on their boards. And it would increase the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities—perhaps one of the most controversial items in the legislation.

–The bill called for an opt-out lottery, by which every child in a district is “automatically enrolled in the charter school lottery process, no application required.” But families would be permitted to decline a seat if it was offered to them.

Charter proponents have dismissed the Rise Act as merely “a statement of defiance.” But given the long-simmering charter disaster in Michigan, should the charter referendum fail and Massachusetts legislators get a second crack at crafting a new grand bargain, they would do well to revisit the draft law, which seeks to avoid some of the mistakes of other states.

 

 

Posted in Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform, New Orleans Charter Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Baruch Students Win Journalism Award for Cuba Reporting

farm photo

My day job, when I’m not blogging or reporting on education reform, is teaching journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. Last January, I had my single greatest teaching experience when I led a group of 11 students to Cuba. Now, I’m incredibly proud to report that the package of articles my students produced during their trip to Cuba, and published on Dollars & Sense, Baruch’s online magazine, won an award for Best student business journalism of 2015, from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (the nation’s largest and most influential group of business journalists); the package was called “Cuba in 2015: Entrepreneurism on the Rise.”

Baruch College is one of the most diverse schools in the country. The majority of our students are immigrants or children of immigrants.  Many are the first members of their families to go to college. And most attended public schools. Virtually all the students on our trip relied on grants or scholarships to pay their way to Cuba.

The purpose of our journey was to report on the recent economic changes instituted under President Raul Castro, especially in the new small-business sector of so-called cuentapropistas, which, as of last January, numbered close to 500,000 Cubans, triple the number in 2010. We arrived at the most opportune time—just weeks after President Obama and President Castro announced their historic détente, which has begun to open Cuba to more American goods and visitors and is now paving the way for President Obama’s visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge visited the island nation in 1928.

Here is the blog post I wrote after our trip last January, “Adventures in Cuba with My Journalism Students.”

This year, my colleague Vera Haller traveled to Cuba with a group of students; their reporting focused on Cuban culture. You can read their report here. Next winter, I’m hoping to return with another group of students and my colleague, Chris Hallowell; we plan to report on the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability.

 

Posted in Business, Cuba, Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment