Part 2 Public Education Nation – (Astro Turf) Charter Schools and Authentic Reform

Last weekend, the
Network for Public Education (NPE) held a Public Education Nation conference at the Brooklyn New School in Brooklyn, NY. JeffCo School Board Watch sent two of its members to the forum.  Yesterday they reported on High Stakes Testing and ‘Failing’ Schools.  Today, they continue their report, now covering ‘astro turf’ charter schools and authentic reform.

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g. political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participant(s). It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations more credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.” – Wikipedia

The afternoon sessions of this event focused on charter schools and the privatization of schools across the country. Key speakers were: Karran Harper Royal, a parent in New Orleans, where 93% of the public schools have been shut down and replaced with charter schools. Wendy Lecker, a Connecticut writer, lawyer, and activist who has exposed for profit charter management companies and their practices. Gary Rubinstein, a New York teacher and blogger.

These speakers presented the pitfalls and perils of charter chains, charter management companies and yes, ‘for-profit’ charters. Karran Harper Royal spoke about the loss of community throughout the district. Since the lottery applies to almost all of the schools the students no longer attend neighborhood schools and are bussed throughout the city.

The Recovery School District of New Orleans (RSD) has touted the success of these schools, however, there has been minimal increase in test scores; and most schools are still rated as D or F schools. In fact NONE of these schools are rated A or B. NONE.

And many of the improvements touted are actually a function of changing the formula used to calculate the grades. A great explanation of those changes can be found here.

The district now has over 40 school boards, covering 107 schools. Many of these boards do not allow for parent representation. The is one of hallmarks of an ‘astroturf charter’ as opposed to a genuine grassroots charter.

Of course, some increases are expected. It’s easy when you suspend over 69% of your students, as George Washington Carver Collegiate did in 2012-13. The large number of suspensions in these schools often lead to attrition and eventually higher dropout rates.

The atrocities in RSD mount even higher when you consider the lack of stability in the students’ lives.

Since charters are exempt from hiring licensed teachers, RSD signed contracts with Teach for America.  It then began laying off licensed teachers en masse and replaced them with college graduates with minimal teacher training. TFA ‘teachers’ are brought in from outside New Orleans, creating a situation where the teachers lack the diversity and culture of the student body.

Since teaching is not their chosen profession many TFA teachers only last for a couple of years.

Even worse than the teacher churn, is the school churn.

Yes, even schools last only a few years.  Unable to fulfill the goal of improving education using low-paid TFA ‘teachers’ with only five weeks of training, they shut their doors only to be replaced by a different charter company.

Again, a sign of Astro Turf charters– they make money for a few years then they move on.

Wendy Lecker presented even more appalling facts about charter management companies taking over the northeast. Half of the charter schools in the U.S. are now part of charter chains.

In Connecticut in 2008, the Jumoke charter management company was allowed to run an elementary school, collecting $345,000/year fee. Jumoke was run by Michael Sharpe.

After 2 years the scores dropped, yet more schools were turned over to Jumoke. In fact, he was given $53 million dollars over the following years.

Accusations of nepotism flew. This summer it was revealed not only had Sharpe falsified his academic credentials, he was a convicted felon. What had he been convicted of?  Embezzlement of public funds.

Other charter management companies have ‘partnered’ with construction firms that are then awarded the contract for building a school. In fact, the Harmony School chain has been investigated for awarding contracts to cohorts regardless of the lowest bid.

And the list goes on.

In light of this what does real reform look like?

Robin Hiller, Brian Jones, Phyllis Tashlik and Greg Anrig pointed to Cincinnati.

Several years ago Cincinnati overhauled their district. Rather than using the nuclear option of closing a school and turning it over to private entities, Cincinnati instead invested in the struggling schools.

They invested in teacher and leadership training. They focused on the struggling elementary schools. They used stimulus money to extend the school year (a 5th quarter) that allowed them to add enrichment, music and arts programs.

Finally they collaborated (WNW look it up, we are not sure you know the word exists) with the community. They approached community service providers, looking at the elements of a child’s life the school couldn’t control.

The Cincinnati community came together and created an umbrella organization, the STRIVE Partnership.  More than 300 local organizations agreed to participate. Participants included the YMCA, and the United Way. They also ranged from private businesses to mental health providers. Their mantra is “Every Child, Every Step of the Way, Cradle to Career”. The goal was a collective impact to support, nurture, encourage, and guide every child from before school age to stepping into their career.

Along the way, they created to help take what they have learned and developed and pass it on to other communities.

And it is working. Significant gains have been made in everything from Kindergarten readiness to college enrollment. A full report of results and partners can be found on the STRIVE website.

The true reformers had a few key points.  Reform should be teacher developed, student focused with external assessors.  There should be top down support for the bottom end.  True reform encourages teacher collaboration, not teacher competition.  It should be within the public system, because public education is a public responsibility.

The STRIVE model does not rely on the dubious magic of ‘choice’.  Instead, it applies diligently and comprehensively practical, down-to-earth things we know works.  Click here for the StriveTogether Theory of Action_0

The ‘Choice’ model of WNW says if you got a house that needs some roof work, tear it down, then hire inexperienced builders who employ novice carpenters and electricians to build a new one.  Then if you have problems with that one, do it again…and again…and again…and so on.  Eventually, they say, you will have a good house…or school.

The STRIVE model says, check over your whole house.  Identify what needs repair, and what keeps damaging the house.  Bring in experienced, well-trained craftsman, and give them the tools and support they need. Help them repair the damage and then take steps to prevent it from happening again.  At the same time, start keeping the rest of the house in good repair.

Whose house do you want to trust in a storm?

  • Imagine a school district not focused on failing, but improving.
  • Imagine that rather than a board that denigrates teachers, a board that focuses on training, trusting, and empowering teachers.
  • Imagine a district that rather than seeing students as ‘pawns’ or ‘punks.’ instead sees them as human beings that they invest in from cradle to career.
  • Imagine taking the lessons from STRIVE and applying them to Jeffco.
  • Imagine taking a great school district like Jeffco and making it into the nation’s model for a superior school district.

We have a choice to make, JeffCo.  No matter what, we cannot go back to the way things used to be.  We can only move forward.

We have two paths in front of us.  WNW’s ‘magical’ ‘let the free-market decide’ path where there are always losers.  Or the example set by STRIVE, where we come together, honestly look at ourselves, identify what needs to be done, and then set about doing it.  Together.

We know which one we choose.  That’s why we are in this fight.

Come fight with us, JeffCo!  

For our children and our future!


Resources and References

For further information on the Recovery School Districts real numbers check out this.

And then look at the STRIVE model.