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A telling story about a charter school controversy in a rural Alabama county

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There’s a backlash against charter schools. What’s happening and why.

(UPDATED with response from Rocketship.)

This is a story about a loud and rather unlikely controversy in a sleepy rural Alabama county over the establishment of a charter school.

While the specifics are unique to Washington County, the narrative is being repeated in states throughout the country. And the episode helps explain why the nearly 30-year-old charter movement in this country is facing a backlash even as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continues to promote it.

In Alabama’s Washington County, a charter called Woodland Preparatory School has been approved by state officials to open even though:

  • The mayor of the town where it will be located says he doesn’t want it and doesn’t know anybody who does.
  • A national organization that evaluates charter school applications gave the thumbs-down on Woodland’s application, saying it did not meet educational and other standards benchmarks.
  • It’s sponsored by a new nonprofit organization while at the same time being built by a for-profit Utah company. It will be operated by a for-profit Texas company headed by a man who founded a controversial charter school network in the Lone Star State. That company is contracted to receive 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.
  • Residents fear the charter school will drain resources from traditional public schools, and say they have no recourse: The Alabama Public Charter School Commission — the panel that approved the new school — is autonomous and answers to no one, its chairman says.

Those are the bare bones of the complicated story, which has riled up some residents in Washington County, which has a population of fewer than 17,000 at the last census estimate. Among those who are agitated: the mayor of the county seat, Chatom.

“I have not had one person tell me that they intend to send their child to the school, and I don’t know anybody who supports it,” said Harold Crouch, the six-term mayor of Chatom, where Woodland Prep is to be situated.

He also noted that parents flocked to community meetings to express concerns about the proposed school before the Alabama Public Charter School Commission voted to approve it in May 2018. But, he said, his deepest concern is that the charter campus will drain public resources from the two public schools in Chatom. “If you bring in another site, there are simply not enough funds to provide for them all,” Crouch said.

That’s a key reason that charters — which are publicly funded but established and operated by nonprofit and for-profit companies outside traditional school systems — are facing growing opposition after enjoying bipartisan support for many years.

Not only has it become clear that charters are not a panacea for public education — as supporters had claimed — but also many school systems have found they are losing millions of dollars from their education budgets when public dollars are directed to charters. And that is happening even though the fixed costs for traditional public school systems have not changed.

About 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them. While some states have many charters, only a few exist in Alabama. The Alabama Public Charter School Commission recently approved several more and is committed to expanding the charter sector.

Thad Becton is president of Washington County Students First, a nonprofit organization formed in 2017 that drew up and submitted Woodland Prep’s application to the state commission.

Becton said in an interview that “moms and dads” want better educational options for their kids, and that’s why Students First is trying to open Woodland. Asked who belongs to his group, he said, “We currently have business owners, teachers and even a librarian among our group.” He did not respond to a question about how many people belong to his group.

He said some students are already enrolling, although he would not answer queries about how many. It’s fewer than 50, according to a person with knowledge inside the Washington County School District. The school’s application says it expects to have 260 students in its first year.

Becton said the school would open this summer as an alternative to the county’s traditional public schools, which he said are academically “so bad that there are nearly 900 students attending surrounding county schools, traveling daily or home-schooling."

However, the latest state report card shows something different. The state report released in December 2018 and covering the 2017-2018 academic year shows Washington County schools with a “B” grade, the same as a few of the top-ranking districts in Alabama. That was up from a “C” the year before. Woodland Prep’s school site sits near three schools that have grades above the state average, local officials said.

Before the commission approved Woodland, the school’s application was given to the nonprofit National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which had a contract with the Alabama State Department of Education to review charter applications. It analyzed Woodland Prep’s application and said the proposal “does not meet the standard for approval.” The association’s assessment said:

  • Woodland Prep’s educational plan “does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design.”
  • It was concerned that the application included limited information about the company that will operate the school. A draft contract between that company and the school was not provided for review.
  • The financial plan and capacity section of the application only “partially” met standards, with no information provided about the “fundraising track record” of the board that would govern the school.

The application had other problems, according to Betty Brackin, who works for Washington County Public Schools as coordinator of federal programs. It says area businesses can’t find enough workers, something Becton said, too. But Brackin noted that Washington County was just named an ACT Work Ready Community for reaching 100 percent of its work-ready goals. ACT Work Ready Communities are a project of ACT Inc., which provides a credential to communities that are working to identify workforce needs.

Brackin also said that only two members of Woodland’s board of directors have children in Washington County schools, with other board members retired or living outside the county.

Mac Buttram, head of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, did not directly respond to a query about why the commission approved Woodland Prep despite the negative appraisal of the application and local opposition. He said in an email: “After the Commission reviewed the application and interviewed the applicants there was a vote. The majority of the Commission voted to approve the applicant.”

As it turns out, the state commission approved a few other charter schools whose applications had been found wanting by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But the association is now out of the picture: The Alabama State Department of Education dropped its contract.

Eric Mackey, Alabama’s superintendent of education, did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment about how the commission operates.

The school’s website has a page introducing its principal, identifying her as “Amy O.” and doesn’t name the school where she is now working. But there is some question about this.

The woman pictured on Woodland Prep’s website is Amy Owens, also pictured on the website of Rocketship Spark Academy in San Jose, where it says she has been assistant principal and principal. A March 14, 2019, report by San Jose Inside said Spark was one of three schools in the Rocketship charter chain that the California Department of Education had cited for failing to ensure proper teacher credentialing.

Owens said in an email Friday night that she will not, in fact, be principal of Woodland Prep. Elise Hill, associate director of communications at Rocketship Public Schools, said in an email that Owens “has not accepted a position at Woodland Prep charter school in Alabama, nor at the time of publication had she formally announced her resignation to Rocketship.” She said Woodland Prep “may have jumped the gun and posted her as photo and bio as principal."

Becton’s group won’t own the school. The deed for Woodland Prep is held by Woodland Charter Holdings, a Utah company that has one registered agent, a woman named Jennifer Lind who is identified on the website of the for-profit American Charter Development company as its office manager. She did not respond to phone and email queries for this article.

Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon wrote in an article:

According to records kept by the State of Utah, Woodland Charter Holdings also has just one registered executive: American Charter Development. The same company contracted with the charter board to finance and build the Woodland school building. . . .
Forming a holding company in Utah, where banking laws are particularly lenient, allows for the investors — American Charter Development, in this case — to set up a financial buffer between it and the debt incurred by Woodland Prep. If the school goes broke and has to close, it’s the holding company left on the hook, not ACD.
That means that ACD has relinquished its ownership of the Woodland Prep school to a holding company that ACD owns, and now ACD will charge itself rent and interest — paid for by the tax dollars that were once flowing into Washington County schools.
And make no mistake, ACD is rolling in the cash — receiving 6 percent of the “total development costs” in monthly lease payments, according to the heavily redacted contract it signed with Woodland Prep’s board. That fee does not include a guaranteed 8.9 percent capitalization rate that ACD is guaranteed.

Woodland Prep will be operated by a company based in Sugar Land, Tex., called Unity School Services (USS), whose founder and chief executive officer is Soner Tarim.

Tarim previously co-founded and served as chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, a charter school chain that critics say is part of an informal network of scores of charter schools operated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher from Turkey who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and is wanted by the Turkish government.

A number of schools in the unofficial network have been investigated over a period of years by state and federal agencies amid allegations regarding hiring practices that favor Turkish nationals, abuse of the H-1B visa process and preferences in the awarding of contracts to related Turkish businesses. Former employees have alleged that they were required to contribute some of their salaries to the Gülen political movement, although representatives of Gülen have denied it over the years.

Tarim has repeatedly denied that Harmony is part of a Gülen network of charter schools.

According to the management agreement between the Alabama school’s founding organization and USS, the “annual fee to be paid for operational services performed between July 1, 2019 through June 20, 2020 will be 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.”

Larry Lee, a local independent journalist who supports traditional public schools, estimated in this post on his blog that if Woodland Prep were to have 260 students in the first year as has been projected, USS would receive about $360,000 in taxpayer money.

But the contract also grants USS permission to operate “supplemental services” at the facility — including summer school and before- and after-school programs — and “retain the full amount of any and all revenue collected from or for” the services except for 15 percent of the profits, which would go to Washington County Students First.

Becton said he and his group are aware of the controversy surrounding Harmony schools and dismissed it, noting that the Texas-based chain is extremely high-performing.

“Are we worried about the teaching of some random faith-based approach from another country rumored on the Internet?” he wrote. “No, we are not. That is beyond ridiculous, to be honest with you.”