California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

This is the last of a four-part series on California’s charter schools, often called the “Wild West” of the charter sector. It was written by former award-winning high school principal Carol Burris, who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education advocacy group. She has chronicled many of the glaring problems with the charter school law in California and how students are affected.

Nationwide the charter school sector has grown over the past few decades amid a debate about its virtues and drawbacks — and even whether the publicly funded schools are public or private entities. Some charters are excellent. But as the sector has grown, so have problems that have gone unaddressed.

Ohio and Utah have distinctly troubled charter sectors, as does Arizona, where there are no laws against conflicts of interest and where for-profit charters do not have to open their books to the public. In Michigan, 80 percent of the charters are for-profit. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently declared his state’s charter school law the “worst” in the nation. California has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state in the nation. One billionaire even came up with a secret plan to “charterize” half of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Among the problems:

* A report released recently by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group, found that more than 20 percent of all California charter schools have enrollment policies that violate state and federal law.

* In some places, charter schools open without mentioning their existence to the traditional school district in which they reside, prompting lawsuits by the districts. The Grossmont Union High School District, for example, sued to shut down two charters operating in Grossmont under agreements signed by another school district. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Scott Patterson, Grossmont’s deputy superintendent of business services, as saying, “It’s been described as the Wild West out there.”

*A Mercury News investigation published in April revealed that the state’s online charter schools run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter operator in the country, have “a dismal record of academic achievement” but have won more than $310 million in state funding over the past dozen years.

* One charter school closed in 2014 after state auditors found a number of problems, including indications that administrators funneled millions of dollars in state funds to the schools’ operator and her family and friends. As the Los Angeles Times reported, some of the allegations against the school operator were downright “bizarre.” Auditors questioned the use of school funds to pay a more than $500,000 settlement to a former teacher who sued, claiming she had been wrongly terminated after she was ordered by the school director to travel to Nigeria and marry the director’s brother-in-law so that he could become a U.S. citizen. The operator’s penalty? She paid “a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings,” the LA Times said.

What these reveal is a state charter law that allows the schools to operate loosely, with little if any accountability or transparency to the public. The charter lobby in California has successfully fought off legislative efforts to bring more accountability to the charter sector. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently vetoed a measure passed by the state legislature that would require more accountability and transparency from the state’s charters schools. Brown has been a supporter of charter schools and started two charters when he was mayor of Oakland. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have banned for-profit charters.

Here’s the last of four parts on California charters, written by Burris. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. The series will be part of an extended national report on charter schools that will be published by the Network for Public Education in 2017.

 

By Carol Burris

The shine is off the charter school movement.  Freedom from regulation, the sine qua non of the charter world, has resulted too often in troubled schools, taxpayer fleecing and outright fraud.  Charters have become material for late-night comedians. That is never a good sign; just ask the proponents of the Common Core.

The greatest blow to charter momentum, however, was delivered by the NAACP.  When delegates’ voted for a moratorium on new charters, it unleashed the fury of the charterphiles. A piece on the pro-reform website Education Post was titled, “The NAACP Was Founded by White People and It Still Isn’t Looking Out for Black Families,”  accusing the premier civil rights organization of being “morally anemic.”  And yet, despite the vitriol and critique, the NAACP board of directors stood fast, supported its delegates, and issued a strong statement calling for charter reform.

The passage of Question 2 on the November ballot in Massachusetts, which would lift the cap on charter schools, once seemed a sure thing.  Now support has plummeted.  The ballot measure is down by 11 points, having lost support among Democrats, especially from the progressive wing.

The problems with loosely regulated charters can no longer be brushed aside.

In the past three posts of my series on California charters (here, here and here), I highlighted some of the serious problems that exist in a state with weak governing laws, a powerful lobby propped up by billionaires, and a governor who consistently vetoes bills aimed at charter reform. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who is usually progressive, has a blind spot when it comes to charters.  The governor’s enthusiastic fundraising efforts on behalf of the two charters he started in Oakland came under scrutiny in the Los Angeles Times.

As a result, the problems with charters in the state bear an eerie resemblance to the those found in far more conservative states. As I spoke with Californians, I often felt quite depressed. The story line became clear—a state that generally holds progressive values financially abandoned its public schools with the passage of Proposition 13, thus crippling school funding. That was followed by a scramble to a charter solution to compensate for years of underfunding and neglect.  That, in turn, opened the door to profit making schemes, corporate reformers hell-bent on destroying unions, and frankly, a lot of irresponsible educational models, such as storefront charters, boutique schools and “academies” linked to for-profits like K12.

There is hope, however, that California can alter its course.  Despite all of the obstacles that stand in the way, there are Californians who want charter reform. They are exposing corruption, illegality, profit-making schemes and schools that are clearly not in the best interest of children.  In this final piece, I will highlight some of their work.

The Board of Education and Supt. Michael Matsuda of Anaheim Union High School District

Mike Matusda is a bright, humble and dedicated superintendent who has a passion for public education. His Japanese-American mother and father were interned in Poston, Arizona, during World War II, which gives him a special sensitivity to the plight of immigrants and others who are marginalized in affluent Orange County.

When Matusuda saw a flier from the online charter school, Epic, he was outraged. The flyer advertises that students would receive $1,500 for a “personal learning fund,” with free laptops, iPads and Internet services. His gut told him the promises of money and free computers were designed to attract students of poverty, who he believed would be ill-served by the charter chain. According to Woodward News, Epic, which has given families free concert tickets, vacations and other prizes for referrals of students to the school, has a four-year graduation rate of 28 percent.

The more Matsuda and his district board learned, the more concerned they became. Epic is under investigation in Oklahoma for fraud.  It is run by Community Strategies Inc., a non-profit, which contracts with a connected for-profit, Epic Youth Services. The for-profit manages the schools for a 10 percent cut of gross revenue, which comes nearly exclusively from tax dollars. David Chaney, founder and superintendent of Epic Charters, is also the CEO of Epic Youth Services.  He and co-founder Ben Harris have a history you can read about here.

The elementary school district of Anaheim had denied Epic’s charter application. Epic then appealed to the Orange County Board of Education, which, despite the negative recommendation of its own staff, approved the on-line charter.  In his testimony in protest before the Orange County Board, Matusuda said the following:

“By even the lowest standard no one could suggest Epic is providing an education that leads to successful college and careers. If Epic is allowed to grow without any transparency, accountability and oversight, the futures of students, families and the greater community will be at stake.”

This is not the only time that the Anaheim High School District Board and Matsuda have spoken out. In January of 2016, the Board issued a strong statement calling for a statewide moratorium on charter schools. On September 1, Mike joined with teachers, parents, civil rights groups and the state treasurer to call for charter regulation and transparency.

As I traveled the state, I found many who were deeply troubled with charter practices but were hesitant to go on the record for fear of political or social retribution. When I asked Matsuda about his position on charters, he did not hesitate.

“We are not opposed to locally authorized charter schools that are accountable to the local community,” he said. “I also believe that the role of public schools is to education students about democratic values including modeling practices like ensuring representation, transparency and checks on the system. After all we were founded on the notion of “no taxations without representation.”

“Unfortunately many charters are undermining these basic tenets of our democracy, while at the same time selling out a generation of Americans,” Matusuda said.

 

A California education law firm

Readers who have been following this series on charters are familiar with the storefront charters and not-for profit shells of K12 that are growing in number across the state. Many of these charters have terrible graduation rates — some as low as zero percent. Students rarely check in — some, like Epic, have the requirement of going to a center only once every 20 days.

Their explosive growth has been driven by corporations courting small, rural elementary districts with promises of additional revenue with little to no impact to the school district.  The corporation then operates charter “learning centers” or “resource centers” mostly or exclusively to generate revenue for themselves and their authorizer, even though the schools are not in the authorizer’s district and do not serve their residents.  The charter corporations often promise the sponsoring districts that they will not open learning centers in their district boundaries, so that the sponsors will not lose students and revenue.

The legislature has tried to rein in this predatory practice, but the bill they most recently passed (SB 739), was vetoed by  Brown.

Attorneys Sue Ann Evans, Sarah Sutherland, and Karl Widell of Dannis Woliver Kelley have successfully filed cases and legal analysis that have resulted in the shutting down of illegally operating charter schools such as the Endeavour Academy, which was located in a church basement even though its corporate headquarters were located 150 miles away.  The firm also represented California School Boards Association as amicus curiae (friend of the court) when the Court of Appeal reversed a lower court decision that found the practice of charter schools locating sites in districts in which they were not authorized is illegal[1] — a decision that covers the entire state.

Commenting on the decision attorney Sutherland said, “Corporations open (and close and transfer) these ‘resource centers’ among related and wholly controlled alter egos at will without notice to anyone or approval by any elected board of education, much less the one in which its located, and the sites then operate with little to no oversight.   The “corporations” generate millions in public funds yet provide minimal and low quality independent study programs without academic results, without transparency, but with exorbitant and difficult-to-track executive and contractor salaries.”

The decision by the court of appeals was a victory for the firm, its clients and the California School Boards Association.

 

Alianza North Country News

Alianza North Country News is a small, progressive bi-lingual newspaper that serves northern San Diego County.  It has been a watchdog on abuses by charters located in the Escondido area.

The Escondido Charter High School and Classical Academy are two of the charters scrutinized by Alianza. The Escondido Charter High School in San Diego County is part of the American Heritage charter group, whose slogan is “Education is our Business.” In 2015, its student body was 49 percent white, in a high school district where only 28 percent of the students are white.  Only 16 percent of Classical Academy Charter School’s students are Latino, as compared with 71 percent of the students of Escondido Union Elementary District.

Alianza has closely followed the charters, exposing practices that are questionable at best.

Last May, Alianza ran a story that questioned whether Classical Academy existed to cater to white, Christian families, as the school blurs the line between separation of church and state.  The school uses The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, which is advertised by Christianbooks.com as a taxpayer-funded, sixth-grade history text.  According to Alianza, the book “is laced with Bible stories, often presented as factual history. One chapter’s subtitle is ‘God Speaks to Abraham’.”

Executive director Cameron Curry, who is on the board of the California Charter School Association, defended his school’s practices, demographics and curriculum by stating that the school “can’t be all things to all people.”

Classical is not alone in catering to Escondido’s conservative, white community. Escondido Charter High School, which does not participate in the national free or reduced lunch program, also engages in practices geared to attract Christian conservative families of Escondido.  Alianza reported on prayers at graduation; blessings by its school leader, Dennis Snyder, during assemblies; the bending of pension rules by the American Heritage Education Foundation, and the holding of a  Republican political rally on Escondido Charter grounds during which the school mascot wore a shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune interviewed parents and students confirming several of the questionable practices that first appeared in Alianza stories. Not unlike Curry, Synder made it clear that if families don’t like the practices of his publicly funded charter, they can go to the public school.

Alianza keeps watch.

 

Pushback in Los Angeles

The exposure of the secret plan by billionaire Eli Broad’s Foundation to expand charters so that half of Los Angeles students would attend them, drew outrage and national attention. It also energized a pushback movement that continues to grow.

Karen Wolfe and Carl Petersen,  parent activists and bloggers, regularly report on the problems with charter schools in the area. Wolfe provides updates through her psconnectnow blog and Petersen regularly blogs for K-12 News.  Petersen’s recent series on the financial scandals at El Camino High School asked hard questions about the lack of oversight provided by the Los Angeles School Board. Petersen is running for a seat on the board in part to ensure greater oversight of charters.

The City Council of Huntington Park, a small city seven miles south of Los Angeles, said “enough is enough” when it comes to charters by voting 4-1 to put a year long ban on new charters. The city, which is only three square miles, now has 30 schools, 10 of which are charters. Huntington Park Mayor Graciela Ortiz argued that charters have increased traffic, congestion and are taking spaces that could be occupied by commercial businesses and parks. The California Charter School Association is considering suing the city.

Long concerned about the fiscal impact of charters on public schools, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) ran a full-page ad this past Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. The ad raises important questions about the sustainability of a public school system in the city, given charter exponential growth. UTLA invited the California Charter School Association to engage in a public debate on the impact of charters in the City of Los Angeles, where charters have increased, according to the ad, by 287 percent. CCSA declined the invitation.

 

Conclusion

As I reflect on all I learned from Californians who were willing to speak with me both on and off the record, there were common themes that emerged.

Everyone I spoke with accepted that charters have a place in state, and in many instances they acknowledged that charters serve children well.  However, all had deep concerns about the lack of charter transparency, accountability, and their fiscal impact on public schools.

If California is to maintain a healthy and sustainable public school system, there are big questions that must be answered.  How much “choice” is enough? How many schools are sustainable given a population of students? What happens when choice exacerbates segregation? Who ensures that separation of church and state is enforced?

Is it good for the emotional and social growth of adolescents to be unsupervised all day, receiving instruction on a computer rather than with their peers? Under such circumstances, who ensures the child is emotionally healthy and safe? For whom are “learning centers” appropriate? Should for-profit corporations hundreds of miles away be in charge?  What level of responsibility should an authorizing agency assume when it opens and receives funding for supervising a charter school?

These are just a few of the questions that the California Charter School Association should welcome answering in a public debate. By hunkering down and resisting reform, they make a mistake that will eventually be the undoing of their members’ schools. Mindlessly “marching to 1 million,” regardless of quality or social impact, won’t cut it anymore. It is not a goal that serves either the state of California or its children well.

[1] Absent compliance with the statute on charter school formation

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