All Charters Are Equal, Some Charters Are More Equal Than Others (with apologies to George Orwell and the Animals)

 

In the Spring of 2014  Success Academy charter school founder Eva Moskowitz, was able to push legislation through the New York state assembly allowing her schools to have rent free space in NY’s public school buildings.  She was able to do this with the help of $5 million in funds from the Walton Family Foundation and the other usual ed “reform” suspects who also contributed $800,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  Ms. Moskowitz was able to use her money to bring busloads of families to Albany to lobby the legislature and to pay for media advertisements.

Ms. Moskowitz could have saved herself a lot of trouble and a lot of money had she just come to Colorado where Colorado State Statute 22-30.5-101(c) states:

(c) In no event shall a charter school be required to pay rent for space which is deemed available, as negotiated by contract, in school district facilities. All other costs for the operation and maintenance of the facilities used by the charter school shall be subject to negotiation between the charter school and the school district.

Better yet, she could have come to Denver (tongue firmly implanted in cheek) where thanks to something called the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, the District commits, among many other things “to ensuring that all Denver students, including those in charter schools, have access to adequate facilities.” The District also commits “to ensuring equitable resources for charter schools. This includes not only per pupil revenue, but to the greatest extent possible, an equitable share of all other district resources, including Title funds, existing bond funds, application opportunities for future bond funds, mill levy funds, curriculum and materials purchased with federal funds, and grants for programs that could benefit charters.” Superintendent Tom Boasberg, the Office of School Reform and Innovation and ALL charter schools signed this compact.  The elected Board of Education never signed nor voted on this Compact, yet it has been the primary operating “reform policy” since its introduction in December 2010. Who is representing the interests of the traditional schools?  Shouldn’t it be the Board?  When asked about the legality of such a policy, the District’s legal office answered, “the Compact does not create legal obligations, but rather is a statement of shared beliefs, principles, and aspirations, as the District and the charter schools move forward in their relationship.” Still, shouldn’t the elected Board have voted on this operational-altering policy?

So, how has this “Compact” played out for Denver’s 57 charters? Well, if you are part of the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) charter management organization (CMO) or the Strive CMO, pretty darn well. Ultimately, DSST will have seven 6-12 grade campuses scattered throughout the city. By the Fall of 2014 there will be six middle schools and three high schools. in operation. (Full disclosure. When I was on the Board, I fought very hard for one of these schools to be placed in an historic DPS building. The neighborhood wanted this school, the placement was at the cross section of four school board districts, which meant the school could be naturally integrated, the building  had been abandoned since the mid 2000’s and was was an eyesore and safety hazard). To date, Strive has six middle schools, two high schools with a third recently approved, and two not yet opened elementary schools. Eleven Strives and nine DSSTs for a total of 20 out of 57 charters. Over 1/3 of all of Denver’s charters will be DSSTs or Strives. All but one of these facilities will be paid for by Denver taxpayers.

Denver taxpayers have been very generous to Denver Public Schools. The last three General Obligation Bonds (2003, 2008, 2012) in the amounts of $310 million, $454, million and $466 million respectively have not deterred voters from overwhelming support. Of those totals, $7 million was designated in 2003 to charter schools, $68.5 million in 2008 and $190 million in 2012  to adding “new schools capacity” (building new schools and renovating old buildings). This should open a pdf.  Look at page 28 for details.  Those three investments total $265,500,000. Charter schools have received by far the most new schools money.  DSST and Strive have received most of that money.  See for yourself. Below is a list of Denver’s charter schools with the District facility placements.  Please note the green colored schools have made their own arrangements as to facilities, including some ownership.  The other charters are in  DPS offered, owned or leased faciliies and therefore taxpayer funded.

 

Let’s delve deeper into the charter school facility funding.  From the District-provided spreadsheets below  you will see just how DSST and Strive have fared.  These two charter management organizations have to date received $127,800,000 with either $20 million or $41.2 million more committed to them.

 

Here are four more projects already promised.

School Amount outstanding Reference
DSST at Byers $6,730,000 $20 million from 2012 bond. $13,270,000 spent. Bond Oversight Committee Meeting, Feb. 5, 2014, p. 36.
Strive MS at Montbello $10,000,000 Bond Oversight Committee Meeting, May 7, 2014, p. 28 SRA and Capacity Need. It says $10-13 million . I used $10.
Strive ES in SW $7,300,000 Ibid., p. 34. Facility total 9.4-11 million . I used $10. Purchase of property 2.7 from document above, citing Ruby Hill Strive purchase.
Strive HS st Evie Dennis $21,200,000 Ibid., p.28
TOTAL $45,230,000 Committed but not spent bond money

 

The new third Strive high school was not included in the District spreadsheets, since it was not yet approved by the Board when these spreadsheets were sent in mid May.  That vote occurred in June 2014.  As expected the school was approved; the amount of 2012 bond money allocated for such a facility was $21.2 million. I believe the higher number to be correct, but it is possible the lower one is correct.  Depending on which number you use, $151,830,000 or $173,030,000, or 57.2% or 65%, DSST and Strive are receiving a very large proportion of the $265,500,000 new school money.

Now for two charters I am familiar with that are equal but not as equal: the Denver Language School (DLS) and Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS).  These two schools have several similarities. Both schools originally applied to be district run new schools; each was turned down as such and told to come back as a charter school. Both are currently housed in formerly closed elementary schools.  Both have secondary school components to their charters, hence the need for secondary school sized facilities:  full-sized gymnasium, science and tech labs, libraries. (Denver Language School has a grade configuration of K-8, GALS has  a 6-12 configuration). Each school actually embodies the original charter school idea: to provide a different kind of education from the traditional school, one that Districts can not always easily provide.

Unlike DSST and Strive, both of these charters have had facility challenges from the outset. The District did not offer to build or renovate a facility for either of them. After months of searching DLS was offered a closed neighborhood elementary school. For the first few years this was close to perfect. However, it was clear from the outset DLS would need a bigger facility because the school’s capacity of 362 would never be able to serve a K-8 whose model depends on two classes of Spanish and Mandarin for each grade level. The dual language immersion model also requires a strong middle school program to assure language proficiency . The 2012 bond did provide an addition of five classrooms at a cost of $1.9 million. The DLS community is very appreciative of the new space, but it falls woefully short of what is needed to fulfill its charter promise.  Its Board of Directors has spent untold hours trying to find appropriate facilities for its students. It has received little help from the Denver Public Schools.  In fact the District has told DLS to raise the necessary money or to find a capital partner to help finance the transaction. How has DLS solved for this situation? It has reduced the number of kindergartners so there will be only one class for each language. This in spite of the school’s clear model of front loading the early years to accommodate attrition. The amount in need? Less than $5 million.

GALS has faced even more facility challenges than DLS. GALS opened its doors in the Fall of 2010, and until the Fall of 2013 was temporarily located in a church. GALS was chartered as a 6-12 school. GALS, too,  is very grateful for its new permanent facility. However, it suffers from facility constraints mentioned above.  It too, has been told to raise its own money or find private bond companies to finance its high school addition. GALS is starting its high school program in a few short weeks. The back and forth between the school and the District has gone on for an entire year. To date the District will only say it hopes to have a solution soon. How much money are we talking about? Best guesstimate is between 8 and 10 million dollars.

So, there you have it. Equal and more equal. A “Compact” intended to “level the playing field” for charters.  But as we can see some charters are more equal than others.   And as the numbers of charters increases, connections among various Colorado government officials, “reformers” and the Denver Public Schools become even more important and relevant. Just last month the Mayor’s Chief of Children’s Affairs left the city to become – drumroll, please – the Chief of External Outreach for Strive charter schools. Her previous “reform” job was as Colorado’s first statewide Director of Stand for Children. She is following the former DPS Chief of Staff into Denver’s education “reform” world, the latter of whom left the District to become Colorado’s executive director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Denver’s former Manager of Safety is now the DPS General Counsel, followed by the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who this month started as the Chief Financial Officer for Denver Public Schools. The former Speaker just happened to be the deciding vote moving “teacher effectiveness” legislation, SB-191, out of committee in 2009.  Legislators and voters beware.  All the players are in place for a Denver Public Schools lead legislative agenda which will undoubtedly try to further this national “education reform” model.   And when you add in a 6-1 nationally financed Board of Education, who needs actual mayoral control of your school board? It will be interesting to follow these new careers as more and more taxpayer money goes to “equal” and “more equal” charters. What would the animals think?

A note about this post.  I could never have added the technology pieces of this post without the extraordinary help and patience of my tech mentor, Joe Heitkamp.  Sometimes referred to as “Saint Joe,” he has walked and talked me through Google Drive, Xcel spreadsheet transfers, uploading and downloading documents, linking documents and actually posting the blog.  And he has repeated the steps many times, as you can imagine if you are of my generation!  So to Joe an enormous THANK YOU.  You aren’t done yet!

 

This Week in Denver, Colorado

I am going to start this Blog Post with a thank you to my heroine, Diane Ravitch. I first met Diane in 2010 when she came to Denver to talk about her new book,  THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM, which has since become the definitive history of recent public education in the United States. Since that time, I have had several opportunities to further our friendship. She is a champion of public education. If you want to know what is happening in public education, her blog is a must read. She has access to more information than imaginable and she makes it readily available.

Diane has been supportive of me as I have moved into the blogosphere. So, it is with particular humility and appreciation that I note she has posted my first blog of a few weeks ago. You may have read it already, but I risk redundancy because her role and influence in this fight is so important and because for me personally her support is so meaningful.  With most sincere thanks to Diane Ravitch.

On to THIS WEEK IN DENVER

President Obama in Cheesman Park
President Obama in Cheesman Park

On Wednesday, July 9, I had the opportunity to see and hear President Obama in my neighborhood park. This is the park where my children played on the playground, my dogs have frolicked and walked for over 30 years, where I still walk several times a week. As cynical as one can become over politics and as many times as I have heard Presidents in person, seeing the leader of our country in person is still quite a moving occasion. Especially in your own neighborhood park!

While I was listening to Mr. Obama, I felt great sadness for him.  I do believe he wants to bridge the inequities he sees across this nation, and I support most of his policies.  However, there is one  particular policy that I cannot for the life of me understand and that is, of course, his education policy.  He did not address educational issues other than to show support for early childhood education.

Coincidentally, a few days before the President’s appearance in “my” park the nation’s largest education union, the National Education Association (NEA), wrapped up its annual convention in Denver. This often toothless organization passed a resolution asking for the resignation of Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. While outgoing NEA president Dennis Van Roekel said the vote was close, he went on to cite the two primary reasons for such displeasure with Duncan: 1) teacher evaluations based on high-stakes testing (ironic and appropriate that this anti-Duncan vote should occur in Colorado where thanks to Senate Bill 10-191, 50% of teacher evaluations are based on test scores. This is the highest percentage in the nation.) and, 2) Duncan’s very vocal support of the recent Vergara decision which ruled teacher tenure somehow deprived students of their right to an equal education and violated their civil rights.

The New York Times account of the NEA convention characterized this vote as “a watershed between the Democratic Party and teachers’ unions.” While citing recent rifts between teacher unions and the Democratic Party,  the paper gave the longest reaction space to neither union nor party spokesperson.  Instead it gave the largest amount of ink to Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Note the word “Democrats” in the organization’s title. Also note that DFER is one of the strongest supporters of Arne Duncan’s, therefore President Obama’s, national educational policies.  Finally, note that DFER was created by and continues to be funded by numerous hedge fund founders, not your usual Democratic voters. Might regular voters’ and hedge funders’ priorities be at odds? Who are the really influential policy makers when it comes to public education?

Mr. Williams is the quintessential education “reformer.”  He does not believe in unions.  He insults educators.  Just read his quote:  “The Democratic Party used to outsource its education policy to the NEA.  The Duncan vote made them [NEA] look like the lunatic fringe. It’s not exactly the way you convince the public that you’ve got a good credible idea.” Says who?  How many professional educators has Mr. Williams actually ever talked to?   Does Mr. Williams believe real Democrats are anti teacher and anti-union? And most importantly, does Mr. Williams really believe what he is supporting is helping to educate children?

The call for Mr. Duncan’s resignation is a good sign. It shows courage and it shows that perhaps public school teachers are finally mad as hell and don’t want to be bullied and victimized any more. And the fact that this occurred in the state with the harshest teacher evaluations in place should not go unnoticed.

Remembering George Washington

As we approach this Independence Day weekend, thoughts drift back to our nation’s Founding Fathers lead by George Washington. (This is of course in addition to thoughts of delicious barbeque, cherry pie, fireworks galore, and Team USA.) But say George Washington to people involved in education Denver and the image that comes up is that of a high school divided and under attack. George Washington High School – GW, George or GDub as it is affectionately known – is one of the Denver’s so-called Presidential high schools. For the last 30 years it has been home to a magnet program known as the International Baccalaureate Programme. The GW IB program is nationally and internationally known for its excellence, rigor, and student success. The International Baccalaureate Programme offers just the kind education Founding Father Washington envisioned when he said,

“A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

So what is the fuss about?

The GW IB program was designed as a school within a school practicing the “reform” mantra of co-locations long before “reform” was even around. The GW IB program was designed as a magnet program, which means applications would be necessary to participate. “Reformers” do not like magnet programs because they take students who might otherwise choice into a charter school. (Choice participants tend to have informed and engaged parents and students. Charters benefit from this custom, as do magnets.)

George Washington Principal Micheal Johnson, the DPS administration and a few carefully chosen community members want to change the heart of this magnet program. They believe it to be elitist and non-diverse. They have come up with four school-wide goals to combat this:

1. Raise the bar to provide all students at GW a challenging, rigorous education that will prepare them for college and career;
2. Strengthen GW as a strong neighborhood school that will appeal to and attract all students in our boundary, as well as students from other parts of Denver;
3. Continue our top notch IB program; and
4. Unify GW as one school with great opportunities and multiple, high quality offerings for all students.

These are lofty goals. Frankly, all DPS schools should aspire to 1, 2, and 4. But not at the expense of number 3, which will most likely prove to harm the magnet school. There will be no designated IB prep for 9th and 10th graders. Rather GW will become a “school-wide honors program with honors courses that are as rigorous as the current pre-IB courses.” That is all well and good, but how will that be possible when IB is a specialized program for kids who want to work really hard and are ready to enter the 9th grade with all cylinders ago. Email after email from parents across the district, many of them minorities, arrive in the superintendent’s mailbox begging the district to fix what is broken without destroying what is working. To date, Mr. Boasberg has chosen to ignore the community.

The real intent of this program change appears to be to add diversity to the IB program. Now, no one can really complain about increasing diversity, especially in a district where increasing resegregation is occurring, thanks in large part to “reform.” But why focus on one school? Why not have a districtwide plan to address this disparity? And if Boasberg is attacking magnets what about Denver School of the Arts (DSA)? Here are the 2013-14 comparisons:

Categories DSA GW
FRL (Free & Reduced Lunch) 14.7% 54.1%
ELL (English Language Learners) 1.1% 9.4%
SpEd (Special Education) 2.5% 9.9%
Minority 23.6% 63.2%

Does DSA’s lack of diversity as a whole give it a pass when it comes to integration, equity, and diversity? It seems to me, if you are truly concerned about equity, integration and diversity, what is good for one school ought to be good for all schools. If the GW plan will correct the unevenness of equity, integration and diversity, why should it not be implemented across the district where similar disparities abound?

The culture at George Washington High School is broken. Teachers, students, parents feel disrespected, unsupported and even disliked. In all too typical DPS fashion, divisions among and between students and faculty and parents have been created and nurtured. Divide and conquer. It seems the current Denver Public Schools administration, lead by Superintendent Tom Boasberg, is intent on demolishing this successful academic magnet. And he will pit community against community in doing so.

Meeting after meeting has occurred both at the school, in homes, to discuss these proposed changes. All with the same request: answer our questions, please. No meaningful answers have been provided. Community meetings have been held where answers are promised, In an April 28, 2014 email from Principal Micheal Johnson to GW Families and Supporters alerting them of a May 10 meeting he said, “…I will provide updates on our progress toward implementing our strategic plan and will address any questions or concerns that may arise about our future direction. It is crucial that we have the engagement and feedback of the community as we implement these changes.” Yet when that meeting convened in the GW Library to a standing room only crowd, one of the first statements out of the District’s mouth notified attendees that this would NOT be a meeting to answer questions. The spokesperson said the group was too large for that. Everyone in the room was astounded since that was the reason for being there. Many got restless. Superintendent Boasberg was not present.

The District has made commitments that no changes will occur for the upcoming school year, yet IB certified teachers have left in droves, remaining teachers have not received their class assignments, and according to the DPS job listings there are currently 15 teaching job openings for GW. All of this when highly qualified and trained IB teachers are an integral part of GW’s IB success. And it is the beginning of July! Changes have already occurred.

Long time DPS parent activist Kristen Tourangeau has written an excellent narrative of the current DPS administration’s actions and inactions regarding GW. Kristen has been instrumental in turning both a neighborhood elementary school and a middle school around before “turnarounds” were in. Both of her daughters graduated from GW IB, the last one just this year. She raises a very important point when she says,

“All over Denver our communities have argued for strong neighborhood public schools. They have not clamored for charter schools to replace those schools. Our superintendent’s actions, however, follow the national trend of declaring urban public schools to be “failing” schools and then to replace them with charter schools.

“Perhaps that is the ultimate plan for George Washington High School – to make it a “failing” school by destroying its best academic program and initiate a downward spiral for the school. That is a strategy that just might work for our superintendent and our federal government.”

Finally, it has been reported that a graduating GW IB student approached Mr. Boasberg at the graduation ceremony and asked him what it felt like to dismantle the IB program. According to several sources, Mr. Boasberg was heard to have said “It feels great (or good)!” We must ask why? We must hope that George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado will not soon be just a faded memory.