New report on charter management fees in Connecticut

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Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 2.56.12 PMSource: CT SDE, 2016; Rodriguez, 2016

A few years ago, I wrote in ctnewsjunkie.com about charter management fees charged by private companies that manage charter schools in Connecticut. The total management fees added up to millions in state dollars diverted from charter schools to these management companies. A new report from CEA, the state’s largest teachers union, (prepared by Rodriguez Data Solutions, LLC) shows that these charter management fees are growing at a higher rate than overall State spending on charter schools in Connecticut.

Not all charter schools in Connecticut charge pay management fees. In fact, most charter schools do not pay management fees, so the report looks closely on the handful that do: Achievement First, Domus, Great Oaks, and Our Piece of the Pie. The charter management schools charge fees at charter schools in the cities that serve mostly Black and some Latinx students.

You can take a look at the Executive Summary of the report below and the data here. As a result of these findings, the CEA has urged legislators:

  • to review the revenue sources and expenditures of corporate-style charter schools and is specifically calling for
  • The prohibition of management fees in all Connecticut charter schools
  • More accountability and transparency of all charter schools
  • An investigative audit of all CMOs
  • Total disclosure of CMO finances
  • Public disclosure of all CMO information through the state’s Freedom of Information Act
  • A moratorium on future charter school expansion

What do you think?

Download (PDF, 513KB)

Disciplining Connecticut’s Schools: A critique of the Judge’s Decision on the CCJEF Education Funding Case

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“If the emperor was a weak man, the sight of his mark would evoke laughter and contempt, but if he was a stern and powerful ruler, his mark would instill fear and obedience.”

The Lords of Discipline, Pat Conroy, p. 213.

In the book Lords of Discipline, based on the Citadel military college, the general offered his cadets words of advice at their ring ceremony: be the powerful ruler that instills obedience and fear, otherwise suffer defeat. When I first read the judge’s decision in the CCJEF v. Rell school funding case, it struck me as similarly militaristic. Judge Moukawsher, a lawyer and graduate of the Citadel military college, ruled that his problem with Connecticut public education was an issue of discipline, not necessarily a lack of resources. Rather than declaring a war on inequality or inadequacy, the judge declared war on a “slack system”. While news accounts called the judge’s decision an “overhaul”, the ruling was more of a directive to continue public education’s most regressive tendencies.

The valiant CCJEF argument against the State relied on a common-sense idea: every child has a right to a rich, well-rounded education for all children that is adequately funded by the State. Advocates and parents in towns and cities brought the case forward as a Constitutional challenge more than a decade ago believing that public education was inadequately funded, particularly in less wealthy towns and cities. Past court cases, such as the Horton case, argued that Connecticut’s method of funding schools mainly through local property taxes was unfair to towns and cities with a limited ability to pay for public schools. The CCJEF case made a different argument.

There were three parts of the CCJEF argument. First, Connecticut has broad goals for public education such as ensuring that kids become productive members of society and engaged citizens. Second, the State needs to provide adequate or enough funding to accomplish those goals. Third, funding must be equitably distributed, or the funds needed to reach those goals might differ from town to town because students might require more or less help to reach the same goals depending on where they live and other characteristics like poverty, town wealth, language status, and racial identification.

The CCJEF plaintiffs acknowledged that Connecticut’s current method of funding schools was progressive, but inadequate and increasingly inequitable. Over the last thirty years, Connecticut supplemented local education funds from property taxes with State funds in order to create a progressive funding system. That system eventually became called the “Educational Cost Sharing” (ECS) grant and it has produced a certain degree of equity in educational funding. (e.g. Less wealthy towns get more State funding; wealthier towns get less State funding). But the State was underfunding that ECS fund and increasingly favoring wealthier towns by never taking away funds. In some cases, wealthier towns got even more funding as poorer districts lost state funds, a point made painfully clear by the judge.

As a fight for resources towards these broad goals, the CCJEF paralleled past fights for the educational rights of Black and Latinx children, children living in poverty, bilingual children, as well as children with disabilities. However, these civil rights battles also included claims for greater control over the resources and type of education provided to Black and Latinx students. Neither the CCJEF plaintfiffs, the State, nor the judge deliberated these issues.

Still, after years of hearings and testimony that documented public schools without sufficient resources (and funding) to provide an education worth its name, the CCJEF finally had its days in court over the last year. This year’s legislative session might also feature some response to the judge’s orders.

Watch a video version of this lecture here.

Contrary to the argument presented by the CCJEF plaintiffs, the judge found that Connecticut already, “spends more than the bare minimum on schools” (Moukawsher, 2016, p.23). The judge dismissed evidence from teachers and parents that their schools lacked adequate resources as “anecdotal” (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 24). According to the judge’s reading of the law, as long as public school students got classrooms with desks, chairs, air to breathe, a teacher, textbooks, and a curriculum, the State had fulfilled most of its obligation to provide an equal educational opportunity. He concluded that, “there is no proof of a statewide problem caused by the state sending school districts too little money” (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 24). The CCJEF plaintiffs lost this major part of their argument. At that point, the judge could have stopped his ruling, but he went further.

Going further than the initial lawsuit required, the Judge redefined an adequate education to mean one that could be measured through “objective” tests in elementary and high school. When all kids passed standardized tests that would mean that there was a rational and adequate education. And if kids did not pass the tests, then they should not be able to just “pass” to the next grade. To that end, the judge ordered the State and its subordinates to “define” education by using “exit exams” for students to leave the 3rd, 8th, and 12th grade. Here, the battle turned against the plaintiffs. The judge outflanked the plaintiffs by conflating standardized testing with equal educational opportunity.

For the judge, the State spent enough money on schools, but the State failed to compel everybody to implement the basic goals of education: kids passing basic reading and math tests. He stated his reasoning here:

…the state must propose a definition of what it means to have an elementary school education that is rationally and primarily related to developing basic literacy and numeracy skills needed for secondary school. No definition without force behind it can be rational, especially since the state would already say that is has amply laid out what elementary schools should achieve by adopting common core standards. Here the difference between a definition and a constitutionally adequate definition is that the former may have no real consequence while the latter requires substantial consequences. (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 59-60)

For the judge, third grade and high school students in the State’s resource-poor cities could not read at the “basic” level because their basic training had failed. Education, like the military, requires authorities to provide orders to their subordinates, who must follow. Although the state already has content standards and standardized tests connected to graduation requirements, teacher evaluations, school ratings, and so on, the judge believed that these tools were not wielded with sufficient authority and discipline by the State. If kids were not passing basic standardized tests, then somebody must suffer negative consequences. As the judge stated, “There is no room for a slack system to support cities like Bridgeport” (Moukawsher, 2016, 37). Poor student test results must mean somebody is slacking off and should be removed, fired, or dismissed. For the court, the educational system would only be rational and adequate when the State removed the weakest links, or the people and funding that don’t raise test results. This sweeping social analysis of Connecticut’s education system came as a surprise to those that have experienced the blunt force of the No Child Left Behind Act or Race to The Top, or other educational reforms that do, in fact, target various people to punish.

This vision for an educational system was Spartan and contradictory. It hinged on ranking kids, teachers, schools, and districts, then removing the weakest links. In the case of special education, the judge argued that, “school officials never consider the possibility that the education appropriate for some students may be extremely limited because they are too profoundly disabled to get any benefit from elementary or secondary school education” (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 76). Presumably, money could be saved by cutting services for these students with disabilities to save the funds for the kids that “can learn”.

Somebody should be punished when “objective” tests showed that kids could not read at basic level. Only when kids passed tests and moved onto the next grade or graduation, then they could be said to have an “adequate” education. If they didn’t pass, then they couldn’t move forward. Showing a misunderstanding of standardized test results, the judge did not see much value in measures in which everybody could pass. He stated, “An inflated teacher evaluation system, like a graduation or graduation system where everyone succeeds, is virtually useless (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 63).” Useful tests and standards rate people and some people must fail by design. But the judge did not take up the question of what happens when kids and adults are punished for never passing tests and evaluations that fail some people by design. As Wendy Lecker and other lawyers suggested, this ruling emboldened past and current corporate education reform initiatives. Rather than an overhaul of education, the judge ordered schools to escalate their most regressive tendencies such as testing, sorting people, removing “weak” links, and punishing non-conformists.

In terms of educational leadership, the judge wanted public schools to be more “tightly coupled”. In other words, schools must pick a goal, measure the goal, meet the goal or suffer consequences. It either did not matter or did not occur to the judge that schools might require “loose coupling”, or a set of broad goals implemented with a different type of leadership and management given the complexity of American schooling (Weick, 1976; Meyer and Rowan, 1977).

A positive aspect of the judge’s order for the plaintiffs was that it allowed the State to provide more funding for schools if schools wished to provide these opportunities, but it was not required to spend any more because it was already funding the bare minimum it needed. Redistribution of state funds was also possible, but not required under this ruling. Sadly, the things we find help kids in schools such as support professionals, arts, music, health, computers, recess, and fun were just irrational “extras” for this judge (Moukawsher, 2016, p. 40). Rich districts might be able to offer these opportunities through their own local funding, but the State is not required to fund these opportunities in middle and working class schools where the majority of Black and Latinx students reside.

To be sure, the judge acknowledged that economic status, targeted school funding, and other factors can influence academic success. Connecticut only needed to make a funding formula, connect it to test results and evaluations, then stick to it and deliver punishments for not complying and performing.  By radically redefining adequacy to “rational” discipline as measured by test scores, the ruling was a regressive departure from the idea of a rich, well-rounded public education for children, particularly for Black, Latinx, and children of all ethnic groups living in poverty.

With his Citadel ring on his finger as he read the ruling from the bench, the Judge told the State of Connecticut, be the stern and powerful school emperor that instills fear and obedience through tests and punishments. Only that would be a “rational, substantial, and verifiable” public education, even if it’s not adequately or equitably funded by the State.

Note: The State of Connecticut (defendants) and CCJEF (plaintiffs) have appealed the decisions and the Supreme Court has allowed that appeal to move forward.

 

Do Connecticut’s privately-managed charter schools outperform local public school districts?

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FRPM SCALE SCORE

A few weeks ago, attorney Wendy Lecker asked me in an interview for the Stamford Advocate, “Do Connecticut charter schools outperform district schools?” My answer was, “Not exactly”.

As my Choice Watch report (Cotto & Feder, 2014) demonstrated, charter schools in Connecticut tend to serve a relatively more advantaged group of (mostly) Black and Latinx children including fewer children with disabilities, emerging bilingual children, and children eligible for free and reduced priced meals compared to the students in local public schools in the same cities as the charter schools. As a result, comparing the test results of charter schools with local public schools is like comparing “apples to oranges” because they often serve very different groups of children.

However, using a simple scatterplot chart, it is fairly easy to show that charter schools’ mean test results are not overwhelmingly better when compared with public school districts that have similarly-situated students in terms of a rough income indicator. Other scholars, such as Bruce Baker (2012) at Rutgers University, have constructed scatterplots of income vs. 7th grade math test results to demonstrate similar observations about charter and public schools.

For example, below I constructed an interactive scatterplot that compares 6th grade average scale scores on the CMT reading (2012) versus percentage of children eligible for free and reduced priced meals (FRPM) at the district level (Google sheet data here). This scatterplot data visualization has three major data points. First, each public district and charter school is positioned by the the overall percent FRPM (x-axis). Second, each district is positioned on the y-axis by its mean scale score on 6th grade CMT reading. Third, the size of the dots correspond to the percentage of emerging bilingual children (crudely labeled as “English Language Learners” by the State).

You can scroll over the dots to see the public school district or charter school name and their demographics and test data. Public school districts are in blue dots and charter schools are in red dots. By placing these data points on a scatterplot, we can more easily compare the average test results of districts and charter schools that are similar in terms of district-wide free and reduced meal eligibility. (See the end for notes on limitations of this data and method.)

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

So what does this scatterplot show? Here are some observations:

  • There is a strong negative linear relationship (r= -.869) between this rough income indicator (eligibility for free and reduced priced meals) and average scale score on 6th grade CMT reading. (i.e. as free and reduced priced meal eligibility increases, average reading scores decrease)
  • When compared to similar districts by income, some (4) charter schools appear to have higher than average test results, some (4) have lower than average test results, and some (4) are right in the middle of the pack, or near the average.
  • If charter schools (red dots) had overwhelmingly higher test results, then we would expect more of their average scores to be above the majority of blue dots at their % FRPM level.

Want a closer look?

This second scatterplot chart only compares charter schools with the public school districts where they are located. The same pattern appears.

For example, Bridgeport Public Schools enrolled children that were 99% eligible for FRPM and 12.6% emerging bilingual (ELL). By comparison, all Bridgeport charter schools had higher average scale scores in reading, but lower rates of children eligible for free and reduced priced meals (68-85%) and emerging bilingual students (0-4%). There are exceptions, of course, such as Amistad Academy, which often appears comparable to New Haven Public Schools in terms of %FRPM, %ELL, and higher in average scale score.

And there are examples on the other end of the spectrum. The hypersegregated Stamford charter schools contain larger proportions of Black and Latinx students, those eligible for free/reduced price meals, and those with disabilities compared to the local Stamford public school district. They also appear to be outliers in terms of having very low average scale scores.

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

This test result (“performance”) question is important because it is at the center of claims made about charter schools in Connecticut. The claim that charter schools achieve superior test results as a result of effort, choice, accountability, educational program, governance structure, or some other reason, is frequently cited by charter school lobbyists at the legislature and the CT State Department of Education. 

The simple claim hinges on a statement like this one from a presentation on charter schools by the CT SDE: “Of the 14 charter schools that administered the spring 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test, 12 schools (or 86%) outperformed their host district with their overall SPI.” (CT SDE, 2015) With this statistic, we are left to conclude (or told by the charter school lobby) that charter schools are supposedly excelling compared to local public schools.

The CT SDE presentation (below) offers similar statistics and a chart highlighting some demographics of charter schools versus “alliance” and all other districts, but it does not caution the reader these characteristics could impact test results and comparisons. What the CT SDE and charter school lobbyists are not explicitly telling you in these claims is that charter schools often serve a relatively more advantaged group of Black and Latinx children compared to the local public schools where they are located and these children are likely to do relatively better on standardized tests because standardized tests favor more advantaged groups of people. Therefore, it is not a fair comparison to directly compare charter schools test results to those in local public school districts without some sort of modification (e.g. compare districts similar in income levels and/or other characteristics).

Charter Renewal Process, SBE Overview | April 6, 2015

Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 9.42.55 PMSource: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

The State is comparing “apples (public schools) to oranges (charter schools)” on test results, despite knowing (it’s their data!) that the massive demographic differences that make these simple comparisons very misleading. To be sure, the CT SDE assists in making these same simplistic comparisons of test results between urban and suburban schools districts as well. This type of misleading comparison of test results persists and is now baked into the CT State Department of Education policy on reviewing and renewing charter schools.

All of this is meant to say that using blunt comparisons of test results does not prove that charter schools or public schools are any better or worse than each other in terms of academic performance, or any other characteristic. Instead, I am arguing that comparisons of test results must account for often massive demographic differences. This was a major recommendation of the Choice Watch (2014) report. I would also add, as I’ve written elsewhere, that school performance should be thought of in broader terms than standardized tests. Simple comparisons of standardized test results will always favor schools with barriers to entry and participation (e.g. charter, magnet, vocational technical schools) and advantaged districts where families must buy or rent homes to attend local schools (affluent, suburban).

So when somebody asks the question, “Do Connecticut charter schools outperform public school districts?”, how will you answer?

 

Notes: 1. There are many other and better ways of analyzing this question about charter and public schools. My observations above are based on scatterplot charts that crudely “account” for income (FRPM). 2. The data above comes from 2012, the most recent data in which average scale score on State tests can be compared to other demographic information. 3. Finally, the %FRPM applies to all grades in the district, while the average scale score applies to all students in a district in the 6th grade taking the standard version of the test. The State does not share %FRPM data at the grade level. 4. Average scale scores are a better measure of central tendency compared to percent of students at proficient or goal because scale scores do not lump students status levels at arbitrary cut points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letters to the NAACP: Quality Education and Charter School Problems

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Today, the NAACP will hold a hearing down in New Haven, CT to discuss quality education and their recent resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. The NAACP made an announcement about this meeting earlier this week. Due to the late notice and distance from Hartford, a number of parents told me they could not make it. But in the digital age, distance and last-minute hearings are not always a roadblock.

This morning, a parent sent me a note regarding her child’s difficult experience in a charter school. Her story is a counter-narrative to what the charter school industry and lobby tells us that (especially) Black and Latinx children need in education (e.g. “no excuses”, standardized test preparation, private management, limited teacher and student rights). You can read several counter-narratives below, which have not been edited or changed from their original format.

Do you have a charter school story that you want to share with the NAACP about quality public education and/or charter school problems, but could not make the meeting? You can share your story with me by posting a comment, sending me an e-mail (Robert.Cotto@trincoll.edu), or tagging me on Twitter (@robertcottojr).

Zaida Berrios, grandparent, Hartford, Connecticut. (Sent to NAACP and shared on Facebook on 12/3/2016)

AF Story 1 AF Story 2 AF Story 3 AF Story 4 AF Story 5 AF Story 6 AF Story 7

LaKeisha McFarland, parent, Hartford, CT (comment sent on 12/3/2016)

My name is LaKeisha
I had my daughter attend Achievement First School. I get a call out of the blue. After 8 at night. The Lady on the phone said my daughter, has been accepted. As parent. I’m excited, My daughter was attending SANDS SCHOOL, at that time, was having trouble doing her work in class. Due to other kids disruption of the class. I never fill out paperwork saying that, I applied for ACHIEVEMENT FIRST SCHOOL, At that time. I knew nothing about that school. I’m thinking it’s a Magnet School. Once my daughter got in, everything was smooth. I’m okay with wearing uniforms, shirt tucked in, brown or black belts. Only white or black sneakers. Daughter doing good at the school… Achievement First, we get her a pair of new sneakers, she’s doing so well in school now. Black with a little red in them. She can’t wear them. Now I’m upset, I keep my cool. Let it pass. Later on she been at the school for about couple years, at that time, I goes to visit. To see how my girl doing, I wasn’t allowed. I need an appointment. The lady was rude. Found out kids had to wear whit shirt, if in trouble, kids pissed on themselves, if not allowed to go to the bathroom, you stayed in one room all day, for something minor, like a dropped pencil, or not giving the teacher eye to eye. I can go on, wait! I must mention. My daughter was bullied, no one from that school, brought this to My attention, my daughter did, when she had a knife in her hand, said she was being bullied, I don’t talk about it. This memory take me to a dark side, I never want to see anyone child go through. Thank the man above. I did the best. Was to remove the my daughter from that School.

Jaclyn Pioli, parent advocate, Stamford, CT, (comment sent on 12/3/2016)

Hello,

I am a parent advocate in Stamford, my name is Jaclyn Pioli. I have been investigating the DOMUS charter school program for over a year and I discovered your blogs along the way. I would be grateful for any help that you might be able to give me. I have discovered what I believe is incontrovertible evidence that the DOMUS charter school program as it is being run in Connecticut is benefitting its administrators and investors to the detriment of the children in its charge. I have found fundamental inconsistencies with the validity of the charter school renewal process with the state; specifically regarding test scores, and the supposed elimination of in school suspensions and use of “holding” rooms. Mike Dugan, who originally started the charter school in 1999 had an agreement then with former mayor Malloy that Stamford Public Schools would cover 100% of the teaching staff salaries. SPS has honored this agreement, blindly, as current board members and administration at central office had no idea of the agreement, nor what the money was being used for. Or so they claim. My calculations indicate that $16.5 million dollars over the last ten years has paid for non-certified teaching staff. A fact that may have come to light sooner had SPS audited the grant even once over the last 20 years. The documented outcomes attributed to the program clearly illustrate that year after year, these children are essentially warehoused at DOMUS facilities for a finite period of time before they are reintegrated into the Stamford Public School system, having made minimal growth at best. Once they are returned to SPS with their weaknesses uncorrected, they are ushered through the grades lubricated by all manner of sliding scales and ethically questionable scoring practices. This sordid state of affairs is bad enough. Factor in the salaries earned by the program administrators that climb well into the six figure range and you reveal yet another example of those with means enriching, or further enriching, themselves at the expense of those without. This is made doubly grotesque when one considers that every single dollar SPS is allotting to DOMUS programs, is no longer available for Public School students who desperately need the services that it could have helped secure them. Too, I believe that I have identified an incestuous circle of self interest that revolves from ex-Mayor Malloy, to Mike Duggan, to the Bridgewater hedge fund, to the Dalio foundation and finally SPS.

The systems flaws are being exploited by people who have no interest at all in these children who are depending on them. Children who desperately need all the help that they can get. I would like very much to do something about that, because it is upon their shoulders that our future as a nation rests.

Thank you very much,

Jaclyn

 

Updated (with video): Got something to say about charter schools? NAACP Special Hearing on Charter Schools – New Haven, CT – Saturday, Dec. 3, 1 – 6 p.m.

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Update: The full video of the NAACP special hearing is here. (Source: W4 News, AccessTV.org) Also see parent letters regarding charter school issues to the NAACP Task Force on Quality Education.

In October, the NAACP (national conference) passed a resolution that called for a moratorium on privately-managed, publicly funded charter schools. The resolution was fairly moderate and listed the charter school policies that must change in order for any future NAACP support. This weekend, the NAACP will host the first in a series of national meetings about this resolution for a charter school moratorium.  The first meeting will be in New Haven, CT. (details below)

The fact that charter schools are racially segregated (mostly Black students), have punitive disciplinary policies, and siphon funds away from public schools to privately-managed charter schools were among the reasons for a charter school moratorium. (You can read more about why here.) In a press release, the NAACP stated:

We are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as:
 (1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
 (2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
 (3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
 (4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

In addition to this resolution, the NAACP created a National Task Force for Quality Education. This Task Force will hold a special hearing (one of many around the country) focusing on this resolution for a charter school moratorium on Saturday, December 3, 2016, from 1 – 6 p.m. in New Haven, CT at the Omni Hotel, 155 Temple Street. (directions here)

Sign-up happens at 1 p.m. and the hearing begins at 2 p.m. 3 minute speaking limit per person. You can read the full details in the flyer below. The meeting appears to be open to the public.

NAACPspecialhearing

You can be sure, the charter school lobby that advocates for more privately-managed schools and funding for only those charter schools will be there.

Will public education advocates show up?

Want to learn more about charter schools in Connecticut? Here’s a little something to get started: