Monday, January 18, 2016

Rampant Violations of State Law by Charter Schools. What Can We Do?

This excellent article in by Danielle Dreilinger exposes how charter schools continue to flaunt state law on open meetings and continue to pay extravagant salaries to administrators who have no direct education responsibilities.

Read on to find out that violations of the open meetings law is just one of the many violations of state law and BESE policy by charter operators.

Do you remember when we were assured that one of the benefits of charter schools was that they would eliminate wasteful central office bureaucracies and put more of our tax monies in the classroom? Well now we find that a charter school provider administering only 6 schools requires the funding of two bureaucracies! School taxes are used to fund the Algiers Charter Association central office staff plus the RSD central office that oversees the same charters. This study by Western Michigan University shows that nationwide, charters spend more on administration than do the real public schools. Is it no wonder that after all the hoopla about charters claiming to improve student performance, three of Algiers charter schools are seeing serious declines in school performance scores. One high school went from a "B" to a "D" when the charter group merged two schools.

In addition to wasting taxpayer dollars on an extra central office, the Algiers Charter Board found it expedient to violate the state open meetings law in neglecting to announce the move to fire and replace its top administrator. Should not the Algiers Charter board be repremanded in some way or at least warned by BESE for violating the open meetings law? Are charters so special that they can waste tax money on overpaid administrators and then violate the law in firing and hiring those administrators? Does anyone know the salary that will be paid to the new administrator or is it a secret agreement made using our tax dollars?

Another example of misuse of school taxes is exemplified by the Louisiana online virtual school, Connections Academy. You may recall that State Superintendent John White phased out a highly cost effective and successful state-run virtual school to provide an automatic client base for two new for-profit virtual charter schools. Those schools are funded at 90% of the per pupil allocation of true public schools even though they have no buildings to build or maintain, no school lunches to provide, no libraries, no utilities, and much lower benefits for their teachers. This automatically frees up a huge windfall of funding for advertising and company profit. Even so, a recent study by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) from Stanford University found that nationwide, privately run virtual charter schools are some of the worst performing schools in the country. Specifically the two online charters in Louisiana are among the worst performing in that low performing category. According to CREDO, on average, students in the Louisiana virtual charters actually fell behind by a whole year of instruction in each year compared to the real public schools!

So what is Connections Academy doing to improve their student performance? Are they beefing up their contacts with students and parents to make sure that students really are logging in the necessary amount of hours to meet state mandatory attendance laws? Are they reducing class size for each teacher to allow more individual attention? There is no evidence of any such efforts, but Connections has greatly boosted their advertising budget aimed at recruiting more higher performing students so that the demographics of their student body will shift away from at-risk, high poverty students. The radio advertising I heard tells us they are looking to recruit students who prefer to be instructed at "above grade level" standards. I believe such active efforts to recruit and shift their student body to more affluent, high performing students violates the state regulations that require charter schools to serve approximately the same percentage of at-risk students as are served by the real public schools.

This is the same trend we have seen at work in several other predatory charter schools operating in the Lafayette area. Charter schools are quietly giving up trying to address the needs of at-risk students (two low performing charters in the Baton Rouge area have been handed back to the original school boards) because it is much easier to receive higher school performance scores if they serve a bigger proportion of high performing students.  This has nothing to do with providing better instruction. It has everything to do with simply recruiting higher performing students that do not need high quality instruction to perform well. This shift in school demographics is also accomplished in some charters by using harsh discipline polices that suspend or expel low performing students back to the real public schools.

Here are a few ideas about how to get John White and BESE to enforce state law

Efforts to stop the above violations of state law by charter schools may require a citizen's lawsuit to force compliance with the few laws and regulations that still apply to charter schools.  Don't expect BESE or the legislature to take action. Too many of them have been bought off by campaign contributions using our tax dollars to get this selective enforcement without regard to the interests of the taxpayers, students, and parents.

Too bad there is no law that restricts the pay for charter school administrators to a level similar to that paid to real public school administrators. They are using our taxes, but we the taxpayers have no control over how they spend our money. This is similar to the big bankers and wall street executives who paid themselves multi-million dollar bonuses right after their companies were bailed out by the American taxpayers!

What about a lawsuit that requires charters to enforce the state mandatory attendance laws? There are reports that some charter students are allowed to skip school regularly without consequences even though BESE policy requires that a student cannot get credit if he/she misses more than 10 days in a semester of unexcused absences. Does anyone check to see if charter students have legitimate excuses for their abscences? I am informed that some charters do not even check attendance even though every public school home room teacher is expected to meticulously check attendance each day. Does the LDOE require strict enforcement of mandatory attendance laws and enforcement of BESE policy relative to restrictions in school credits for students who have excessive absences. In an interview early in his tenure, White told me that he thought that such rules are not necessary. Apparently White never heard of the studies that report that one of the parimary causes of student failure is a poor attendance record.

When is State Superintendent John White going to start enforcing state laws as they apply to charter schools? I suppose that we should not be surprised by selective enforcement of state law from an official who has repeatedly violated the state public records law. Why doesn't BESE reprimand White for violating state law? White has been found in violation of state public records laws three times in the last two years as a result of lawsuits I was forced to file to be allowed to see public records relating to student enrollment,  statistics on graduation rates, and raw student scores on LEAP  and end of course tests.

Without these public records requests we would not know that the state passing scores on the new PARCC-like tests were set at an average of only 30% correct answers. This is being allowed despite the fact that BESE has a policy that the minimum passing score for students is supposed to be 60%. Apparently the minimum percentage rules don't apply to state tests, but White has never asked BESE for an exemption. Until this year, after a public records request by 33 citizens, we got the real scores even though White has never before informed BESE about the actual percentage of correct answers equating to a passing score on state tests. For example, the state PARCC minimum passing scale score on the 8th grade math test was set at 725 out of 850 to obscure the fact that the real minimum passing score was only 23%! This is the level of accountability we can expect from a person who according to Governor Edwards is not even qualified to serve as a middle school assistant principal.

Finally, I believe we should request help in enforcing state law from the new Edwards administration. One approach would be to shut down all state contracts feeding cronies of the LDOE until someone at LDOE starts enforcing state law. John White now controls non-construction contracts amounting to over 140 million dollars of our money!