De Blasio: The Left’s Id

NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio launched his first salvo in his war on charter schools – which is, essentially, an extended payoff to the unions and the condo pinks that put him in office in the first place (occasional emphasis added by me):

While running for New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio could count on applause for attacking unpopular charter school co-locations, where charters that need space are squeezed into public school buildings alongside other schools.

Instead of extolling the promise of the charters, de Blasio provided a spine-stiffening defense of the “common” school, and his base ate it up: The unions loved it, parents whose kids were not in charters loved it, and many of de Blasio’s fellow Park Slope progressives loved it.

That’s been one of the charter opponents’ most galling tactics; they’ve made charters the subject of a class war, with charters as “the enemy”, notwithstanding that (especially in the city) they are the lifeboat for the underserved minority, and the students that the “common” schools have given up on.

So the new mayor must be feeling whiplash after the outcry that met him as he began to carry out a popular campaign pledge: slow down the charter co-locations and shift more money to traditional public schools. That the charter community opposed the mayor wasn’t a surprise. It was their political strength, organization, and popularity that caught de Blasio off guard.

From the rhetoric, you’d think de Blasio had personally bounced kids out of charter schools across all five boroughs.

Slate goes on to defend De Blasio.

But charter proponents know that it’s a short jump from “slowing down co-location” (in real-estate-starved NYC they put charter schools in the same buildings as public schools) to shutting down schools.  The left hates charters, and the slippery slope is very, very real.

Charter Schools: Batten Down The Hatches

The DFL – at the behest of the Teachers Union, of which the DFL is a partially-owned subsidiary – hates charter schools.  They provide choice to families who find themselves underserved by the public system.

And if you’re a parent in the inner city, that’s pretty much you; your kids are jammed into public schools that by any rational standard are gross underperformers.  If you’re a minority parent in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, you send your kids to schools with two of the worst minority achievement gaps in the country (while constantly reiterating the PR pap notion that Minnesota’s schools are really, really swell).

And complete DFL control of Minnesota’s government – at least for this session – means charter schools can expect an existential threat in the next four months.

Today’s story on MPR is a bellweather of this threat.

Critics of underperforming charter schools say state law isn’t tough enough. They’re pushing a measure that would flag poor performing charters for closure.

If approved by the Legislature it would pressure charter school authorizers, the organizations that oversee the schools, to close chronically underperforming charters.

Detractors of charter schools – pretty much the DFL, the unions and their various non-profit handmaidens – constantly refer to charter school “performance” and “metrics”.

Unanswered in all of that palaver – whether any public district school could be a success, acadmically, fiscally or in regulatory terms – if they had to follow the same standards charters do.  This is especially true of larger public districts that can bury their most intractably underperforming students in “Alternative Learning Centers” – effectively getting the “off the books” for purposes of assessing academic performance.

And still the public schools languish.

Charter schools are public schools, but they are freed from some of the requirements that traditional schools must follow. By design, that autonomy is intended to allow charters to try innovative approaches like longer school days or creative curriculum.

An eighth of Saint Paul’s parents – and an even greater share in Minneapolis – have opted, via school choice, to leave the city systems; they’ve moved to private, parochial, suburban, and – especially in poor, immigrant and minority communities – charter schools.  75% or more of inner city charter students are from “families of color”, immigrants or other underserved communities.

These news stories – and legislative initiatives – are invariably based on biased research.  Example (with emphasis added):

As the charter system has grown, so have concerns over how the schools perform, academically and financially.

Overall, students at charter schools don’t do as well academically as students in traditional district schools, according to research by Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

“research by Myron Orfield” means “research commissioned by and for the DFL and the unions”.  No more, no less.

“The problem is the vast majority of charters are underperforming and maybe 25, 30 percent of them are just really terrible and they go on from year to year,” said Orfield, one of the biggest critics of charter schools in Minnesota. “They’re considerably worse than the public schools.”

And some numbers can make that impression.  And some charters are, no doubt, not-hackers.

But there are three things to remember about “achievement” comparisons between charter and district schools:

  • It’s A Hard Knock Life:  Charter schools – especially in the city – are frequently a refuge for students and families who’ve been shorted by the public system.  ”Shorted” is a polite, general phrase that means everything from “badly served” to “thoroughly brutalized” by the one-size-fits-all public school system.  Yes, I have a perspective on this.   Of course their academic performance is lower, no matter what charter school they attend.
  • Rigged:  Of course, the studies show that charters schools lag district schools in terms of raw academic performance.  Not only are a large percentage of charter students looking for a second chance (and their grades show it), but charter schools have to own their numbers; public systems have the “Alternative Learning Centers” into which they can shunt the chronic underperformers, to get them off the district’s books.  And that’s with the ones they haven’t given up on altogether; after about age 16, the big districts put very few obstacles in the paths of kids who want to drop out – which also bumps the curve up for the big schools.  The “studies” – including Orfield’s – don’t account for this.  The only meaningful measurement of achievement would follow students’ changes in academic performance – positive or otherwise – after they left the public system (controlled by comparison with kids with similar social, educational and ethnic makeup who stayed in the public system), over a realistic period of time.   
  • Apples To Axles:  I’m going to suggest that if public schools were measured, financially and academically, by the same standards that charter schools have to meet (including the performance of the kids that the district gives up on, the ALC and dropouts – that a much greater share of public schools would risk being shut down.  Especially in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, Bloomington, Richfield, Robbinsdale/New Hope and the Brooklyns.
Expect this story to be the opening salvo of a DFL assault on, at the very least, the fringes of the charter system.

Project Adams

In the book Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams described a grossly-overpopulated planet dealing with its problem by radical means.  The plan involved building two spaceships to fly the population to a better world.

They built the first one, and loaded up all of the – er, let’s say “less essential” populations; I forget Adams’ list, but today it could be reality TV stars, TMZ-bait, Youtube sensations, Taylor Swift’s exes, and millions of society’s other useless mouths, and shot it into space.  They were told that the rest of the people would be coming.

Soon.

As soon as they finished the next spaceship.

Honest.

——–

A Dutch company is taking applications for a one-way mission to Mars, to start a Mars colony.

And they‘re getting a slew of applications:

“These numbers put us right on track for our goal of half a million applicants,” said the founder of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp. “Mars One is a mission representing all humanity and its true spirit will be justified only if people from the entire world are represented. I’m proud that this is exactly what we see happening.”

Here’s the part I found…intrigueing?  Well, deja vu at any rate:

According to the company’s chief medical officer, Norbert Kraft, Mars One is eschewing the usual astronaut candidates – scientists and pilots – in favour of YouTube fanatics and internet people, “because what we are looking for is not restricted to a particular background.”

All applicants have to do is pay the application fee, which ranges from $5 to $75 – in the US, it is $38 – and then submit a video in which they answer three questions.

Huh.

I’m going to run over to Google Translate to see if “Bas Lansdorp” is Dutch for “Slartibartfast”.

Just a hunch.

My Urban-Renewal Idea

On a Saint Paul discussion forum, someone asked “what would you do to better the city if someone gave you a couple million dollars?”

It took me about two seconds to answer; I’ve been thinking about this one for years and years.

If someone gave me a couple million dollars my plan would look something like this:

  1. Buy three adjacent blocks of blighted housing in a down-market neighborhood that’s been ravaged by the foreclosure crisis – Frogtown, the North End, the lower East Side.  There are some blocks where half the houses are foreclosed, vacant or demolished.  I’d like to find one of those – preferably one with an old storefront or two on one of the corners.
  2. Remodel them, at least in terms of basics, leaving room for sweat equity.
  3. Sell the houses on one of the blocks.  Price them at market rates - or half-price for nuclear families where  both of the heads of household had a clean criminal record and one or both had a carry permit and could prove they owned legal firearms.  Give a cumulative five percent discount for each of the following: veterans, charter or private school teachers, cops or firemen.  In other words, a family who had a veteran, a firefighter and a charter school teacher with a permit could get the house for 35% of the already-depressed market value.
  4. Lop off another 10% of the balance if crime on the block and on surrounding blocks drops below neighborhood or city averages in, say, a year or two.
  5. Give one of the storefronts to a small charter school rent-free for five years.
  6. Wait three years and watch as the crime rate plummets, and property values rise.
  7. Sell the other two blocks at the new, higher-value market rates; no half-off for permittees with guns, but offer cumulative ten percent discounts for carry permit holders with firearms, cops/firemen and charter/private teachers.
  8. Plow the proceeds into repeating the process on neighboring blocks.
  9. Watch as the neighborhood, strong, self-reliant, free-enterprise oriented and virtually crime-free compared to the surrounding area, starts to wake up, noticing that the parts of the city run by the DFL are failing while the part run according to traditional conservative values – theirs – is doing well.  People in my project, and around and about it, start to ask “so why do we keep electing clueless DFLers to all city offices?”.
  10. Watch some more as control of Saint Paul flips from the DFL’s bobbleheaded one-party rule to conservative control, beginning an era of hard work that leads in modestly short order to a much, much better city.

I’m rarin’ to go.  Someone pony up!

Compare And Contrast

One of the Public-Education pimps’ big chanting points is that “charter schools don’t perform as well as public school!”.

And in terms of top-line statistics, there’s something to that. Many charter schools – especially ones catering to low-income, inner-city, immigrant and Native-American students – have lower standardized test scores (although as I showed several years ago in delivering one of my uncountable drubbings to Nick Coleman, many charter schools beat the pants off their public district neighbors).  The reason, I suspect, is that in most cases those students have already been chewed up and spat out by the public system, and are going the charter route to try to get back on track.  It was certainly true in the charter schools my kids attended.

Indeed, I think the only really meaningful measurement would compare differences in improvement or deterioration in individual students before and after transferring from public to charter schools, compared with comparable students that stayed in the public system.

But beyond that?  You’ll look long and hard for these figures in the mainstream, DFL-allied media:

And as all of us both brace for more “paying for a better Minnesota” and simultaneously watching the cities’ public schools slide even further into disgrace, this next bit (emphasis added) is fun reading:

As if these scores weren’t impressive enough, Best, Friendship, and Harvest are able to achieve them with much less money than the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Here is a comparison of 2012-13 per student spending in the district versus at these schools:   MPS = $23,020   Best = $11,987   Friendship = $13,677   Harvest = $10,958   One has to wonder: Would these schools have been able to achieve these results under the aegis of the large bureaucracy of the school district? Or, does their independence help generate and inspire creative solutions that often elude large systems?   Not all charters work. But the students at Best, Friendship, and Harvest would tell you that theirs do.

And so would their parents.

(BONUS QUESTION for MNGOP “Strategists”:  Why is it, again, that you refuse to have Republican candidates approach charter parents in the city, to tell them that the DFL wants to destroy the charter school system?  That’s gotten you what over the past seven years, exactly?)

Crocodile Tears

Democrats and the DFL have been trying to kill off charter schools ever since the idea hatched in Minnesota in the late eighties.

This effort has taken so many forms:

Now, as part of trying to balance the budget, the GOP in the Legislature “borrowed” money “from the schools” – i.e., pushed back state payments to the schools. Which is an inconvenience to public schools – and a brutal smack to many charter schools.

It was too much for on charter – General John Vessey School in Inver Grove Heights, which closed after Christmas break.  I’m familiar with Vessey – whose model was to bring a military-style education focusing on discipline, hard work and self-respect (as opposed to self-esteem) to students, some of whom commuted from Monticello and Taylor’s Falls to attend.  The school will be sorely missed.

But the closure prompted one “Alec”, writin at the Minnesota Progressive Project, to have an attack of unjustified self-righteousness:

The obvious and inevitable result happened again as Vessey Leadership Academy Secondary School closed its doors unexpectedly over the winter break.

As a Charter that leased their facilities, Vessey has no collateral to secure a loan. A loan they needed because the state was withholding 40% of their funds.

Wow. That sounds like a great argument to allow charter school boards the same financial flexibility that district boards have to bond for buildings?  And most of the other restrictions on charters?

No worries – if “Alec” suggested that at a DFL meeting, he’d have his giblets removed and stuffed into his chest cavity.

Which is a shame – for the DFL.  Because charter schools’ biggest proponents are the thousands of traditional DFL constituents –  latino, asian and especially afro-American families – in the cities.  It’s an un-tapped opportunity for the GOP.

Anyway, “Alec”, great to see you’re suddenly a “charter school supporter”. It’d be about the first positive thing anyone on MPP has ever said about charter schools

…presuming you have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.

We’ll see,  huh?

The Imam’s Advocate: The Bad News

I know, I know.  Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing, in the long run.

The story of TIZA – the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Academy, an Islam-centered charter school that at its peak had schools in the north and south-east metro – was one that inspired passions in a lot of people.

The fact that it was a charter school at all brought in the “progressive” clans against it.

The fact that it “mixed church and state” naturally exercised the ACLU, which has had the school in court for years over the Establishment Clause lssues first reported by Katherine Kersten.  Scott Johnson at Power Line reports that the recent dump of legal papers from the case reveals…:

In one motion filed with the court, the Minnesota Department of Education disclosed a few of the items that TiZA had been hiding. Among the department’s discoveries in the litigation was the fact that TiZA had made multiple misrepresentations to the department. These misrepresentations included potential conflicts of interest between TiZA and its sectarian landlord, TiZA’s relationship and shared resources with its sectarian co-tenant, and the sectarian nature of TiZA’s curriculum. According to the department, these misrepresentations formed the basis for the department’s determination that TiZA was operating legally.

 

Of course, Kersten notes that even in carrying out the suit against TIZA, the ACLU revealed its own institutional bigotry:

Samuelson chuckled. In fact, “If this school had been Catholic, we would have sued them years ago.”

And the fact the school was aggressively Islamic in focus – although not, as far as we’ve seen, in an aggressively anti-American sense, but apparently enough so, as Kersten noted – angered conservatives.  Which, in turn, angered “progressives”, as Kersten also noted:

Rep. Mindy Greiling — then chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee — publicly called on the paper to fire me for “gross distortion of the facts.” TiZA is “a school to be emulated, not hated,” she told the Minnesota Independent.

Because if a conservative orders a pizza in the woods, and nobody is there it hear it, it’s still apparently “hate”.

Lost in the tangle between immovable institutions and unstoppable advocates, of course, are the real losers in this story; the children.   And I don’t mean that in the “progressive’s”  ”for the chilldren” caricature sense; I mean it in the sense that any human, especially a conservative, tries to protect the generation that is the future

Because whatever TIZA may have done to offend, well, everyone, it did one thing – teach kids – very well.

TIZA got the kind of results that many charter schools, and all urban public schools, should envy and try to emulate.  The student body was 80% low-income. 2/3 of them spoke English as a second language, Both of those are huge handicaps in the pbulic schools – but TIZA got math and reading test scores that clobbered most schools of all types, everywhere in the state (and nationwide).

Whatever you think about the different issues and parties involved, TIZA certainly seems to have something right.

The ACLU is following its brief in sueing the school for violating the separation clause, and Kersten was right to blow the story up years ago, and Scott Johnson did yeoman service in preventing the Strib from shoveling the story down the memory hole.

But let’s not pretend that there’s only one side to this story.  While TIZA may have skirted the Constitution, and as Scott noted may have benefited from an institutional Captain-Renault-ism on the part of the MN Department of Education, it was good at one thing – teaching low-income students, most of them not native speakers of English – how to do math and read.

In English, as well as Arabic.

If A Charter School Succeeds In The Forest, And Jon Tevlin Doesn’t Write About It…

There’s a reason so many “progressives” are so very very upset that Katherine Kersten remains at the Strib writing columns.

It’s because while the likes of Lori Sturdevant and Jon Tevlin can be counted on, after all the “hard-boiled reporter” BS subsides, to pretty much say “Yep, Mr. Emperor, in the opinion of this ol’-fashioned gum-shoe reporter who really really knows stuff, that suit looks marvelous – and when Arne Carlson ran the GOP, they’d agree”.  Kersten doesn’t.

I’m trying to imagine any of the Strib‘s bullpen of legacy columnists even noticing the story of the Harvest Preparatory School, much less writing about it:

A north Minneapolis school at Olson Memorial Hwy. and Humboldt Avenue has demographics that seem a sure predictor of our state’s most intractable education problem. The student population there is 99 percent black and 91 percent poor, and about 70 percent of the children come from single-parent families.

Such “racial isolation” is widely considered a formula for defeat — a hallmark of the cavernous “achievement gap” that separates poor, minority students from their more affluent white peers. In recent decades, Minnesota has spent billions of dollars attempting to narrow the gap but has little to show for it.

That’s why the achievements of the school I just described should be shouted from the rooftops.

You’d think.

I’m guessing the Strib and the “hard-boiled journalists” in its columnists bullpen haven’t gotten permission from MN2020 to write about schools not approved by the Minnesota Federation of Teachers.

In this year’s state math tests in grades three through eight, this school outperformed every metro-area school district, including Edina and Wayzata. Its students outperformed all state students in reading proficiency (77 percent to 75 percent), and state white students in math proficiency (82 percent to 65 percent).

The complaint I hear most about Kersten – other than the fact that she’s unclean a conservative  – is that she doesn’t have a “background as a reporter”.

But all that “background” doesn’t seem to have taught any of the Strib’s stable of reliable DFL criers to dig behind the party line when it comes to education.  Kersten does:

Black males are among our state’s lowest-performing groups of students, but at Best Academy, 100 percent of eighth-grade boys scored proficient in reading. “Best Academy has the highest proportion of African-American boys of any institution in Minnesota,” says founder and director Eric Mahmoud. “The only institution that competes with us is the prison system.”

How have Mahmoud and his team worked this magic? Mahmoud is an electrical engineer by training. “At the factory I used to run, if we had a failure rate of 0.5 percent, we’d shut down the line until we figured out the problem,” he says. “In our education system, we’re failing with 40, 50, 60 percent of our African-American children, but we keep the system that turns out the same product, year after year.”

Wait – someone has actually addressed the “achievement gap” that seems to have so vexed the Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Duluth and other school boards, the Minnesota Department of Education, the waves of superstar superintendents who ride into and back out of town on waves of money and perks, the DFL Caucus in the Legislature, and Tom Dooher and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, who seem to have been too busy filming commercials to have looked into the issue themselves?

Why, it’s almost like a journalist is actually covering the issue!

Read the whole editorial for the Harvest Prep story – which must drive the relentlessly-feminist “educational academy” nuts, since it entirely confirms Christina Hoff-Summers’ research about how one goes about reaching in particular boys that the system has forgotten.

And ask yourself why it is that in a metro with three school megadistricts that are simultaneously academic and financial sinkholes, with achievement gaps (especially in Saint Paul) that trail even the rest of the nation’s shameful record, and that graduate a shamefully low share of minority students, and that is starving for some good news on education but is fed a constant diet of puffed-up faintly-painted teachers union spin on charter schools, that Kersten’s column is the only coverage that this, and other, charter school success stories have gotten in the Twin Cities news or opinion media?

Chanting Points Memo: The Kids Are Alright (As Hostages)

Over the weekend, the MN House GOP released its new K12 Funding bill.  Tom Scheck at MPR reports:

The bill, released Saturday afternoon, makes a slight reduction in expected growth for K12 schools, but increases the amount of money in the state’s per pupil formula.

“The debate in education this year isn’t going to be about how much we spend,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington as he compared his bill to Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget plan. “The debate instead will be what we fund and what reforms we make to the system.”

And that’s going to make metro DFLers squeeeeeeaaaaal…

Garofalo finds the extra funding in the per pupil formula by cutting the state aid schools rely on for integration.

And that particular bit got the metro DFLers into high dudgeon.  “It’s pro-segregation”, in many varieties, coursed across Twitter yesterday.

It’s buncombe, of course.  Have you been in a metro-area school lately?  They’re integratedAnd as the bill’s sponsor Pat Garofalo notes, we’ve been spending money on “integration” for a long, long time – and the more we spend, the worse the black-white “achievement gap” grows.   There is some evidence that integration itself exacerbates the achievement gap – which is not an argument for segregation (since if I don’t disclaim it, some lefty will claim it for me);

It also caps state special education funding at current levels, leading many Democrats to allege that it would force local school districts to raise property taxes to meet federal requirements.

To be fair to the DFLers, that’s their answer to everything from financial meltdown to rainy days.

Alternate – and, in this case, correct – solution: push back on the definition of “special ed”.  These days, it covers the things that most of associate with “special education” – teaching kinds with serious physical, mental and emotional handicaps.  It has also grown to cover a lot of politically-correct expediencies;  “special ed” has become a part of the Gender Ghetto in public schools, the place to which teachers shunt kids who zig when they’re told to zag.

And make no mistake – school districts love special ed.  Because while teaching the seriously handicapped is an expensive (and justified) job, school districts also looove shunting kids with “insta-Shrink” diagnoses like ADHD – usually boys – into “special ed”; it jacks up the funding, while barely adjusting the amount of “Services”.  In the worst case, it is a covert funding stream for school districts – one that stigmatizes the inconvenient (usually boys).

Special Ed could use a serious reform.  If this bill starts the discussion, then it’s a big win for everyone.

The DFL’s big response to  this – to pretty much everything the GOP has come up with this session – is that it’s a “war on the city”.   They’re doing it because they’re scared; a lot of their base flaked away in 2010, and there are signs it’s not stopping.

Regardless, Democrats say the bill unfairly targets inner-city schools and schools treating the state’s hardest to teach students.

“If you’re a needy student, you’re a loser in this bill,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

It’s untrue, of course; if you’re a needy, inner-city student, you’ve gotten the short end of the stick for a generation.  That’s why you, the inner city parent, have been fleeing the public schools – for parochial, charter, and suburban schools – by the thousands.

Mindy Greiling will do anything to avoid that conversation.  Because, inevitably, it will lead to Pat Garofalo’s next line of discussion:

The bill would also create a pilot program for low income students in poor performing schools to enroll in private schools at state expense. Greiling says the so-called voucher system would allow the state’s private schools to pick and choose which students to accept leaving the public schools to teach the state’s most challenging students. She says the bill is too aggressive.

“It’s not just rearranging the deck chairs,” Greiling said. “The whole hulk of the ship is tipped over and shaken out and spewed out in a different way. We have a whole new ship and that new ship is taking from school districts that have the greatest needs and spreading it around to other districts, small schools and charter schools.”

Republicans argue the voucher proposal is a pilot program for schools in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth and is aimed at helping close the state’s achievement gap. The bill would also dedicate more money for charter schools and smaller rural schools.

And the DFL is petrified with fear over this; they know that, given an alternative, the parents that care about their kids will take advantage of any lifeboat they can find.

And yes, it will leave inner-city schools with the biggest challenges – the kids whose parents just aren’t paying attention.

The bill – read it’s right here – will help students who need the help.

But it’ll reduce the subsidy the DFL has always given to failing schools, and the union that  made ‘em that way.

And that’s gotta scare the crap out of the DFL

“Go Back To The Plantation, Your Betters Have Spoken”

My decision over the past holiday season to put off doing my “logic for leftybloggers” series – explaining some of the basic points of a logical argument, since a so very, very infinitesimally tiny share of them can actually manage one – is looking more and more shortsighted every day.

I may have to exhume the entire series from the trash can.

Today’s example:  Rob Levine, one of Kackel Dackel’s minions over at Cucking Stool.  Last week he wrote to regurgitate some of EdMinn’s carefully-selected chanting points over charter schools.  I responded.

That was probably my first mistake.

Over the weekend, he “responded“.  To the extent that name-calling and nothing more is a “response”, anyway.

I’ve been writing about charter schools for years. I’ve made a habit of field-dressing the various chanting points the anti-charter lobby – EdMinn and their various sock-puppet suipport groups, MN2020, the DFL and its’ pet alt-media – places out there.  I’ve seen it all.  And I’ve gotten all the usual responses; charter schools are for the 2010s what the Second Amendment was to the 1990s; the focus of a lot of disinformation, half-informed debate, politically-manipulated emotion, and just plain not-too-bright name-calling.

The mantra of education deformers…

“Deformers”.  Cute.

OK, he’s a leftyblogger; you have to handicap him a little name-calling, anyway.  If you read his piece (enh), you’ll see he’s not bashful about using it.

Well, that and the last refuge of weak debater, the “first person omnisicient”, “Karnak the Magnificent” school of reporting:

…is to find “what works” and replicate it. They are fixated on numbers and statistics about “education gaps,” “value-added measures,” test scores, and closing “low performing” schools.

Rob Levine thinks we – a good chunk of the 13% of Saint Paul parents who’ve left the system, and of the 25% in Minneapolis, the hundreds of thousands nationwide, and especially the thousands of Afro-American, H’mong and Latino families, the steep majority of charter parents in Saint Paul and Minneapolis – are “fixated” on Department of Ed statistics.

It’s pretty much crut, of course.  We – the Twin Cities’ overwhelmingly minority, disproportionally poor, but lopsidedly motivated parents who are the charter schools’ most devoted advocates – are there because our kids were getting an inadequate education in the public schools and we wanted better.  We exercised the thing that EdMinn and the rest of the status quorriors fear the most; our free, enlightened choice.

Now, why do you think we not only leave the public system, but stay in the charter system, devoting time, money, effort and our kids’ precious futures?

According to Levine, it’s apparently because we’re idiots.

We’ll come back to that, too.  First, let’s see if his debate technique improved since the last paragraph:

But what to do when the numbers don’t go their way? Honest advocates might admit their rhetorical opponents have a point and go from there. Mitch Berg has a different idea: distract with sophistry and denial and hope nobody notices that he’s made a fool of himself.

Levine, our “honest advocate”, apparently hasn’t gotten the memo; the “MITCH BERG HAS TEH SCR3AMING MELTDOWN OVER MY L33T CHARTER SCHOOL POST!” is so 2007, even among the smart leftybloggers.

Believing that endless repetition is the source of wisdom, he re-re-regurgitates his first post, again:

Case in point: Almost a year ago I cataloged the lengthening list of charter schools that have crashed and burned in Minnesota. I didn’t have to do much research for the post – the Minnesota DOE has a publicly available spreadsheet of all the charter schools that have been closed in the state with a brief reason for their closures.

My post also added as an addendum a Strib story about the the “state’s lowest-performing 32 schools.”

Levine certainly didn’t “have to” “do” much “research”; the anti-charter lobby circulates the numbers regularly.

You want “honest advocacy?”  Watch, Rob Levine, and see how it’s done.  Here’s a good place to start, since at last last he moves on to some numbers – sort of:

At the time I wrote:

Of those, 11 are charters. That means 11 of 154 charter schools are failing, a failure rate of seven percent. Twenty one of the failing 32 are regular public schools; there are 2,485 regular public schools in the state, giving a failure rate of less than one percent. So by the Minnesota DOE’s own numbers, charter schools in Minnesota are failing at a rate seven times greater than regular public schools.

And there’s one of the greatest misrepresentations there is about charter schools.

As I pointed out almost two years ago, comparing system-wide academic failure rates is like comparing apples and axles; Public schools can shunt kids that drag their curves off into the “Alternative Learning Center” (ALC) system.  (I pointed this out in my first response to Levine, who apparently thinks that repeating the same flawed “data” with a dollop of unearned condescension makes the data better).   At the same time, charters’ academic numbers are affected by the fact that charters are where parents go when the public schools have failed their kids – when years in the factory school system have sapped their interest in the whole “school” thing.  Charters – especially in the city, and on the Indian reservation charters outstate – are cleaining up all kinds of messes. My family (my daughter and of course my son) is only one story among many.

So by the Pawlenty-run Minnesota DOE’s own standards, fully seven percent of the state’s charter schools were among the worst 32 performing schools in the state; only one percent of regular public schools were cited in the 32. It’s really not hard to do the math. Mitch Berg knows that these statistics drive a stake into the heart of arguments for more charter schools, which is why he must try to find a way around them. But there is none.

“Mitch Berg knows…?”  Again with the “Omniscient First Person”.

Here’s what Mitch Berg really knows; if you compare all charter schools to all public schools, charter schools will come in below.

I also know that here in the city, it’s because a huge percentage of charter school parents are from populations that the regular public school system has a hard time serving adequately; the poor, the ESL student, the minority, the Native American, the immigrant – populations that suffer huge achievement gaps, even with nasty high dropout rates (which take those kids off the public schools’ books).  The public system rips its hair out trying to fix the achievement gap among black students.  H’mong boys are also difficult.  And so the public school fails at educating them.  And Latinos.  And ESL students.  And special ed.   And kids who just plain don’t learn well under the tradictional “sit your butt in the chair and learn what the curriculum planner tells you to learn, when she tells you to learn it” model of education.

Here’s what else I know – something Rob Levine is too disingenuous, or incurious, to find out for himself.  I know most of the specific schools in the Strib article Levine cites.  And I can Google:

  • East High School – No school by that name is listed in the directory of state charter schools.  If it’s East Range Technical, in Eveleth, it’s a school that deals largely with high school kids that have had trouble in traditional schools.   Do you suppose Rob Levine knows this?
  • Four Directions Charter School – a Minneapolis charter that serves the city’s Native American community.  Have you seen Minneapolis’ achievement gap for Native Americans?  The dropout rate?  I’m guessing Rob  Levine doesn’t.
  • High School for Recording Arts, a St. Paul charter that tries to reach inner-city youth through music education.
  • Hmong College Prep Academy High School, one of many schools serving the H’mong community; the public schools have an especially hard time with H’mong boys.
  • New Spirit Primary School is a Frogtown primary school – just up the street from Maxfield elementary, where my daughter went to first grade (with an excellent teacher), and which is also on the “failing” list.
  • New Visions Charter School, in Northeast Minneapolis, serves disabled kids.
  • Riverway Secondary, a Winona school with a 70 percent poverty rate.
  • Rochester Off-Campus Charter High – it’s an alternative charter for kids who’ve had one academic or personal crisis or another; among its listed “resources” is a crisis nursery.
  • Transitions Senior High, located in Minneapolis’ down-market Phillips neighborhood, serves an extremely poor clientele.
  • Unity Campus is a North Minneapolis charter that serves a very low-income clientele.
  • Urban Academy Charter School is a Saint Paul charter that serves kids who’ve cratered in the public system.

So there you have it; the 11 charter schools on the state’s list are ones that serve students, and neighborhoods, and populations that the regular system fails at, too.  Look at the Strib article Levine referenced; practically every failing charter has a public-school neighbor, serving a similar population, that is also failing!

Of course, “look at the failing charters” is a cheap out for those who just know what they think even though they don’t bother to look at the issue all that hard.  Two years ago, I compared apples to apples, comparing charters with their neighboring public schools, weighted for low-income, Engish as a Second Language (ESL) and special ed.  In most  cases charters do just as well and, in many, cases, better (the embattled Tariq Ibn Ziyad Muslim charter, whose students are mostly poor and ESL, has among the best test scores in the state).   And the really good charters – like the dozen or so in the “Friends of Education” chain, serving both well-off and desperately poor clienteles – routinely clobber their public neighbors.

I got that through “research” – or, as Rob Levine calls it, “sophistry”, I guess.

Look – the point isn’t to get into endless whizzing matches with lesser bloggers like Levine.  He may be a perfectly fine human being.  I’m not sure if he has kids in school; he doesn’t write like someone who does, but I’ve been wrong before.

The point is, we parents who chose charter schools did it for a reason.  Rob Levine would have you believe that reason is “stupidity”.  Feel free to make that case to a room full of charter parents, if you’d like; you’ll more likely find that they are more involved than your typical roomful of public school parents.

Do some charters fail?  Of course; some of them spectacularly, and for nefarious reasons.  For some, that’s a law-enforcement matter.  As it should be.  Have some been complete frauds?  Sure – you put government money out there, and not everyone who shows up for a share is going to be honest.  They’re not the perfect solution;

Just the best one many of us can afford.

Do some charters struggle academically?  Of course.  And in some cases, it’s because the schools aren’t that good.  Just like some public schools are terrible; let me tell you about Saint Paul Central High School for a while (or, for that matter, Gordon Parks High – here, here, here or here, if you want to see your public school dollars at work).  Levine’s main point, to the extent that he makes one, is simply regurgitating the banal obvious, and then mocking people who don’t pat him on the head and say “thanks, Rob, that was a very special list of stuff everyone knows!  Have a cookie!”.

But if the  Minnesota Department of Education, and for that matter anyone on either side of the charter school question, want to get to some meaningful information, here’s what they should try; instead of measuring schools, they should measure individual students, comparing their public and charter school performances over a significant period of time.  Because given that charter schools take a large percentage of kids with whom the traditional public schools have failed, singly and as groups, and that charters don’t have the rug of the “Alternative Learning Centers” to sweep the kids they can’t reach under, it’s a given that charters, considered broadly, are going to suffer in aggregate numbers.  But aggregating individual students’ improvement (or deterioration, I suppose) over time would give you an actual accurate picture of what charters, or at least the majority that are good, are doing.  It’d help you find out why parents drive their kids from Prior Lake to attend Avalon, on University Avenue in Saint Paul, or from Forest Lake to go to General Vessey in Inver Grove Heights, or from White Bear to go to Nova Academy in Highland Park.

That would take effort, of course. Name-calling is much easier – and won’t get people razzing you at “Drinking Liberally“.  Some people would prefer to stick with the name-calling, the context-mangling, the regurgitation of statistics that can not possibly tell the real story.

Which of these is Rob Levine?

Hope springs eternal.

I’m more likely to get that third date with Scarlett Johannson, but that’s the nature of hope.

More Of The Same

Nearly one Minneapolis public school family out of four has decettamped from the Minneapolis Public Schools, to either the suburbs (either relocating or merely sending kids to school there, under the state’s open enrollment law),  private or parochial schools, or in many cases charter schools.  In Saint Paul, it’s closer to one out of eight; either way, that’s a lot of parents who’ve decided that the public school system just doesn’t do the job for them.

I was one of them.  I pulled my kids out of the public system five years ago.  With one of my children, the big public high school just didn’t pack the gear.  With the other, it was more like child abuse.

The big statistic is this; in the inner city, charter school students in the inner city are very predominantly minority, poor, and speak English as a second language.  Their parents – like me, only black and H’mong and Latino, and with serious complaints about the achievement gap – are among the most passionate advocated for charter schools you can possibly find.

And they – we – having been voting with our feet.  And the Teachers Unions hate it when families get uppity.

The Teachers Union and the DFL (pardon the redundancy) appear to be starting one of their periodic orgies of attacking charter schools, and is apparently yelling “Jump”; Kackel Dackel at Cucking Stool, a dutiful leftyblogger, yells “off what?”:

“Charter schools are designed to boost student achievement” says the advertisement. That put me in mind of a post that Rob wrote last spring:

Charter schools crash and burn in Minnesota

(The link is to a Rob Levine piece that notes that, yes, some charter schools have closed ignominiously.  Some schools’ sponsors or administraitons got in over their heads.  Some did their best, but the rules are just plain tighter for charters.  And yes, when you put government money out there, some shylocks will find ways to take it; inner-city DFL political correctness certainly played a role; that is a story worth an entire article on its own.

According to Rob’s post (and statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education in it), charters fail at a rate seven times greater than public schools in Minnesota.

Which, if you think about it, is a really pointless statistic.  Charter schools can fail – and sometimes they do.  They have no safety net.  If they are badly-managed, they can close – as Bill Cooper’s “Friends of Education” did with one of their schools that didn’t pack the gear – or can be shut down by the Department of Education.  What happens when a district school, or an entire district is badly-managed?  They ram through a tax levy (and if the DFL gets its way, they won’t even have to ram it past voters) and fix things.  If the failure is academic, they waddle through the interminable “No Child Left Behind” system, with years on probation and, eventually, a “closing” that resembles a shell game more than a sheriff’s sale.  Public school districts can even declare bankruptcy, and reorganize (at exquisite taxpayer expense); if a charter school goes bankrupt, it’s done.

How about academic failure?  Public high schools are insulated from failure by the “Area Learning Center” system; kids who are dragging down the curve and who don’t drop out are shunted off the books to “ALCs”, where their grades don’t count against the school’s, and district’s, averages; they’re the district’s mulligans.  Charter schools – which, contrary to some lefty propaganda, don’t get to pick and choose their students – have to work with what they’ve got.  Before the Department of Education can shut things down, the parents often largely vote with their feet, again.

It’s easy for a charter school to fail.  It’s very, very hard for a public school to fail.

So who writes this propaganda? The website listed is publiccharters.org. Although its primary purpose seems to be lobbying, it’s a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, with just under six million dollars in gross receipts for 2009. There is no information in the linked 990 identifying donors, and the website is likewise silent.

Worth looking into, don’t you think?

No, not really.  I mean, big whoop; non-profits set up a non-profit to publicize themselves.  (But do you know whose donors would be interesting to uncover? I digress)

But while Kackel Dackel is interesting in badgering those he disagrees with, and it’s never really all that interesting, he’s really left a big rhetorical clinker hanging out there; the implication that charters really don’t boost student achievement.  The Department of Education – and teachers-union flak groups, like “MN2020″ – periodically publish “studies” showing that charter schools lag the public schools’ achievement.

These “studies” always, invariably, without exception fail to control for demographics; every single one compares apples with axles.  They also fail to control for motivation; many families go to charter schools after the public school system has nearly extinguished their kids’ interest in learning and given up on them.  Fortunately, I did that, at least in part – in response to one of MN2020′s endless, Teachers-Union-funded hit pieces, I compared apples to apples.  And then I did it again.

More in coming weeks, as the DFL/Unions/their pet non-profits/the leftyblog chanting party ramps up the attack.

Charter Schools: The Squeeze?

One of the more noxious bits of effluvia from the last, DFL-controlled legislature was a bill tightening the restrictions to “authorize”, or sponsor, charter schools.

Because of this law, a whole lot of charter schools are on the bubble:

Two years ago, state lawmakers approved a new law that makes authorizers more accountable for the financial and academic performance of the schools they sponsor.

“I think the new law is great and it’s really going to strengthen and make more consistent the quality of authorizing,” said Cindy Moeller, the head of Student Achievement Minnesota, or SAM.

SAM is an approved charter school authorizer, and Moeller was at last week’s open house, pitching her organization as a possible charter school sponsor.

The law is a result of several waves of hysteria about charter school “financial performance” whipped up by a series of specious think-tank reports on the schools’ fiscal accountability.

I’ll digress to ask – if public school districts had to operate under the same rules and scrutiny as charters, how many do you suppose would survive?

[Minnesota Charter School Federation president Eugent] Piccolo does not expect all 64 schools currently in limbo to close — but some could. That’s why he’s lobbying state lawmakers to extend the current arrangement by a year, a move that would help schools like the St. Paul City School.

“The school’s been around for 13 years, I’d hate for it to close just because of a process,” noted Nancy Dana, superintendent of St. Paul City School. Her current sponsor, the St. Paul School District, is not reapplying.

It’s up to the state education department to approve new authorizers. David Hartman, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Education’s charter school division, said schools are right to be anxious. But he’s confident the outcome will be positive.

And that’s going to be worth watching; Mark Dayton’s Education Commissioner Brenda Casselius is, near as I can tell, no friend to charter schools.  Charter school advocates will have to watch and see if there’s any slowdown in the approvals for authorizers.

The Dayton Dustbowl: Dayton Speaks On Charter Schools; Pants Burst Into Flames

As we noted during our first look at the Dayton Dust Bowl – the budget “plan” that, if implemented, will turn Minnesota into a cold California or a blonder Greece – Dayton proposes cutting 25% from the state’s “lease aid” provided to charter schools.

The cut was one of the elements that carried over, verbatim, to Dust Bowl 2.0.

As I’ve reported in the past, this cut is going to gut charter schools – whose primary customers are inner-city families of color, immigrants and poor families who, nonetheless, want a decent education for their kids, along with not feeling patronized and talked down to by the city school districts that, by any objective measure, do a terrible job with their kids.

The Dayton campaign has been quietly spreading the word among charter school advocates that Dayton’s cuts really aren’t going to affect charter school operations all that bad, really, honest.

It’s a lie.

And over the next week, I’m going to be reporting on some of my conversations with charter school administrators and advocates to show you exactly how badly Dayton is lying, and what the consequences will be for the children and their families who quite rightly view their charters as their educational lifeboat.

Stay tuned.

Open Letter To All Inner City Parents

To: All Inner-City Parents with kids in the Minneapolis or St. Paul School Districts

From: Mitch Berg, who’s been there, pretty much.

Re: An Invitation

All,

I’m Mitch Berg.  I live in Saint Paul.  A few years back, I pulled my kids out of the St. Paul Schools, and went into the charter system.

And when I got into the charter school system, I was astounded at what I saw; in Saint Paul, the vast majority of the families were black, latino or asian.  Many were recent immigrants.   And they were among the most passionate advocates for school choice I’ve ever met.  Because they – you – are not stupid.  You can see that your school districts have among the worst “achievement gaps” in the nation between your kids and white kids.  You know that our educational-industrial complex’s boasting about the quality of our school system rings hollow along Plymouth Avenue, and down Rice Street.

Most of the parents I met, like most of you that I’m writing to now, naturally, voted DFL.  Not a few of them spat tacks at the mention of Republican politicians.

And it was fascinating, watching the cognitive dissonance when I mentioned to them that in May of 2007, when the DFL proposed a bill that would cap the number of charter schools in Minnesota, the DFL voted an almost-straight ticket in favor of capping charter schools (six of them broke with the party, only one of them from the metro). The GOP voted as a straight ticket against the cap, which was defeated by the skinniest of margins.

Let me re-emphasize that, all you parents out there: the DFL voted to cut off your kids’ lifeline, the charter schools that you all quite rightly judge to be your kids’ best shot at a quality education.

Today, the NAACP urged parents like you to pull your kids out of the Minneapolis Public Schools. But they did it for all the wrong reasons:

The Minneapolis branch of the NAACP on Wednesday urged parents to consider pulling their children out of the Minneapolis School District in response to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s recommendation to close North High School.

I understand – North is, to some people, a center and rallying point for that troubled community.

And to the administration?  Well, it’s part of their meal ticket:

The accusations were an affront to Johnson, who grew up in segregated Selma, Ala. “We have the responsibility of providing a high quality education to our students regardless of where they live,” Johnson wrote in a statement to the Star Tribune. “All of our students deserve educational opportunities that will prepare them to be global citizens. I am committed to providing them with those opportunities.”

Parents – if someone, a salesman or a boss or a teacher, spoke that kind of empty gobbledygook to your face, you’d laugh at them and walk away, wouldn’t you?

The woman said nothing!

Look – closing North High should be a cause for celebration; North High, with its atrocious achievement and yawning achievement gap and by-the-numbers mediocrity that fully lived out what George W. Bush called “the racism of low expectations”, was just a cog in a machine that devalued your children just as surely as any plantation owner ever would have 160 years ago; a symbol of an education establishment that exploits your children no less cynically than any drug kingpin. Oh, their intentions may be more benign than Simon LeGree’s and Plukey Duke’s, but when it comes to the education your children got at North – at any Minneapolis Public School, or Saint Paul for that matter, look me in the eye and tell me that the intentions made a stitch of difference?

[Minneapolis NAACP President Booker] Hodges issued a statement calling for parents “who value their children’s education or future [to] seriously consider other options for educating their children.”

And I – a cracker descended from North Woods rock farmers, myself – will stand up and yell “Amen”.  Hodges is right.

Now is the time to free your children from the Minneapolis Schools’ racism of low, or no, expectations.

Of course, the Minneapolis School Board and the Minneapolis Public Schools are only the tip of the iceberg, just as they are in Saint Paul.   The problem is that the cities’ school districts are controlled by people who owe their livelihoods and futures to the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, and the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, first and foremost.

Not to you.

Not to your children.

And they are counting on you – the African-American parents, the Latino families, the H’mong clans who votes for them by imposing margins in every election, year in and year out – to remain ignorant of the fact that for all of the DFL’s yammering about education spending, it is the GOP that supports your right to choose where your kids go to school.  It is the GOP that supports initiatives like School Choice, Charter Schools and, in many states, Vouchers to give you, the motivated, dedicated parents that I see and know from my time as a charter school parent, the power and tools – to say nothing of economic freedom – to make those choices and make them stick.

You can say “he’s just talking politics”.  And you’re right – this is about politics.  But politics control your childrens’ education just as surely as their teachers’ qualifications do.

So look at the record.  The DFL – the Democrats, the people you have been voting for since time immemorial – are actively supported by those who are harming your children.

You want hope, for your children, for real?  It’s time for change.

The Dayton Dust Bowl: “You Have School Choice; You Choose The School We Tell You To!”

Did you pull your kids out of the public school system and put ‘em in a charter program?  Like I did?

Start looking for a new school.  If Mark Dayton gets elected and pushes his “budget plan” through, you’ll need to start looking for a new program for your kids.

That’s right – Dayton plans to kill off charter schools.

Oh, he can plausibly claim he’s not “killing” them; merely cutting a piece of their funding that the Star Tribune says is “prone to abuse”.

No, seriously; item 16 in the Dayton Budget proposal says “Reform Charter School Lease Aid Program to eliminate Star Tribune documented abuses. Est. Savings $20 million (out of biennial cost of $85 million).”

Of course, we talked about the validity of the Star Tribune’s “investigation” – Part 1 and Part 2 - and let’s just say it’s thin gruel on which to base policy.

Still, it’s a tiny amount of money in the great scheme of things – but it will pay off a big chit to the Teachers Union.

I wonder if Dayton’s focus-group testing bothered to ask all the African-American, Native American, Somali and Hispanic parents  - who’ve pulled their kids out of their failed public schools to give them a shred of hope, and are charter schools’ biggest proponents – what they think about this?  Not to mention parents like me…

Oh yeah – cuts in lease aid will affect the charters serving poor kids, with not-that-well-to-do parents, the most.  Charters in Stillwater and Eden Prairie with backers with more financial clout will figure out a way – bake sales or construction bonds or something.  But all you Afro-American parents who pulled your kids out of Central High to go to Skills for Tomorrow?

Get back in line and speak only when spoken to!

And I do most sincerely hope the Emmer Campaign is going to do a get-together with charter parents in the inner city before the election.  Have you looked at the percent of students at inner-city charters that are kids of color who are fleeing our wretched failure of a city public school system?

Without lease aid, charter schools will not be able to generate the revenue they need to survive.

Coming up at 1PM:  The Law is what Mark Dayton says it is!

Check out the Dayton Budget “Plan” for yourself!  Find another howler?  Leave it in the comments!

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers – their “local” of the teachers’ union – having spent a couple of decades fighting charter schools, is now setting up its own

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is trying to become the first teachers union in the country to authorize charter schools.

The union hopes it can help create a network of “guild schools” run by unionized teachers and focused on professional development and effective teaching practices.

As we noted in my charter school series last summer, charter schools operate under some tight financial constraints – the kind of thing that would kill most public schools.  One of the ways they make it is by hiring non-union teachers.

So it’ll be interesting to see if  a “guild school”, with its higher costs and big union pension, can even survive – or if the union extracts some sort of concession from boards and the legislature.

Almost more interesting than the new charter market is the implied strife within the cozy public school racket between administrators and teachers:

“The education system has become very heavy and weighed down, and it sits on the backs of teachers,” said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis union. The guild schools will “maybe have enough flexibility [for teachers] to do what they know is the right thing to be doing for kids right now.”

On Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers announced that it is giving the Minneapolis union a one-year, $150,000 “Innovation Fund” grant to help it pursue its goal…As an authorizer, the Minneapolis union couldn’t require schools to be unionized, but Nordgren said, “We’re hoping the teachers will be unionized, because we think a union of professionals makes a stronger school and a stronger profession.”

And from the Union brass?

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, acknowledges that unions are sometimes skeptical of charters, which in Minnesota have a mixed track record.

“We’re skeptical of poorly run schools, whether they’re charters or not,” Dooher said. “But the idea of having teachers in charge of the schools and running the policy is something that we think should be happening anyway. If [the Minneapolis union] believes they have the capacity to authorize and run one, more power to them. I think it will be good for kids in Minneapolis.”

“Oceania has never been at war with Eurasia, Winston”.

I’ll be following this…

Nuclear On The Concept

Andrew Coulson at Cato writes about his appearance on John Stossel’s special on problems with public education:

Tomorrow night at 8:00pm, Fox Business News will air a John Stossel special on the failures of state-run schooling and the merits of parental choice and competition in education. I make an appearance, as do Jeanne Allen and James Tooley.

Now, here’s the part that grabbed my attention:

News of the show is already making the rounds, and over at DemocraticUnderground.com, one poster is very upset about it, writing:

When will these TRAITORS stop trying to ruin this country?

HOW can AMERICANS be AGAINST public education?

Stossel is throwing out every right-wing argument possible in his namby pamby singsong way while he “interviews” a “panel” of people (who I suspect are plants) saying things like preschool is a waste of money and why invest in an already-failing system….

I hate Stossel and I hate all of those who think the way he does.

Now, the DU poster’s rhetoric is (what a shock) a little lot over the top.  But it’s not a whole lot different from the “if you’re not with the current public education system, exactly as it is (except a lot more money) then you’re against the children!” meme from the likes of MN2020, which ends up being something like “school choice is fine, unless it questions the current teachers union, adminstrative establishment and educational academy in any way, in which case it’s the same as sending six year olds directly to a homeless shelter”.

Coulson gets this:

What this poster–and many good people on the American left–have yet to grasp is that critics of state monopoly schooling are NOT against public education. On the contrary, it is our commitment to the ideals of public education that compels us to pursue them by the most effective means possible, and to abandon the system that has proven itself, over many many generations, incapable of fulfilling them.

Or to paraphrase that great sage Linda Richman; “What if public education doesn’t educate the public?  Discuss amongst yourselves”.

I’m getting farklemt.

Friends Of Knowing Stuff

Nick Coleman, longtime disparager of blogs and “buh-LAW-gers”, is leaving comments on blogs.

Of course, it’s not like he’s venturing into dangerous territory; it’s only David Brauer’s  Braublog at MinnPost – an excellent blog, of course, even if overtly left-leaning and also a cruel joke on any German speakers who click in thinking they’re going to find a blog about beer.  It’s a safe place for Coleman, sorta – Brauer seems to be among the mass of news people who, for whatever reason, think Coleman is a fantastic, truth-to-power-speaking, afflicted-comforting-and-comfortable-afflicting gumshoe reporter with a (former) column.

Anyway – Nick’s working for a think tank these days.   I’m not sure what the job is, but as we noted a few months back, it seems to involve doing surface rewrites on MN2020 talking points.

As I noted in the most recent episode of my examination of Tony Kennedy’s Strib piece on charter school bonding, David Brauer’s been doing a decent, seemingly fairly dispassionate job of fact-checking the Strib’s assertions.

Coleman got involved in a comment thread at Braublog, opening with this bit here (emphasis added):

To avoid mention of [Twin Cities Federal Bank]‘s top honcho Bill Cooper — who is a former chair of the MN GOP Party and still a player in conservative string-pulling strategies — in any discussion of charter school problems is difficult to do. But perhaps the better part of valor. Cooper’s “Friends of Education” sponsors 17 charter schools in Minnesota, including St Croix Prep. Seventeen!!??

Yep – seventeen.  Check them yourself.  They actually had eighteen, but they shut one of them down due to financial management issues.  If only public disticts and governments had that kind of integrity.

Cooper has become a walking argument for the case for a cap on the number of charter schools.

Coleman has a longstanding beef with Cooper – the whole story’s right here, here and here for those who care – tracing back to an incident in 2004 where the Strib got its knuckles rapped for defaming my friend and former NARN colleague, Power Line blogger Scott Johnson.  More on that later.

But I’m less interested in resurrecting blog history (even if it was a staggering blogging victory over the sclerotic mainstream media) than in poking at Coleman’s claim that Cooper’s schools are a “walking argument for the case for a cap on the number of charter schools”.

But charter schools are an areas where I, ahem, “know stuff”.

We’re going to take a head-to-head look at the competition between every Friends of Education school for which “No Child Left Behind” statistics exist (two of the school are too new to have them yet) and the public district in which they are located.

In the tables below, the columns mean the following:

  • Took Math/Reading Test: Number of students in school or district that took the associated test.
  • Math/Reading % Prof: Percent of students with “proficient” results.
  • Low Income/Special Ed/ESL/Mobile:  The percent of students taking (respectively) the Math and Reading tests that were low-income, were receiving Special Education services, were English as a Second Language students, or had moved in the previous year.

Before we start, one observation:  In my three years’ experience in charter schools, I’ve noticed a few categories of students and parents who actually go to charters:

  1. Lifeboat Seekers“: Parents who are disgusted by their public school’s performance as a group.  These are the masses of Afro-American, Indian, Latino and immigrant parents who’ve observed the public schools’ dismal graduation rates, reprehensible achievement gaps and the contempt they feel for parents, and decided to move elsewhere.  They populate many of the inner-city charter schools, including the Friends of Education schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
  2. “Motivated Shoppers”: Parents who are motivated  by what they see as the low standards and factory mentality of huge public schools, and are looking for a better educational experience for their kids – smaller institutions, more-challenging or more-responsive curricula, more-motivated teachers and staff and any number of other factors.
  3. “Damage Fixers”: Parents whose kids individually floundered in the public system for whatever reason, from difference in learning styles to frustration with bureaucracy to simply desperately seeking a school experience that works for their kids.  As I’ve noted, I’m one of those.

So let’s compare Friends of Education schools with district schools, one by one.

Our first stop is Columbia Heights, with the Academy of BioScience:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold)

Took math test Math
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Low Income Special Ed ESL Mobile  
Academy of BioScience – Columbia Heights 40 45 52 59 53 | 53 14 | 14 10 | 10 8 | 8

Col. Hts. District

559 50 754 54 66 | 71 18 | 16 11 | 25 10 | 9  

This is an odd example; while the Academy of BioScience’s results are mixed compared to the district (better at reading, a little lower at math), it’s interesting to note that the Columbia Heights district’s numbers are so bad even for a first-tier suburb. Many of the school’s families are “lifeboat seekers”, looking for a better experience for their kids.

BioScience is a fairly new school; it’ll be interesting to see what the next few years bring.

Now, Plymouth – where Beacon Academy and the Beacon Prep school square off against the long-troubled District 281, a very large district covering Robbinsdale, New Hope and Plymouth

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Beacon Academy – Plymouth 174 71 189 77 19 | 19 15 | 15 - | - 4 | 4
Beacon Preparatory School – Plymouth 24 77 26 84 26 | 26 13 | 13 - | - 10 | 10
District 281 3299 59 4123 66 39 | 44 13 | 13 3 | 12 5 | 5

The Beacon schools get fantastic results – considerably higher than the local district.  The low-income numbers are lower than the district as a whole, but not dramatically so.  The Beacon schools attract the “Motivated Shoppers”; middle-class families of all ethnicities who are looking for a better school experience than the big-box warehouse schools give them; the numbers show they succeed.

Next, Anoka, where Cygnus Academy goes up against the state’s third-largest district, Anoka/Hennepin:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Cygnus Academy – Anoka 46 40 68 58 23 | 23 16 | 16 - | - 10 | 10
Anoka-Hennepin 13095 68 15402 75 25 | 29 10 | 10 1 | 7 3 | 3

Cygnus’ numbers are significantly lower than that of its district.  But look at the Special Ed and “Mobile” numbers; Cygnus is a middle school that attracts kids who have trouble in the public system, the kids that the public system has trouble reaching.  The kids who’d be shunted into an “Alternative Learning Center” in the big districts, mostly to get them off the books – and then forgotten about.  It’s a small school, that catches difficult kids at a very difficult time in their lives; comparisons are difficult.

But Cygnus also points out why so many parents across demographic lines are as fanatical about school choice as they are.  One statistic that is not available anywhere is “how do charter school kids individually do over time?”  It’d be interesting to follow Cygnus’ kids’ individual arcs.  If only we had a media that could tackle a job like that…

Next, Eden Prairie.  Eagle Ridge Academy – a pseudo-Catholic school that, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note is a former advertiser on my radio station, AM1280 -  caters to the “Motivated Shoppers”:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Low Income Special Ed ESL Mobile
Eagle Ridge Academy – Eden Prairie 112 73 145 89 9 | 10 8 | 7 - | - 5 | 5
Eden Prairie 3794 76 4212 83 13 | 13 10 | 10 3 | 3 2 | 2

Eagle Ridge’s scores are about even with Eden Prairie – ostensibly one of the best districts in the state.  It also includes quite a few students who’ve had trouble in other districts (this I know from personal conversations with Eagle Ridge parents).  Of course, not everyone at Eagle Ridge is actually from Eden Prairie; it’s the destination for many “motivated shopper” families from many other districts – which is true for many, many charters.     I have no stats on Eagle Ridge’s “footprint”; my kids’ Saint Paul charters (none of them affiliated with “Friends of Education”) draw students from Forest Lake, Prior Lake and Hastings; Eagle Ridge, with its excellent academic reputation, is likely at least as widely popular.

Now, into the city of Minneapolis – where three Friends of Education charters face off against the state’s largest district.

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Long Tieng Academy – Minneapolis 1 10 2 8 80 | 83 - | - 20 | 29 30 | 38
Minneapolis Academy – Minneapolis 33 46 68 54 76 | 87 14 | 9 - | 44 8 | 15
New Millennium Academy – Minneapolis 63 53 63 32 84 | 84 3 | 7 64 | 77 2 | 6
Minneapolis Public Schools
8168 48 7956 51 54 | 61 15 | 14 6 | 23 10 | 9

The other charters have numbers that are broadly similar to the district at large (Long Tieng, a brand-new H’mong-centered school, had only one student of age to be tested this past year, so it’s a bit of an outlier).

But check out the poverty and ESL numbers – they’re sharply higher than in the public distsrict.  These are lifeboat schools;  reading between the lines of New Millenium and Long Tieng’s mission statement, they deal with a lot of H’Mong kids who’ve slipped between the public system’s cracks which, for minority kids, are often yawning chasms; it’s replete with education-speak references to kids in gangs; these are the schools that parents go to because the public system has failed them completely.  Minneapolis Academy is a “back to basics” institution drawing motivated parents who want a better, higher-content learning experience than the Minneapolis public schools offer, one less likely to shunt their kids down through the cracks that swallow so many “urban youth”.

Next, Saint Paul.  Saint Paul is already crowded with charter schools, many of them focusing quite capably on “lifeboat seeker” and “damage fixer” families; there are large, excellent charters serving H’Mong, African-American and Latino families.

Friends of Education’s two charters in Saint Paul cater to the motivated shoppers, and the numbers show it:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Nova Classical Academy – St. Paul 235 86 254 93 11 | 11 7 | 7 - | - 2 | 2
Yinghua Academy – St. Paul 50 83 52 85 18 | 20 8 | 10 - | - 3 | 3
Saint Paul Public Schools 8179 46 9533 52 71 | 73 15 | 15 37 | 39 7 | 7

The performance numbers at Nova – a traditional/”classics” school – and Yinghua, a Chinese-language-immersion charter school – are spectacular.  Now, I can see a pro-public school demigogue jumping on the fairly low low-income and special ed numbers as a sign of discrimination – it’s a meme among charter school detractors that charters can pick and choose their students, which happens to be untrue.  Many Saint Paul charter schools, and schools in the immediate area, like Tariq Ibn-Ziyad and General Vessey, two very different non-FoE schools in the south ‘burbs that have very different models but cater to many inner-city parents, cater to the “lifeboat” and “damage repair” families (I can recommend some excellent ones from personal experience).  And the huge low-income numbers in the Saint Paul schools are at least partly a result of all the parents that have either pulled their kids out of the district (to charter, parochial, private and suburban schools), or moved their families out completely.  Saint Paul’s district is intensely dysfunctional.

It’s also a fact that Nova and Yinghua offer programs that are a bit outside the mainstream; Nova‘s program is rigorously classical, focusing on grammar, logic and rhetoric; Yinghua is a chinese-immersion program.  They cater almost by definition to the “discerning shopper”.

And what’s wrong with that?  We have a problem with choosing academic success?

Next, Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Low Income Special Ed ESL Mobile
Paideia Academy – Apple Valley 150 65 177 77 15 | 15 17 | 17 - | - 6 | 6
Rosemount/AV/Eagan Public Schools
9919 72 11412 80 16 | 18 14 | 14 1 | 4 4 | 3

The big public district is one of the better ones in the metro; Paideia Academy’s test scores don’t differ significantly.

Friends of Education has a school in Saint Cloud:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Took reading
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Low Income Special Ed ESL Mobile
STRIDE Academy – Saint Cloud 97 72 97 72 51 | 51 14 | 14 - | - 5 | 5
St. Cloud Public Schools 2448 60 2848 64 39 | 45 19 | 18 2 | 11 5 | 5

STRIDE Academy is as stark an example as I can find of the effect of a small, motivated educational community on a charter school; while STRIDE’s low-income numbers are sharply higher than the St. Cloud public district, the achievement numbers are sharply better.

Next, Bloomington:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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Took reading
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Low Income Special Ed ESL Mobile
Seven Hills Classical Academy – Bloomington 106 78 110 81 15 | 15 20 | 20 - | - 1 | 1
Bloomington Public Schools 3495 66 4071 77 33 | 35 12 | 12 8 | 9 4 | 4

Seven Hills beats Bloomington.  Now, the now-income numbers are lower; a “classics” education (see Nova, above) is a hard sell for a lot of mainstream parents.  But the next time you see some charter-school opponent saying “charter schools can pick and choose their kids”, ask them for proof.  Watch them squirm.

More or less the same holds true in Stillwater:

Charter school (regular) or Public District (bold) Took math test Math
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St. Croix Preparatory Academy – Stillwater 348 79 375 88 - | - 8 | 8 - | - 6 | 6
Stillwater Public Schools 3070 72 3641 84 12 | 12 9 | 9 0 | 1 2 | 2

Again – St. Croix prevails over one of the state’s higher-scoring, best-regarded public districts.

“But there’s no comparing the numbers!”, the charter opponents will holler.  That’s true; that’s part of the point.  While there may or may not be a link between class size and achievement, there almost certainly is with school size.  A school where the principal knows all the students is going to be a lot harder to get lost in that one where the principle hides from the student body behind armored doors, and the superintendent has a driver to whisk her between meetings.

Coleman takes a whack at Cooper, whose mission at Friends of Education is to foster experimentation:

He isn’t “experimenting.” He’s building a rival education system, at taxpayer expense, that is draining resources from traditional public school districts…

Yes, it’s a rival system.  And by any rational measure, the rival does a better job, certainly with a population with whom the public system is failing.

And it’s “draining resources”, to an extent – but it’s also draining students.  And it’s draining students much faster than resources; charter students get about $10,000 a year, and no local public bonding.  Now – divide the budget at the Saint Paul Public Schools by the number of students:  a $500,000,000 budget divided by 38,000 comes to about $13,000 per student.  The public districts hypothetically profit $3,000 for every student they lose to a chater…

…and pushing a conservative “values” agenda that closely mimics his own conservative Catholic beliefs.

And it works.

Need we say more?

Avoiding mention of him is like avoiding the 800-pound gorilla at the tea party. You don’t want to piss him off. I know: Cooper canceled a TCF advertising contract at the STRIB a few years back when he was displeased by a column I wrote…

Right.  Nick Coleman’s a victim, doncha know.

But I don’t want to get back into that; I’ve had my fun with Coleman, and frankly charter schools are more important to my family and I than any of Coleman’s agenda-driven prattle.

But when Coleman, and the “think” tanks he parrots, say “Bill Cooper is a case study in the need to cap the number of charter schools”, you are now equipped to respond “no – he’s a case study in the need to abolish the public system and go all-charter”.

Unintended Consequences, Predictable Reactions, Part II

 As I was digging in for a long bout of reporting to dig into some of the numbers behind Tony Kennedy’s piece in the Strib last week, I noticed that David Brauer at the MinnPost had already done the job.  Read the whole thing; it finds, as I’ve always found in digging through think tank material on charter schools, that there is a lot of carefully-jiggered context and punctiliously-selected facts.

One example:  the Strib piece trumpeted a “3600 percent increase in lease aid”.  Brauer added a helpful bit of context (and I’ll add some emphasis):

Given the front-page headline (“Junk bonds fuel a building spree …”), readers could be forgiven for assuming that charter construction was the big factor behind lease aid soaring 3600 percent in 15 years.

But the building boom had little to do with the spending boom. Here’s what did:

“Charter lease aid sees fast rise in use” because charter enrollment is rising fast. Since 2004, lease aid has been capped at $1,200 per pupil unit. (The state weights pupils based on their grade level; kindergarteners lower, high schoolers higher.)

Though a few schools are grandfathered in at a higher amount, the $1,200 cap hasn’t budged since ‘04, and you can see the impact on average per-pupil aid:

Unfortunately, when it comes to owning infrastructure, “economy of scale” becomes an issue.  It’s one of the reasons that the big public school districts have consolidated rural schools and abandoned neighborhood schools in the cities; it’s cheaper, in some ways, to run one building for 1,200 students than six buildings for 200.  As the administrative overburden on schools increases, there’s been an inexorable push to centralize more schools, build more, bigger buildings…

…which, I maintain, has been a huge problem for public education.  While the link between large classroom sizes and academic performance is arguable at best, I strongly suspect (but am unaware of any hard data at the moment) that big schools breed huge problems.  The anonymity of huge schools (like Saint Paul’s Central High, with around 2,000 students) makes it easy for a student to get lost in the shuffle, to feel disconnected and uprooted (I’m writing from the experiences of at least one of my children, here). 

One of the programs that public school supporters constantly bring up in support of public schools is the “International Baccalaureate” (IB) program.  IB programs do indeed get good results.  Part of it is that they focus their efforts on the kids who do excel at the “sit your butt in the chair, do what you’re told when you’re told to do it, and spend your evenings doing homework” model of education.  Not everyone works well in that kind of system – I’d have floundered – but the other key factor is IB programs are smaller.  At Central, the IB is a “school within a school”; all the staff know all the kids, and vice versa; it’s the rough equivalent of a smaller neighborhood school, substituting an intellectual “neighborhood” (the “elite” nature of the IB student base) for a traditional neighborhood. 

Which is one of the beauties of the charter system; when my ex-wife and I pulled our kids out of the Saint Paul schools, they ended up at charter schools with less than 200 kids each.  All the staff knew all the kids, and most of the parents; the parents largely got to know each other and many of the kids.  Most importantly, the kids felt they belonged to a larger group – something kids seek out instinctively. 

They certainly seek it out at the big factory-model schools; if the school or an athletic team or a church group doesn’t provide it, they’ll find it in the form of “the wrong crowd”; gangs, or whatever social circle is convenient; in a huge school, which is almost purpose-designed to alienate kids who don’t get with the program, there are plenty of alienated, disaffected, “dropped-through-the-cracks” kids to fall in with.

After dealing with that, a charter school was a blessed respite of sanity.

So when a school opts to try to build itself a permanent home base, through the thin loophole allowed in state law, by affiliating with a construction company, several things happen.

  1.  The school floats a bond issue.  Since the bonds are for a small organization, they are not rated by Moody 0r Standard and Poor – hence, they’re called “Junk Bonds”.
  2. Being “Junk” bonds, and because a charter school can’t pass a tax levy to make the payments, the interest rates are higher. 
  3. Since the interest rates are higher, there’s an imperative to get more revenue through the door, to buff up the cash flow. Since “lease aid” is capped at $1,200 per student per year, that means that to have enough revenue to both build the buiding and service the debt, they’ll need to get more students into the building, to get more of those $1,200 allotments.

Which drives up class sizes.

To lure the investors they need for new buildings, some educators are abandoning the intimate campuses their founders envisioned and are building large schools that look more like the conventional institutions that some families are fleeing. Some charter school advocates say the build-your-own trend could undermine an education movement built on small class size and parental involvement.

“It destroys the intent and initial purpose behind all of it,” said Paul Simone, director of the Math and Science Academy charter school in Woodbury, a National Blue Ribbon award winner under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the problem isn’t “the charter school movement”.  The problem is the laws under which charter schools have to operate.  They are public schools in every way except their individual “corporate” governance; they use public money, but are controlled by a site-elected board. 

But when it comes to real estate, they are hamstrung by the unintended consequences of a law that not only puts them at a big economic disadvantage to public schools, but to private and parochial schools as well.  Public schools, being big public entities backed by big taxing authority, can float bonds at very advantageous rates; parochial schools operate with the tax advantages, as well as demographic strengths (and weaknesses) of a faith community; private schools can charge whatever tuition the market will bear, are less restricted in terms of fundraising, and the big ones can build endowments.

So why not allow charters to piggyback onto public bond issues, to build their buildings at the vastly lower interest rates that this would allow? 

Or why not allow charter schools to lease vacated public school buildings from their local districts?  Policies on this vary from district to district; some allow it, others don’t.

Why not, indeed?

For purposes of the Strib’s “investigation”, and the non-profits like MN2020 who have charter schools in their crosshairs, it’s because the goal isn’t to make charter schools viable; it’s to kill them off.

Friday: Coincidental similarities?

Unintended Consequences, Predictable Reactions, Part I

Tony Kennedy, writing in the Strib last week, addresses the latest charter school “crisis”:

Minnesota’s charter school movement, which sparked a national rethinking of public schooling nearly two decades ago, has been infected by an out-of-control financing system fueled by junk bonds, insider fees and lax oversight.

“Out of control”.

Interesting bit of hyperbole, there.  One might almost say it’s “unjournalistic”.

The vast majority of Minnesota’s charter schools putter away, doing their workadaddy hugamommy job of teaching kids, in rented quarters around the state.

Given the cost of rental property, especially in the Metro area, many charter schools gravitate toward low-rent warehouse, industrial and “incubator” space.  The western part of the Midway – full of low-rent office and warehouse buildings – is home to many charter schools; half a dozen are clustered within a few blocks of Fairview and University.  The rental space is affordable and up to code, generally – although if you’re used to public school spaces, to say nothing of showcases like Saint Paul’s Arlington High School, it’ll feel like you’re at a school set up in the garage.

And so some charter schools look for a home of their own, if you will, for reasons not a whole lot different than renters become homeowners; to have a secure home base; to be able to plan without the wacky exigencies of leasing; to have a “home”.

So some charter schools have found a way to own their own buildings.

It took some doing, of course – because state law forbids it, at least directly:

State law prohibits charter schools from owning property, but consultants have found a legal loophole, allowing proponents to use millions of dollars in public money to build schools even though the properties remain in the hands of private nonprofit corporations.

That’s one of those “tomayto-tomahto” things.  Another way to phrase it – arguably more fair and accurate – would be “state law prohibits charter schools from owning property, but they have found a legal loophole, allowing proponents to, in effect, rent their own schools from shadow corporations they set up to build and operate the property”.

The key to making it all work is the state’s lease aid program, which was created 11 years ago to help spur competition in public education by offering rental assistance to groups promoting alternatives to district schools. In the beginning, many charters were located in dumpy strip malls and received no real-estate grants.

But the once-obscure program has snowballed into one of the fastest growing expenses in the state, with building projects receiving little of the vetting that typically accompanies other public works.

It works like this:  the charter school’s governing board starts or affiliates with a company that, on the one hand, supervises construction and, on the other hand, floats a bond issue to pay for the building. 

Now, when a public body – say, the City of Minneapolis – floats a bond issue, they go into it with a certain amount of collateral; the city owns snowplows, artistic drinking fountains, computers, police cars, City Hall and other things that can be hocked to make the payments on the bond.  More importantly, they have taxing authority, meaning that if things get tight they can jack up taxes to make sure the payments get made. 

Big corporations, likewise, have collateral to put up against bonds they might float.  Not “taxes” per se, which is why corporate bonds are a little less popular and secure – a lot less secure in the case of, say, General Motors, after the Obama administration overturned contract law to make sure the unions got paid ahead of bondholders. 

But I digress.

Now, if you’re a tiny little entity – say, a barber shop – you can float a bond issue, presuming you jump through a few legal hoops.  Of course, most people won’t invest in your bond, since you have no collateral other than a Barbasol jar and some chairs, and you can’t raise taxes.  But entities somewhere in between the barber shop and GM can float bonds.  They have less revenue and fewer assets than Fortune 500 corporations; they have more than the corner barber shop; they can’t raise taxes on anyone.  So the bonds are a little, maybe a lot, secure an investment than a municipal or big-corporate bond.  Hence bond buyers expect more interest.

Now, the problem is that since the eighties, and the Michael Milken scandal (which, in those innocent days before Enron and Bernie Madoff, was considered a big scam), these bonds have had a name; a very pejorative name.  A name that the media uses for them as a sort of shorthand – perhaps not understading what it means, or perhaps understanding it perfectly but shooting for that whiff of pejoration that they need to sell the papers (and, perhaps, fulfill the mission that the story’s sources intended fulfilled):

In the past decade, 18 charter schools have been built with $178 million in junk bonds, with financing costs on some projects chewing up nearly a quarter of the funds raised. Twelve more charter schools have taken steps to buy or build facilities, and the state projects annual spending on lease aid to reach $54 million in 2013, up from just $1.1 million in 1998.

“Junk bonds”. 

The technical definitino of “junk bond” is a bond that isn’t rated by any of the big ratings services – Moody’s or Standard and Poor.   It doesn’t mean – to someone in the bond business – that a bond is bad, or good for that matter; merely that it’s un-rated.  Of course, rated bonds are generally considered safer than unrated ones – which is why the unrated, “junk” bonds have to pay higher interest. 

In a sense, “Junk Bonds” are no different than subprime mortgages; they are a way for a group that can’t ordinarily float a bond issue to get financing; the interest is higher and the terms are worse than the more-secure bonds – municipals and the like – but that’s how the market deals with getting financing to less credit-worthy people and organizations.  The only major difference is that nobody is requiring the Federal Government to pay for “junk” bonds that default.

But to “the American street”, the term “Junk Bond” has a corrosive connotation.  Now, I’m not sure if the Strib’s Tony Kennedy knew this – but I’m going to suggest that whomever his “sources” are on this story do. 

It’s not only unwarranted, but it paints charter schools with a brush that slops plenty of paint over onto regular schools, transit districts, water and soil commissions, and municipal governmetns.  Joe from Como Park – a person with considerable in-depth professional knowledge of how local government and bonding works, and who wrote to me under an assurance of anonymity - emailed me about the article:

…look at any small-town municipal bond for a fire station or sewer plant or for that matter, any school district building bond.  Local governments routinely pay hefty fees to financial consultants to help them with the bond process, people like the Ehlers firm mentioned [in the Kennedy article].  Bond financing is a highly regulated jungle of red tape and the people who know how to navigate it are worth their hire.  Criticizing charter schools for paying the same sort of consultant fees that school districts routinely pay for the same services is sheer gall.

People who know how bonds work, know that.  Most of Kennedy’s audience are, unfortunately, not part of that particular “in” crowd.

So why the concern?  Besides the money I mean?

Well, here’s one reason:

State lawmakers are frustrated by the building boom. Since 2000, at least 64 public school buildings in the metro area closed because of declining enrollment. Charter schools are responsible for recruiting away some of those students.

Voila; it’s the competition.  Charter schools are an example of “school choice”; parents are choosing; the district systems are losing.  The establishment sees that parents are fleeing; their response is to try to put a bookhself in front of the escape hatch.

“When district schools are closing, should we allow charter schools to build new buildings?” said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who was cleared in 2001 of legislative ethics charges for voting to boost lease aid even though he personally received the funds from a charter school he helped start. “These are being built with 100 percent state moneys, but who is minding the store on using that money well?”

More importantly, and disturbingly, Abeler was one of two members of the “Override Six” cleared by voters for voting to overturn Governor Pawlenty’s Tax Bill veto.  I don’t know Rep. Abeler’s voting record as re charter schools, but I’m going to guess from his statement above that he’s doing his best to stay nice ‘n tight with the Minnesota Federation of Teachers (please correct me if I’m in error). 

“Out Of Control” and “Junk Bonds”; that’s two inflammatory, almost disinformatory terms used so far to describe the charter school building boom in this piece.  Why not go for the trifecta?

Jim Markoe, a board member of both St. Croix Prep and the building company, said the insider payments were cleared by bond lawyers involved in the deal.

“Everybody has done everything morally, ethically and legally, and I’ll stand by that until the day I die,” Markoe said.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, D-Woodbury, chair of the Minnesota Senate Subcommittee on Charter Schools, said lawmakers had no idea charter school insiders were taking such large fees on building projects.

“If they have enough lease aid to do bond deals that pay salaries or one-time bonuses to insiders, obviously they are getting more lease aid than they need,” Saltzman said.

“Insiders”.

It has such ugly connotations these days.  It was “insiders” that brought us the Savings and Loan collapse, the Enron debacle, the “backdating” scandal at local corporate giant United HealthGroup, and on, and on.

And the fees involved?  Issuing bonds is complex – as complex as a hundred mortgage closings all in one deal.  Attaching assets, taxes and collateral to what amounts to an otherwise-unsecured IOU – which is basically what a bond is, whether it’s issued by the United States Treasury or Kickapoo Creative Arts Charter and Construction – takes some fairly critical, and rare, expertise, both financial and legal.   Like getting a smooth house closing, or sueing a corporation, it’s not something that can be left to chance, or amateurs; professionals cost money.

On Wednesday, we’ll finish going through Mr. Kennedy’s piece.

And on Friday, we’ll take the concept of  “insider” a step further, and try to discuss Mr. Kennedy’s sources for this story, and their motivations.

Unintended Consequences, Predictable Reactions

One of the basic rules one must always follow when dealing with government is this: anything government does, for whatever reason, will have unintended consequences.  These consequences will pretty much always be as bad as or worse than whatever problem the original action was supposed to rectify.

When Minnesota legalized “charter schools” – publicly-funded schools run by site-elected boards rather than the city/district board, under a “charter” from the district – they barred charter schools from using district money directly to buy school buildings.  The stated reason was to keep charters out of the real estate business. 

The consequence was that charter schools had to rent space.  And in a busy real estate market (like the Twin Cities were) or in a small town (especially like the many Indian reservation charter schools), it can be hard to find a space that’s suitable, or even up to code, to use as a school space for 50-300 or more kids. The state provides, as part of each charter student’s funding allotment, a certain amount ($1,200/year) of “lease assistance” – which is in fact part of the roughly $10-11,000 per student that charters receive in the Metro.

Regular “district” public schools get a huge advantage in this area; they can use public bonding and tax levies to build their buildings.   While both involve the inconvenience of having to convince voters and/or governmental bodies to float the bonds, once that’s done the schools have it fairly easy; having a big school district or city behind your bonds makes bonding a relatively inexpensive proposition – or at least gives the district plenty of size and time to hide and amortize the costs.

But charter schools aren’t allowed to use public funds to buy buildings.  Being relatively tiny entities, they aren’t usually big enough to float any kind of meaningful bond issue themselves.  But there’s a loophole; a charter school can found or affiliate with a separate construction company, which can float bonds and build a building for the school.  Many schools are doing exactly this, including at least one Saint Paul charter.

But since the schools and their affiliated companies are small, their bonds aren’t backed with the kind of infrastructure and collateral that support bonds for cities, counties and school districts.  A

The DFL establishment in Minnesota – and few things in Minnesota are more “establishment” than the Minnesota Federation of Teachers – hate charter schools.  Via their proxies in various “think tanks” like MN2020, they’ve been trying to cap and, eventually, kill charter schools for quite some time.  Last summer, I joined with a number of charter school advocates to flense a MN2020 “report” that grossly distorted a series of Department of Education findings about Charter school accounting practicices – but the endless drip-drip-drip continues.

 Via Speed Gibson, the Strib’ s Tony Kennedy wrote a piece earlier this week exposing issues with the practice of issuing “Junk Bonds”.  It covers the facts, more or less, while missing a much larger subtext.

And while I started out doing a garden-variety fisking, this is actually a much bigger story than that – and needs more than one impossibly-long blog post to cover. 

So I’m going to address the article – and, no doubt, the political motives behind the article – in one of my patented several-part series, starting Monday.

The Clean Slate

It should go without saying that Hurricane Katrina caused nearly unprecedented problems in New Orleans.

Of course, problems can lead, if one is lucky, to opportunities.  One problem/opportunity to befall New Orleans was the  complete destruction of the New Orleans public school system.  Although given the system’s performance before the hurricane, “destruction” was a pretty relative term:

According a New York Times report, New Orleans public schools were “among the most abysmal in the nation before the storm”. In the 2004 Louisiana General Exit Exams (GEE) for high school students, 96 per cent of New Orleans public school students scored below “basic” in English and 94 per cent scored below “basic” in maths. The public school district was corrupt and debt-ridden.

The NOLA Schools, presented with an unprecedented “clean slate”, literally had to start over.  One of the key initiatives was to allow, indeed promote, the formation of charter schools.  These schools are public schools,  funded with each attending student’s share of public money allotted to them, which are “chartered” by the local school board or the state department of education or some other governing body depending on the state’s charter school law 

 Five years later, PBS reports on the experiment; this is a transcription of a “NewsHour” piece by PBS’ John Merrow.

In March, President Obama sent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to New Orleans, which some consider the national laboratory of the charter movement. Leading the city’s charter transformation is Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas.

PAUL VALLAS, Superintendent, Recovery School District: Well, I’m a believer in schools having the freedom and autonomy to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children. And so I support charter schools, because charter schools are a vehicle for achieving that type of freedom.
 
As principal of a charter school, you are responsible for everything. I make sure instruction is in place, and its effective, and its aligned with the state standards. I make sure that the budget is balanced and that we have money for payroll.

The report touches on one of the big advantages of charter schools; notwithstanding the slanders of some of their critics; the accountability loop between student, parent, teacher, principal and board is usually within one building, and decisions happen almost immediately, as opposed to the months (and sometimes years between School Board elections) at the sclerotic public districts.  Parents are not only a simple phone call from their locally-elected board members – they are much more likely to be on the board than at any big public district, especially at a big, politicized urban district.
 
The change has been immense:

 SHARON CLARK, Principal, Sophie B. Wright Middle School: As principal of a charter school, you are responsible for everything. I make sure instruction is in place, and its effective, and its aligned with the state standards. I make sure that the budget is balanced and that we have money for payroll. I make sure that we continue to register kids and that our attendance works.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark has used her power to make some significant changes.

Where are the boys?

One of her first decisions was to separate the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades into single-sex classes.

MALE STUDENT: At this age, boys get distracted. So by us being all boys, we’re more focused on our work.

FEMALE STUDENT: When you have boys in your class, you got to be, like, trying to impress them, but if you just in school with some girls, you’re just not worrying about it.

Try to pull that off in a public school without having to tangle with a big, Union-owned, “elected” city-wide board, a dozen special interest groups (who only tangentially have the kids’ interests at heart, if at all); you’ll be wrangling with lawyers until your kids’ grandkids are in school.

But it was the right thing to do.  It got done.  And the kids are better off for it.

FEMALE STUDENT: At the beginning of the year, I was going to Marshall. And it was like the principal couldn’t control his students. There was fighting. So I told my mama I didn’t want to go there.

When I came here, I felt like it was much better. The teachers were showing you a lot of attention, make sure you understand your work.

This parallels my experience almost perfectly.

Remember the debate on “merit pay” for good teachers, to encourage great staff to do great work, and which the Teachers Unions have bottled up and delayed, in every case, since I was in high school?

Done deal!

JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark rewards her best teachers with bonuses of up to $5,000. Darlene Rivers teaches math.

DARLENE RIVERS: With my first year with the test, my fifth-grade students scored the highest in the district. Your test scores have to be in the 90th percentile, and you get a monetary award, and I have received that. Yes, I have, I received that, and it really came in handy.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark does all the hiring. And if it doesn’t work out?

SHARON CLARK: If they don’t have the mission that we have in mind as part of their mission, we are free to what I call freeing up a teacher’s future.

JOHN MERROW: She means she fires teachers who don’t measure up. Clark’s authority seems to be making a difference.

SHARON CLARK: Our school is performing in the top 10 of the city. We are actually performing higher than some of the magnet schools that have selective admissions, and we don’t.

JOHN MERROW: In fact, 9 of the 10 top performing schools in the district are charters.

Amazing what a little actual empowerment, local control, and reward for effort as opposed to mere seniority can do.

There are, of course, downsides; charter schools are excellent places for the vast majority of students.  But they are frequently very small, working with very low budgets; they don’t have access to local education levies, and they can’t float bonds for facilities (at least in Minnesota), so rent comes out of most schools’ allotments.

And that means some of the services that some parents counted on in the big, public districts are harder to come by:

 JOHN MERROW: National studies support Branche. Although there are many outstanding charter schools, reports show that overall charter success is mixed. [Although you need to make sure you're comparing apples and apples]

Branche has further reason to be wary: She says some charter schools are being unfair to disadvantaged children.

CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Parents are seeking places for their children who may have physical handicaps, mental or emotional handicapping conditions, and they’re not being accepted by charters. I get referrals from specific principals of charter schools. “Go to Banneker. Tell Miss Branche I sent you. Go to Banneker.”

JOHN MERROW: It’s what school administrators call “dumping,” transferring those with special education needs or just kids who are behaving badly to other schools.

You’re getting kids who are being pushed out of charters…

CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Correct.

JOHN MERROW: … more special-ed kids than you…

CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Correct. Yes, exactly right.

JOHN MERROW: So the charter movement is hurting you.

CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: It is hurting children.

Well, no.  A bureaucratic practice is hurting some children, children who are by definition both outliers and who are also, currently, incredibly-badly-served by traditional big public schools.  Something does need to be done to try to reach these students…

…but they are, again, by definition, exceptions to the rule.

The whole thing is worth a read, provided you remember it’s written with the skin-deep attention to fact that you get with TV reporting, even from PBS.

Chain Of Fools?

How can you tell when MN2020′s John Fizgerald is talking gibberish about charter schools?

His fingers are moving over a keyboard.

His latest piece, “What Do The Metro Gang Strike Force And Charter Schools Have In Common”, continues the pattern of casual, ofay group slander he started earlier this summer with his series on supposed financial mismanagement at charter schools. As I had a phalanx of other charter school advocates showed, Fitzgerald wrenched facts and context beyond recognition, inflated piddling accounting errors (that had largely been corrected) into capital charges, and turned specific incidents of malfeasance into a general attacks on the institution of charter schools.

Now that we have an incident that appears as if it could include genuine corruption?

Well, do you think Fitzgerald is going to let a pattern like that go away easy?

The connection between the strike force and charter schools is simple: They both have very tenuous allegiance to an elected body.

As we’ll note below, this is absurd. A charter schools is inseparable from, and utterly accountable to, its elected board.

This tenuous connection can lead to inappropriate and ill-advised actions among officials.

The connection is simple; also utterly specious.

Let’s continue.

The 34-member Metro Gang Strike Force has been implicated in misconduct and is being investigated by the FBI after a scathing report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor in May. Allegedly, Strike Force employees conducted improper seizures of property then took home seized property for personal use. Oversight for the Strike Force is conducted by the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council, which has broad responsibilities for drug task forces and gang strike forces throughout the state, and the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board which selects and supervises the strike force’s commander, reviews the strike force’s operations and approves its expenditures.The OLA report stated that “Neither the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council or the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board oversaw the financial practices of the Metro Gang Strike Force, allowing the strike force’s commander to determine how the strike force would operate. Those practices put at risk the strike force’s ability to safeguard and account for seized assets and maintain the integrity of criminal evidence.”

Neither group’s membership is elected. Members are appointed by their various city counsels and county commissions. Therefore, the strike force’s chain of command is muddied and responsibility for Strike Force actions does not go directly to elected officials.

And when you’re talking about a body that has the search and seizure power, and the power to investigate people, and in extreme situations has special dispensation to use lethal force with vastly different consequences than for civilians, that’s a real problem.

With a school?

That same lack of oversight exists among Minnesota’s nearly 150 charter schools.

That, of course, is baked wind.

The Gang Strike Force’s overseers checked out of the process. They abrogated their duty.

But for the odd cast of malfeasance, Charter Schools’ accountability is present, active and effective. A charter school’s accountability loop is pretty much in the same building as the school itself.

It just isn’t tied as closely to the state, its bureaucracy and the Teacher’s Union. Which is, of course, the part that bothers MN2020.

By state law, charter school oversight is provided by three entities: the school’s sponsor, the school’s board of directors and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)…A charter school’s board of directors is comprised of teachers and parents elected among the school’s teachers and parents.

This, by the way, is a good thing, driving control and responsibility down to the individual school level. Like any responsibility, people may or may not live up to it – but the charter school board system means any mismanagement or irregularities are much more difficult to hide than they are in a system like, say, Saint Paul,
That board hires the executive director who, unlike public school superintendents, is not required to meet the stringent state laws for administrative licensure.

“Stringent laws” which not only have nothing to do with education, but – if you’ve paid attention – don’t necessarily ensure competent administration either.

The executive director serves at the board’s pleasure.

The Department of Education is charged with holding charter schools responsible to state law and provides help when the schools run afoul of any laws.

To sum up, charter schools – which receive roughly $10,500 of state taxpayer money per student (roughly $1,000 more than traditional public school students)

But not, as Fitzgerald continues to disingenuously omit, any local or district bonding or special levy money, which drives the public school expenditures per student well over the charter schools’ level.

- undergoes oversight by sponsors that are not required to be active overseers, boards that are elected by members only, and a bureaucracy with only a tenuous tie to one elected official, the governor.

Against that, Fitzgerald prefers the “accountability” and “access” of the district school board – which in Minnesota’s biggest, most expensive and most troubled districts is elected in the same sense that the Iranian presidency is an elected job; in one-party cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the School Boards are DFL sinecures, their members accountable in reality only to the teachers union (of which most of them were members) and the Party; they are “led” by superintendents that they hire to serve in their own image (and who live by public sector standards a rock-star life, with money and perks that’d be the envy of many mid-level CEOs), who change jobs so frequently that accountability is an even bigger joke than it is among the boards themselves.

Indeed, look at the major school districts – Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth. The memberships on the boards, and the specific butt sitting in the Superintendent’s chair, may change -but the overarching principles behind the Boards and Administrations in one-party cities never change. The only real change is the perpetual free-fall of graduation rates and achievement – and the spiking numbers of people like me who’ve pulled our kids out of the festering nightmare and put them in the charter schools that Fitzgerald wants to kill off by any means necessary.

This next paragraph nicely encapsulates the creaking illogic not only behind this piece, but behind MN2020′s entire logically vacuous attack on charter schools. You will be excused if you need to read it twice; I sure did:

That’s why the chain of command is so terribly important. That’s why officers and deputies need to answer to elected county commissioners and city council members through their sheriffs and chiefs, not to non-elected multi-jurisdictional boards. And that’s why charter schools should be responsible to elected officials through licensed administrators, not to members of their own charter schools, sponsors that may or may not be involved in the school or a statewide commissioner answerable only to the governor.

Did you catch that?

Police need to be accountable to an elected body with power to enact changes as close to their level as possible.

Which, as it happens, is exactly what charter schools do. A school of 200 students and 12 staff and teachers will report to a director and board whose only administrative job is to deal with the affairs of the school. Not forty schools and thousands of employees via a bureaucracy of hundreds of unionized worker bees, mind you; one school. One staff, all of whom they know by name. One checkbook.

While there are some charter schools doing a good job managing their finances, proper oversight is imperative. If it doesn’t exist, then rules must be changed to provide it before people do the irrational, ill-advised things people sometimes do.

Spectacular failures in accountability – like the Gang Strike Force and the embezzlement at the Heart of the Earth charter school – obscure the larger, but vastly less-sexy and headline-grabbing, issue.

Look at the “chain of command” for the schools that are almost universally floundering, the big urban districts; all of them report to huge administrations that are (let’s be a bit pollyannaish) “accountable” to school boards that serve entirely as DFL power incubators and teachers union power reservoirs and, if you’re a parent and taxpayer, your “representative”, provided you agree with them on every agenda point (because nothing is going to change!). On a financial and curriculum level they are “accountable” to the Minnesota Department of Education, and thence on many issues to the US Do’E.

That’s not accountability. That’s bureaucratic overburden; a maze of red tape and gibberish that serves largely to swallow up and digest any real notion of “accountability”.

If public schools’ responsibility loops were pushed down to the individual school level, as charter schools’ are, they’d stand a chance of actually working.

Nick Coleman: Monkey For The Establishment

In my years of fisking Nick Coleman, it’s easy to pick his worst work.  It’s his hackery immediately after the 35W bridge collapse.

But if I could say anything for the guy over the years, it was this; he may have been a hack who was in bed with the local establishment, but at least he was his own hack.

Nowadays?  Ew.

His latest “column” at the Strib lacks the one thing that distinguished Coleman; he’s apparently turned to slathering his own brand of incoherent, un-fact-checked, prejudicial, and almost-always wrong bilge onto other peoples’ press releases.

Coleman attacks charter schools.  Or, should we say, his masters at his current gig would seem to have told him to attack charter schools.  We may never know.

But that’s what he’s doing – and as usual with a Nick Coleman column, he’s full of it.

Back-to-school supplies are on sale and the annual report on schools that are not making adequate progress is due out any day (expect another rise in falling performance), so this is a good time to look at the performance of Minnesota’s charter school movement, which was going to lead us all into a bright 21st century for better, smarter public education.

Oops. Not doing so great there, either.

Charter schools give parents a choice – and in the city, it’s a choice we’re taking by the thousands.

Which is, after all, the only reason private-school graduate Coleman cares.

Improving learning outcomes for students of color? Nope.

Well, actually, yep.

Outperforming traditional public schools on achievement tests? Nope.

Actually, when you compare apples and apples, yes.  Remember – charter schools…:

  1. …don’t have an Alternative Learning Center system to get all the “problem” kids off the books
  2. …have disproportionately high numbers of poor kids, non-native english speakers, and the kids that the traditional school system is failing in droves. Which is why we’re leaving the public system in droves.
  3. …actually give parents who don’t have the money to go to a private or suburban public school  – or who live on one the Indian reservations, where the public schools are an even bigger disgrace than the urban public systems – a choice. And some hope.

But other than that…?

It would be easy to argue that the charter school movement has fallen flat, and I have said as much before.

And we all know how reliable Coleman’s predictions have been.

But the charter school crusade has grown too large and expensive to dismiss.

Which is just absurd.  Charter schools cost less per student than the public schools.

Coleman is, of course, reading note-for-note for the MN2020 report on charter schools – which a slew of charter school supporters pretty roundly debunked two months ago.  In other words, he’s using out of date and inaccurate information in pursuit of an agenda. That’s bad enough.

Next he swerves into just making things up:

It is eating into severely limited funding for education and has blurred the lines between church and state (and not just at one Muslim school, but among many charters loosely basing their educational approaches on religious values whose adherents think they should get public tax dollars to inculcate them).

Coleman is referring to Bill Cooper’s “Friends of Education” schools, which borrow many aspects of Catholic education without actually teaching Catholicism.  Their results are, by the way, uniformly excellent; each and every one of the Friends of Education schools outperforms any public school district in the state (go here and look up schools run by “Friends of Education”).

In the meantime, they’ve been in operation for years.  If there had been any violations of the Establishment Clause at any of them, in a state full of intrepid gumshoe reporters teachers union monkeys like Nick Coleman, I suspect we’d have heard about it.

Nothing.

But Coleman surely probably knows that. Why would he attack Friends of Education with nothing but a scabrous innuendo?

Personal history, perhaps?

More than that, charter schools have created a huge tax-supported playpen where entrepreneurial start-up schools have been loosely supervised and unscrutinized by education officials who are accountable to the approval or rejection of taxpayers.

Leave aside Coleman’s clumsy shot at being a D-list Studs Terkel knockoff.  Leave aside the blatant misinformation (charter schools are supervised by the same body that supervises public schools).  Let me just ask Coleman, my fellow Saint Paul taxpayer; what “accountability” do you think the Saint Paul district has to you and I?   And if you say “the school board”, then you are obviously more comfortable with untrammeled, partisan, one-party systems than I am.

Minnesota was the first state to allow charter schools (in 1991), which were designed to overcome the limitations of an education system that had become a sacred cow. Today, you can’t find a holier cow than the charter school movement. Any questions can get you branded as a stooge for unionized teachers, big gummint and mandatory euthanasia for free thinkers. Guilty, guilty, hmmm … maybe!

If only there were a website where I could just link to instant descriptions of some of Nick Coleman’s lazier flights of rhetorical fancy.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Minnesota’s charter schools (almost 150 of them now, with 28,000 students) are as much a part of our educational problem as they were supposed to be a solution. Many charters have been beset by management problems, undertrained staffs and a lack of adequate financial controls. The furor over TiZA, the troubled Muslim charter school in Inver Grove Heights, is only one example of a much broader mess: Too many charter schools do not get adequate oversight, especially from one system that works — elected school boards that answer to voters.

And here, Coleman assumes that you either are completely unaware of reality, or is trying to make sure you stay that way.

What are the graduation rates at the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public school systems?  Less than half.  How about for minority students?  Less than that. What do they cost?  Vastly more than the state averages per student, and getting worse, and they’re both still constantly on the brink of financial catastrophe and begging voters to pass supplemental levies (which charter schools never, ever get).

And who controls those systems?  DFL and Teachers-Union-dominated elected school boards.  The elected school boards have utterly failed, and still fail to provide any faint shred of accountability, much less rectifying the disaster in any way.

After nearly two decades of “experimenting,” charter schools need to be held to stricter financial controls, educational performance standards and public accountability. It is also past time to put a cap on the number of charter schools, and the present 150 is more than enough. The urgent need now is not for more charter schools, but better ones. And that requires shutting down the bad ones.

Excelent, Mr. Coleman.

Can we hold public schools to the same standard?

More than 80 percent of charter schools were found to have serious financial or management problems during 2007, according to a review of state records done by the liberal think tank Minnesota 2020. That group’s executive director, John Van Hecke, finds it ironic that charter schools, built on a promise to make education more responsive, have avoided the scrutiny traditional public schools must face.

Quoting John Van Hecke?

Oh, please.  Go ahead.  Make my day.

“When they were launched, the battle cry was, ‘We’ll be better than traditional public schools,’” he said. “Now it’s, ‘Don’t hold us to the same standards as traditional schools.’ But the public clearly is demanding more and more accountability over how its money is spent. And the answer is more and more oversight, from the Education Department and the Legislature.”

No, Nick and John.  The public is asking for more charter schools – and, more to the point, more school choice.  1/8 of Saint Paul parents have left the SPPS; even more have left the Minneapolis system.  They’ve decamped for suburban districts using the state’s open enrollment system, to private and parochial schools, and for charter schools.

So  look for MN2020 and Nick Coleman to propose repealing open enrollment any time here.

One might surmise, by this point, that Coleman knows nothing about the subject that he’s not told by others – that he’s reading off of MN2020 talking points. That Mr. “I Know Stuff” might be just vamping it, like a marionette being twirled about by a giggly master; like a monkey.

And you’d be right:

In addition to millions spent on per-pupil aid for charter schools, up to $1,200 per pupil is spent in state assistance to help buy or rent charter school space (this at a time when public enrollment is shrinking and surplus education buildings stand vacant). These “lease aid” payments will balloon by 23 percent this biennium, to a whopping $85 million, and much of that total is going into a muddled mess where payments continue even after buildings are paid for and tax-paid real estate winds up owned not by the public but by the charter schools themselves.

Really?

The property is “owned by the charter schools themselves?”

Interesting.

Because charter schools are not allowed to own property.

They can not own their buildings.

Wow.  I guess he doens’t “know stuff” after all.

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. He can be reached at nickcoleman@gmail.com.

I’d love to see the crap their “junior fellows” put out.

UPDATE:  I’ve been corrected – charters can own buildings, they just can’t buy ‘em with public funds.  Which was what Coleman was talking about, so it doesn’t impact my point in any way.

Charter Schools: Comparing Apples and Apples

Last week, the Strib came out with the official state No Child Left Behind rankings for state charter and “district” schools. 

While I haven’t seen any of the usual public school apologists crowing about the results yet, they will.  In the wake of MN2020′s hatchet job last month, it can only be a matter of time.

So let me head it off at the pass.  65% of state public school students were deemed “proficient” in math, and 73% in reading.

That compared to 49% and 57% for charter schools statewide.

That doesn’t officially look good for charter schools. 

But let’s remember – the bulk of the charter schools are in the metro area (along with many outstate charters that serve minorities, especially the Native American community).  51% of charter school students statewide are minorities; that average is even higher at inner city schools.  Many – most – of those charter school students in the inner city are there because their parents are dissatisfied – disgusted, even – with the education their children have gotten in the big inner-city schools. 

Of course, the question “does poverty cause poor education results, or do poor education results cause poverty” is a good one to ask – and plays into all possible interpretations of these results.  We can discuss that later.

For now, though, let’s endeavor to compare apples and apples. 

The inner city schools – Minneapolis and Saint Paul – have very similar test results, although Saint Paul’s demographics are much more turbulent.  Similar math scores (46 in Saint Paul, 48 in Minneapolis) and reading totals (52 and 51, respectively).  The numbers in special education are about the same (between 14 and 15%); about 38% of Saint Paul’s students spoke English as a second language, while of Minneapolis students, 6% of those taking the math test and 23% for the reading test were ESL. 

So let’s compare:  Math scores for Minneapolis, Saint Paul and charters statewide are 46,  52 and 49, respectively; for reading, 52, 51 and 57%). 

So as we see, while charter schools are coming in behind statewide school scores, they have a slight nod over the metro schools.

It gets even more interesting when you get into specifics.  Comparing the big city districts – which are between 60-73% low-income – with charters as a whole is interesting.  But how about with charters catering primarily to low-income students?

An excellent comparison is with the controversial Tariq Ibn Ziyad Academy, in Inver Grover Heights.   80% of their students are classifed as low-income, and 68% of the students taking the reading tests spoke English as a second language (double even Saint Paul’s very high number). 

And yet 93% of TIZA’s students passed the Math test, and 68% the reading test – compared again to Saint Paul (46 and 52% for math and reading) and Minneapolis (48 and 51%). 

Outstate?  Let’s compare two smaller schools:  Milroy Public, and Cologne Charter.

Milroy is 38% low income (state average is around 30%), 8% special ed (state average is 13%), and about 7% ESL (below the state average.  57% of Milroy’s students passed the Math test, 68% the reading exam.

The Cologne Academy charter is 27% low-income (a little below state average), and 16% special ed (a little above).  And 86% of its student body passed the Math test, 76% the reading standards.

Read the (uncommonly-informative) link from the Strib.  It’s well worth the read.

For whenever MN2020 wants to start yakking about “achievement gaps”, I mean.