September 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

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September 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

Compiled by NCSPE Research Associate Andrew Thomas

New Hampshire Launches Sweeping ESA (September 7)

New Hampshire’s sweeping new Education Savings Account program is officially underway, after a speedy approval process in Concord this August brought early questions over whether the state could build the necessary administrative infrastructure.

The program is one of the most expansive of its kind in the nation, providing families that make under 300 percent of the federal poverty level and aren’t sending their kids to public schools eligible for an average of $4,600 per student each year, New Hampshire Public Radio reported. Furthermore, once families enroll, they can remain in the program even if their income rises above the level of eligibility, providing for the program’s longevity.

In just over four weeks, state lawmakers and the Board of Education approved the ESA program, giving oversight to the Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire –a private organization –and setting interim rules that will last only six months, according to the New Hampshire Bulletin.

Jeb Bush Defends For-Profit Charters in Op-Ed (September 10)

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has generated a vigorous debate about for-profit charter school management with an op-ed for The Miami Herald in which he decried a provision in the fiscal year 2022 education budget that explicitly withholds federal funds from charter schools that contract “with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.” The piece was widely circulated by the Tribune News Service and is part of a wider campaign by the nation’s top charter school lobbying groups to block the Democratic proposal, detailed by Jeff Bryant in an article for AlterNet in July.

Democrats in the House argue that the provision is intended to curb the growth of for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), which operate under “sweeps” contracts to turn taxpayer funds for public charter schools into private profits, according to The Hill. Privatization advocates, led by Nina Rees at the National Alliance for Public Charters, have attempted to frame the provision as a blanket attack on underserved populations that utilize charter schools.

Bush blamed the “outdated mentality” of the “teachers’ unions and their allies in Congress” for threatening “education pluralism,” likening public education in the U.S. to an industrial age factory. He further opined that Democratic opposition to for-profit charter schools is motivated by a “fear that choice will lead to fewer students attending schools that fund [teachers’ unions’] private coffers.”

Aside from attacking teachers’ unions as greedy political machines, Bush claimed that the proposed budget will “specifically cut $40 million in education funding” and “undermine the education of millions of students, especially special-needs students who qualify for funding under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and students living in poverty.” Yet as Jan Resseger at the National Education Policy Center pointed out in her response to the Bush’s op-ed, President Biden and the House Appropriations Committee both propose an increase in “funding for wraparound Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million, doubling the Title I funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children” and also “funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Bush’s steadfast support for school privatization and open disdain for teachers’ unions is well established. His attacks served him well politically in his successful second campaign for Governor in 1998, according a 2015 profile of him in The New Yorker. After enacting the first statewide voucher program in the country and removing barriers to for-profit charter development in Florida as governor, Bush continued to advocate school choice by forming the Foundation for Excellence in Education, now called ExcelinEd.

National Heritage Academies Plans Massive Sale (September 15)

In a piece for Valerie Strauss’ blog The Answer Sheet published by The Washington Post, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, criticized the planned sale of by National Heritage Academies (NHA) of most of its charter schools.

NHA, which is the third-largest for-profit education management organization (EMO) in the country, is attempting to sell 69 of its 90 schools to a corporation with ties to its owner, with a total price tag over $850,000,000, according to Burris.

According to documents provided to Michigan’s Wayne County Commission for the approval of the sale of 15 of the schools, the buyer is Campus Partners 1, a corporation whose president is also general counsel to National Heritage Academies CEO J.C. Huizenga and his interests.

Incorporated in November 2020, Campus Partners 1 describes itself as a Michigan nonprofit organization, though it has not filed any requisite records with the Michigan attorney general in order to get nonprofit status and has not yet been granted tax-exempt status by the IRS, Burris reported.

Once Campus Partners 1 secures ownership of the schools, it plans to contract with the NHA’s real estate arm, Charter Development Co., for a facility maintenance contract and ground lease. In effect, control of the schools will still be in the hands of NHA, but Charter Development Co. will earn the profit off the sale and secure new contracts allowing it to continue to funnel public dollars into NHA’s coffers.

The $853,600,000 sale is being financed using municipal bonds issued by the Industrial Development Authority of La Paz County, Arizona. NHA has no charter schools in the state, but Arizona is one of three states in the country that allow the sale of municipal bonds to out-of-state entities. According to Burris, La Paz frequently issues municipal bonds to finance for-profit prisons.

NHA’s attempt to transfer over $850 million public dollars into private wealth is running into some resistance in the company’s home state of Michigan, however, where they intend to sell 46 of their schools, Burris reported. Local councilmen and school board members have voiced opposition to the sales.

In the case of local government, NHA told the Wayne County Commission’s standing committee that they would circumvent their authority by asking the localities where the schools are located for approval or by using private bonds that do not need approval, Burris wrote.

In March, Burris co-authored a report that explained NHA’s strategy of using “sweeps contracts”—which give total control over public dollars going to charter schools to private management companies—to reap large profits from its “client” schools. Now, NHA is using the control granted to it by sweeps contracts to stamp out any resistance from its schools’ boards of directors. Burris cited multiple instances where defiant school boards were told to resign, and where those who refused to do so saw their terms of office “summarily reduced.”

Burris’s report highlights the sweeping power granted to for-profit EMOs that give them the authority to dictate the terms of their own contracts, and to coerce and manipulate the boards that hire them to benefit their bottom line. The only remedy that Burris sees to this abuse of the public trust is the proposed Section 314 of the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education 2022 appropriations bill, which, if adopted, would explicitly withhold federal funds from charter schools that contract “with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.”

New York City Mandates Vaccines for All Charter School Staff (September 17)

Staff at every New York City charter school will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and receive at least one shot by September 27, Chalkbeat reported, drastically expanding the city’s vaccine mandate in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Charter schools educate about 14 percent of the city’s students, and the majority of these schools were not subject to the mayor’s previous mandate for city employees, which applied to only to charter schools that operate in city buildings. According to Chalkbeat, 143 of the city’s 272 charter schools operate in buildings not owned by the city. Staff in these schools are being held to the same standard—and the same deadline—as city education department employees.

A City Hall spokesperson said that charter school employees who do not comply would be suspended without pay, Chalkbeat reported, and did not answer a question about the city’s authority to enforce the order. Though there has not yet been an official executive order from the Mayor’s office, the announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s far-reaching vaccine mandate for nearly all federal employees and contractors and for companies with over 100 employees.

Some charter schools issued their own vaccine mandates to their staff before the city required shots to its own employees, Chalkbeat reported, including Success Academy, the city’s largest network. Still, hundreds of charter school classrooms have been forced to close due to outbreaks, including 22 percent of Success Academy classrooms since they reopened on August 2.

Pennsylvania's Governor Wolf Proposes Sweeping Charter Regulations (September 20)

Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania last week proposed a sweeping set of new regulations that, according to the official documentation, “clarifies elements of the Charter School Law (CSL) and sets conditions that emphasize accountability, equity, quality, and transparency,” reported.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law is widely considered the laxest in the nation. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, taxpayers spent $2.1 billion on charter schools last year, and 44 cents of every $1 of new property taxes went to charter schools between 2013 and 2019.

The Governor’s proposal:

  • Introduces a standardized application requirement for charter schools that would allow school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education to hold both brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools to high academic, fiscal, and administrative standards, and to ensure that the schools will equitably serve all students.
  • Introduces non-discriminatory enrollment policies that also require charter schools to inform families on admissions preferences in the application.
  • Subjects charter schools’ trustees to the state’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, which addresses conflicts of interest and sets penalties for violations.
  • Requires charter schools to use the same auditing standards as public school districts, ensuring that annual reports and financial records are accessible to school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
  • Introduces a process for reconciling disputes over school district payments to charter schools for student tuition.
  • Requires that charter schools offer the same health care benefits as the school district that authorizes them, and clarifies that when a charter school serves more than one district, the school district in which the charter school’s administrative office is located is the standard that the charter school must use.

The regulations are paired with measures to cut costs, including streamlining the way that special education in charter schools is funded and establishing a statewide cyber charter school tuition rate, saving an estimated $395 million a year, according to Your Erie. Governor Wolf anticipates the new rules to take effect before 2023.

Charter School Enrollment Boosted by Pandemic (September 23)

The charter sector experienced a dramatic increase in student enrollment the first full school year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS).

Public charter school enrollment increased by 7 percent during the 2020-21 school year, adding nearly 240,000 students, according to the report. In June, the Department of Education reported that public school enrollment dropped by 3 percent over the same period.

The report from the NAPCS does not differentiate between the number of students who enrolled in virtual and brick-and-mortar charters, but according to Wisconsin Public Radio, which reported in August on enrollment decreases in both public and private schools during the pandemic, the state’s 14 percent increase in charter enrollment was largely due to an 84 percent increase in virtual charter school enrollment.

The Wisconsin data show families turned to virtual charters with years of experience in distance learning when public and private schools were shuttered by the pandemic and forced to adopt a new curriculum. National data showing the increase in virtual charter enrollment specifically have yet to be published.

Former D.C. Public Charter School Board Member Condemns No-Excuses Charters (September 27)

In a post for Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet published by The Washington Post, former member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board Steve Bumbaugh condemned no-excuses charter schools and the city’s insufficient oversight of the charter industry. Bumbaugh also called for better representation from the community in decisions on the District’s education policy.

Bumbaugh wrote that he visited many no-excuses charter schools during his six-year tenure on the Board and described those “that combine academic rigor and kindness” as “the exception.” Primarily, Bumbaugh wrote, he visited schools that engage in “humiliating rituals that have little educational value” and where students are taught “that they are congenitally profane” through widespread suspensions of students with disabilities and selective “counseling out” of students who can’t meet steep expectations.

“One-third of D.C. charter schools are in the no-excuses category, enrolling at least half of the charter student population,” Bumbaugh wrote, and there is no evidence that students have gained anything from the system: “As of 2018-19—the latest data available on the website of the charter school board—only 8.5 percent of Black high school students (about 80 percent of the student population) in charter schools were deemed proficient in math and 21 percent in English Language Arts.”

Bumbaugh called for an overhaul of the D.C. charter system, beginning with an outright ban on no-excuses charter schools. Bumbaugh described the strict discipline of no-excuses charter schools as “a relic of Jim Crow.”

Bumbaugh also pointed to the need to integrate the city’s charters. “What we have now,” he wrote, “is a system where highly resourced families crowd into a handful of desirable schools that have impossibly long waiting lists, and students from poor families attend no-excuses schools or charters that struggle to remain open.” He described the system in its current form as a continuation of “separate but equal” in “one of the most liberal cities in the United States.”

The power of oversight must also be distributed more evenly, Bumbaugh argued, citing the lack of socioeconomic diversity on the city’s Public Charter School Board. Referring also to himself, Bumbaugh said that though the board is made up of mostly Black or Latino members, “we are not remotely similar to most of the families with children attending D.C. public charter schools.” While 80 percent of D.C. public charter families qualify for free and reduced lunch, “the charter board has not in its 25-year history appointed a single board member who lives in poverty.” He wrote that, to see any progress, it is imperative to involve “parents in the co-architecture of the [charter] sector.”

Published Monday, Oct. 4, 2021