Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Charters want accountability? That's a new concept

The charter school industry and its supporters earnestly assure the public these days that they want problem charter schools held accountable.

If that’s true, it’s good news. It’s also a drastic about-face for the charter school industry, which has long fought efforts to hold charter schools accountable. An article on charter schools in the May 25 New York Times pointed out the same thing. The charter industry has been waging successful court battles against efforts to hold charter schools accountable.

“…[C]harter schools have at times resisted tougher monitoring,” the Times wrote. “In 2007, a group of charter schools and advocates sued the [New York state] comptroller's office, challenging its right to audit the finances and academic performance of such schools. Critics said the comptroller's office had no expertise to assess academics. “Last year, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that charter schools were in effect independent contractors and beyond the comptroller's reach.”

Not that I’m unsympathetic to those who change their minds. After all, I’m a big admirer of Diane Ravitch’s. She’s the former Bush administration education official and former booster of high-stakes-testing/choice/privatization education policies who announced her change of mind and heart in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” Ravitch, who publicly described her soul-searching, now opposes the ideas she once championed, saying that in real life they have been shown to be not just ineffective but harmful to schools, children and public education.

It’s weird that (unlike Ravitch) the entire charter industry just changed its tune without missing a beat, though. There was no explanation and no discussion of the new philosophy or of renouncing the old philosophy. When did that new philosophy take effect?

Here in San Francisco a few years ago, our Board of Education (BOE) got beaten up by the charter world twice in a short period for trying to hold problem charter schools accountable. In one of those cases, the local, national and even international media eagerly, compliantly and unquestioningly leaped on the charter movement’s crusade, ganging up to blast the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for its effort to hold controversial, for-profit Edison Schools Inc. accountable back in 2001. (More on that below.)

Then, in 2003, SFUSD had to deal with its own home-grown charter problem, a high school called Urban Pioneer that specialized in wilderness experience for disaffected students. In March 2003, two UP students died by falling into a ravine at night on an unsupervised wilderness outing.

The ensuing scrutiny revealed that UP was also in financial chaos — “the budget allowed for just $2 per student per month and no janitors, testing or staff development,” according to the Chronicle. And UP was committing academic fraud, “graduating” students with far fewer than the required credits. The school’s test scores were rock bottom. Reportedly, the president of the school’s board of directors, a lawyer, had been intimidating would-be whistleblowers within the school into silence by threatening to sue them.

Yet when the SFUSD BOE began investigating the school, the charter lobby fought back hard, rousing the UP community and supporters to battle to keep the school open. Peter Thorp, best known here in San Francisco as founding principal of Gateway High School, our city’s most successful charter, spoke on behalf of the California Network of Educational Charters (now the California Charter Schools Association) against closing Urban Pioneer. I wasn’t present, but a friend who attended one of the public meetings tells me that the grieving parents of the deceased students had come to the meeting intending to speak, but were intimidated by the belligerent crowd and sat silently.

Meanwhile, despite its financial problems, UP somehow managed to scrape together the wherewithal to hire a high-priced damage-control PR specialist, David Hyams of San Francisco’s Solem & Associates. (Hyams had recently changed careers after many years as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.) The Chronicle quoted Hyams as likening SFUSD to the Taliban and its investigation to a “witch hunt.”

Urban Pioneer was ultimately shut down, though you can still find people in the community to this day who somehow managed to miss the whole story and who view it as an outrage that SFUSD shut down a “successful” charter school. I haven’t pinned down the source of that version of the story, though it’s easy to guess.

The UP controversy roiled our school district at a time when it had been recently battered by its bloody encounter with Edison Schools, the then-high-flying media darling that was being hailed as the solution for public education.

Edison was running one charter school in our district, Edison Charter Academy (ECA) at 22nd and Dolores on the border between San Francisco's Mission District and Noe Valley. Our wild and woolly superintendent of the ’90s, Bill Rojas, had brought Edison in, supported by a rubber-stamp Board of Ed majority.

Edison-friendly Rojas left in ’99 to run the Dallas school district (which later fired him), and by 2001, the BOE was no longer dominated by unquestioning Edison and Rojas supporters. The district was encountering the same problems with Edison that many other Edison client districts were reporting, including significantly higher costs than projected, low performance and “counseling out” of challenging students who then landed in district schools. Edison made burdensome demands on districts (one SFUSD central office bureaucrat who worked on contracts said she spent nearly half her time over several months just working with ECA), while adding insult to injury by issuing press releases touting itself as superior to the clients who had hired it.

Edison was founded and run by flamboyant entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, a non-educator who previously owned Esquire magazine. Whittle had obviously made some good high-level contacts in media, and when the SFUSD BOE started asking tough questions about ECA, he mobilized those contacts. Editorials criticizing SFUSD and praising Edison popped up all over, in places like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the London-based Economist and even random outlets like a Virginia newspaper that headlined its editorial “Dim Bulbs” (referring to the SFUSD BOE). The Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News editorialized strongly in favor of Edison. The Chronicle editorial page worked itself into such a state of outrage at our BOE that one headline on an editorial about SFUSD used the word “goosestepping” (that particular editorial was not about Edison, but the Edison issue was the spark igniting a general frenzy of hostility at the Chron at that time).

News coverage, including a Page 1 story in the New York Times, portrayed ECA as a huge success and hinted at San Francisco’s leftist “land of fruits and nuts” image to claim that our BOE was opposing successful Edison for entirely “ideological” reasons. The press “forgot” to do a key piece of the research, which should have been to find out what was going on in other Edison client districts around the nation. (The insider term for that type of "forgetful" journalism is “check it and lose it.”)

The New York Times story addressed that issue by using a quote from Whittle: “None of the 44 other cities where we manage schools has ever done anything like this.” Reporter Edward Wyatt used the quote without checking it, challenging it or further commenting, letting it stand as a statement of fact.

But actually, Whittle was lying. Edison had already been kicked out by the Sherman, Texas, school district. Other clients at that time were looking into severing their Edison contracts too — among them Macon, Ga.; Lansing and Flint, Mich.; Goldsboro, N.C.; and Wichita, Kans., none of them generally vulnerable to “land of fruits and nuts” caricatures.

The bashing wasn’t limited to public school critics or mainstream media. Commentator Peter Schrag, normally a public school supporter, wrote a long piece for the leftist Nation magazine telling the same (inaccurate) story. Joan Walsh, now editor of Salon and a media star herself — and at the time an SFUSD parent, though not at ECA — did the same in a long Salon article. (To Walsh’s credit, she is one of the very few journalists who later corrected factual errors fed to her by Edison spokespeople — perhaps the only one.) When one Edison press release described ECA as “a successful school in a failing district,” variations on that line appeared in various media, including Schrag’s Nation article.

For the record, ECA’s achievement at the time (based on California’s Academic Performance Index compilation of test scores) ranked it close to the bottom among SFUSD schools for 1999-2000, the data available at the beginning of the media frenzy. And when the scores from spring 2001 testing were released, ECA’s were dead last in the district.

I helped other advocates research information about Edison, and we used the less-nimble technology of that time to create an e-mail press release list and a website, Parents Advocating School Accountability. At one point I wrote up an account of the situation to share with friends who weren’t versed in it, partly because if they came across my name (I was quoted in the Page 1 New York Times article), I wanted them to have heard my version first. A friend who was a Chronicle copy editor was amazed to learn from me that ECA wasn’t the highest-scoring school in the district. Though the Chronicle’s news coverage had mentioned that ECA’s actual test scores were low, the whole tone of the crusade had given her that impression — even though she was actually copy editing some of the coverage.

Meanwhile, Edison was fighting SFUSD in court too, and California charter PR man Gary Larson was mobilizing ECA parents to storm school board meetings in matching T-shirts, chanting “My child, my choice!”

Why did Edison mobilize against SFUSD — and mobilize the media on its behalf — while keeping a low profile about the numerous other client districts that had the same problems with Edison and were doing the same thing? At the time, Edison was making two ambitious bids in major districts. In New York City, it was trying to win five schools and a solid toehold. In Philadelphia, it was attempting to take over the entire district. My guess is that the thinking was that all this news coverage with a strong tone of disapproval aimed at one “land of fruits and nuts” district would divert everyone from checking into how Edison was doing with its various client districts. The strategy seemed to work.

What this all amounted to was a mass attack on SFUSD for attempting to hold Edison accountable for its commitments to its client school district (and its students). The fact that the media leaped gleefully into the fray provides a good view of the risks of trying to hold a charter operator accountable.

In the end, the outcome in San Francisco was a compromise. Edison and SFUSD severed their contract and the charter-promoting California state Board of Education took over chartering the school (the degree of oversight and accountability now is utterly unknown to the public). ECA is quietly operating in the same location, as a rent-paying tenant in an SFUSD facility. It’s an attractive facility in a great location, too, and a lot of young parents in trendy, family-friendly Noe Valley would like to get it back.

Edison lost its bid for the New York schools and ended up with just a couple dozen in Philadelphia. By now, Edison Schools Inc. has lost 29 of its client districts at last known count — and I am definitely not keeping up, so I’m sure there are many more. Here’s an account of Edison Schools’ situation from the PASA website.

It’s easy to see why anyone who has followed the history of charter schools would be surprised to hear from charter advocates that they now believe in accountability for problem charter schools. We shall see.


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