School Choice

Closed charter schools have a ripple effect

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students stand outside of Flanner House Elementary charter school in August as their parents learn about the schools impending closure in a private meeting. The school, which closed Sept. 11, was accused of cheating on the state ISTEP exam by the mayor's office and the state.

Lee Rhys felt he was out of options when the charter school his two sons attended was shut down by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office in 2012.

Ballard said The Indianapolis Project School was poorly managed, financially troubled and academically failing. But to Rhys, it was the first school where his boys seemed happy. When it closed, Rhys tried teaching Devon and Noah at home and he soon saw how badly their feelings were hurt by watching their school close.

“It hit them when we started that they weren’t going back,” Rhys said.

Emotions flooded out as they grappled with the loss.

“My older son said, ‘This isn’t a real school. You’re just a fake teacher with some fake stuff in a fake dining room classroom.’”

Charter schools in Indianapolis have closed for all sorts of reasons: financial, managerial and academic and now, in the wake of last week’s closing of Flanner House Elementary School, even for allegations of cheating on the state ISTEP exam.

But that’s the basic bargain of opening a charter school: perform or close. In exchange for increased autonomy to run their schools as they see fit, charter operators face the real threat of being closed down if they don’t fulfill their promises.

So why don’t more low-scoring charter schools close down? It’s simple: the process is so arduous and painful that nobody wants to do it.

Perhaps that makes sense. Charter school proponents often note that traditional public schools rarely close except for financial reasons.

The majority of the state’s charter schools rank in the bottom quarter in the state for the percent of students who pass state tests. But the fact that only about 15 have been closed down in a decade that has seen nearly 100 charter schools open raises a basic question about whether the accountability bargain is working.

“It is a painful, really agonizing process to close a school,” Harris said. “The people who are there are choosing to be there. No one wants to see it happen.”

A ‘significant disruption’

Just days after Flanner House announced its plan to close, Tia Hayes was rushing to find another school for her kindergartner and fifth grader. The school year was already two weeks old.

So Hayes, running late and with only 15 minutes to spare, came by an enrollment fair held at a community center for parents to explore other schools. She had checked out Indianapolis Public Schools, but wanted to look at charter schools, too.

She had a game plan: She wanted a school close to home, a high academic performer and some assurance her child wouldn’t ever have to go through this again.

Hayes couldn’t shake the disappointment that after Sept. 11 her kids would no longer attend the school she also went to as a child — even if it had been embroiled in a shocking cheating scandal.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Investigations by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education found Flanner House students were coached on ISTEP by adults at the school who had improperly reviewed the state test in advance. In some cases, they even erased and changed student answers, the investigators found.

Cheating was alleged last year and this year. The school had low test scores before that. There was low enrollment and financial troubles. So closing the school became the course of action, even though the academic year had just begun.

In an effort to ease the sting, Ballard’s office waived enrollment fees, textbook costs and uniform expenses for the Flanner House kids at their new schools. But it still created upheaval for families.

“It’s a significant disruption of their life,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

When problems turn to crisis

Most of the charter schools that have been closed over the past few years have been given a full school year to transition, said Brandon Brown, the mayor’s director of charter schools.

Take Andrew Academy and Padua Academy, Catholic schools-turned-charter schools that are no longer religious schools but still are affiliated with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The mayor’s office recently announced it is looking for new management for Andrew Academy for 2015-16, and Padua Academy will return next year to being a Catholic school.

“The academic performance there was unacceptable, but we worked to create a long term transition plan,” Brown said. “When we’re presented with something like the situation at Flanner House, that raises the urgency and can speed up the timeline for making hard decisions.”

But it’s not unusual for a charter school’s problems to turn to a crisis quickly.

In 2012, the Project School was being closely watched by the mayor’s office because its ISTEP passing rate was one of the lowest in the state. Then teachers called in to say they hadn’t been paid on time, prompting Ballard’s team to order the school closed a month before school was supposed to start.

Rhys, the Project School parent, said more notice should be required to close a school.

“There’s got to be a better way than waiting until school is already in session,” Rhys said. “Part of the compact that the mayor’s office makes with parents should include a reasonable notice of a school shutting down. Maybe it’s about asking the state to notify them of ISTEP scores earlier. This just-in-time reporting is really interfering with families.”

Hayes tried to have an open mind about where her children would go after Flanner House.

At the enrollment fair, nearly 30 public, private and charter schools pitched themselves as options for the 170 Flanner House kids who needed new schools.

“It’s very stressful,” Hayes said, “But I guess sometimes change is good.”

Most of the Flanner House students transferred to other charter schools while some went to Indianapolis Public Schools or used the state’s voucher program to pay tuition for private schools.

While there may be options for families, the mayor’s office isn’t taking students’ transitions lightly.

City officials will be following up on Flanner House kids for years, and Brown said. What comes next will be the hardest part of the process, in part because their test scores for the past two years can’t be trusted.

For those children, catching up academically will be as difficult as grappling with the loss of their school and adapting to a new environment.

“We have third graders that have been promoted to fourth grade that we’re unsure of what their actual proficiency level there was,” Brown said. “Almost every Flanner House family has been told their students are proficient when in reality that’s likely not the case. A large number of students haven’t been getting the services they need to improve academically.”

The ultimate accountability

Charter school advocates often celebrate them as innovative free-market solutions to low-scoring public schools. As with a stock that doesn’t provide enough return, investors can sell and invest elsewhere. A closed charter school is like a stock that everyone has given up on.

But there’s a major difference. Unlike stocks, schools are built on the one-to-one relationships of students, teachers, parents and others that can’t be so easily severed. No matter why they shut down, a closed school breaks apart a group of people who have come together to try to help children they care about.

The accompanying emotions are comparable to other painful losses in life.

Julie Shannon helped build the playground when her children attended The Project School. When it closed, she said it felt like a divorce.

“We had to say goodbye to this family, and we knew what was going to be left was not what we had all invested in,” Shannon said.

For those who have led the closings, the bad memories are enough to discourage going that road again, no matter how dire the situation.

David Harris, CEO of the The Mind Trust, was then-Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter school director in 2005 when he led the process to close Flanner House Higher Learning Center. That school, managed separately from Flanner House Elementary School, closed amid serious charges of falsified enrollment records intended to capture state aid fraudulently.

Even with strong evidence of wrongdoing, closing the school wasn’t any easier. Harris said he lost 10 pounds in just a few weeks while leading the closure for Peterson.

Even so, Harris insisted it’s important for charter school sponsors, like the mayor’s office, to take the difficult step to close troubled schools in the interest of the students. Besides Ballard, sponsors include the state and public and private universities. The biggest sponsors, also called authorizers, in Indiana are Ballard, Ball State University and the state Charter School Board.

“The bigger story of charters is that authorizers haven’t done as good a job of closing down schools,” Harris said. “The biggest problem is we have too many authorizers who aren’t directly accountable to the families the school serves. They don’t have the right incentives.”

Ballard’s office expects to face pushback from parents any time it has to announce a tough decision. Even when the evidence for Flanner House cheating seemed to be clear and well-documented, students and parents still made signs in protest of closing the school — and still held out hope that the school would be saved.

But Kloth said he’s willing to face pushback if it means that low-performing schools close.

“We have an obligation to see through accountability as the authorizer,” Kloth said. “When we fail to do that, we aren’t meeting the promise of school choice.”

The struggle to move on

The 2012 Project School closing was especially acrimonious. Shannon and her kids witnessed their principal and teachers surrounded by news crews with tough questions about the school’s poor test scores and financial troubles. They watched a series of efforts to try to save the school fail, and their friends emptied out to new schools.

“It all happened so fast, and we felt really powerless as parents,” Shannon said. “It felt very numb for awhile.”

Then the dust settled, and the Shannons enrolled their daughters at Crooked Creek Elementary in Washington Township.

They missed their friends, but the girls’ transition was mostly smooth until a bitter, wintry day less than six months later.

Once again, her daughters saw news trucks surrounding their school as she picked them up. There had been a shooting that afternoon at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and reporters were seeking to interview local families for their reaction.

But the scene felt familiar to Leah and Stella for a different reason: their first instinct was to ask if their new school was closing, too.

Two years later, Shannon thinks the girls learned some lessons from an otherwise bad experience.

“It opened their eyes to things I wasn’t quite ready for them to be open to,” she said. “It’s made them more resilient. I just don’t want it to squish their optimism or the hope that they can make a difference.”

blast from the past

Who is Dan Loeb? The billionaire investor that chairs Success Academy’s board has a checkered past

A screenshot taken from an American Enterprise Institute event published in 2014.

Success Academy’s board chairman and major charter school donor Daniel Loeb made headlines this month for posting a racially charged comment on Facebook that compared an African-American New York state senator with the Ku Klux Klan.

Loeb deleted the post, apologized, and left Success Academy and other charter school organizations scrambling to condemn his behavior — and explaining why he would remain on their boards.

Loeb represents a double-edged sword for charter schools. He is a wealthy and well-connected hedge fund manager, who has given millions of dollars to the charter school cause. But his actions force Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter leaders to make a calculation: Is his behavior a fair price to pay for the boost to their cause?

So far, they have apparently decided that it is. He has not yet been removed from Success’s board. Here are other things Eva Moskowitz has had to grapple with — which include a string of insensitive comments, but also his support for other progressive causes— as she has navigated her relationship with Loeb over the years:

He’s a nonpartisan ally — and antagonist. Loeb supports both Democrats and Republicans, and he also attacks candidates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. For example, he’s a major backer of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but he also has given to Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis and supported Mitt Romney is past presidential campaigns. At the same time, he has lashed out at both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, often in withering and offensive terms, while also telling friends he would not vote for Donald Trump.

This isn’t the first offensive comment he’s made. Far from it, in fact. Loeb is fast-fingered on Facebook and frequently uses derogatory language to lash out at people who have made him unhappy. Here are a few of the examples that have been reported previously:

  • Another time Loeb compared the unions and their supporters to the KKK: Loeb posted the following on his Facebook page in 2016, first reported by Dealbreaker: “If you truly believe that education is the dividing line (and I concurr) then you must recognizer and take up the fight against the teachers union, the biggest single force standing in the way of quality education and an organization that has done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”
  • Using a derogatory term for people of color: Loeb once got into a fight with Fairfax Financial, a Canadian insurance company, which resulted in a lawsuit. Reported Reuters in 2011: “Fairfax’s filing quotes Loeb as saying he found the situation somewhat ironic because “the odds are much greater of being strung up by a Canadian Jew than a Canadian schwarze.” Loeb, who is Jewish, used “schwarze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for a black person, to describe Watsa, who is of Indian ancestry.”
  • Making light of domestic violence by comparing Obama to an abuser: In a 2010 letter to hedge fund managers who had supported Obama, Loeb wrote, according to CNBC: “I am sure, if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the President will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words; I mean he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry.”
  • Making a xenophobic, homophobic attack against a rival: A damning 2013 Vanity Fair profile dredged up an anecdote from 1999, when Loeb was feuding with John Liviakis, a San Francisco public-relations executive. In an “imaginary monologue” in the voice of Liviakis, Loeb wrote under a pseudonym: “Then I will laugh at you fools for buying my shares and I will celebrate with a bottle of grappa, some fresh feta, and a nice young boy-just like in the old country.” Liviakis sued him for libel.

Loeb’s allies say his mean-spirited comments don’t necessarily reflect deep-seated beliefs. “I have known Dan to be a champion for underserved children who has worked tirelessly for years on their behalf,” said Jenny Sedlis, the head of StudentsFirstNY and a former deputy to Moskowitz, last week. “I know from first-hand experience the post he made does not reflect his true beliefs or the person he is.”

He has championed progressive causes in the past. Most notably, Loeb helped get gay marriage on the books in New York by throwing his influence into winning over Senate Republicans. This position put him in line with most Democrats and with Moskowitz, who has had wide support in New York City’s gay community for nearly 20 years. It also suggests that some of his internet posts, which have included seemingly homophobic comments, do not necessarily reflect the entirety of his beliefs.

It’s also not his first ethical challenge. Loeb had an account on the marital cheating site Ashley Madison, though he later said he did not use the site to engage or meet anyone on the site. He also has garnered criticism for the way he uses online message boards, where some business insiders say he plays fast and loose with federal regulations about the ways hedge fund operators can communicate with investors. And multiple accounts have him hitting a Cuban child with his car during a vacation in 2002, although he and his friends tell different versions of that story.

His friends and investors have their own problems. At Third Point Management, Loeb manages $17 billion and has a host of high-profile investors — including someone else who landed in hot water for speaking freely this summer. Anthony Scaramucci told Vanity Fair that Loeb was “one of the best investors of his generation. . . . He is the guy that would chew through the wallboard to create a return for his investors.” At the time, Scaramucci had invested about 10 percent of his own fund’s $500 million with Loeb. Now, of course, he’s better known as the man who served for 10 days as Trump’s White House communications director before resigning after making a profanity-laden public attack on other White House officials.

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”