a charter divide

Why for-profit charter schools are going out of style with some education reform leaders

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Marshall Tuck is the last person you would expect to say it’s time to limit charter schools.

Tuck, a Democratic candidate for California schools superintendent, once oversaw a network of charter schools in Los Angeles and was heavily backed by the state’s charter lobby when he ran for (and narrowly lost) the post in 2014.

That’s why it’s surprising that one of Tuck’s first major policy announcements in his latest bid was a push to ban for-profit charter schools in California, a top priority of teachers unions.

“Educators — whether at district or charter public schools — can agree: public schools must serve students, not shareholders,” Tuck wrote. “Profit has no place in our public schools, and I urge politicians in Sacramento to make that the law.”

This fresh hostility toward for-profit charter schools extends beyond California. Across the country, more left-of-center charter school advocates are distancing themselves from for-profit charter schools. Some want to prohibit them outright.

Jeff Henig, a Columbia professor, sees this as a symptom of a broader rift, driven in part by the election of Donald Trump and appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has backed private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

“What may account for why this is becoming more publicly talked about is this re-opening what was always a strange-bedfellow coalition,” he said. “That cleavage is widening now, with the for-profits seeing a chance under Trump and DeVos to jump back ahead in the game and the nonprofit, progressive group worrying that they’ll be tarred by the bad-apple stories.”

In most places, charter schools are required to be run by nonprofit boards, but operations and management can be turned over to for-profit companies, often known as education-management organizations or EMOs, though some states bar this practice. As of 2014, about one in five charter students attended a school run for profit.

For years, the charter school movement was characterized by a relatively amicable alliance between progressive and conservative education reformers, with disagreements about vouchers and for-profit charters largely playing out behind the scenes.

“Those folks for many years traveled together because their main battle was against the unions and traditional public schools, and the stickiness of the status quo,” Henig said. “But there never was a meeting of the minds really among all of the charter proponents.”

For progressive charter advocates, keeping an arm’s length from for-profit charter schools may be smart politics.

“[California] is a very blue state, and an anti-for-profit position is almost certainly a majority or strong plurality opinion,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, about Tuck specifically. “Especially given current national politics and the views of Betsy DeVos, this position allows him to separate himself from unpopular folks in Washington.”

Nick Melvoin, a successful candidate for L.A. school board who was endorsed by pro-charter groups, joined Tuck’s push. “We need to pass this legislation banning for-profit schools to combat the radical anti-public education agenda of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump,” he wrote.

Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform told Chalkbeat in a recent interview, “We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools.”

John King, the former secretary of education and founder of a charter school in Boston, expressed a similar view.

“I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters. I believe public dollars should go to public schools with public accountability,” King, who is currently president and CEO of EdTrust, told Chalkbeat.

“In New York, when we raised the charter cap in 2010 we banned new for-profit charters,” he added. “That seemed right to me. I would be fine with other states taking a similar approach.”

To those who favor a free-market approach, including many advocates of school vouchers, the criticism of for-profit schools is a mistake that could limit options for students who need them.

“I’m from the Malcolm X school — by any means necessary,” said Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school choice group that Betsy DeVos used to lead. “I don’t rule out any learning modality that can help a kid.” (Chavous is on the board of K12, a for-profit virtual school operator.)

DeVos echoed that view last week in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

“Whether it’s a for-profit managed institution or a not-for-profit, if students are achieving and parents are making those choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around,” DeVos said.

So how strong is the case against for-profit charters?

On one hand, studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don’t find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores. Nationally, as well as in Florida and Michigan, for-profit charter schools perform comparably or even a bit better.

For-profit charters do spend significantly more on administrative costs — and less on classroom instruction — than nonprofits according to one recent study, consistent with concerns about profiteering. But the authors said there is little evidence that those schools were less effective or efficient as a result.

On the other hand, the largely for-profit sector of virtual charter operators have harmed student achievement — often dramatically, according to multiple studies. They have also proven politically influential, in a way that critics say helps keep struggling schools open.

An extensive analysis of charter schools in North Carolina found that the practice of contracting management out to for-profit companies likely violates the law. The nonprofit KIPP charter schools in the state, by contrast, had governance practices that were “thorough, correct, and in compliance.”

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and frequent charter school critic who has examined financial malfeasance in the sector, said the distinctions between the sectors weren’t always clear.

There are “bad actors on both sides,” he said, “but most good actors [are] on [the] nonprofit side.”

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.