Monthly Archives: November 2015

Superintendents elsewhere caught up in SUPES. PGCPS in the Mix.

chi-barbara-byrd-bennett-cps-ct0026111316-20150128Barbara Byrd-Bennett in this undated photo at a SUPES training.

The corruption conviction of disgraced ex-Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett illustrates the potential dangers of no-bid contracts while highlighting another potential pitfall: The problems that can arise when school leaders consult on the side for for-profit educational companies.

Increasingly, school officials throughout the country are moonlighting for education firms that sell everything from textbooks and software to professional development services.

And in many cases, these same companies are also doing business with the taxpayer-funded districts those officials oversee.

Experts say the trend is troubling. Not only does it create a conflict of interest or the appearance of one, it can also lead to something far more serious.

“Does this sidetrack superintendents so they take their eyes off the ball?” says Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Columbia University. “Does it lead to a give and take? Does it lead to a certain kind of coziness with these companies that does not serve the school district well?”

In Byrd-Bennett’s case, federal prosecutors allege she was promised bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering $23 million worth of CPS business to the SUPES Academy, a provider of professional development for principals.

Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, had worked as a consultant for the company before Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped her to lead CPS.

But she wasn’t the only school district leader with financial ties to SUPES.

A review by the Better Government Association and Catalyst Chicago identified dozens of superintendents and other high-level officials from districts across the country who worked as consultants for SUPES in Chicago.

And in a half-dozen of these cases, these paid consultants worked at districts that had also given contracts to SUPES or Synesi Associates, LLC, a related company that’s also named in the indictment.

Federal prosecutors have declined to say whether they’re looking into superintendents elsewhere, although they say the investigation is ongoing. No school district official outside of Chicago has said they’ve been contacted by federal investigators.

Notable findings from the BGA/Catalyst review, based on public records and interviews:

  • SUPES gave a paid consulting position to Baltimore County schools Supt. Dallas Dance in 2013, just months after his school board awarded the company a no-bid $875,000 contract. The district’s ethics commission looked into the arrangement following initial news stories about Byrd-Bennett and SUPES. The panel determined Dance violated district policy by not asking permission from the school board prior to accepting the consulting work, which involved training CPS principals.
  • Prompted by Byrd-Bennett news coverage, Iowa City school board members recently began raising questions about Supt. Stephen Murley’s ties to SUPES. Murley’s school board hired Synesi to do a $60,000 “operations review” in October 2011. The deal was approved following a quasi-bidding process. The next year, Murley started working for SUPES, training CPS principals. Murley told the BGA/Catalyst there’s no conflict because the district permits him to do “speaking engagements.”
  • The St. Louis school board awarded a $125,000 principal training contract, through a bidding process, to SUPES in 2012, just before Supt. Kelvin Adams started consulting for SUPES in Chicago, where he did principal training. The St. Louis district also awarded a $16,500 no-bid deal to Synesi in 2011. After questions from a reporter, school board President Rick Sullivan asked an independent attorney to review the district’s contracts with the companies, but Sullivan believes Adams is a man of “integrity” and didn’t do anything wrong.

Other school districts that hired SUPES and had officials consulting for the company include: Huntsville, Ala., Prince George’s County in Maryland, and Washoe County (Reno), in Nevada.

Procurement officials in Washoe County ended their three-year contract with SUPES in 2012, just after the first year and shortly after the resignation of Supt. Heath Morrison, who went on to work for SUPES during his next superintendent gig. Morrison, who now works for the McGraw Hill publishing company, said through a spokesman that there was no conflict of interest because he took the consulting gig after leaving Washoe County.

“I didn’t know he ended up working for them,” says former Washoe County schools Trustee Barbara Clark, who doesn’t remember the district’s contract with SUPES. “I think a lot of superintendents probably end up becoming consultants for companies.”

In both the Huntsville and Prince George’s County cases, the officials who went on to get side jobs with SUPES joined the school districts after the contracts were already in place.

Questions on payment

There are references to contracts in both St. Louis and Prince George’s County in Byrd-Bennett’s indictment. In an email to one of SUPES’ co-owners asking about how much she’d get paid, Byrd-Bennett writes: “I know we calculated PG and St. Louis….what is it for Chicago, assuming we hit the full amount?”

It’s unclear whether Byrd-Bennett was referring to payments for herself or officials in St. Louis and Prince George’s County, which is known by its abbreviations. (Officials in Prince George’s County treated reporters’ questions about the SUPES contract like a records request and have not provided any information.)

Attorneys for one of SUPES’ owners, Gary Solomon, say they’ve seen no evidence to indicate anything criminal took place outside of Chicago. Solomon and SUPES co-owner Tom Vranas were also indicted in the federal corruption case and have both pleaded not guilty.

It’s unknown how much the various SUPES consultants made for their work for SUPES, although sources say they were paid between $1,200 and $1,500 per year for each CPS principal they coached. A BGA/Catalyst review of district records from the contract with CPS shows that the consultants worked on average with about six principals.

Sources say that so-called “master teachers” earned as much as $25,000 for giving trainings to larger groups. The official in Huntsville says she was paid $26,000 for her work as a SUPES coach in another school district and is still owed $2,000 for her work in Chicago. (Another former consultant also said he is still owed money.) One former consultant whose district did not have a contract with SUPES said he made $34,000 in one year for his work for the company in Chicago and another district.

In Byrd-Bennett’s plea agreement, she says that she expected to receive a job with SUPES, bank accounts for her relatives, and a  “signing bonus consistent with those received by other superintendents when they become consultants, and thus worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Shelly Kulwin — an attorney for Solomon, SUPES and Synesi — assures that large signing bonuses weren’t the norm for retired superintendents who joined SUPES as consultants.

Instead, his interpretation is that Byrd-Bennett knew that as a matter of common practice, superintendents often receive “signing bonuses when they [go] to companies after leaving the public arena. That’s what she wanted from SUPES.”

Attorneys for Byrd-Bennett declined to comment for this story.

A lot of offers

Michael Hinojosa, just named superintendent of Dallas schools, said he never received a bonus for becoming a consultant for SUPES and ProACT Search, a headhunter company that, until recently, was also owned by Solomon and Vranas. In previous jobs, Hinojosa hired these companies — and he got his most recent job after a ProACT search.

Hinojosa says superintendents get a lot of offers, especially as they move up the ranks. He doesn’t “see anything wrong with consulting work as long as you’re getting your job done at home and you’re very clear with your board.”

CPS’ ethics policy prohibits employees from having a financial interest in a company that has a contract with the district. CPS officials say they have put new checks into place to prevent future conflicts of interest, but even CEO Forrest Claypool admits there’s “no magic bullet for integrity.”

Abrams, the Columbia professor and author of “Education and the Commercial Mindset,” says that the federal pressure on test-driven results gave rise to a whole new group of companies that promised that they could turn around schools. Like SUPES, these companies use proven school leaders to do training and mentoring, creating more opportunities for superintendents and more circular associations.

This is the crux of the problem, he says, just as it has been for professors of finance who consult with investment banks and hedge funds: candid assessment of policy may conflict with personal interest.  “And we can’t make good policy if we can’t assess it candidly,” he says.

This story was reported by Sarah Karp, of the Better Government Association, and Melissa Sanchez, of Catalyst Chicago. A condensed version of this story was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.



Who Is Funding the Charter Industry?


Ever wonder who is the supplying the money behind the privatization of public schools?

It is a long list, and it starts with the U.S. Department of Education. Every year since 1992?, your taxpayer dollars have been used to open schools that drain resources from your public schools while selecting the students they want. If your state has charters, you can expect that they will lobby the legislature for more charters. They will close their schools, hire buses, and send students, teachers, and parents to the State Capitol, all dressed in matching T-shirts, to demand more charters. Since the children are already enrolled in a charter and can’t attend more than one, they are being used to advance the financial interests of charter chains, which want to expand.

The big foundations support the growth of the charter industry: the Walton Family Foundation has put more than $1 billion into charters and vouchers; the Gates Foundation and the Eli Broad Foundation also put millions into charters, often partnering with the Far-right Walton Foundation.

There is a long list of other foundations that fund the assault on public education, including the John Arnold Foundation (ex-Enron trader), the Dell Foundation, the Helmsley Doundation, the Fisher Family Foundation (Gap and Old Navy), the Michael Bloomberg Foundation, and many more.

Here is a list of the funders of 50CAN, which started in Connecticut as ConnCAN, created by billionaires, corporate executives, and hedge fund managers, led by Jonathan Sackler, uber-rich Big Oharma.

Here is an example of a foundation that is very active in support of privatization. Check out where their money goes.

ALEC uses its clout with far-right legislators to promote charters and vouchers, as well as to negate local control over charters.

To see where the Walton Family Foundation spread over $202 million to advance privatization, look here.

The money trail is so large, that it is hard to know where to begin. Certain recipients do collect large sums with frequency, including KIPP, Teach for America, Education Trust, to name just a few.

As we say at the Network for Public Education, we are many, they are few. They have money, we have votes. Out ideas for children and education are sound, their ideas fail every time, everywhere.


Shock after PGCPS ‘confidential’ student records exposed to public view


School districts are tasked with keeping sensitive information about students private. But following the death of a Prince George’s County teenager, the 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team found confidential records available where anyone could see them.

Murdered defending his own mother, the family of Oxon Hill’s Keyshaun Mason wanted the world to understand the kind of young man he was when they gathered to honor him one month ago. His mother Lakisha Jenkins told the crowd, “Keyshaun was known in every area of his life.”

7 ON YOUR SIDE knows something about him too. Something we shouldn’t. Because when the I-Team searched the internet for information about the 14-year-old, we found Mason’s confidential student records posted online.

LeRoy Rooker, who previously oversaw the Family Policy Compliance Office for the U.S. Department of Education, said, “It’s shocking, it really is, that something like that, so sensitive would ever be in a place where it could inadvertently disclosed”

But Mason’s records aren’t the only ones we found. 7 ON YOUR SIDE discovered notes from a staffer in the Prince George’s County school system. Those notes detail medical and disciplinary information, grades and special needs plans for more than a dozen students at Oxon Hill Middle School.

Rooker explained all that information we found should have been protected by a federal law abbreviated as FERPA, the Family Electronic Rights and Privacy Act. It’s like its buddy, HIPAA, but for student records.

It was Rooker’s job to enforce FERPA for 21 years in his role with the Department of Education. He tells 7 ON YOUR SIDE the law is designed to make sure the kind of information we stumbled upon stays private.

“What you’ve showed me would clearly trigger an investigation,” Rooker said.

The Department of Education says it’s working with Prince George’s County to ensure it is in not in violation of FERPA following our discovery. We found the district’s information on a website called Weebly.

Jim Jones, associate professor at George Mason University, is a technology security expert. He says Weebly is not the kind of website designed to protect the kind of information we found.

Weebly, according to Jones, is a popular option for educators who want to share notes and work with colleagues and students. It has password protections, but Jones says it’s not the kind of site to wave the red flag when secret information goes public.

“Weebly is not designed to do that because they’re not expecting sensitive information to be in there,” Jones explained.

Parents also were not expecting sensitive information to be on the site. 7 ON YOUR SIDE took printouts of the records we obtained to those whose children were mentioned. Upon seeing the papers, the family of one student told us, “That’s something that’s confidential between her and her guidance counselor.”

The families questioned whether Prince George’s County schools planned to notify whether the information had been exposed. But the district wasn’t aware the records had been posted until 7 ON YOUR SIDE told them.

A district spokeswoman declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview, telling ABC7 “PGCPS makes every effort to protect confidential information”. In a statement the district said the website where the records were found was immediately taken down. But days later 7 ON YOUR SIDE was still able to access a cached version of the records, with information still publicly available on the website.

After notifying the U.S. Department of Education about our findings, the link to the records finally disappeared. But the trouble for the district has not. The agency says it will continue to work with Prince George’s County Public Schools to ensure compliance with federal law.

After our discovery and questions about the use of Weebly, PGCPS’ spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson said, “We will advise schools that the site should not be used for confidential student information. Understanding that everything in the digital realm runs the risk of being compromised, the district does have comprehensive measures in place to protect our systems from administrative procedures to dedicated staff members.”

One family the I-Team spoke with believes her child’s information should never have been on the web to begin with, saying, “She appreciates that you guys came here and let her know because clearly they weren’t going to let us know because that’s a mistake.”

Weebly, a third party web hosting platform mentioned in this report, responded to this report with this statement:

“Weebly takes the online posting of private or illegal information very seriously. Posting such content is in direct violation of Weebly’s terms of service, and its legal and policy teams respond immediately to abuse claims. Weebly hosts 32 million sites and in this particular case, it appears the site creator failed to utilize Weebly’s password protection feature and improperly publicized private student information. If anyone comes across a Weebly-powered site with questionable content, they are highly encouraged to reach out to Weebly to address those concerns.”pgcps_logoimage


Happy Holidays and Give Thanks.


Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to give thanks. No matter what may be happening around you, you can always find something to be thankful to God for.  Reform Sasscer Movement family pray that you have a blessed week with your family and loved ones. God bless!


International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women – 25 November


2Why This International Day?

  • Violence against women is a human rights violation
  • Violence against women is a consequence of discrimination against women, in law and also in practice, and of persisting inequalities between men and women
  • Violence against women impacts on, and impedes, progress in many areas, including poverty eradication, combating HIV/AIDS, and peace and security
  • Violence against women and girls is not inevitable. Prevention is possible and essential
  • Violence against women continues to be a global pandemic.


From 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world.

This year, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE to End Violence against Women invites you to “Orange the world: End violence against women and girls.” Join the UNiTE campaign and organize “Orange Events” between 25 November and 10 December 2015.
Join us! Share your photos, messages and videos showing how you orange your world at and using #orangetheworld. For more information about “Orange the world,” see poster and download toolkit.



The Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, the Empire State Building, the Peace Palace in The Hague, among other landmarks around the world were lit in orange for the International Day to Eliminate Violence against Women. Photo: UN Women



Ohio Teacher Will Sue State for Bullying


Dawn Neely-Randall Will Sue State for Bullying

Dawn Neely-Randall was taking a class training her to recognize bullying. Suddenly she realized she was the victim of bullying–by the state of Ohio. She plans to sue the state and welcomes others to join her.

She writes:

Neely-Randall vs. State of Ohio
Peer Discriminatory Harassment:

This past week, as I was completing an online training module assigned by the Ohio Department of Education via a required harassment/bullying video (so we could know the state laws within the classroom context), the definition of harassment given included to 1) have an intent to harm; 2) be directed at a specific target; and 3) involve repeated incidents. I learned that legally, harassment focuses on how the behavior affects the victim.

As a teacher in the State of Ohio, I suddenly realized that I am being harassed by the Ohio Department of Education’s own legal definition as well as from legislators who are passing harmful laws to hurt me as well as many harmful laws that hurt my students, which totally, unequivocally knock the wind right out of me.

 The state is asking teachers to educate and test students in ways that many of us do not feel are morally correct or developmentally appropriate. For instance, very shortly, some districts will test 3rd graders (a test they must pass in order to pass third grade; another form of harassment) for three hours straight. So, eight year olds will sit at a computer for THREE HOURS STRAIGHT taking a high-stakes (high-pressure situation) English Language Arts test so they can pass third-grade, even though, they are only beginning their second quarter of third-grade. Harassment, much?

 In addition, “preliminary” raw data were finally released by the state from PARCC. A woman could have conceived, grown, and birthed a baby in less time than it took for students to have received their scores from the state based on their LAST year’s testing. Oh, wait. Students STILL have not received their scores and the school’s “grade card” is not due out until at least the end of January. Yet, the media are already reporting these raw, preliminary numbers, which, in effect, label teachers and schools. Districts in poverty zip codes are looking like failures whereas schools in more affluent zip codes look like they have better teachers. The scores also do not account for if a student made tremendous growth from the time he/she walked into the classroom and instead, labeled the child as “Basic” or “Limited” aka, failures. Labels hurt. Labels don’t go away. Labels on children are a form of harassment.

 Our Ohio Department of Education is a mess. State superintendents do not stick around long. Even when I called the ODE to ask about the new AIR tests, the person answering the phone asked me, “Is that spelled A-I-R?” Um, yes, yes it is. It seems that everyone there should know PARCC and AIR by now; especially at the state level.

 The charter scrubbing scandal is also a mess. Urban public schools are constantly being told they are FAILING and being threatened with state takeover while the Ohio Department of Education falsified charter information not only to the citizens of the state, but also to the United States Department of Education, and continued to label schools and did nothing to press charges against the person(s) falsifying the data, even though teachers in another state are IN JAIL for doing the same thing.

And on and on and on and on. (I haven’t even mentioned the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System where it took me eight hours to write one lesson plan and a process in which teachers are labeled at the state level based in large part on test scores.)

 Bottom line: I feel harassed by the Ohio Department of Education. I feel abused. I feel heartsick with what they are asking us to do in education and the hoops they are requiring us to put our students through. When a special ed student pulls out every eyelash during testing, that’s a problem. When a fifth-grade student breaks down blubbering during a high-states test, that’s a problem. When a child on an Individualized Instruction Plan calls the State of Ohio HIMSELF (with his parents’ help) THREE times because he feels so convinced  about how wrongly he is being treated and the Ohio Department of Education does not have the decency to return his message, that’s a problem.

 And during the high school years, in which it should be a student’s glory days and life preparation time, they are putting students, who are already being slammed by society, under tremendous stress and pressure by making teenagers the guinea pigs for their constant shifting of requirements for graduation.

 Yes, I feel harassed and finally, I’m going to do something about it.

 I will be looking for an attorney to represent me in a lawsuit against anyone harming the children, and thus, me, on my watch.

If you, too, feel harassed, please feel free to send me a note. (I’ve already heard from several people.)

 If you know of an attorney, legislator, anyone who can help me to get this process off the ground, I’d really appreciate it.

 I will be calling my union for help first. However, this is not on behalf of my amazing school or my supportive superintendent. This is on behalf of me, myself, and I. The state has crossed the line many times in the past few years, but their Peer Discriminatory Harassment online module taught me that I, too, am a victim of abuse. I will use their words in this lawsuit, not mine.

 On behalf of teachers all across the state, I’m not going to let them blacken my reputation or bruise me any longer. Feel free to join me.
Stay tuned.

Dawn Neely-Randall

ohio_map Ohio-Flag***

Puerto Rico’s School Crisis

12278121_10153406898383152_1640886395_nPhotos by Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Teachers Federation)

Politicians in Puerto Rico are seeking to solve decades of fiscal mismanagement by adopting the same education reforms that are hurting children and starving school districts in the mainland United States. The disaster capitalism coming to the azure waters of Puerto Rico is very similar to the school privatization and private-control education reform causing an uproar in Chicago and Detroit.

A day strike by thousands of teachers across the island of Puerto Rico on Tuesday demonstrated the intensity of their concern about the new regime.

In October, Senator Eduardo Bhatia fast-tracked Project 1456 in the Puerto Rican Senate. School closure requirements in 1456 are the first notable parallel with the Detroit and Chicago school privatization playbook. In Chicago, 50 schools (primarily in African-American neighborhoods) were recently closed under the pretext that they were under-enrolled. A University of Chicago study showed that after neighborhood school closure, students were shuffled to a new set of low-performing schools— often charter schools.

In Michigan, the state created the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), an education board similar to the one proposed in Project 1456. Michigan is different from other states because the vast majority of its charter schools are already run by for-profit companies. The Detroit News reports that the EAA and the for-profit charters have been plagued by low performance and corruption.

Since 2014, the Puerto Rican government has closed 135 schools— about 10% of the schools on the island. The results of these school closings are class sizes as large as 40 students. The new law requires the closure of 400 more public schools—30% of the remaining public schools on the island. Additionally, Project 1456 requires that the government turn at least 15% of schools into Lider (charter schools) every three years under the auspices of private control and the education authority.

While a debate rages on the quality of charter schools in the United States, most peer-reviewed literature demonstrates that charters typically perform no better than traditional public schools. Nor do charter schools serve all students.

While many in the mainland United States argue that charter schools are public schools— this bill makes it clear that Lider schools are public schools in name only. The bill amends Puerto Rico’s 1951 pension law by explicitly stating that charter school teachers are not public employees. As a result, they will not have access to the public pension retirement system.


While the rest of the United States is finally retreating from high-stakes testing after the failed No Child Left Behind experiment, Puerto Rico is going in the opposite direction. Project 1456 intensifies the focus on high-stakes testing. It creates a high-stakes teacher evaluation system where educators’ value is tied to three years of testing “growth.” If teachers don’t raise scores, they are fired. Statistical experts from the American Education Research Association recently publicly decried the extensive misuse of test scores by policymakers for teacher evaluation.

In some ways, Puerto Rico is moving even further than Chicago and Detroit. The most bold provision of the new law is the codification of a majority vote (the boundaries and requirement of which are not defined in the legislation) to take schools from communities and place them under the auspices of the private charter operator and the education authority.

This approach is called a “trigger vote.”  A school can be taken from public control by a vote of 51% of “parents of students enrolled in said school, who are present at the vote.” A surprising new twist in 1456 is that teachers can also take a school away from a community with a 51% trigger vote. However, the legislation does not stipulate that if teachers and parents are unhappy with the results of the trigger the school can return to from private to public status. The trigger vote is a one-way street to privatization by permanently transferring millions of dollars of public property assets into private hands.


Will private control and privatization approaches improve student achievement in Puerto Rico? After many years of private control reforms, Chicago and Detroit are still performing near the bottom as measured by average 2013 NAEP math and reading scores (4th and 8th) when compared with other large U.S. cities. The “education reforms” in Puerto Rico are being marketed as a route to academic improvement for Puerto Rican children. But the genesis of these ideas has nothing to do with students. It’s all about debt.

CNN Money reported that a group of 34 hedge funds led by Fir Tree Partners funded a report by three economists that calls for Puerto Rico to close some schools, reduce university subsidies and fire teachers so it can pay back its debt.

The privatization of Puerto Rico’s schools is a way to address the tens of billions of dollars in debt that Puerto Rican politicians have accrued over the past several decades. Will Puerto Rico satiate their addiction to debt on the backs of impoverished children? The answer hinges on the passage of 1456.

– See more at:


State Supreme Court says no — again — to Washington charter schools

Charter SchoolsDemocratic state Rep. Larry Springer, left, speaks to supporters of state charter schools during a rally in front of the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. Rachel La Corte AP

The Washington State Supreme Court announced Thursday that it will not reconsider its September decision declaring the state’s voter-approved law establishing charter schools was unconstitutional.

The high court had been asked to reconsider its decision by several parties, including the state charter school association, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a bipartisan group of 10 legislators and four former state attorneys general.

A slim majority — five of the nine justices — said the court should deny the request for reconsideration. Three justices dissented, saying they would have revisited the decision in full.

Additionally, Justice Mary Yu said she would have been willing to reconsider the portion of the decision invalidating charter school funding.

The court ruled Sept. 4 that the state’s voter-approved charter school law is unconstitutional, mainly because the schools are overseen by boards that are appointed rather than elected.

The state’s nine charter schools — all but one newly opened in August — have continued to stay open as they waited to see whether the court would reconsider its ruling.

Three of the charter schools are in Tacoma.

The ruling came on a day when buses from Tacoma and elsewhere in the state ferried more than 400 students and parents from charter schools to Olympia, where they rallied at the Capitol, testified before a joint Senate committee meeting and met with legislators.

Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat from Issaquah who met with charter school families at the Capitol, called the timing of the decision “horrible.”

“There are 300 students here who were really happy with their schools,” Mullet said. “What a bad day for the court to tell them that they’re not going to reconsider.”

Katie Wilton, a ninth-grade student at Summit Olympus in Tacoma, called the ruling unfair and asked lawmakers to be courageous and do whatever they can to save her school.

“This goes against the will of Washington state voters,” Wilton said. “This is not how democracy is supposed to work.”

A change in state law now appears to be the last hope charter supporters have for maintaining public funding for the privately managed schools. The schools had been receiving public funds while the court reconsideration loomed.

What will happen on the funding front is still to be determined, said Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for the newly formed Act Now for Washington Students, which backs charters.


Rich Wood, Washington Education Association spokesman

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled in favor of our families who are crying out for these great public schools,” said Maggie Myers, spokeswoman for the Washington State Charter Schools Association. “What this means is that we will shift our attention to the Legislature.”

“This adds a sense of urgency to what kids and parents were asking for today,” Lilly added.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican who is one of the Senate Republicans’ leaders on education issues, said the court’s decision was disappointing, especially considering how many stories lawmakers heard Thursday about how charter schools were benefiting students.

“Many students of poverty and color, who have felt disenfranchised and disconnected by our traditional schools, are seeing tremendous results at these schools,” Dammeier said. “Why the Supreme Court would be using arcane legal arguments and technicalities to deny these 1,200 students the education that they choose and is successful for them is beyond comprehension.”

Others said the Supreme Court was correct to stand by its September ruling. State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, said charter schools — like traditional public schools — need to be accountable to local voters and taxpayers.


Cynara Lilly, charter school spokeswoman

The court’s announcement Thursday should help refocus the Legislature’s attention on boosting funding for K-12 public schools, said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the statewide teacher’s union that challenged the charter law.

In the case known as McCleary, the Supreme Court has held the Legislature in contempt for its failure to come up with a plan to fully fund basic education by 2018.

“Now it’s time for the Legislature to focus on its paramount duty … and fully fund K-12 schools for all of our state’s kids,” said Wood, of the Washington Education Association. “That’s what we expect lawmakers to do when they return in January.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

map_wa_state (1)flag (1)

Urban Charter Schools Often Succeed. Suburban Ones Often Don’t.

22view-web-articleLargeThe Match Charter Public High School in Boston. Charter schools in Boston have produced big gains in test scores, research shows. KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Charter schools are controversial. But are they good for education?

Rigorous research suggests that the answer is yes for an important, underserved group: low-income, nonwhite students in urban areas. These children tend to do better if enrolled in charter schools instead of traditional public schools.

There are exceptions, of course. We can’t predict with certainty that a particular child will do better in a specific charter or traditional public school. Similarly, no doctor can honestly promise a patient she will benefit from a treatment.

Social scientists, like medical researchers, can confirm only whether, on average, a given treatment is beneficial for a given population. Not all charter schools are outstanding: In the suburbs, for example, the evidence is that they do no better than traditional public schools. But they have been shown to improve the education of disadvantaged children at scale, in multiple cities, over many years.

Charter schools are publicly funded but not bound by many of the rules that constrain traditional public schools.

Charters, for example, can easily try new curriculums or teaching strategies, or choose to have a longer school day. They have more autonomy than traditional public schools in hiring and firing teachers, who have voted to form unions at only a handful of charters. Perhaps as a result, teachers’ unions have often opposed charter schools, saying they compete unfairly with traditional public schools and are not held to the same standards.

Measuring the effectiveness of any school is challenging. Parents choose their children’s schools, either by living in a certain school district or by applying to a private or charter school.

Some schools are filled with students — say, the children of highly motivated parents — who would perform well in almost any setting. This could mislead us into thinking these schools provide an exemplary education, when the truth is they attract strong students.

This is so-called selection bias, the greatest challenge in evaluating the effectiveness of schools. Stuyvesant High School in New York City, to which entry is granted through a competitive exam, is filled with smart students who might succeed anywhere. When those students do well, is it because of the school or the students or both? How about Harvard, or any other school?

In the case of charter schools, researchers have found an innovative way to overcome selection bias: analyzing the admission lotteries that charters are required to run when they have more applicants than seats.

Each lottery serves as a randomized trial, the gold standard of research methods. Random assignment lets us compare apples to apples: Lottery winners and losers are identical, on average, when they apply. Any differences that emerge after the lottery can safely be attributed to charter attendance.

One concern with this approach is that charters might push out difficult students after the lottery. News accounts indicate that some schools have engaged in this practice, including one school of the Success Academy, a high-performing charter school network in New York City.

That’s one reason the lottery studies don’t compare students who are and are not enrolled in charter schools, but instead compare students who win and lose the lotteries. If a student wins a lottery but declines to attend, or transfers out, her test scores are still assigned to the charter for the analysis. This means that the estimates are not biased by transfers after the lottery takes place.

Tracking thousands of students across hundreds of schools is made possible by student-level databases that states provide to approved researchers under stringent security agreements. Whether a child stays in a given school, transfers within a district or moves to a different district, these databases record her test scores, grade progression and, in some states, college attendance.

A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

My own research, conducted with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, shows that charter schools in Boston produced huge gains in test scores. A majority of students at Boston’s charters are African-American and poor. Their score gains are large enough to reduce the black-white score gap in Boston’s middle schools by two-thirds.

Boston’s charters also do a better job at preparing students for college. Charter students are twice as likely to take an Advanced Placement exam as similar students in Boston’s other public schools. Ten percent of charter students pass an A.P. calculus test, compared with just 1 percent of similar students in other public schools. This stronger preparation means that these charter students are far more likely than similar students in traditional public schools to attend a four-year college.
Perhaps only the best charters are popular, and that’s why the lottery studies produce such positive estimates. We can’t use the lottery approach to assess a school that does not have high demand for its seats.

In Boston, we used alternative statistical methods to examine the charters that are not oversubscribed. We found smaller but still positive results. A Stanford study examined student performance in 41 cities, and also concluded that their charters outperformed their traditional public schools. A caution: Without randomization, we can’t be as certain these nonlottery studies have eliminated selection bias.

Not all charters are successful, of course, but we should not expect them to be. Charters are a place for educators to try out new methods. Some of these experiments produce great results. Others don’t. It’s the job of government to distinguish between the successful schools and the failures, and to shut down the failures.

In Massachusetts, charter schools with a proven track record are allowed to add more grades or open more schools. The Match charter in Boston started as a high school but now also enrolls students from kindergarten through middle school. But in some states, including Ohio, oversight is weak, and poorly performing charter schools have been allowed to expand.

A charter gives schools the autonomy to innovate. But it also obliges state and local governments to hold schools accountable. If schools that don’t educate children well are allowed to stay open, it’s a failure of government, and not of the charter experiment itself.

Susan M. Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @dynarski.


Tennessee Dad: The Refugees Among Us Now


It’s funny. As I read all the comments about Syrian refugee children and their potential arrival in the United States over the next couple months, I marvel at people’s opinions and their lack of knowledge. I have a unique perspective because my children both attend a school where there is a high population of English Learners and children in poverty. It also serves a large population of refugees. Refugees that arrive from all over the world, places with terrorist organization every bit as active as those in Syria, just without the headlines.

There are students at my kids’ school who, just last year, lived in fear of violence. Some of them might have been carrying rifles themselves; after all, they arrived from war-torn countries like Somalia and Nigeria were the recruitment of children as soldiers is an established practice. The possibility also exists that their parents may have been complicit in acts that you or I would find reprehensible. Last year, an older boy from Africa woke his mother by pouring hot coffee on her as she slept, but now he is a student here. Yet somehow we’ve welcomed them all and done our best to educate them with remarkably few incidents due to the dedicated professionals who interact with these children every day. In Nashville those professionals are among the best in the country and the districts plan among the boldest.

Yesterday, I read to my son’s kindergarten class. A class made up of children with names I couldn’t even begin to spell, yet their names roll off my son’s tongue like Mark or John would roll off mine. I look at these children, and I just marvel at the breadth of experience that my son is privy to because of them. We read I Am Helen Keller, and while I won’t say they paid rapt attention – they are kindergartners, after all – I think the message resonated. And when I read Stick and Stone, they laughed aloud. These are children like any other children and I got as much from them as they could ever get from me.

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with the then-head of Teach for America in Nashville. She made the assertion that we always need to remember that kids of color are not in the classroom to be cultural experiences for white children. At the time, I kind of bought into that, but after seeing my children thrive in their school and interact with their multicultural friends, I find her statement to be ignorant. Every child in the classroom is there to be a cultural experience for every other child in the classroom. We all learn from each other.

Reading and math is important, but what good is that knowledge if a child has no ability to interact with their peers? The world is changing rapidly. Our children will not be able to function in silos. Their peers will be Egyptians, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Somalian, French, and yes, Syrian. What that future actually looks like will depend a great deal upon the skills that our children develop now. Why would we not provide them a safe place to hone those skills in their formative years?

The thing is, this experience has to become more equitable. We have to ensure that these children are getting an education that is not dissimilar from the one our children receive in wealthier schools. They must be exposed to athletics, music, art, industrial arts, and not just focused on meeting testing demands. We must help them assimilate in a manner that allows them to get the best of this country. The same way many of our ancestors were assimilated when they arrived on Ellis Island more than 100 years ago. At that time, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and even Puerto Rico were considered scary places to be from.

The first step is that we have to recognize that all English learners are not the same. There is a huge difference between refugee children and immigrant children. Yet on test score reports, there is no statistical differentiation. Children who arrive from Egypt are vastly different from children who arrive from Iraq, though both are of Middle Eastern descent. Even children arriving from the same country are not the same. A wealthier school may have children from Mexico, but these children have parents who have an average of a high school education, while a school like my children’s has children whose parents have an average education of second grade. For immigrant children, language mastery may be the key to unlock the door, while for refugee children it may be just the beginning . We must force ourselves to look at EL children as we look at all children, each with unique talents and needs.

If you look at a list of so-called failing schools, you’ll notice something interesting.None of those schools are in wealthy neighborhoods, and the majority of them have either a high concentration of students from high poverty, high English learners, or both. This can be traced directly back to how we test those new to the country. In Tennessee, every student is tested and if the student has been in the country for a year, their test counts against the school and against the teacher. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you can barely speak the language and your parents are still trying to navigate the system, you are not going to produce spectacular test results.

What that translates to is a heavy focus on getting these children ready to test. In a wealthier school, you don’t have to be as relentless because children are having lessons reinforced at home. Whereas children who are English learners have parents who may be working two jobs and trying to acclimate on their own. Teachers are under a constant barrage in high EL schools to prepare children to test. There is no time to explore other interests, children may be exposed to the same subjects as children at wealthier schools but exploration seldom goes as deep. Wealthier schools also have the luxury of forming parent organizations that are capable of raising tens of thousands of dollars to offset the cost of required technology for these state tests. In a high EL/poverty school these organizations are virtually non-existent. It makes a difference.

There is also the fore mentioned challenge of language. Many of these children arrive at these schools not speaking a bit of English. Both of my children sit next to kids who don’t speak English at all. In my son’s class, one was distraught every morning and would cry for his mother. Peter would come comfort him and help him get his breakfast. The child has slowly become acclimated, and I can’t help but think my son played a part in it. Peter learned a lesson about what it means to be different and alone and how kindness can change the picture. His classmate learned that even if you find that you are alone and different, there are friends waiting to be made. I think this lesson is every bit as important as the grade level they are reading on.

When we talk about language we don’t give a clear picture either. You will hear so-called experts talk about how quickly students learn English and so things aren’t as hard as they’re painted out to be. What they are referring to is “playground language,” and they are right, children master this quickly. Sometimes within a year. Unfortunately, excelling at the tests requires a mastery of “academic language,” and that takes four to seven years to master and is dependent on the amount of education received in a child’s native country. This is long enough for children and schools to be labeled failures despite studies that show that once English learners become proficient in academic English, their test scores soar.

This year, I have been working on trying to get legislation passed that will allow for us to get a more accurate view of how our schools are performing. I am proposing that we don’t include the test scores for EL children until they are either English proficient or have been in the country for 5 years. This aligns with current research and only makes sense. Unless of course we are trying to use those scores to demonstrate failures instead of success.

I recently met with representatives from the Tennessee Department of Education on this matter and was very encouraged by their response. They recognize the need to differentiate and are open to finding methods to establish a policy that gives our EL students room to breathe, but still holds people accountable. Though as an aside here, the majority of teachers I know hold themselves to a greater level of accountability than the State could ever apply. That said, I’m encouraged by the DOE’s receptiveness. We are supposed to meet again after the first of the year, and I really appreciate their willingness to collaborate. It is evidence that Commissioner McQueen may be truly changing the culture at the Tennessee Department of Education.

As you are reading the debates of whether we should allow more children from Syria into the country or not, please keep in mind the children of the school where my own children attend. A school full of children who come from areas of the world where evil atrocities are being committed just like those in Syria. They come from areas that terrorist groups every bit as dangerous as ISIS exist and are every bit as active. Yet we welcome them and try to prepare them for a better world every day. Also keep in mind that we’ve had citizen’s of our own country walk into schools and commits heinous acts. So even if we were to deny entry to every foreign born child we would still be vulnerable.

We need to continue to pursue strong English Learner policies and provide safe learning places for all children. We have teachers and administrators in place that know these students needs and the best ways and means to address those needs. The experiences and knowledge of these administrators and teachers needs to be utilized to drive policy that will better enable our schools to serve all children.  I also encourage you to volunteer in a high needs schools, or in any school. It’s one social experience that will change your life.