Thursday, May 27, 2010

Charter schools crash and burn in Minnesota

UPDATE: According to the Minnesota Department of Education, charter schools are seven times more likely to be failing in the state than regular public schools. See update at bottom of post.
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We hear a lot from public school critics about how our children, to paraphrase George W. Bush, isn't learning. That was a bit of projection by the former president, but our current president has a similar attitude towards education. While evidence and horror stories pile up documenting the failure of charter schools, state and federal political leaders continue to insist that more be opened. Makes you wonder just who isn't learning. Though the examples below are selected for effect, there is also plenty of social-scientific evidence of the general failures of charter schools in Minnesota.

A helpful document available at the Minnesota Department of Education website lists 37 failed charter schools closed between 1996 and 2009. Honestly the list doesn't do justice to the criminality, self-dealing, opacity, and incompetence of the schools. Many of the failures do seem innocuous enough: not enough money, not enough students, not enough brains. On the other hand, there are a number of spectacular failures. Let's take a short walk down charter school memory lane.

Success Academy
This unfortunately named St Paul Charter opened in 1997 and closed in 2000, amid financial and academic failure, with two weeks remaining in the school year. The school's sponsor, the St Paul Public Schools, did an investigation that found
...fault with everything from the school's complicated contractual relationship with a local for-profit management firm, Public Academy Inc., to its academic program and staff-development efforts.
The most glaring item on the list was a $1.4 million operating deficit, which district officials say was mostly a result of financial mismanagement by Public Academy. Among other problems, the team found that the company had not accounted for a one- year lag in enrollment-based school funding from the state and had routinely overprojected enrollment.
The review team also said the firm had overcharged the school for licensing fees on instructional materials, building leases, and management services.
"The way they were choosing to spend the money they received made it impossible for them to have a quality school plan," said Mary B. Chorewycz, the St. Paul district's director for school quality review. "Many of the children attending this school were among the neediest in St. Paul, but their needs were not being met."
Minnesota Business Academy 
A few days ago the Strib invited a bunch of business type people to weigh in on the supposed problems with Minnesota primary education. But what does it look like when business leaders get what they want in education policy? Mike Mosedale wrote a story in the 2005 City Pages assessing the new charter school that thought like a business:
Q: What Happens When You Run a School Like a Business?
A: You Go Broke.
The students learned how to sit in cubicles and write memos. The staff learned how to ask for a bailout.
Mosedale reported that (emphasis added):
Laura Mirsch, who graduated from the school with honors in 2004, says the MBA's problems were never strictly financial. She thinks arrogance and inexperience on the part of some of the MBA's founders played a large role, too. "Basically, it was run by a bunch of businesspeople who thought they knew more about education than public educators," Mirsch says.
When Mirsch arrived as a freshman, she recalls, the students were each shown to a personal cubicle with a computer and a phone. The idea--that kids would learn well in a businesslike setting--didn't mesh with the reality of lightly supervised 14-year-olds left to their own devices. "It was total bedlam," Mirsch remembers. "You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls and screwing around all the time."
 Huh - I can't imagine why that didn't work.

Right Step Academy 
The US Department of Education's Inspector General filed a report on the owners of St. Paul's Right Step Academy charter school headlined  "Charter School Owners Sentenced for Defrauding School to Pay for Lavish Lifestyle": audit disclosed that under the Pierces' leadership, Right Step engaged in financial mismanagement, provided students an inadequate education, and provided unsafe transportation and facilities. Right Step, a publicly funded, tuition-free school created to offer a highly structured, discipline-based alternative education to at-risk youth, soon closed.
That sounds like a school premised on creating little authoritarians, run by social dominators.

Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth school
Closed in 2009.  This time the director was charged with embezzling millions:
Minneapolis charter school director allegedly embezzled $1.38 million.
His elaborate scam bought him a lavish lifestyle and closed the school, charges say.
Chiron Middle School
Chiron closed in February 2005, forcing its students to change schools in the middle of the school year. The state of Minnesota found:
the Managing Director misreported the number of students attending Chiron, resulting in Chiron receiving public funds to which it was not entitled. We found that the Managing Director misreported how federal funds were expended. We found that the Managing Director made unauthorized and questionable payments to herself, to Chiron employees, and to others. This report is being referred to the Minneapolis Police Department, and has been filed with the Hennepin County Attorney to institute such procredings as the law and public interest require.
 Apparently charges were filed against Chiron, but I can't find the disposition.

Dakota Open Charter School
The Dakota Open Charter School was closed for familiar reasons (emphasis added):
State school board members eventually stripped the charter of the K-12 school on the Lower Sioux reservation, closing the high school in 1997 and the lower grades earlier this year.

''There was clearly not much of any kind of education program going on at the school," Marsha R. Gronseth, the state board's executive director, said. But the revocation came only after exhaustive audits, site visits, and technical help from the state.

She added: "There's always the struggle of how quickly do you act and how much benefit of the doubt do you give in working these problems out. You don't want to bring the hammer down too quickly."
Thus are charters kept open, ruining the educations of thousands of students, all in the name of a failed experiment. Funny that the stated reason from the Minnesota Department of Education for closing down the Dakota Open Charter school was not listed as academic, it was financial. One wonders how bad a school would have to fail academically to be closed. Apparently not having "much of any kind of education program" isn't a barrier to state and federal approval.

The Fort Snelling Academy
This charter was closed down in 2001 in part because it had no school - it was using "tents and trailers" for its physical plant, the staff was not being paid, and its leaders were accused of financial mismanagement.

Learning Adventures
This charter was also closed in 2001 for self-dealing because the "School’s business manager leased space and hired consultants from a firm he owned."

Martin Hughes Charter School
This school operated from Sept. 1998–Nov. 2001 as part of the Mt. Iron/Buhl School District. It was closed according to the state auditor, for "Poor financial management by management company involving misuse of special education revenue and poor financial records."

New Voyage Academy
This St Paul charter school was closed in 2006 due to financial mismanagement that left 50 children having to change schools in March. According to a story in the St Paul Pioneer Press, it was plagued by "financial problems, unlicensed and inadequate staff, inadequate discipline, poor student performance and unstable leadership..."

Despite Minnesota's horrible experience with charter schools, our educational and political leaders insist on creating more of them. Each time regulators or journalists catch up with the corruption and craptaculation taking place at charters, the slickmeisters who run them find new ways to enrich themselves. Just this past year they were caught in elaborate schemes to enrich themselves by building new physical plants owned by private interests but paid for with public funds. The circus just keeps going around.

EARLY UPDATE:  Today the Minnesota Department of Education is citing the 32 lowest performing schools in the state. Of those, 11 are charters. That means 11 of 154 charter schools are failing, a failure rate of seven percent. Twenty one of the failing 32 are regular public schools; there are 2,485 regular public schools in the state,  giving a failure rate of  less than one percent.  So by the Minnesota DOE's own numbers, charter schools in Minnesota are failing at a rate seven times greater than regular public schools. You'd think such an easy calculation would be reported in the Strib, where charters are constantly pushed.

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