In The News
City charter system smells of insider trading cronyism
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted December 13, 2012
Charter schools are public schools funded by state taxes. They are approved by review committees with little input from local citizens and less control by voters than exists with elected school boards.
The city's charter school system is a rampant demonstration of how to lock out parents and educators with more sophisticated viewpoints. They're getting away with it because of an aura surrounding the term "charter schools." Major player Capital Roundtable is even holding conferences citing the boom in "Private Equity Investing in For-Profit Education" and encouraging the market to get in on the charter school boom taxpayers unknowingly create.
These public schools, rather than rife with fresh ideas as was the hope and excuse, are replete with new perils about how to measure success and how political status and inside clout can reap financial rewards - loopholes spelled out in complicated state legislation.
The movement has been taken over by the same monied interests that propel voucher schools, that well-meant but sustained proven failure over two decades. And no wonder, since ideas that sound good on paper take years -- from toddler to adolescence -- to measure. And can end up worse for the majority of students.
The city system proves how the current charter fever has become another maddening example of ignorance and belief in a magic wand for education while mainly grabbing the public dollar. Notes sociologist Christopher Bonastia, "The widespread enthusiasm for and rapid proliferation of charter schools also appears to mirror a persistent issue in American education: Expanding new programs before we know if they work and can (or should be) replicated on a larger scale."
(Conceding that the intentions of charter schools have changed over time, Prof. Bonastia also unsettles many African American backers of the charter whoopee with a historic reflection on how the original concept was used by segregationists to avoid the US Supreme Court.)
He is hardly as unhappy as Marva Herndon, Milwaukee chair of Women Committed to an Informed Community, which pushes the city to require playgrounds at new voucher schools (with mixed success) and tirelessly attacks the city for its lack of transparency in charter approval.
"We are the angry ladies who keep pestering the aldermen with letters and at hearings about caring about children's circumstances," said Herndon.
"We are actually not against either vouchers or charters. What put us on this mission was how the city was sliding these schools in, often into failing buildings, and there was no money for city residents. They are watering down building codes and endangering the physical and mental health of kids in this rush."
Republicans lawmakers such as Dale Schultz also worry about this rush to the charter movement. He blocked a new statewide authorizing agency last year for fear that would simply create yet another expensive untested school district for state taxpayers without clear returns.
"Before we rush to blow the cap off of charter schools, let's fully understand what the impact will be, especially on our rural schools," said Schultz "Most of the school boards are just incensed about this. It does take control away from local communities."
Herndon's outrage bubbles over Northpoint Lighthouse, 4200 W. Douglas Ave., a city charter her group vehemently objected to because its $13,000 warehouse building abuts an old rail-line on ground never submitted for environmental testing.
Despite her hard facts, the city didn't stop the deal. It still got the votes to open. She is not alone in thinking the fix was in.
"So now children are going to school in an old steel processing plant that had never been tested for ground pollution or suitability for human habitation," said Herndon. "These games make us show up at every hearing until someone listens."
Political power plays muscle games at the city where Common Council President Willie Hines is "deeply involved in charter cronyism" and controls influential committee assignments that none of his fellow African American aldermen dare buck - yet it is their districts dominated by this rush to voucher and charter approval. The small contingent of aldermen challenging knee-jerk charter approval are Tony Zielinski, Nik Kovac, Jose Perez and Bob Baumann.
Citizens are understandably confused about charter schools and the voucher school expansion in Milwaukee and Racine, which city property taxpayers do help pay for without direct say and that mainly religious groups operate as non-public schools with low standards of training for teachers hired - and fired. Disturbingly, many of the same players are involved, from Gov. Scott Walker down.
So let's do a charter primer.
In Milwaukee, different governmental units can authorize charter schools. The city itself and UWM approve charter schools but it is the city that is tied most closely to Howard Fuller, his Marquette University Institute for the Transformation of Learning and another organization he founded, the BAEO (Black Alliance for Educational Options).
Charter schools are also created under the Milwaukee Public Schools, but MPS keeps revenue in the city and keeps those student bodies included in the state aid funding formula for the school district.
However, this is not true of charter schools created by the city or UWM. The state's own legislative fiscal bureau spells out their lack of responsibility to local coffers: "These pupils are not counted by any school district for the purposes of revenue limits and aid membership."
So in these cases any rewards generated are not required for city or even state use, yet state taxpayer money pays for these charters. Nor are the students counted in the determination of state aid for the city school district, though charters are technically also public schools.
In contrast, MPS creates "instrumentality charters," which have union teachers and also "non-instrumentality" charters, which do not have union teachers but count attendees as MPS students for aid purposes. These "non-instrumentality" schools are not embraced but tolerated by the MTEA (teachers union).
"We support instrumentality charter schools that allow for creativity yet are closely tied to MPS and its initiatives," said MTEA President Bob Peterson. "We recognize that when a city charter school switches their charter to MPS, it helps the financial bottom line for children in Milwaukee."
Peterson went on to say, "This community has to understand that MPS is the only educational institution in the city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all students in Milwaukee."
Two other government entities have been approved to charter in the Milwaukee area but have not stepped heavily into the game - the Milwaukee Area Technical College not at all, and UW-Parkside, which has stuck a toe in the water.
Charters require review committees, but allow for-profit corporations to be subcontracted, which produces the danger of money under the table much like the old days of "rent a citizen" - a term famous from the era when cable companies competing for municipal business would hire public officials to lobby for them.
Of course, you don't have to accept money under the table since many charters pay leaders without public citizen review and their lobbying groups such as BAEO can help campaign efforts for friendly politicians.
The public - not just unaware of the profoundly different mechanisms of vouchers and charters though taxpayers pay for both - are also unaware of the lack of transparency. It was recently socked to them in an online blog by education expert Barbara Miner, who sought for weeks to learn about city charters. Even UWM, which at least has its educational departments pick the review committee, makes you dig to find out who these are, when they meet and how the public can attend.
MPS knows better. It is a traditional public system with open elections and regular required meetings. Other review committees can dodge open access but MPS makes sure their board committee are good about advance notice to discuss charter schools and hold public sessions with parents and other interested parties. Its members also know they face regular voter scrutiny, as many will next April.
Other government agencies seem to relish invisibility. "The city charter committee used to hold their meetings in Fuller's offices at Marquette until we kept complaining that wasn't kosher," laughs Herndon. "Then they moved to City Hall -- and you know how bad the acoustics are in those chambers. So no minutes, no mikes, no television broadcasts, no E-notify of the next meeting. But we keep showing up."
The conflict with community groups came to a head in November when Hines chastised citizens at a council meeting for letters to alderman objecting to one major charter approval, saying they should have spoken up at committee hearings - only to be reminded by letter that they were at those hearings and Hines as chair shut them down as his "prerogative" and even called security to eject one resident for objecting to the high-handed tactics.
This process can hardly be described as open but it allowed the city to ramrod through some powerful charter companies to run schools here, several also receiving federal grants through the state department of public instruction. Among the biggies are Fuller's Quest and Rocketship.
Fuller and some other charter programs also maneuver "umbrella" approval to open several schools under the same brand, advancing chances for multiple implementing $250,000 grants (taxpayer money). When you unfold the Fuller umbrella some familiar failed voucher names fall out -- along with a lot of taxpayer grant money.
In contrast, MPS has been forthright. It has turned down some distasteful schools first approved by the city -- such as AQS, which had a bad rep in Illinois and Indiana according to reports. So when MPS said no, AQS stepped back across the street and won approval from the city.
MPS is making deals with highly regarded companies that run "non-instrumentality" charters. One is Universal Milwaukee Community Charter School, from a Philadelphia company that already operates distant charter schools involving 4,000 students. Here it would start with 600 students and build each year into a full K-12, with 1200 students for MPS.
A big champion of Universal -- also an inner city real estate development company headed by Rahim Islam -- is MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton, a Philadelphia transfer who saw firsthand its education successes.
Another "non-instrumentality" initiative is Milwaukee College Prep, which already runs three MPS charter schools and next year plans a fourth, K-8. MPS charter schools by negotiation are rigorously reviewed to close if they fail, scrutinized along the way with public input in both their selection and operation.
MPS has also received government grants to initiate charter operations MTEC School of Environmental Science, Northeast Campus School and Banner School. But when it comes to grants, MPS brings up the hind end compared to the city, where Quest and Rocketship each got $250,000 and three UWM charter schools got $600,000 -- Breakwater Lighthouse, Northwest Scholars and Woodlands School II. With more in the wings.
The growth in charter schools is doubly alarming to many education experts in both parties and on local levels. Even outside Milwaukee it is viewed as an echo of the city's failed voucher program, though the mechanics of funding are quite different. Other school districts actually benefit from Milwaukee's voucher funding through a complicated formula but know that won't last if vouchers are expanded beyond the city. Charter schools, they say, could damage everyone immediately.
"The voucher program is so lousy," one education insider told me, whose position in negotiations demanded confidentiality, "that you have to wonder what is possessing Walker and the MMAC (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) to keep wasting money on expanding it. Are they trying to prove that business people can waste money better than anyone else? Except maybe the charter people?"
And sure enough, a leader of the MMAC, Tim Sheehy, also sits on the Rocketship board, a charter that sailed through the city.
Said MPS board member Peter Blewett, "The students have to be enraged at the MMAC, at any people attacking not helping the critical skills they need to succeed. Don't think the students don't notice how the same people pushing them into charter and voucher schools are also trying to take away their right to vote."
MPS board member Larry Miller, while an outspoken liberal, echoes many conservatives in questioning why the state is creating yet another school district to siphon money without proof of success.
The charter school movement is "designed to flood the market and destroy true public education," he said. "MPS has lost $8 million to charters in the last year - and while that may not seem as bad as the $55 million that vouchers have cost us, it is growing."
"One reason we approve our own charters is self-defense," Miller adds, "since we keep the kids counted, influence their educational excellence and protect revenue. Our deal with Universal requires them to keep the money in Milwaukee."
The city charters have no such hooks.
Some charter schools use Teach for America, a part of AmeriCorps and often promoted for the quality of its graduates from higher education. But statistics indicate most leave the teaching profession after the two year commitment -- another signal that the days of certified teachers as a lifelong profession are coming to an end and another reminder there is stick-to-itiveness value in seniority.
Now lower-paid teachers at charter schools are also starting to question what they've got themselves into. A non-union moderate made that point in an interview. "I may lose my job when I become too expensive to keep because of years of experience or this push for merit pay at a company concerned about profit share," he said. "So I could get fired the longer I stay and the minute I become better for students. So I may need to start looking now at helping my charter school form a teachers union."
THE FULLER CONNECTION
The city's charter choice of Quest-Milwaukee -- despite detailed letters and opposition for conflict of interest and bad behavior from Marva Herndon's women's group -- surely raises specters of insider trading. The school's concept and outlines stem from Howard Fuller at Marquette University, a hidden decisive player in the city's charter approval process.
Fuller is also a close political ally of key officials who appoint the steering committee. In contrast, the MPS selection process is more hands-off, refusing involvement of its selection committee in charter institutions.
Another large city approved charter program - California's Rocketship Education - grew out of a Catholic parish and now is accused of suppressing spending on special education teachers. Here, too, the Fuller brush sweeps along. A leader of Rocketship is Deborah McGriff, Fuller's wife, considered a key component of his education philosophy and a leader of Edison School, a national charter for-profit operation that was bought out after years of financial and educational failure.
Fuller also plays a strong role in state political decisions of determining and accrediting voucher schools, which brings these two diverse concepts - vouchers and charters -- uncomfortably close together, as does the lobbying participation of his BAEO group, particularly since BAEO members dominate the city charter committee.
Among those discomforting connections: The city has also approved charters for CEO Leadership Academy, also connected to Fuller, a school that once had the reputation of worst performing Milwaukee voucher school - but eight years of such failure didn't cause the Common Council to hesitate in granting a charter.
A charter was also given to the Darrell Hines Academy though his brother, Ald. Willlie Hines, appoints three of the city's charter controllers and is considered a close political ally of Fuller.
The city's charter public face? It's a phone number to submit a charter application. Drill down into Legistar or the city's own website calendar and you will find who the board members of the charter school review committee are (though some of that is out of date and one appointee seldom shows up; the majority are members of Fuller's BAEO and/or come from Marquette or Stritch).
At the city the relationships with Hines smack critics as "destructive links" of politics and money. Three of the members are appointed by Hines. Three are appointed by Mayor Tom Barrett, who despite his nice guy reputation has a lot of fence mending with a suspicious education community that remembers his attempt to take over MPS two years ago and questions his judgment on approving city charter schools, they told me.
The member that no one seemed to object to was the CPA solely appointed by the city comptroller.
"Howard is quite a piece of work," said one often admiring fellow black activist who insisted on anonymity. "He was a powerful civil rights leader who got special dispensation to become MPS superintendent. But when he couldn't get it all his way working the inside, he bolted. Now he works the inside of other governments, all the people who hate MPS. I think he sincerely cares about educating minority children, but he's knocking down rather than weighing what he's doing."
Yet Fuller has succeeded in making MPS look better despite the political financial attacks that weakened its student numbers. You can find a successful voucher school here and there, but you can also find low income families now desperate to move back to MPS public schools, while Gov. Walker seeks to expand vouchers to cover more than the low-income families they were once aimed at. This move up in income scale actually chilled Fuller, to his credit, yet he continues to support expansion projects in charter and voucher schools that will quickly do more of the same.
The old Fuller the colleague remembers "would have been the first in the street protesting someone playing both sides of the fence."