Monday, August 25, 2014

Yes, people are now talking about flipping schools

I don't know that anyone saw this coming though, in retrospect, we should have. One of the recurring elements in a number of reports of the questionable management of many charter schools is the role of real estate, either as a way of turning a quick buck or of influencing local governments.

We've already discussed Florida and Michigan. Now investigative journalist Owen Davis has a remarkable account that add New Jersey to the list (via Edushyster)
Half a year after Newark Public Schools launched an "agenda to ensure all students are in excellent schools," the plan has come under a federal civil rights investigation to determine whether it "discriminates against black students."

The investigation centers on a cluster of school closings in Newark's predominantly black South Ward. Absent a consistent reason why the district targeted these schools - such as poor academics or declining enrollment - activists alleged discrimination. The "One Newark" reform plan, they wrote, would "continue a pattern of shuttering public schools in communities of color."


But an in-depth look into the district's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to close one South Ward school reveals how real estate concerns and facilities funding increasingly drive neighborhood school closings and the expansion of privately managed charter schools. By allocating millions of dollars in little-known bonds exclusively to charters while imposing austerity on public facilities, the state has quietly stacked the deck for charters, leaving neighborhood schools to molder in decline.


"The school went out of its way to accommodate DeVahna," their mother Jacqueline Choice says. Teachers visited the home to keep DeVahna abreast of material she'd missed. When she returned to school temporarily in a wheelchair, staff and students diligently volunteered to carry her books and bring her lunch.
At Hawthorne, DeVahna and Darius "were finally in a comfortable place," says Choice. "The teachers were very sympathetic to our situation."

A midday text message from DeVahna last December shattered that sense of comfort. "Mommy, they're closing the school!" Choice remembers reading. "I had to call her to find out what was going on. She was in tears."

At the next board meeting, Superintendent Cami Anderson announced publicly what DeVahna had learned from her math teacher: Hawthorne would be handed over to a charter school, TEAM Academy, in a so-called "charter launch." The staff would be replaced. All told, the district's plan would impact a third of Newark's schools.

In 2011, came the Booker-Zuckerberg philanthropic blitz and Gov. Chris Christie's appointment of Superintendent Anderson, all aiming to transform the state-run district into an educational free market. That means replacing "failing" district schools with charter schools, which are privately managed, publicly funded and freed from certain regulations.


Hawthorne hoped to ride out these reforms unscathed. Since Principal H. Grady James arrived in 2011, the low-income school has seen "an amazing transformation," says a Hawthorne teacher (who asked to remain anonymous). Though it falls short of state averages, Hawthorne posted test scores last year that put it in the 94th percentile statewide in terms of student growth, outstripping all its Newark peers.

"Hawthorne did everything required by the state to stay open," says Choice, including what she describes wearily as "a whole year prepping for testing." That concentration on test scores, though grueling and arguably not an ideal educational focus, bore fruit, in terms of external evaluation of the district. "But once that was done," says Choice, the district "came in and said: 'Well, we're closing the school anyway.'"

The district justifies the move in part by pointing to the roughly 40 percent of South Ward families who sit on the waiting lists for charter schools they've chosen. But on the whole, Hawthorne's parents chose Hawthorne. Families boycotted school applications, held weekly protests and fired off countless letters to state officials. Choice began speaking out at board meetings, eventually joining the civil rights complaint that spurred the federal investigation.


Though Newark Public Schools (NPS) claims to use seven criteria for school turnover decisions, "No one question pulled the lever" for Hawthorne, says Gabrielle Wyatt, NPS executive director of strategy. 
But it's clear that one factor played an outsized role: money. Given the state funding landscape, NPS saw moving a charter in as a way to secure pressing building repairs.

Hawthorne's spacious brick schoolhouse is crumbling. Thick layers of paint slough off in the stairwells. A browning hole in the third floor ceiling oozes over a water fountain.

Charters' access to bonds allows them to "improve these community assets" - that is, school houses - "and allows the district to continue to operate. And keeps the district viable." This saves the state, which controls Newark schools, from paying to fix the very schools it let fall into disrepair.

1 comment:

  1. "This saves the state, which controls Newark schools, from paying to fix the very schools it let fall into disrepair."

    I am always skeptical that these approaches actually save money in the long run. After all, aren't private businesses supposed to generate profit? So either they are being coerced into spending all of their profits on school repair (in which case we can expect a dramatic drop-off in such charter schools) or we are paying an implicit mark-up on these costs.

    How is this smart?