Yes, some charter schools are great, but others are a mess — especially in Ohio, where academic results across the sector are far worse than in traditional public schools and financial and ethical scandals are more than common. How bad is the problem? The Plain Dealer ran a story this year that started like this:
Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you.
Ohio’s $1 billion charter school system was the butt of jokes at a conference for reporters on school choice in Denver late last week, as well as the target of sharp criticism of charter school failures across the state.
The shots came from expected critics like teachers unions, but also from pro-charter voices, as the state considers ways to improve how it handles charters …
An example of a joke from the conference: “Be very glad that you have Nevada, so you are not the worst,” charter researcher Margaret “Macke” Raymond said of Ohio. …
Ohio’s Greg Harris Wants Detroit Schools to Become All Charter
Detroit Public Schools (DPS) are in phenomenal fiscal crisis. DPS is currently being overseen by retired US bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who, in turn, has appointed Detroit native and veteran teacher Alycia Meriweather as DPS interim superintendent.
In order to confront DPS’s approximately $500 million debt and help DPS survive, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced in October 2015 his support for legislation to isolate and pay off DPS debt and to re-create DPS as a new district, Detroit Community School District (DCSD), one that would finally forego the years of revolving-door “emergency management” that has exacerbated DPS’ fiscal woes, including the horrendous state of DPS’ physical facilities.
According to the legislation, DCSD would be run by a seven-member board initially appointed by governor and Detroit mayor but becoming a fully-elected board by 2021.
Moreover, Rhodes states that only $50 million of DPS’ debt could be dealt with by declaring bankruptcy. The remaining $450 million is secured, which makes it the undeniable and unavoidable responsibility of the State of Michigan.
As it stands, for the 2015-16 school year, DPS is expected to run out of money by April 08, 2016. However, in another piece of legislation, Snyder is trying to secure funding to keep DPS open for the remainder of the 2015-16 school year.
Thus, what DPS (or the new, DCSD) needs is stability. It needs to be rescued from its burden of debt; it needs to be overseen by an elected board of individuals who have invested their lives in Detroit (as opposed to out-of-state corporate reform interests); it needs to have safe, clean, up-to-code facilities, and it needs to be shielded from the disruption that is a hallmark of would-be, test-score-worshiping, education “reform.”
In short, after its rescue, Detroit’s public school system needs a rest.
But don’t you know, where there is a school system in crisis, the corporate reform parasites are waiting to hatch some eggs.
On January 04, 2016, a man named Greg Harris published in the Michigan Capital Confidential an opinion piece entitled, “Use a Charter School Board to Reorganize Detroit Public Schools.”
In his piece, Harris suggests “a choice driven system… model[ed] after D.C.’s Public Charter School Board.” Of course, school closure must figure into the choice plan; just “authorize independent operators” who must meet some “performance standard.” No problem if the standard is not met; just close the schools that don’t measure up and open new ones in their place, and “try to scale the schools that succeed.”
This cake involves major community upheaval via school closure as a key ingredient– which Harris downplays by moving quickly to the parental empowerment spiel:
The D.C. board manages performance contracts with each operator, closes schools that do not meet performance standards and tries to scale schools that succeed. It does not manage where students must attend school — parents are free to choose to enroll their children in any school.
Harris advocates that Detroit be reborn as an all-charter district, one that uses the DC charter board as a model. (Note that DC itself is not an all-charter district. There is DC Public Schools, and there is DC Public Charter Schools.)
Harris adds that the handful of charters already operating in Detroit are producing better results (test scores, yes? always test scores) than DPS– though such a declaration is contradicted in other venues.
But who, exactly, is this Greg Harris?
Well, at the close of his Michigan op-ed, one reads the following:
Greg Harris, a former English teacher who holds a doctorate from Miami University, serves as a principal of the New Governance Group. This commentary is provided by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Mackinac Center are properly cited.
Mackinac Center. The Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch has a lot to offer about Mackinac Center, including its funding by the Koch brothers and its support for “extremely broad powers” for emergency managers: According to SourceWatch:
Mackinac has supported changes to Michigan law to give more power to emergency financial managers, according to Progress Michigan. These managers, who are state appointed officials, are given a broad range of powers to financially fix and take over struggling cities or school districts. A 2011 report from Mackinac suggested that these managers be given powers including the abilities to override elected officials and toss out union contracts.
In 2005, the Center published a paper arguing an emergency financial manager with extremely broad powers should take control of the finances of Detroit, long plagued by budgetary problems. The Center advocated four major policy changes. The policies advocated by the Center included that the manager should “replace and take on the powers of the governing body”, have the power to alter the charter of a municipality or district, and be immune from litigation. Binding arbitration for union contracts after failed re-negotiation would also be abolished, allowing the manager the power to opt out of the use of union labor at the end of a union’s contract. All four of these changes were proposed in controversial legislation introduced by newly elected governor Rick Snyder in 2011.
So, Harris is with (as SourceWatch adds) “a right-wing pressure group based in Michigan. Founded in 1987, it is the largest state-level “think tank” in the nation. It was established by right-wing activists to promote ‘free market,’ pro-business policies.”
Note that Mackinac is also recipient of DeVos Family Foundation money.
No wonder Harris views placing Detroit schools in the throes of charter churn as no problem.
But there is more to Harris. He is a corporate reformer from Ohio, as noted in this “Recovering Politician” bio:
Greg Harris is the founding director of the New Governance Group, and serves as a Public Policy Advisor for Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national education philanthropy that seeds future-oriented educational practices and policy reforms.
At KnowledgeWorks, he led successful policy initiatives on education, workforce development and economic development. Harris currently serves as a lead consultant for the Ohio “Smart Schools” initiative, which identified over $1 billion in cost-savings in school budgets without compromising classroom performance, and is currently charged with taking the initiative national. He has also played a key role in KnowledgeWorks’ strategic communications and foundation relations efforts.
Harris managed former Governor Bob Taft’s Ohio Workforce Education and Training and Advisory Council that led to transformative changes to the state’s workforce development system, and served on Governor Ted Strickland’s Governor’s Workforce Policy Board.
From 2000-2005, Harris served as Executive Director of Citizens for Civic Renewal, which built broad public support for smart growth policies and regional approaches for addressing Cincinnati metro challenges.
Harris is a former Congressional candidate who also served on Cincinnati City Council. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Miami (OH) University. He has two sons, and resides in Cincinnati.
Moreover, Harris’ Linkedin bio adds the following regarding his history– and his writing op-eds targeted at Detroit schools:
New Governance Group, LLC
February 2009 – Present (7 years 2 months)
Projects included leading initiatives in Ohio, Delaware and Detroit to fund, implement and build public and policy supports for organizations charged with systemic education reforms. Improved impact of philanthropies, non-profits and business partnerships.
October 2012 – October 2015 (3 years 1 month)
Harris’ Linkedin bio also includes his teaching experience, which was six years as an English instructor at Miami University (August 1993-May 1999). Harris is not a K12 teacher. His Michigan Capitol bio identifies Harris as “a former English teacher,” which is convenient gloss to make him appear to be a former public school teacher– and therefore make his corporate ed message more palatable to public school supporters. (Harris pulled a similar stunt in promoting “opting in” in February 2015 for Education Post, where his bio refers to him as “a former teacher.” In that case, Harris’ bio does not mention his ed reform incubus role in founding New Governance.)
Ohio’s Greg Harris wants to “build public and policy supports for organizations charged with systemic education reforms.” That’s why he’s hanging his Ohio hat at Mackinac: To help Mackinac establish corporate-reform “new governance” over Detroit’s schools.
If Harris has been working as an Ohio reformer since at least 2009, then why doesn’t he promote Ohio charters in Detroit?
This one is fish in that proverbial barrel, folks:
Because Ohio charters are among the worst.
In June 2016, Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss published a piece entitled, “Troubled Ohio Charter Schools Have Become a Joke– Literally.” Below are some excerpts:
And the bad news just keeps on coming for Ohio charters, also called “community” schools, which in 2013-14 educated more than 120,000 students, or 7 percent of the total public school enrollment in the state. Consider this:
No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.
That’s the first paragraph of a story this month in the Akron Beacon Journal about the newspaper’s review of 4,263 audits released last year by the state, which says that Ohio charter schools appear to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It says that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.” One more thing: The amount of misspending could be far higher, it says. …
In the same week that the Akron Beacon Journal published its story:
* The Columbus Dispatch, whose editorials have been supportive of charters, ran an editorial titled “Open the books” that said in part: “[C]harter-reform legislation should require companies paid to operate charter schools to disclose how they spend the tax dollars they’re given. To date, some large companies have been paid millions of tax dollars and made no accounting to the public or, in some cases, even to the charter-school boards that hired them.”
Strauss continues with a number of Ohio charter school mismanagement woes. But the national news on Ohio’s charters came when despite Ohio’s admitting to fabricating details on its July 2015 federal application for charter school funding, as the Columbus Dispatch reports on February 04, 2016:
The Dispatch reported in October that the [Ohio] Department of Education’s claims about the performance of Ohio’s $1 billion charter-school system were inflated. In the state’s July 18 grant application, education officials claimed that in the 2012-13 school year, Ohio had no “poor performing” charters, even though about a third of the schools didn’t meet a single standard on their state report cards that year and 60 percent of them got D or F grades on the “performance index,” a measure of how students perform on state tests.
Amazingly, Ohio received $71 million in federal funding anyway because, well, the feds only had time for cursory attention to Ohio’s admitting to USDOE that officials had lied on that July 2015 application. When Ohio officials complained about USDOE’s apparently ignoring the scandalous issue of Ohio charter failure as it awarded Ohio the largest November 2015 charter grant, USDOE then decided to withhold federal charter cash payout until Ohio updated its charter application– which it did in January 2016, as the Dispatch continues in its February 2016 article:
As state education officials seek the release of a $71 million federal charter school grant, they now say Ohio has nearly 10 times as many failing charter schools as previously claimed.
The Department of Education says there are 57 poor-performing charter schools in Ohio, not the six reported in its grant application submitted in July.
As for high-performing charter schools, it turns out there are 59, not the 93 originally claimed.
If the schools don’t shell out the test scores, just close ’em, right?
There’s that churn, as the Dispatch noted in a January 2014 article entitled, “Columbus Has 17 Charter School Failures in One Year: Schools closing at alarming rate, costing taxpayers and disrupting the lives of hundreds of students.”
But Ohio doesn’t have a charter board overseeing the opening of schools, like DC– right? Surely the presence of a charter board like DC has should curb charter churn?
Nope. As Watchdog.org reported in February 2015:
[Tree of Life] is the second school the board has closed in the past week. The other, Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School, had its charter revoked for mismanaging taxpayer money. The board has closed 12 schools in the past three years for poor academic performance.
The board votes on whether or not to renew a school’s charter every 15 years. Every five and 10 years, the board will review the school. The board is required by law to revoke the charter of a school if it has reason to believe the school is breaking the law, mismanaging money or not meeting its academic goals.
There is no getting around charter churn– and because of this, Detroit, know that what Greg Harris is offering you is the promise of instability. He didn’t use Ohio as a model in his January 2016 op-ed because even though Ohio has had charter schools for decades, Ohio’s charters are a national embarrassment. In trying to shape education policy in Detroit– Harris’ declared professional intention– Harris offers Detroit DC-styled charter churn instead. And he does so on behalf of Mackinac, a group that advocated for all-powerful emergency managers.
In reality, Harris has nothing useful to offer Detroit.
Detroit schools need stability.
The more charter schools a state or city has, the greater the potential for instability, an active and destructive current whirring below the surface of what professional corporate reformers like Harris market as “choice.”