Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Let's see how it does, first

This was my public comment to the Indiana Charter School authorization board in regard to the application of a proposed Purdue Polytechnic High School, South Bend.

I am a 28 year resident of South Bend and the father of a Junior at John Adams High School. I served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children for about seven years.  I have also volunteered as a mentor in the South Bend Community School Corporation.

As my daughter approached school age I began to look deeply into public education and attendant issues nationwide.  I am also quite familiar with the operations of our local schools and have written quite a bit about that.
I am currently a member of the Finance Committee of the recently formed west side Empowerment Zone.

South Bend had the first Indiana Charter School – Veritas Academy.  It and the later Xavier Academy both were ultimately unsuccessful.  There is one K-12 Charter company in operation currently. Oddly its Career Academy High School is omitted from the applicant's listing of area schools.

The applicant indicates its need for being is to help a “target student population” of “underrepresented minority students” - particularly west side residents.  It goes on to say that this group is fed on to Washington High School and implies (without detail) that Washington is in some way defective.

In South Bend, any High School student can choose to attend any of the four High Schools with provided transportation.  And as the applicant acknowledges, Washington’s most recent state grade was a C.  Average.

I do know from my time as a CASA and having lived here 28 years, students in this group often suffer from deficits in reading and writing skills.  Without rectifying those issues, any learning will be difficult.  The application offers no awareness of this problem, let alone any strategy to address it.

The part of their approach they spend the most time explaining sounds pretty similar to Project Based learning programs which failed at the short-lived New Tech High School here.  It is now the focus of a magnet program at Jackson Middle School, where perhaps it will do better.  That component also includes working in a local business. 

The other 50% of students’ grades come from online testing via Edmentum. The implication is that students will spend half of their time “e-learning”.

While I don’t dispute that these internships (as they refer to them) would have value, they would also seem likely to be a handful to manage – given the necessarily small staff of a school of 100 students per grade level.  Recruiting worthy businesses and monitoring these situations for each student would seem to require a significant investment in time.

In regard to the second component, online K-12 education has a dubious record generally.  And the problem with researching Edmentum on a Google search is that they wrote almost everything that appears in the results. Most of that is about how much money they raise or make. Not helpful.

And if this program is aimed at a group with struggling readers, what is the likely efficacy of online self-education for a student with poor reading/comprehension skills? That isn’t explained.

Perplexingly, the program they offer also requires students to make a lifetime career decision in the 10th grade, with scheduled reaffirmations. How many people do you know who felt capable of making that decision at age 15?  And of that group, for how many did that actually work out?

Reviewing the course list, one discovers very narrow offerings.  No team sports.  No arts instruction of any kind.  No dance, theater, visual arts, vocal music, instrumental music – in fact, nothing inviting individual creativity at all.  Research is very clear that these non-STEM components of education are critically import to a student's educational experience.

Public education aspires to help our children grow into informed, productive, and at least reasonably comfortable citizens. Programs such as Purdue Polytechnic's are designed to produce workers for a specific industry, and nothing more. In fact, they reveal that their long term objective is to create a nation-wide network of “Charter Schools that will serve as an academic feeder system to Purdue University”

But even if you think all that is OK, the application is written as though the applicant has decades of experience, fabulous test scores to tout, hundreds of graduates, and alums with high paying, rewarding careers.  The reality is that it has had less than three years of experience, no graduates, and only one testing experience involving a very small number of students. It has had difficultly with the same enrollment goals in Indianapolis - a much bigger city than South Bend. At this point, it can best be described as an experimental program.

I’ll confess to some discomfort with placing our children in the position of guinea pigs in this experiment.  The experiment is already under way in Indianapolis.  I think that we should allow enough time to evaluate the results before endorsing an expansion.  It’s hard to make good decisions without good data.

Don Wheeler
South Bend

Monday, December 18, 2017

Indiana DCS Director resigns, or, Forget the nice things I said about Eric Holcomb

 "I feel I am unable to protect children because of the position taken by your staff to cut funding and services to children in the midst of the opioid crisis," Mary Beth Bonaventura wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb. "I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn."

This from our Director of the Indiana Department of Child Services – the last line of defense for our most vulnerable citizens.  And so that there is no misunderstanding about how serious this situation is, she warned that a continuation of its policies will "all but ensure children will die." 

Some may think she overstates, but I am not one who does.  I was a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children (CASA) for almost seven years.  My tenure spanned the tail end of James Payne’s administration and the early years of Ms. Bonaventura’s. Payne’s tenure can be characterized by impossible workloads for caseworkers and the pride in which he took in failing to spend all the resources given his dramatically underfunded department. And, as The Indianapolis Star reported, Payne waged a behind-the-scenes fight to discredit and derail his agency's recommendations in a case involving his own family. Nine months later, DCS pushed to end the neglect case and permanently reunite the children with their mother. Payne resigned when this became public.

The appointment of Bonaventura provided both a breath of fresh air and a shot of adrenaline to a cash-strapped and mightily discouraged department.  With a professional child advocate at the helm, morale picked up and the legislature was convinced to both allocate more resources and impose maximum caseload limits.  It all seemed so promising to those of us who worked with these families.

Alas, it was a mirage. The caseload statute was politely ignored.  Workload dropped slightly for a while, but then many questionable “cost saving measures” were implemented – in the end, the department didn’t have the funds to comply with the statute. 

To my chagrin, it seems things took a turn for the (even) worse in the Holcomb administration.  Holcomb appointed Eric Miller as her department chief of staff in Bonaventura’s words because “he was an asset during the campaign”. Miller has no professional background in the field – he appears by his LinkedIn profile to be a GOP favored bureaucrat.

The Indianapolis Star noted in its report: “Using the position and authority given by Holcomb's office, Bonaventura argued, Miller has engineered his own hires, bullied subordinates, created a hostile work environment, exposed the agency to lawsuits, overridden her decisions, been 'brazenly insubordinate" and made cost-cutting decisions without her knowledge. She said her attempts to "rein him in" haven't been supported.

Meanwhile, the ranks of Children In Need of Services (CHINS) swell and swell.

It’s hard not to see a parallel of what the talented Glenda Ritz was forced to deal with in the Department of Education.  Highly qualified, highly motivated, professional women were undermined; thus, prevented from doing their jobs successfully. And both seemed to have been gaslighted.

When I was an Advocate, there were over 1000 children in need of services in St. Joseph County alone. Extrapolating from state statistics I would guess there must be at least 1200 at this point.  These are infants to late teen-aged kids who have suffered abuse or neglect – ranging in small ways to horrific. It is not OK to wash our hands of this, or write these kids off. They require our full attention, our best efforts.

Many can be successfully reunited with their family.  But this requires professional services.  We need DCS caseworkers to monitor conditions.  We need counselors who can build relationship skills for both the children and adults involved.  We need CASAs who can help connect kids and families with available resources, make sure that if individual education plans (IEPs) are warranted – they are implemented, and that the child’s best interests are represented in Probate Court proceedings. 

For older kids, smooth transition to higher education or work life is critical. There are some fine programs in existence, but people are needed to familiarize clients with what is available, line up transitional housing, and follow up on their progress.

And we need the best person available to be in charge of all this.

Monday, January 16, 2017

In 2007 John Edwards delivered a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic Riverside Church in New York City.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Not In Our Back Yard!

Remarks as prepared for the Indiana Charter School Board hearing later today in South Bend, Indiana

A major drawback for citizens is that much of what goes on in the realm of charter schools is hidden from view.  But the little I have been able to learn about TeamCFA is not encouraging.

In 2006 TeamCFA opened the Challenge Foundation Academy in Indianapolis.  At its first audit the State Board of Accounts discovered significant problems:  School lunch reports were late and none of the applications were verified – this cost the Indianapolis school district real money.  Purchases lacked documentation and employees were paid improperly.

For unknown reasons TeamCFA withdrew its affiliation with this school in 2014.   

TeamCFA took over leadership of two Indianapolis schools in 2011 after then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s office declined to renew their charters.  Four years later Ball State University decided to close them.

Last year Team CFA opened the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence – which attracted only 85 students in grades K-4. Fifteen were old enough to take ISTEP. None of them passed it.

TeamCFA hews to the dubious “No Excuses” mantra in its schools.  The use of the word “academy” (which appears in all their schools’ names) implies a college prep school.  But as Joanne W. Golann, an education researcher at Princeton, wrote of this approach recently in a school she studied closely: 

“I found that in trying to prepare students for college, the school failed to teach students the skills and behaviors to help them succeed in college. In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves.   
In a new era of accountability, schools are creating *worker-learners* to (appear to) close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores . . . “

Chalkbeat Indiana has found that “When it comes to charter schools in Indianapolis, test scores suggest the locally managed schools outdo those that are part of national networks.”   South Bend has several such charter schools already in operation.  These are unlike TeamCFA who has encountered problems with citizens in Phoenix and North Carolina who feel that corporate charter schools are undemocratic.

Research has consistently shown that on average charters perform no better than traditional public schools.   As regards the ICSB guiding principles, TeamCFA would seem to be lacking in excellence in leadership, innovative approaches, and particularly in transparent accountability.  And some of the Challenge Foundation leaders, particularly their founder John D Bryan, make no secret of their desire to privatize public education in the United States.

At a minimum it would be prudent to see if progress is made in their new Indianapolis school before they take on a new city.  I ask that you deny their application.

Friday, March 11, 2016

TeamCFA 's first charter school in Indy

Don Wheeler

As we noted in Corporate Education To Arrive In South Bend 2017 TeamCFA intends to open a  K-8 Charter school in downtown South Bend in 2017.

In the South Bend Tribune story it was noted that TeamCFA currently operates the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence - which opened in 2014.  But it turns out that they have been involved in charter school administration in Indy prior to this.

In 2006 TeamCFA opened the Challenge Foundation Academy at 3980 Meadows Dr.  For reasons unknown, it became uninvolved in 2014 - though the re-named school is still in operation.

Doug Martin, author of Hoosier School Heist, explains the genesis of this school in great detail.  His investigation discovered that one of the Challenge Foundation's (the parent organization of TeamCFA) strategies is to couple with other interested parties to achieve its goals.

I speculated in my earlier piece that the gentrification of  downtown South Bend might be an attraction to TeamCFA.  After reading of CFA's coming to fruition, it seems a near certainty.

As mayor in 2006, Peterson had approved Strategic Capital Partners’ proposal to build the Challenge Foundation Academy in Indianapolis’ Avondale Meadows district.  At the Indy charter, which was honored by Indiana superintendent of public instruction,Tony Bennett, in 2010, two SCP members still sit on the board of directors, Gene Zink, the leader of the Avondale Meadows gentrification project, and Charles J. Garcia, who has also directed the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP) which with Conexus Indiana offers online degree programs to “prepare Hoosiers for manufacturing and logistics careers.”
The Avondale Meadows charter was intended to be part of what is called a "Purpose Built Community".  Martin explains how this tends to play out.

The SCP/PBC type of public-private investment in “mixed income housing” and charter schools hardly ever turns out well for anyone but the investors, as professor Kenneth Saltman has outlined in Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools. In illustrating how the Commercial Club of Chicago wrote the Renaissance 2010 blueprint for mayor Daley, Saltman details how in the guise of urban renewal to help the poor, the city and big business blended “real estate profiteering and land grabs at the expense of the most vulnerable,” (137) then called for ungodly guidelines which made it impossible for the city’s poorest to reenter the new mixed housing developments, “sometimes even restricting anyone with an extended family member with a [criminal] record” (136). This exemplifies gentrification nationwide. After decades of neglecting public housing and school decay, big city mayors and privatizers move in with state grants, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money, and other funds, and build expensive housing projects to drive minorities into the suburbs or homeless shelters, while wealthier white residents move in. Pauline Lipman, an outspoken critic of Renaissance 2010 and the gentrification/charter school schemes in general, adds that this real estate development breeds financial speculation, which, “in turn, causes increases in property values and rising property taxes, driving out low-income and working-class renters and home owners” (p.7). As Saltman notes, after Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995, they ended the requirement that for each demolished public housing project a new public project be created (135). At this point, the public schools are shut down and charter schools start cropping up to take taxpayer money for the poor students who have been lucky enough to get new public housing with their families.

Meanwhile, the charters are happy to take advantage of the fact that kids of wealthier families, more "ready to learn" are suddenly available.

You might wonder where the money is in all this.  Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now looked into that in 2010. 

And what happens is, the investors who put up the money to build the charter schools get to basically virtually double their money in seven years through a 39 percent tax credit from the federal government. In addition, this is a tax credit on money that they’re lending, so they’re collecting interest on the loans, as well as getting the 39 percent tax credit. They piggyback the tax credit on other kinds of federal tax credits, like historic preservation or job creation or Brownfields credits. The result is, you can put in $10 million and in seven years double your money.  
And the problem is that the charter schools end up paying in rents the debt service on these loans. And so, now a lot of the charter schools in Albany are straining paying their debt — their rent has gone up from $170,000 to $500,000 in a year, or huge increases in their rents, as they strain to pay off these loans, these construction loans. And the rents are eating up huge portions of their total cost. And, of course, the money is coming from the state.
Martin contends that Team CFA does not seem to be interested in that angle, however.  As he puts it:
Bryan (the founder) and Team CFA don’t believe in a government-run school system, but they don’t turn down federal money. Their plan seems less about making money for themselves than about helping destroy a system so that future corporations can profit handsomely, where local control is abolished, and where a fake patriotism conceals a more undemocratic plan.  In fact, Challenge Foundation Properties, its real estate branch, owns the school in Indy and plans on selling it to the school through bonds, if it hasn’t already. Money made from Challenge Foundation Properties is used to invest in building more charter schools. Indiana is one of the group’s main targets.
But their friends are.

There is not a great deal of oversight done on charter schools, but the State Board of Accounts does perform periodic audits.  For the period of October 25, 2005 to June 30, 2007 they found some significant problems, including:

- Monthly school lunch reimbursement claim reports for fiscal year 2006-2007 were not electronically filed with the Indiana Department of Education in a timely manner. The August 2006 and January 2007 reports were not electronically filed within 60 days of the month end and therefore did not qualify for reimbursement. Supporting documentation presented for May 2007 indicated that paid and free meals reported were under stated by approximately 768 and 134, respectively. The School Corporation, as a result, received less than the amount allowed. 

- The School Food Authority Verification Summary Report was not accurate. The report indicated that 100% of the Free and Reduced Lunch applications approved were verified. Evidence presented for examination indicated that none of the applications were verified.

- The Report of Average Daily Membership (ADM) was not performed or reported until November 6, 2006. The ADM count date was September 15, 2006, and the report date to Indiana Department of Education was no later than September 29, 2006. Political subdivisions are required to comply with all grant agreements, rules, regulations, bulletins, directives, letters, letter rulings, and filing requirements concerning reports and other procedural matters of federal and state agencies, including opinions of the Attorney General of the State of Indiana, and court decisions. Governmental units should file accurate reports required by federal and state agencies. Noncompliance may require corrective action.

- Payments were made to Fifth Third Bank for credit card purchases that were not supported by original bills or invoices. Credit card statements presented for October 2006 through May 2007 lacked some or all supporting documentation for purchases. 

- Payments were made to employees that were not included in the payroll system or on a salary schedule or contract. Payments were made to employees by vendor checks. Payroll taxes were not properly withheld or remitted. Payments were not reported on Internal Revenue Service Form W-2, but were reported on Internal Revenue Service Form 1099.
Not exactly a well-oiled machine.

And what kind of a school was this, anyway?  Well, the now-named Avondale Meadows Academy outlines their mission thusly:

Every AMA student knows and follows the High 5 Expectations:

  1. Be respectful
  2. Keep hands and feet to yourself
  3. Come to school prepared and ready to learn
  4. Follow directions
  5. Be responsible
 Next time we'll look into their current operation, and a bit more of their background and intent.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Corporate Education to arrive in South Bend 2017

We knew it was just a matter of time.  Per the South BendTribune:

A national chain of charter schools has signaled it wants to open a school in downtown South Bend that will enroll as many as 900 students. 
TeamCFA Foundation has notified the Indiana Charter School Board — one of a handful of current charter school authorizers in Indiana — that it intends to apply to open a kindergarten through eighth-grade school here in the fall of 2017.

Though South Bend has some charter schools now -  Success and Career Academies, Veritas, and Xavier all have been developed locally and are fairly small.  TeamCFA is another kettle of fish entirely.  The Trib continues:

TeamCFA currently serves more than 7,000 students in 15 schools across the Southwest, the Southeast and the Midwest.

 TeamCFA also features the organization structure those of us who follow the corporate education movement have become all too familiar with.  The schools operate via the non-profit entity  (as required by law).  But guess who they'll pay for facilities and services?  Why yes, you are correct - their for-profit entity .  And all that money will be diverted from the South Bend School Corporation schools.

Here's another big difference.  The charter schools we have now seem perfectly willing to take on students from challenged backgrounds.  That's probably why their test scores are fairly low in the local range.  But it's important to know that they don't have to.  And TeamCFA is all about building the brand, so it's pretty safe to assume they will be more selective.

Also, they are not obligated to pay teachers at the level earned in the SBCSC, nor insist on the same levels of qualification.  We will likely see at least some Teach For America folks with no education degree and a total of five weeks of training under their belts.

And like other charters, they don’t have to answer to a democratically elected school board if things go wrong.

So who's behind TeamCFA?  Well, there are a 
couple of finance guys and a guy with no bio .  The other two deserve an even closer look;

First the Ed Rephorm maven:

William M. Steinbrook, Jr. Reverend William “BJ” Steinbrook organized and established the Challenge Foundation as a leader in K–12 educational grant making with grants totaling $55,000,000. He serves as the Executive Director of the foundation and continues to direct the overall program for grant making, staffing, and operations through which he has planned and carried out a highly successful national initiative to start exemplary K–12 public charter schools. Rev. Steinbrook is also the founding Executive Director of the Trust for School Reform, which became a leading national foundation supporting K–12 educational reform. He has served as a member of the Center for Education Reform, Philanthropy Roundtable, and Alliance for School Choice helping direct national school reform efforts.  
Reverend Steinbrook has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Oklahoma State University and Divinity degrees from Princeton and Columbia Theological Seminaries. He has served pastorates in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia. He has also served on several local charter school boards in Indiana, North Carolina and Arizona.

 Then the Koch fiend:

Ryan Stowers Mr. Ryan Stowers is Director of Higher Education at the Charles Koch Foundation. CKF supports research and education programs across the United States with grants to organizations interested in exploring the relationships between free societies, societal progress, and wellbeing. Mr. Stowers also serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Institute, an organization dedicated to educating high school students on America's founding principles. Mr. Stowers is a Member of the Board for the Association of Private Enterprise, which works to advance the ideas of free enterprise in academic research and teaching. 
Prior to joining the Charles Koch Foundation in 2005, Mr. Stowers was program manager of the National Research Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute. He earned a BA in liberal arts and an MS in political economy from Utah State University. 

 I don't see anyone who looks like a friend to public education in this group.

So how have things gone are schools they run?  Not a lot of news shows up on a search, but they did have
 some trouble in the Phoenix  

Following a failed attempt to remove Ridgeline Academy’s director Keven Barker at an ad hoc meeting over winter break, TeamCFA, the school’s umbrella organization, decided to jettison the charter school it helped establish in 2012. The school plans to continue operating.  
TeamCFA’s announcement came as a surprise in the form of a letter posted on Ridgeline Academy’s website Jan. 14, notifying the school, staff and community of its intent to dissolve its affiliation with Ridgeline. 
“It has become evident that the community and parents are happy with the school that they currently have at Ridgeline Academy and the continued support of TeamCFA is no longer desired by the school community,” stated Cheryl Reinstadler, TeamCFA’s director of operations.

 Then there was that kerfluffle in North Carolina.

The Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, a public charter school in Rutherford County, is quick to promote the school’s high SAT test scores and international field trips to China, Europe and South America.  
But not as widely advertised is the Western North Carolina public school’s connection to John Bryan, a retired Oregon business executive and significant funder of the conservative school choice movement.  
Nor is the school’s annual diaper drive for a local anti-abortion religious group, an activity that an expert says violates the Constitutional separation of church and state. 
Bryan’s $37 million family trust, the Challenge Foundation, contributes heavily and regularly to conservative causes like challenging global warming research and scaling back government in addition to lending its name to public schools like the Thomas Jefferson charter school. 
He’s a national figure in libertarian circles when it comes to charter schools, and spoke last June about the push to expand charter schools at an annual retreat held by the billionaire Koch brothers, according to a copy of the retreat’s agenda obtained by the Center for American Progress.

It doesn't seem much of a reach to think that this operation is a K-12 variant of the increasing Koch Alliance's infiltration of higher education.  As public institutions of higher education suffer funding cutbacks, KA offers the carrot of money, in exchange for curriculum influence.

But the real beauty for TeamCFA is they get to it at the taxpayers direct expense - and their own profit.

Their proposed location is an interesting one.  Short-range plans for the downtown area are likely to create something of a de-facto gated community.  The streets are to be narrowed dramatically to discourage through traffic, and a substantial number of high-end living units are due to come on line. TeamCFA may well be calculating they can take advantage of the new population of advantaged students who can walk to school.

This syphoning off the easier to educate (hence, cheaper to educate) kids will increase the burden on the South Bend Community School Corporation.  SBCSC will lose funding for those kids and will likely experience new problems.

Just as TeamCFA planned.  But they will likely be there to help us out with another charter school.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


by Doug Martin at Hoosier School Heist
As Indy Star’s Tony Cook first reported a few days ago, one of Mike Pence’s newest funders is Republican donor John W. Childs, a chief official in the Club for Growth, a pro-business organization loosely aligned with the Koch Network.
In 2011, Childs was honored at a Koch Brothers’ retreat for giving at least $1 million to Koch causes.
private equity firm CEO and Mitch Daniels supporter, Childs was an early investor in Edison Schools, now named Edison Learning.
Edison Learning has operated Gary’s Roosevelt Career and Technical Center every since former Indiana supt. of public schools Tony Bennett turned the public school over to the for-profit operator.
major investor in Edison, Childs was a board member in the 90s alongside Democrat Reverend Floyd Flake–a main character in my book Hoosier School Heist–but it is unknown if Childs still has a financial interest in Edison.
Back in 1998, when Edison was taking off, Childs donated at least$100,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee, according to Indiana campaign finance records.
John W. Childs was recently named by Business Insider as one of Wall Street’s top 16 political donors.
Whereas Childs gave Mike Pence just $50,000 for his reelection campaign, the Center for Responsive Politics finds that the private equity leader funneled over $4 million to outside funding groups in 2012 alone, with $1.1 million going to the Club for Growth, which proves what I have been saying for years—the Koch Brothers are only two of many people we have to be worried about in Indiana, and my book names many, many more.
Doug Martin is the author of Hoosier School Heist : How Corporations and Theocrats Stole Democracy From Public Education, a book being read in over 130 cities and towns and 78 Indiana counties, 23 states, and the District of Columbia.  A regular guest on national and Indiana radio talk shows such as Justin Oakley’s Just Let Me Teach and Amos Brown’s Afternoons with Amos, Dr. Martin’s research has been or will soon be featured in the Washington Post Answer Sheet , ABC’sNightline, and the Associated Press

What do you think it symbolizes?