Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Charter schools: Is this the way it was supposed to work?

Ohanian Comment: Valerie Strauss comes through again. READ THIS and follow all the links. The first link leads off with this Jay Mathews column on Imagine.

Reader Comment: Follow the links at this website for more on Imagine.

Reader Comment: Within that story, the connection between the Bakkes and The Family, a very secretive Christian group need to be examined by the media.

Here's an NPR story on it.

by Valerie Strauss

With Education Secretary Arne Duncan promoting the expansion of publicly funded charter schools as if they had been proven to be the silver bullet for school reform (they haven’t), it seems reasonable to look at what can happen when schools are opened without enough regulation.

The St Petersburg Times has an instructive story about a fight that the Pinellas County School District is having with Virginia-based Imagine Schools, the nation's largest commercial charter operator, with 71 schools in 11 states (including Maryland) and Washington, D.C.

What you should know first is that in Florida, for-profit companies can run charter schools, even though charter schools are publicly funded and are, by state law, supposed to be run according to the federal rules for non-profits. Imagine is a for-profit management company, with a real estate arm, Schoolhouse Finance.

The current trouble in Pinellas is over the Central Avenue School in St. Petersburg, one of 17 charter schools Imagine runs in Florida. In 2008-09, it earned the grade of F from state accountability officials for student achievement.

The Times says that auditors discovered that the school was almost $1 million in debt last spring, though it pays $881,179 to lease a half-empty building from--can you guess?--Schoolhouse Finance.

The question now being raised by the county, as well as other school districts in the state, is whether Imagine runs its schools as federal non-profit organizations, as it says it does. Imagine doesn’t actually have non-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service, thought it has sought that designation for five years; it just promises to operate the schools as if it were. Imagine says that it can run schools less expensively and more effectively than public districts do.

With some school districts starting to question the way Imagine operates, the company asked Florida state officials to clarify the rules about how they must operate.

According to the Times story, Imagine says it's already running 17 Florida charter schools as nonprofits, even as it seeks clarification.

"What Imagine brings is financial security," development director Karl Huber told the Times, describing the company's intent to possibly forgive some debts in St. Petersburg.

The Department of Education went ahead and wrote new proposed rules that would, the Times wrote, solidify Imagine's standing in the state.

But some school districts in the state, including Pinellas and Miami-Dade, are crying foul, concerned that the new rules will attract more for-profit companies into the state to open charter schools.

In fact, districts in other states are concerned about how Imagine runs its charter schools as well.

For example, a story last year in the Dallas Morning News said that when Imagine-managed charter schools open in the state, the company’s real estate affiliate, Schoolhouse Finance, buys a campus and then charges the school rent. In one case, a school spent nearly 40 percent of its budget--all from public money--to two for-profit companies.

The New York Times recently wrote about Imagine, explaining how, when the company comes in to manage a school, it winds up with the power to make all school-based decisions, sometimes leaving out of the loop the original holders of the charter.

Imagine, not surprisingly, didn’t like the Times story, and on its website you can see an open letter with all of its complaints.

(The organization operates three charter schools in Maryland: Imagine Discovery Public Charter School in Woodlawn, Imagine Foundations Public Charter School in Upper Marlboro and Imagine Lincoln Public Charter School in Marlow Heights. It also operates two campuses of the Imagine Hope Community Charter School in Washington, D.C., as well as the city's Imagine Southeast Public Charter School.)

Is this, do you suppose, what the charter school pioneers had in mind when they launched the movement to give parents in troubled urban school systems a choice for their children?

How much consideration do you think Duncan has given to these issues, even as he makes expansion of charter schools in states a requirement for federal funding in his $4 billion Race to the Top competition?

— Valerie Strauss
Washington Post: The Answer Sheet

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