A void in oversight of charter schools (By Wendy Lecker)

Surprise!  Connecticut taxpayers are giving privately owned and operated charter schools more than $110 million a year, with little to no oversight.  Meanwhile, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and the Democratic controlled state legislature are implementing the deepest cuts in state history to Connecticut’s public schools.  The budget cuts, along with the inadequate funding allocated for public schools mean Connecticut’s public school students will be getting less, while local property taxpayers will be charged even more.

In another MUST READ piece, public education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker reports on the void in oversight of Connecticut’s charter schools.

Wendy Lecker writes;

One would think that after the scandals involving Connecticut’s two large charter chains, Jumoke and Achievement First, Connecticut’s education officials would finally exert some meaningful oversight over Connecticut’s charter sector.

One would be wrong.

This week the Connecticut Mirror reported that Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell dismissed a complaint against Bridgeport Achievement First, for using uncertified teachers for 47 percent of its staff, in violation of Connecticut statute. Wentzell unilaterally decided that the law allowing complaints against public schools does not apply to charters; despite the fact that charters receive more than $100 million each year in public taxpayer dollars.

Wentzell disregarded the data showing Achievement First’s misdeeds, claiming the State Department of Education (SDE) will wait until the charter comes up for renewal. Wentzell apparently ignored the law allowing her to put a charter on probation “at any time.”

The laissez-faire attitude toward charter schools pervades this administration. At the June 1 State Board of Education meeting, where the board voted to grant waivers to six charters to increase their enrollment beyond the statutory cap, Mark Linabury, head of SDE’s Choice Bureau, stated that when it comes to charter oversight, “we operate in the dark” until the renewal process.

While SDE closes its eyes, the complaints against charters pile up. Last week, students at Achievement First’s Amistad High School in New Haven staged a mass walkout to protest racial insensitivity and harsh discipline. They might have also protested the abominable graduation rate which, counting attrition since ninth grade, was 53 percent in 2015 — well below New Haven’s.

Amistad is one of the schools granted an enrollment increase waiver on June 1; supposedly based on Amistad’s academic performance (a 53-percent graduation rate?). Recommending the increase, SDE declared that Amistad draws 100 percent of its students from New Haven. However, the New Haven Independent, in reporting the walkout story, noted “(a)t 10:20, students who live in Bridgeport went inside after they were told they would not be allowed to board buses home if they didn’t.” Indeed, students told reporter Paul Bass that half of Amistad students come from Bridgeport every day. Is anyone at SDE minding the store?

Students have well-founded complaints about Amistad’s discipline practices. While suspensions statewide decreased from 2010 through 2015, they skyrocketed at Amistad, from 302 to 1,307 suspensions. There were more suspensions in 2014-15 than there were students, who numbered 984. During that five-year period, enrollment increased by about 25 percent, while suspensions more than quadrupled.

Other charters granted enrollment expansion waivers on June 1 also have deplorable suspension rates. Bridgeport’s Achievement First had 1,641 suspensions, almost double the number of students, 977, in 2014-15. The number of suspensions more than tripled since 2010-11, when there were 456, and 409 students.

Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport, operating for just one year, had 154 suspensions, outpacing its enrollment of 127 students. Great Oaks received the waiver for the largest increase in seats. Explaining the basis for exceeding the statutory cap, Linabury stated that there was a strict focus on the school’s performance.

Apparently SDE does not consider abusive discipline worth investigating. It should. A recent UCLA report found that nationwide, suspensions lead to dropouts, costing more than $46 billion in lost tax revenue and other social costs.

SDE admitted that, academically, Great Oaks performs well below the state average, and worse than Bridgeport, its host district. Yet SDE still recommended Great Oaks for an increase, which the board rubber-stamped.

Beyond its appalling lack of oversight, SDE made blatant misrepresentations in its quest to expand charters. SDE’s CFO Kathleen Dempsey, declared that before these charters opened, “local approval and support” were required. For Great Oaks and another school granted a statutory increase, Stamford Charter School for Excellence, that statement is false. The public and the local boards of education opposed these charters.

Some state board members feigned dismay that there was ample funding for charter increases while the state slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from vo-tech, magnets and public schools. They then approved the enrollment increases, without any investigation into discipline abuses, uncertified teachers or other misdeeds.

The members declared it would be unfair not to expand enrollment because the charters already held the lotteries for these seats. When asked why the charters held lotteries for seats before they were even approved, SDE again abdicated responsibility, claiming SDE has no say over charter lotteries.

With billions of dollars and student well-being at stake, Connecticut’s children and taxpayers deserve better than officials who sit idly by while charter schools call all the shots.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s original article in the Stamford Advocate at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-A-void-in-oversight-of-charter-7988759.php

  • JMC

    Thank you, Wendy, for another great article. Votes have consequences. We were told by competent education authorities that Malloy – and the Dems – were better than Foley, Rell, Rowland, and any Republican. We had plenty of advance notice, namely a previous Malloy term and constant warnings from Dem Gov candidate Jonathan Pelto, as to how this administration and its Department of Education would behave. This commenter frequently noted on this blog that Malloy, as Dem chair of the NGA, which owns the Common Core standards and will harvest billions from them, would impose CC and privatization in his own state of CT. Follow the money. CT is a stepping stone for Malloy’s national political ambitions. He will beam up and out of CT quite easily, leaving it a shambles. Does anyone hold Sen. Murphy accountable for the mess he left when he joined the big boys and girls on the DC Beltway? Indebt, entitle, tax, spend, kick the can, enslave our children with stupefying State debt, destroy the middle class, change CT from the best to the worst managed state in the Union – how could all of this have happened? After all, we’ve had a virtually veto-proof Dem legislature for c. 20 years.

  • Jack Covey

    If Commisioner Wentzell’s interpretation of the law is indeed valid, then theoretically charter operators can get away with anything.

    An Achievement First school can — in total violation of state law — be staffed with school 47% uncertified teachers, and, if a complaint is filed, no government body has the power to hold the charter school’s operators accountable… according to Wentzell.

    Well, why stop there? If that’s the case, then theoretically, charter operators can staff a school with 100% high school dropouts, or 100% ex-cons… the possibilities are limitless.

    According to Wentzell’s leter, it’s only when the charter is up for renewal is there any chance — and it’s only a chance — that the charter will be held accountable.

    Someone needs to sue.

  • Jeff Klaus

    You forgot to mention that Amistad High is the 3rd ranked HS in Ct according to US News and World Report.

    • jonpelto

      Jeff, could you provide the readers with an explanation of how US News came to that conclusion – what criteria do they use.

      • R.L.

        It would also be nice to know Amistad High’s attrition rate. How many “difficult” or “low performing” students were “counselled” back into what is left of the old neighborhood schools so that this high school could appear successful?

        • wendy lecker

          US News fails to account for the attrition rate in its reported graduation rate for Amistad. It claims the graduation rate is 83%. With attrition (9th to 12th grades), using SDE enrollment and graduation data, the true graduation rate is 53%. Hardly worthy of praise . All of US News’ other statistics are based on just who is left in the school in 12th grade – so clearly their stats are flawed.

          And US News says nothing about suspension rates.

        • Jeff Klaus

          What’s the attrition rate at Hillhouse and Cross (New Haven high schools) when you factor in the 2,400 students enrolled at Adult Ed. who have been “referred” out of their high schools by district administrators?

        • wendy lecker

          How is that related to the US News ranking, which is what you wrote to crow about? Hillhouse,’s grad rate with attrition since 9th grade, is slightly below Amistad’s 53% and Wilbur Cross, with attrition, is slightly above. So the 3 schools perform at the same level, according to SDE data. Again, these stats have nothing to do with your comment about Amistad’s US News Ranking. Although, it does seem that if Amistad is going to be lauded for this low graduation rate, maybe so should Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse.

        • Jeff Klaus

          So what happens to the students who attrite? Where do they go? Do they drop out of school? Or do they go on to finish high school somewhere else? Why do they leave? Is it choice? Or are they referred to adult Ed by a caring district administrator? Do they move out of town or stay? Seems to me that attrition is not very well understood by some of the people who write about it.

        • R.L.

          They certainly don’t go to Amistad! They may show up in my classroom, at least for a while. I get many relocated students throughout the school year. A good number of them spend more time in the hallways than they do in a classroom.

        • Jeff Klaus

          R.L. – Amistad generally doesn’t get to take in students in High School. That’s one of the issues about the charter system that is not widely understood. Students get in by lottery in the very early grades. If they stay enrolled for k-12, they don’t have to re-apply for the lottery. Consequently, very few spots are open after k-1.

          Having said that, most charter schools would like to take in students who arrive in Ct midyear. But due to state law, all midyear arrivals are assigned to district schools only.

          As you can imagine, designing a fair system to take in students at schools of choice midyear can be thorny – especially when you have long wait lists.

          Nonetheless there are some creative ideas to allow charters to take in transient students. Unfortunately, every proposal to accomodate the transient student population has been met with bureaucratic resistance by the district.