Achievement First Inc. – FIRST! (And then we will get around to education reform)

Achievement First Inc. one of the nation’s larger charter school management companies with 20 schools in New York and Connecticut, is rapidly expanding in Connecticut, despite the fact that the 2012 education reform debate is supposed to include a discussion about whether the state should make greater use of the charter school model.

How does Achievement First and a select group of other charter schools have the authority to expand?

The answer can be found in a 2010 education bill that became law.

If you’ve been following the education reform debate, you will have seen that various news outlets have reported that over the past six years only two new charter schools have opened even though there have been at least 20 applications from charter advocates to open new programs.

And yes, according to published reports, the State Department of Education wouldn’t even accept any applications for new charter schools between 2006 and 2009.

And finally, sitting on Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor’s desk are seven more applications that were filed last October seeking to create an additional 1,600 new charter seats.

Connecticut’s public policy has been to hold off on the expansion of charter schools until a comprehensive education reform plan is developed and adopted.

But meanwhile, as a result of  some “technical language” that was added to a 2010 education bill that passed and became law, the State Board of Education not only has the authority to allow Achievement First and a few other charter schools to expand BUT THEY MUST approve their immediate expansion plans.

Yes, you read that right.  The law requires the State Board of Education to approve the expansion requests from Achievement First and other charter schools regardless of whether the Department of Education believes it’s a good idea.

Perhaps it’s a tribute to the $635,000 ConnCAN and its sister organization has spent on lobbying charter school issues in Connecticut .

As schools in cities and towns all across Connecticut are facing significant budget cuts and layoffs, one wonders what legislators were thinking when they adopted a law that will end up moving even more scarce resources away from our district schools and to these charter schools.

While Achievement First, ConnCAN and other charter school advocates are publicly claiming they are being ill-treated by Connecticut’s policymakers, they seem a little silent on the fact that their legislative lobbying has ensured that they get to expand regardless of what new policies and programs accompany “education reform”.

The sign their rhetoric and reality don’t match surfaced recently when the Hartford Board of Education moved with amazing speed to approve an Achievement First proposal to expand its Hartford based charter school.  Achievement First – HartfordAcademyopened in 2008 as a Kindergarten through 8th grade program.

However last week, the Hartford’s School Board, the same ones who have been so outspoken about the fact that the City of Hartford doesn’t have enough money to run its present schools, voted to allow Achievement First to expand their Hartford Academy program to the ninth grade in the fall of 2012 and then add the remaining three grades in subsequent school years.

So as policymakers and advocacy groups talk about finding common ground on “education reform”, Achievement First is adding an entire high school program in Hartford.  Other charter schools are expanding as well.

Achievement First gets this unique power thanks to Public Act 10-111.

In the past, Connecticut law has required that the State Board of Education review and approve all charter schools applications before the schools can begin operating and one of the primary criteria was whether the General Assembly had decided to provide additional funding for charter schools.  PA 10-111 eliminated the requirement that the Department of Education wait for appropriate funding.

Even more importantly,Connecticut law limited the size of charter schools to 250 students or, in the case of a K-8 schools, 300 students and required that there be no more than 85 students per grade.  Charter schools could ask the Department of Education for approval to be bigger than 250 or 300 but the 85 students per grade requirement still remained.

The new 2010 law eliminated the grade limit of 85 and REQUIRED that the State Department of Education “waive the overall enrollment limits” if these particular charter schools wanted to expand.

Completely gone is the Connecticut State Board of Education’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of allowing these charter schools to expand.

The new law also made permanent what was originally a two-year charter school facility grant program which allowed the state to use state funds to make capital improvements to charter schools,

And the new law also required that, as of July 2010, all “qualified charter school professionals” must go into the State’s Teacher Retirement Pension and Health Insurance System meaning taxpayers will be on the hook for providing charter school teachers with pensions and health benefits after they are vested and retire.  The cost of putting charter school teachers into the State Teacher Retirement System could be significant.  As of 2010, the state’s contribution to the Teacher Retirement System was about $7,600 per teacher, per year.  Adding even 50 charter school teachers would cost the state an additional $380,000 a year or almost $4 million over the next decade.

The net effect is that Achievement First, already the largest charter school provider in Connecticut, has an automatic green light to expand.  Achievement First Hartford, which had 593 students in 2010-2011, will reach 797 by 2012-2013 and will still expand even further in later years.  Achievement First Bridgeport will go from 410 in 2010-2011 to 672 in 2012-2013 and smaller expansions will be taking place at Achievement First Amistad Academy and at Achievement First’s Elm City College Preparatory school.

Oh and finally, in response to Achievement First and ConnCAN’s complaint that the state needs to adopt the “money follow the child” system so they can get extra funds for their programs. It is interesting to note that when it comes to Achievement First Hartford, the City of Hartford, paid $1.5 million to help renovate the old school building Achievement First moved into.   In addition, the City of Hartford pays Achievement First $500 a year for each Hartford student who attends Achievement First Hartford (that is on top of the grant Achievement First gets from the state) and the City of Hartford provided Achievement First with a “one-time payment” of $400,000 to “cover costs associated with the operation of the school”.

As Achievement First has expanded, the cost to the City of Hartford has also gone up.  According to one estimate,Hartford now provides Achievement First with $2.35 million a year.

The story makes one wonder what else Achievement First isn’t telling us.

Of course, as readers will already know, Stefan Pryor, our State’s Education Commissioner, is well aware of all of this information as he helped to create Achievement First and was one of its Directors until he resigned to take on the role of running Connecticut’s public education system.

Charter Schools and Connecticut Education Policy: Part 3 in a series of 3 commentary pieces

Leaving Out Connecticut’s Latinos and others whose primary language is not English…

It may be the Rule of Unintended Consequences, but unintended Segregation is still Segregation:

Few, if any, topics that I’ve written about have generated as many comments or strong feelings than the columns about charter schools. Connecticut’s charter schools are blessed with parents and advocates who truly believe in the charter school model and have experienced firsthand the direct benefits that their children received at their charter school.

In all my previous commentaries I have failed to successfully differentiate between the good that charter schools are doing for the children and families they serve versus the underlying public policy challenges we face as we try to ensure every child has access to a quality education and receives the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in this increasingly complex world.

Following each column, some very angry and frustrated parents write to make it clear that not only did their children benefit from charter schools but that my comments are an assault on the very essence of the educational model charter schools provide.

The following column is the third in a series of some of the key public policy issues that our elected officials must address as they grapple with the allocation of scarce resources.  My comments are not intended to be an attack on the quality of charter schools or the people who utilize them.  Quite frankly I think charter schools appear to be a viable model as we try to find ways to close the terrible achievement gap that is destroying large segments of our society.

What I am addressing are two key public policy issues.

Charter schools regularly claim that they succeed where public schools don’t.  In addition, in the proposal called “money follow the child”, charter schools are saying that regardless of whether government expands funding for primary and secondary education in Connecticut, if a child moves from the public school system to a charter school all of the money allocated to “pay” for that student should move as well.

That is what the discussion is about.

It is not about whether charter schools are good or that charter schools are successfully educating their students.

The debate is about the legal and moral obligation government has when it comes to ensuring that all children have access to a quality education.

While reasonable people may differ about what should be done, the facts are not in dispute. Connecticut’s urban charter is more racially isolated that the communities in which they exist.  The student bodies in these urban charter schools are significantly “less poor” (as measured by the number of students that qualify for free or reduced lunches) and these charter schools serve a significantly lower percentage of ELL students (students who are not English language proficient).

Charter schools may in fact provide students with “better educational outcome “However, the increased racial isolation means these schools (like many of our urban schools) are unconstitutionally racially isolated.  And second, since poverty and English Language proficiency are two main reasons students don’t do as well on the standardized tests, charter schools will inherently do better if when they are serving less poor and fewer non-English speaking students.

That does not mean charter schools should be closed, but it does mean that policy makers have a moral and legal responsibility to consider those factors as they modify the way Connecticut schools are funded.

The last variable I’ll use to showcase this issue is the huge discrepancy when it comes to students going home to households in which English is not the primary language.  There are poor parents who get actively involved in their children’s education just as there are non-English speaking parents who provide the necessary parental involvement to ensure students do a better job.

That said, both poverty and language proficiency serve as barriers for many families.

In Hartford a total of 43% of the public school students go home to households in which the primary home language is not English. In fact, Hartford school students go home to at least 70 different home languages.

At the same time, Achievement First’sHarford Academyhas only 4.8% of its students going home to non-English speaking households and in their case there are 4 different home languages. And at the other major charter school,Jumoke Academy, there are no students who go home to non-English speaking households.  English is the only language home language that Jumoke Academy teachers need to deal with.

In New Haven, 27.9% of the school system’s students come from homes where English is not the primary language (with a total of 61 different languages). Amistad Academy has only 11.8% of its students going home to non-English households (with a total of 3 different languages).  In Achievement First’s other New Haven charter school, Elm City College Preparatory, even fewer, 8.8% of students return to non-English speaking homes (3 languages)

And in Bridgeport, 40.4% of the students come from homes where English is not the primary language (There are a total of 73 different home languages in Bridgeport).

By comparison, Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy has 6.3% of its students from non-English speaking households (2 languages), The Bridge Academy has 16.7%  of its students from non-English speaking homes (6 languages) and Park City Preparatory has only 2.5% of its students going home to households whose primary language in not English (with a total of 2 different languages)

It is true that the evidence is that Connecticut Mastery Test scores are marginally higher in charter schools than in the nearby traditional public school systems.

And to the extent that it is the teaching that explains that difference, the charter schools deserve credit for that success.

Yet at the same time, the evidence also suggests that charter school teaching methods may not fully explain those results.

Charter schools rationalize these issues by beginning and ending with the argument that they have “open lottery systems” that provides every child who wants to attend an equal opportunity to do so.

Open lottery systems are important but an open lottery system does not guarantee that the study body is representative of the entire community.

Charter schools have targeted marketing programs that some parents may find more persuasive than others.

And intentional or note, schools maybe be seen as more welcoming or more accessible to some than to others.

Furthermore, since the “burden” to engage in the charter school lottery system is primarily on the backs of parents, the process obviously self-selects parents that are more attentive and active in the education of their children and have an easier time understanding and navigating through the steps necessary to get their children into the schools lottery and then into the school.

Since poverty and language barriers are obviously factors as to who approaches the lottery process and who does not, it is not surprising that the “open enrollment process” ends up with fewer poor students, fewer non-English language students and fewer students who go home to households in which English is not the primary language.

The net result is that students who generally have higher success rates will end up in the charter school while those who face more barriers are left in traditional schools.

The situation is then exacerbated if the official funding policy is to shift dollars to the kids who are statistically more likely to have better outcomes and reduce the resources to those who actually need the greater supports.

Although unintended, the outcome is that the system promotes “De facto racial discrimination” which in turn creates “De facto racial segregation”.

If the law actually discriminates it’s called “De Jur” discrimination.  Much of the “De Jur” discrimination was outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other related legislation.

The problem in Connecticut is really not due to laws that force segregation but traditions, systems and processes (along with housing, transportation and political boundaries) that end up segregating our population.

Even though these results are not a result of a specific law and may not even be intended, they are still creating segregation and discrimination which is not only immoral but unconstitutional and illegal.

Connecticut’s Major Charter Schools Face More Questions

Despite their rhetoric, not only are most of Connecticut’s charter schools actually increasing racial isolation, they are naively or knowingly overlooking key factors in their ongoing claims that they provide better educational outcomes.

A review of Connecticut’s School Profile Reports raises even more serious questions and concerns are about some of Connecticut’s largest charter schools.

Meanwhile, advocates and lobbyists are engaged in a major effort to persuade policymakers to adopt a concept called “Money Follows the Child” in the upcoming 2012 Legislative Session.

The policy change would move scarce resources away from the public schools systems that presently educate about 99% of Connecticut public school students.

Instead of trying to expand the pot of money that is provided for primary and secondary education in Connecticut, thereby helping all public school children, some charter school supporters have changed their strategy and are now pushing to modify the state’s school funding system so that when a child shifts from a public school to a charter school all of the state money associated with the education of that student would shift as well.

This approach would leave more and more of Connecticut’s public schools without the money needed to provide comprehensive education programs and would, in the end, threaten the quality of education in our public schools while leading to higher local property taxes as towns are forced to rely even more heavily on regressive property taxes.

At stake are both the issue of racial segregation and the quality of education in Connecticut.

At the core of the debate is the fundamental principle that federal and state laws prohibit the use of public funds to promote racial and ethnic segregation.  However, virtually every one of Connecticut’s major charter schools, all of whom receive major state subsidies, are not only failing to reduce racial isolation but are, in fact, significantly less  racially diverse than the public schools in the same communities.

While some charter schools, like the Odyssey School in Manchester  are successfully meeting the diversity challenge, others, especially those run by Achievement First, a major charter school operator with charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island is not.

For example, Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy, Achievement First’s Hartford Academy, Achievement First’s Amistad Academy and Achievement First’s Elm City Preparatory are all significantly more racially isolated than are the school systems in which they are based – Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.

As the state spends literally hundreds of millions of dollars to address its moral, legal and constitutional responsibility to make our schools less racially isolated, Connecticut’s charter schools are moving Connecticut in exactly the wrong direction.

What makes this issue particularly troubling is that Connecticut’s new State Commissioner of Education has repeatedly said he will work to expand charter schools in Connecticut even though it is clear from the evidence that most charter schools are unwilling or unable to be a part of the overall effort to reduce racial isolation in our state.

While conveniently overlooking the growing racial isolation in charter schools, Achievement First and other major urban charter schools base their demand for more public funds by claiming that their standardized test scores prove that their charter schools are providing students with a superior education.

However, there is a fundamental flaw in the argument these charter school advocates are putting forward

Putting aside the broader problems associated with using standardized mastery tests to measure educational outcomes; there is overwhelming evidence that test scores are impacted by a number of factors beyond simply what is going on in the classroom.

Study after study has indicated that poverty and standardized test scores (like the mastery test) are closely correlated.  More poverty means lower school test scores; less poverty means higher school test scores.

What policymakers are not regularly told is that although poverty level in all urban schools are high (both at charter and at traditional public schools), the students at many of Connecticut’s urban charter schools are significantly “less poor” than the students who attend the  public schools in those same communities.

In Bridgeport, where 99% of the city’s public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to the data provided to the State Department of Education, the number of students who meet that standard at Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy is more than 30 points percentage points lower.

The percentage of students at the other two major Bridgeport charters (The Bridge Academy and Park City Preparatory) who qualify for free or reduced lunches are also significantly lower than in the Bridgeport school system.

There is a similar pattern in Hartford, where 93% of public schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches compared to 68% at Achievement First’s Harford Academy and 72% at the Jumoke Academy charter school.

And it is the same in New Haven, where 81% of all New Haven public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, while at the Amistad Academy 66% meet that poverty standard.  At Achievement First’s other New Haven charter school, Elm City College Prep charter school, the number of students getting free or reduced lunches is 69%.

Considering these schools are more racially isolated these statistics indicate that charter schools have the effect of leaving the poorer students in each city’s public schools systems.

According to their marketing materials and testimony at legislative hearings, charter schools claim that their students score 10 to 30 percent better on master tests than do students in the nearby public schools.

However, a portion of that difference may be due to the poverty level of the students served in those schools.

An even greater impact may come from the language barriers students bring with them to school.

When it comes to the Connecticut Mastery Tests (3-8 grades), 84% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient or better level in math.  However, for English Language Learners (ELL students) that is, “students who lack sufficient mastery of English,” the percent of students who achieve a proficient or better score drops all the way down to 57%.

The language barrier has an even more stunning impact on the test results for the reading portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test.  While 78% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient level or better, only 37% of ELL (those not proficient in the English Language) test at the proficient level or better.

These numbers mean that schools that have more ELL students do significantly worse than schools that don’t have as many non-English proficient students.

So, back to the data on charter schools:

In Bridgeport, 13% of the public school students are ELL students.  At Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy the number is just 6%.

Less than ½ of 1% of the students at The Bridge Academy charter school are ELL students, while only 2.5% of the students at Park City Prep charter school are ELL.

In Hartford, where over 17% of public school students are non-English proficient (ELL), the percent of ELL students at Achievement First’s Harford Academy is less than 5% and there are literally no ELL students at the Jumoke Academy charter school.

In New Haven, the disparity is less prevalent.  12% of New Haven public school students are ELL, which is similar to the percent at the Amistad Academy charter school, but at Elm City College Prep charter school only 9% of the students are ELL.

While the impact of these statistics has yet to be fully documented,  the fact remains that Connecticut’s charter schools are simply not in a position to claim that the quality of their education programs are substantially better than the education in the public schools.

Charter schools may claim that they utilize an “open lottery system and that allows every child to have access to their schools, but the facts simply don’t back up the charter schools’ claim that their student populations represent the full spectrum of students that attend public schools.  Therefore their claim of educational superiority doesn’t add up.

Before Connecticut policy makers shift additional resources from Connecticut’s public schools to the charter schools they have an obligation to address these fundamental issues.

Achievement First and a number of the other urban charter schools are more racially isolated, they educate a student population that is less poor and they fail to take on their fair share of non-English proficient (ELL) students.

While CMT test scores in charter schools may be marginally higher than public school scores, the evidence suggests that their teaching methods may not fully explain those results.

The Governor and the Legislature should be seeking answers to these questions before turning over any more of the taxpayers’ money to these schools.

Note:  For more on the issue of racial isolation in Connecticut schools be sure to read Susan Bigelow’s piece that ran in Sunday’s CTnewsjunkie:

Charter Schools to the Rescue! Really?

CTMirror has posted a commentary piece I wrote  that follows up a news story the had written.

Connecticut’s new Education Commissioner, Stefan Pryor, is an unapologetic fan of charter schools.  As reported in the CTMirror, Pryor recently toured the Amistad Academy, the New Haven-based charter school that he helped create when he worked in New Haven.

His message:  The Amistad Academy is an extraordinary success.  He added that Connecticut’s present school funding system serves as a “barrier” to opening more charter schools and that he is promising to change that.

Pryor and other charter school advocates claim that the Amistad Academy and other charter schools provide a measurably better education than do public schools and are engaged in an all out lobbying and public relations campaign to change the way Connecticut funds its schools, shifting scarce resources from our public schools to the charter schools.

Putting aside, for the moment, the evidence that some charter schools get better results because they are “creaming off the highest performing students” and therefore naturally have slightly higher test schools, there is a much more profound and important question.

Universally recognized as one of the most important Supreme Court rulings in the history of the United States, the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declared that segregated schools are fundamentally and inherently unconstitutional.

The case overturned the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson in which the U.S. Supreme Court, in all its racist glory, claimed that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were acceptable.

The Brown v. Board of Education case helped create the civil rights movement of the 1960s by determining that in this country “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The time had finally come.  Separate and unequal schools were illegal and even separate but equal schools were illegal.

In the last 55 years this case has had a profound impact on educational policy and American society.

The Connecticut Supreme Court went even further.  When one of the attorneys in the famous Sheff desegregation case said, “the state has an obligation to provide great, racially diverse schools,” Connecticut’s Supreme Court agreed and ordered the legislature to take definitive action to reduce racial isolation in the state’s urban public schools.

Many of those who have clamored for charter schools, including Connecticut’s new Education Commissioner, have claimed that charter schools would be an important mechanism for reducing racial isolation.

Just last year the president of Achievement First, one of the largest nonprofit corporations in the charter school business, with over 20 charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, told Connecticut legislators that they were ready to open a new charter high school in Hartford that would provide a racially integrated education.  This comes from the organization whose Connecticut charter schools are among the most racially isolated in the state.

The Connecticut State Department of Education collects data from all public, charter and magnet schools and annually publishes Strategic School Profiles.  Those reports shed light on how, virtually across the board, Connecticut’s charter schools are failing to reduce racial isolation.

In Bridgeport, where the public school body is 91.4% minority, Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy is 98.7% minority.

Bridgeport’s other two major charter schools are also more racially isolated than the city’s schools. The Bridge Academy’s student body is 99.2% minority and Park City Prep is 98.8%.

Connecticut’s capitol city of Hartford has a school system that is 92.6% minority and, once again, the charter schools in the city are even more racially isolated.  Achievement First’s Harford Academy and the Jumoke Academy’s student body are both 99.5% minority.

And finally, in New Haven, where the commissioner portrayed the Amistad Academy as an extraordinary success, the public schools have 86.9% minority populations while Achievement First’s Amistad Academy is far more racially isolated with 98.1% of students being minority. Achievement First’s other New Haven charter school, Elm City College Prep, comes in even with 98.9% minority.

The Connecticut State Department of Education’s School Profile Reports reveal that virtually all of Connecticut’s charter schools are providing an educational environment that is more racially isolated than the public schools systems that they were designed to help.

Interestingly, the statistic is true for most but not all charter schools.  For example the Common Ground School in New Haven, is successfully providing a more racially diverse learning environment with 81.9% minority compared to the City’s 86.9% number.

As charter schools and their advocates push even harder for more taxpayer funds so they can open more charter schools, State Education Commissioner Pryor will play a vital role as the State Department of Education acts on seven new charter school applications that would create spaces for another 1,600 students.

Meanwhile simply pointing to standardized test scores and claiming they prove charter schools are better is not only simplistic but also a completely false exercise.  Like New Haven’s public schools, the Achievement First charter schools in New Haven failed to meet the state’s required improvement goals.

Furthermore and far more importantly, when it comes to the vital and constitutionally mandated issue of reducing racial isolation, Connecticut’s charter schools are taking the state in exactly the wrong direction.

Malloy to appoint Charter School Champion as Connecticut’s next State Commissioner of Education?

Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)

The Courant’s Rick Green is reporting that “Stefan Pryor, deputy mayor of Newark, NJ and one of the original founders of the public charter school Amistad Academy in New Haven will be named Connecticut’s next education commissioner tomorrow.”

See story here:

If true it would be astunning development.

Pryor who, according to Green,  apparently has no direct classroom public education experience does come highly regarded but his direct association with the charter school movement would definitely be controversial and could call into question Connecticut’s ability to respond to state Supreme Court rulings that Connecticut’s present funding system is unconstitutional.

Furthermore it will certainly raise the question about whether Connecticut is attempting to walk away from the United States Supreme Court’s most fundamental case on education – Brown vs. Board of Education which determined that racially separate but equal education violates the United States Constitution (as does racially separate and unequal education).

There will undoubtedly be a lot more discussion about Malloy’s choice if it comes to pass…

But why would it raise these questions?

Connected started funding charter schools in direct response to the racial isolation that has been taking place in Connecticut’s urban centers.  The expectation was that charter schools, like magnet schools, would attract more non-minority students so that schools would provide environments that were less racially isolated.

The Amistad Academy which Pryor helped create is Connecticut’s flagship Charter School.

Pointing to its higher attendance rates and higher test scores Amistad and charter school advocates have successfully pushed for more funding for charter schools, even at the expense of Connecticut’s public schools.  Their primary initiative – “the money follows the child” – has yet to gain widespread support but they have said they will be pushing hard for the legislation in the coming legislative session.

But Amistad is also the poster-child for the most serious policy shortcoming facing charter schools.

According to the state’s school profile data most Connecticut charter schools are significantly MORE racially isolated then the schools systems in the very communities they are designed to help.

New Haven’s public schools are about approximately 88% minority but Amistad Academy’s student body is 98.5% minority.  While about 10% of New Haven’s school population is white, Amistad’s white students make up only about 1% of the student body.

In fact, according to the reports that all school are required to file with the state of Connecticut, Amistad has become significantly more racially isolated during the past decade.

Furthermore, while Connecticut’s public schools face significant challenges responding to students with developmental issues that require special education services, Amistad and many other Charter schools report virtually no students in need of special education services.

Those who have challenged the efficacy of charter schools point out that it is a lot easier to get higher test scores if schools don’t have to attend to those students who need special help.

In any case, stay tuned.  If Malloy really is selecting a charter school advocate to lead Connecticut’s system of public schools there will be a lot more to be said.