Charter schools pose financial risk to municipalities by James Mulholland

The charter school industry is proposing a change to Connecticut’s school funding system to require that local communities hand over local funds to subsidize charter schools attended by local students.  The “money follows the child” funding system leaves local public schools without the resources necessary to ensure children have access to a comprehensive education.  In this piece, first published in the CT Mirror, educator and education advocate James Mulholland examines this latest money grab by the charter schools.

Mulholland writes;

In  December of last year, the Connecticut Department of Education issued a request for proposals for new charter schools – the first time in nearly three years.  As the state grapples with a budget disaster and Gov. Dannel Malloy continues to propose changes that would dramatically change the way Connecticut pays for education, the state should refrain from opening any new charter schools and freeze the funding of existing ones.

Moody’s credit rating service has warned of the fiscal risks to municipalities posed by charter schools.  In its 2013 report, Charter Schools Pose Growing Risk for Urban Public Schools, Moody’s concluded that a rise in charter school enrollment, “is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas.”

According to Michael D’Arcy, one of two authors of the report, “A small but growing number of traditional public districts face financial stress due to the movement of students to charters.”

As urban areas such as Hartford teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, lowered bond ratings could have a devastating effect on already dire budgetary circumstances.  Gov. Malloy is proposing a new municipal accountability system for cities and towns facing severe fiscal difficulties.  The proposal includes a multi-tiered ranking system for communities that could lead to greater state oversight of local budgets and limit annual property tax increases for the cities and towns deemed most at risk.

Under the proposal, a municipality could be assigned to one of the first three tiers if it has a poor fund balance or credit rating.  Bridgeport and Stamford have resisted the state’s efforts to open charter schools in their cities.  In 2015, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the application of the Stamford Charter School for Excellence despite the fact that the Stamford Board of Education voted 7-1 to urge the state to deny the application.  The state of Connecticut may very well force cities to accept a charter school that may adversely affect its credit rating in the future.

Moody’s recently reiterated its belief about the adverse effects of charter schools this past November when Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected legislation that would have increased the state’s cap on charter schools.  Moody’s warned Boston and three other Massachusetts cities that passage of a ballot measure to expand charter schools could weaken their financial standing and ultimately threaten their bond ratings.

Nicholas Lehman, an assistant vice president at Moody’s, warned that passage of the referendum would be a “credit negative” for the cities.  Moody’s responded to Massachusetts voters’ rejection of the plan with a “credit positive” and reiterated that the history of charter schools shows they drain money from city education budgets.

Connecticut currently provides funding in excess of $100 million per year to operate 24 charter schools, 10 of which are managed by six management companies.  These companies charge a management fee of approximately 10 percent of the amount they receive from the state.

“If we saw fees of 10 percent or less, that would be reasonable,” says Robert Kelly, who oversees charter schools at the education department.  In part, these fees are used to duplicate administrative services such as payroll and human resources, which are already provided by the districts in which charter schools operate.  It seems particularly wasteful at a time when the state is looking to regionalize municipal services.

While cities and towns have seen their education funding slashed, Connecticut’s charter management companies have seen their coffers overflow. Last year, the State Board of Education increased charter school enrollment by 4 percent for the current school year. While the enrollment increase cost the state an additional $4.1 million, funding for traditional public schools was cut by $51.7 million and regional magnet schools, opened to help desegregate city schools, had budget cuts totaling $15.4 million

The diversion of millions of dollars from traditional public schools is one reason the New England Conference of the NAACP and the Massachusetts Lawyer’s Committee filed a motion against the effort to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.  It was the belief of Juan Cofield, president of the New England Conference of the NAACP, that “setting up a separate system is destructive to the notion of providing the best education for all students.”

Connecticut should not continue to pursue charter schools as a means to meet the educational needs of its children.  The financial risk to our cities and towns is just too great.

You can read and comment on the original piece at: http://ctviewpoints.org/2017/02/13/opinion-james-mulholland-2/

No evidence standardized testing can close ‘achievement gap’

In a commentary piece entitled, No evidence standardized testing can close ‘achievement gap’, and first published in the CT Mirror, Connecticut educator and public education advocate James Mulholland took on the absurd rhetoric that is being spewed by the corporate funded education reform industry.

Collecting their six figure incomes, these lobbyists for the Common Core, Common Core testing scam and the effort to privatize public education in the United States claim that more standardized testing is the key to improving educational achievement.

Rather than focus on poverty, language barriers, unmet special education needs and inadequate funding of public schools, the charter school proponents and Malloy apologists want students, parents, teachers and the public to believe that a pre-occupation with standardized testing, a focus on math and English, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies for students and undermining the teaching profession will force students to “succeed” while solving society’s problems.

Rather than rely on evidence, or even the truth, these mouthpieces for the ongoing corporatization of public education are convinced that if they simply say an untruth long enough, it will become the truth.

In his recent article, James Mullholland takes them on – writing;

In a recent commentary piece, Jeffrey Villar, Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, praises the Connecticut State Board of Education’s support for using student SBAC results in teacher evaluations. He claims, “The absence of such objective data has left our evaluation system light on accountability.” He further contends, “Connecticut continues to have one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, the SBE appears committed to continuing to take this issue on.”

Contrary to Mr. Villar’s assertion, there is little, if any, evidence to support the idea that including standardized test scores in teacher evaluations will close the so-called achievement gap.

In some ways, it is a solution looking for a problem. Mr. Villar writes, “recently released evaluation results rated almost all Connecticut teachers as either proficient or exemplary. That outcome doesn’t make much sense.”

Other education reform groups express similar disbelief that there are so many good teachers in the state. In her public testimony during Connecticut’s 2012 education reform bill, Jennifer Alexander of ConnCAN testified that too few teachers were being dismissed for poor performance: “When you look at the distribution of ratings in those systems, you again see only about two percent of teachers, maybe five max, falling at that bottom rating category.” (Transcript of legislative testimony, March 21, 2012, p. 178.)

Education reform groups seem dismayed that they have been unable to uncover an adequate number of teachers who are bad at their jobs and continue to search for a method that exposes the boogeyman of bad teachers. But that’s exactly what it is: a boogeyman that simply doesn’t exist.

Regardless of the methodology that’s used, the number of incompetent teachers never satisfies education reform groups. They see this as a flaw in the evaluation system rather than a confirmation of the competency of Connecticut’s teachers.

However, Connecticut isn’t alone. After both Tennessee and Michigan overhauled their teacher evaluation systems, 98 percent of teachers were found to be effective or better; in Florida it was 97 percent. The changes yielded only nominal differences from previous years.

Mr. Vallar believes that including SBAC scores in teacher evaluations will decrease the achievement gap. There is no evidence to support the belief that including SBAC scores in teacher evaluations will lessen the differences in learning outcomes between the state’s wealthier and less-advantaged students.

In 2012, the federal Department of Education, led by Secretary Arne Duncan, granted Connecticut a waiver from the draconian requirements of No Child Left Behind. To qualify for the waiver, the results of standardized tests were to be included in teacher evaluations.

However, the policies of the secretary, which he carried with him from his tenure as Superintendent of Schools in Chicago to Washington D.C., never achieved the academic gains that were claimed. A 2010 analysis of Chicago schools by the University of Chicago concluded that after 20 years of reform efforts, which included Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the gap between poor and rich areas had widened.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that, “One of the most striking findings is that elementary school scores in general remained mostly stagnant, contrary to visible improvement on state exams reported by the Illinois State Board of Education.”

Most striking is a letter to President Obama signed by 500 education researchers in 2015, urging Congress and the President to stop test-based reforms. In it, the researchers argue that this approach hasn’t worked. “We strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.”

Using standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness reminds me of the time I saw a friend at the bookstore. “What are you getting?” I asked. “About 14 pounds worth,” he joked. Judging books by their weight is a measurement, but it doesn’t measure what is valuable in a book. Standardized tests measure something, but it’s not the effectiveness of a teacher.

To read and comment on James Mulholland’s commentary piece go to:  http://ctviewpoints.org/2016/04/20/opinion-james-mulholland/

$17 million SBAC testing money should be used to prevent the terrible cuts to programs that actually help children.  (Guest Post by CT Educator James Mulholland)

A moratorium on the state’s standardized testing frenzy would provide the funding needed to maintain critically important education and human service programs for Connecticut’s most vulnerable children.

As Connecticut policymakers confront a large and growing state budget deficit, veteran Hartford educator James Mulholland correctly recommends that the $17 million in taxpayer funds that are being wasted on the unfair, inappropriate and discriminatory Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing scheme should be used, instead, to stop the disastrous cuts that will actually hurt and limit opportunities for Connecticut’s poorest children.

James Mulholland writes;

As Connecticut’s lawmakers wrangle with the budget in the coming days, one area of the budget they have not yet considered for cuts is the state’s SBAC testing program.  The state estimates it will spend $17 million developing and administering standardized tests during the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years. Advocates of standardized testing in general, and the SBAC in particular, have provided two primary justifications for the testing.  The first is to identify underserved subgroups and thereby better address their educational needs.  Advocates contend that the disparity in test scores, often referred to as the “achievement gap,” provides political leverage and forces politicians and other stakeholders to respond to the needs of historically underserved subgroups such as African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students.

Although the final numbers are still being debated, the state’s recent proposed budget cuts as reported by the CT Mirror include almost $24 million from the Office of Early Childhood and the departments of Social Services, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Public Health, and Children and Families.  In addition $16.3 million would be cut from the Department of Education, including a $6 million cut in funding for magnet schools. (http://ctmirror.org/2015/11/16/in-departure-democratic-lawmakers-recommend-cuts-in-social-services-education/)

At the start of November, officials at the State Department of Education proposed eliminating a program that provides about 300 New Haven elementary students from low-income families with after-school homework help and access to extracurricular activities, such as African drumming, cooking and archaeology. Funding for separate after-school and summer camps that focus on engineering would also be eliminated. That cut would affect programs in Bloomfield, Bridgeport, Bristol, Danbury, Hartford, Meriden, Milford, Newington, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury.  Other programs for which funding would be eliminated include: a family literacy program at John C. Clark Elementary and Middle School in Hartford; the extended day program at Lincoln-Bassett School in New Haven; and funding for reading instructional supports in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools would be cut by $250,000. (http://ctmirror.org/2015/11/04/education-department-reluctantly-identifies-4-5-million-in-cuts/)

What is the purpose of identifying underserved subgroups if the state is then going to turn around and cut funding for programs that address the educational needs of those students?  Would we accept healthcare legislation that maintained spending for medical tests, but cut funding for the treatment of health issues diagnosed by those tests?

The SBAC test hasn’t revealed anything new about the state’s achievement gap.  According to state data on the fourth grade math portion of the CMT in 2006, the gap in proficiency between African American students and their White counterparts was 32%, and the gap between Hispanic and White students was 28%.  In reading, the gap in proficiency was 34% between African American and White students and 38% between White and Hispanic students. http://solutions1.emetric.net/cmtpublic/CMTCode/Report.aspx?data=1419936B4BADB47C8675E81D2E415ADA

Although the scores are lower on the SBAC test and the method of reporting the scores makes it difficult to make accurate comparisons, if we look at the state as a whole, the gap between these three groups hasn’t substantially changed in the past nine years.  If we look at the state averages in math, the gap between African American students and White students is 36% and for Hispanic and White students it is 33%.  In reading, the gap between White and African American students is 37% and between White and Hispanic students is 34%. Why should we continue to fund a testing regimen that year after year gives us the same results? http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/excel/smarterbalanced/settingthebaseline2015.xls>

The second frequently cited justification for the multi-state assessment is to give parents a better understanding of how our children perform academically as compared with their peers in other states. The two testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, to which Connecticut belongs, have seen a substantial reduction in the number of participating states.  Roughly half the states that belonged to either SBAC or PARCC have since abandoned the consortiums. As a result, the ability for parents to compare their children’s academic performance by comparing test scores from state to state has been significantly compromised.  Just last week, Massachusetts, which is considered to be the nation’s highest performing state, made the decision to abandon the multi-state PARCC test.

The state also plans to use SBAC scores in teacher evaluations.  Connecticut received a waiver from the Federal Department of Education requirement that standardized testing data be used in evaluations during the 2015-16 school year.  Despite the waiver, Connecticut hasn’t reversed its plan to use state testing data in teacher evaluations, a plan that was part of the sweeping education legislation enacted in 2012.  Standardized testing has come under increasing scrutiny across the nation, particularly in its use for high-stakes decisions such as student promotion, in teacher evaluations, and for other school personnel decisions.  Both the American Statistical Association, which is the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, and the American Educational Research Association have questioned the validity of using standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness and cautioned against using them for such purposes. Last week, a judge in New Mexico temporarily barred schools from using that state’s controversial test-based teacher evaluations to make personnel decisions, finding that the system is not as objective and uniform as state law requires. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2015/12/03/new-mexico-judge-hits-pause-on-controversial-test-based-teacher-evaluations/

In the current fiscal crisis, the state of Connecticut has to make some difficult budget-cutting decisions.  Given the state’s budget problems and the evolution of the SBAC test, Connecticut should institute a moratorium on standardized testing.  It has served few, if any, of the purposes its proponents claim. Instead, the state should redirect the money to fund educational programs that have a real and positive effect on the educational outcomes of Connecticut’s children.

Connecticut educator James Mulholland teaches in Hartford.

Editor’s Note:  If legislators were committed to serving the people they are sworn to represent they would do exactly what James Mulholland is suggesting when they meet to vote on a deficit mitigation package at tomorrow’s Special Session of the Connecticut General Assembly.

Connecticut Elected Officials – Do the right thing!