Commentary

Farrell: Lee school delay may only be reprieve against charter onslaught

October 1, 2013 

Walter Farrell

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) are in the bull’s-eye of national charter management companies (CMOS). Since the Republican takeover of all branches of state government, North Carolina is being transformed into a mecca for business, for-profit approaches to public education. National Heritage Academies’ (NHA) developed and lobbied for the establishment of the Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School, which was scheduled to open this September.

Fortunately for CHCCS, the Lee Charter’s opening has been delayed due to the NHA’s business challenges. Currently operating in nine states, including North Carolina, it could not project a profit margin for Lee Charter’s first year of operation and thus chose to pull out at the last moment.

In Milwaukee, where NHA opened the Milwaukee Scholars Charter School in the fall of 2011, it has suffered huge losses due to its poor performance; it had to lay off 25 percent of its mostly uncertified teaching staff by January 2012.

Tracking the charter schools owned by NHA, and other CMOs (in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, and Louisiana) from 2009 to the present, and attending parent and school board meetings in school districts where their charters are located, two tactics have emerged:

Cultivation of Minority Community Support: NHA and CMOs target African-American and Hispanic communities in large and small urban school districts where students are experiencing a host of academic challenge (many of which are outside the scope of the public schools). NHA and its fellow CMOs enter these communities and establish relationships with parents and community leaders and promise they will quickly reverse this trend.

In Chapel Hill, they solicited the support of the revered former African-American Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee, who was a former North Carolina state senator and former head of the North Carolina school board that reviewed NHA’s charter school application. NHA named the school the Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School and recruited the Lee’s daughter, Angela, to serve on the Lee Charter Board and to submit the charter application (prepared by NHA headquarters) under her name. As expected, it sailed through the state board without dissent.

NHA and other CMOs also made major contributions to the campaigns of a bipartisan group of majority and minority North Carolina legislators who vote favorably on school choice legislation. North Carolina State Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), an African-American, has received more than a quarter of his total campaign contributions from the school choice lobby.

Operational Control and Performance: Although Angela Lee was the titular head of the Lee Charter School, while in partnership with NHA, all curriculum, hiring, physical plant, etc. decisions were made by NHA. And the decision not to open in 2013 was made solely by NHA.

National studies by the federal government and the 2009 and 2013 Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) have found that charter schools’ have demonstrated no better academic performance, overall, than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Moreover, they have long-term records of under-enrolling English Language Learners, exceptional education students (especially those on the autism spectrum where one of every 58 African-American boys have been identified) and those with a history of discipline problems as compared to the enrollment of students in nearby public schools. CMOs also have the ability to expel and counsel out students at will, without due process, due to the flexibility they are granted via state legislation.

And a substantial percentage of the teachers and administrators CMOs employ lack full certification in the subjects they teach (particularly in the exceptional education category) and in school administration, respectively.

NHA presented no specific plans to address the complex needs of the low-income, minority and majority students and their parents as has CHCCS: socio-emotional (Bridge), mentoring (Blue Ribbon), college attendance (AVID), and parent development (Parent University), respectively.

My late colleague, UNC-CH Social Work professor Gary Shaffer, worked tirelessly on these initiatives throughout his more than two decade career and placed hundreds of his social work education students in field placements in these programs. He knew from his experience that the task of providing high quality education to at-risk students requires a multi-faceted, highly-skilled effort.

NHA has not demonstrated a commitment to such an effort in any of the nine states in which it currently operates. And its teacher and administrator turnover severely hampers its ability to do so.

The history of efforts to reform public education is awash with such gimmicks: performance contracting in the 1980s in Wichita, Kan., and other urban districts where the guaranteed academic outcomes did not occur, and financial fraud was rampant. Publicly funded private school vouchers have recently been approved for North Carolina as another unproven ploy with questionable prior results.

State legislatures have cut billions of dollars from public school budgets while unemployment and poverty have reached epic levels in urban districts, and have increased significantly in the wake of the federal government’s sequester. Instead, public schools, teachers, and their unions, are being demonized as the reasons for the failure of public schools serving socially and economically distressed students.

At this point, CMOs and locally developed charters, having largely exhausted their assault on low-wealth school districts, are now turning their focus to middle-class districts. Besides Chapel Hill, they have descended on Montclair and Highland Park, N.J., Waukesha, Wis., and others, to tap into stable, property tax revenues.

The Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School is being considered for partnership by a number of CMOs (KIPP, Rocketship, Quest, etc.) since NHA has pulled out. Thus, Chapel Hill’s one-year reprieve could be viewed as a “stay of execution” unless residents decide otherwise, while, at the same time, preparing to fend off the coming onslaught of virtual schools.

Walter C. Farrell, Jr. is a professor of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Fellow in the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He was on leave as a senior policy adviser to the Joint Finance Chair of the Wisconsin Legislature in 1990 when the nation’s first voucher bill since the 1950s was passed, and has researched public school privatization initiatives since that time.

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