Alan Cron, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Rockland Public Schools in Rockland, Massachusetts and a graduate of the Leadership in Urban Schools program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His research focus is policy implementation, distributed leadership theory and leadership practice.
Congratulations to Social Science/History teacher Ms. Amanda Lanigan on being published by the United Nations Major Group for Children & Youth. Ms. Lanigan was published in the The Disaster Risk Reduction Edition of the Youth Science-Policy Interface Publication. Along with Founder and CEO of Worthy Village (and Rockland High School graduate) she published an article entitled “Empowering Local Actors to Build Disaster Resilience.” Below is the abstract:
One of the greatest challenges in building disaster resilience is creating sustainable solutions that fit within the cultural norms of a local population. The Sendai Framework provides a method through which high-risk areas can be identified to cultivate preparedness for future catastrophic events. In an effort to follow the “Build Back Better” model, this proposal calls for the mobilization of local actors within cultural norms. In order to develop increased coping capacity, this model focuses on specifically vulnerable segments of the population, namely impoverished women in indigenous communities. By improving the resiliency of basic service infrastructures such as food and water security, health, and education, this method seeks to improve sustainability and decrease mortality. This method was introduced in Guatemala, a nation with limited coping capacity due to the prevalence of risk drivers such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty and inequality, poorly planned urbanization, and weak governance.
Auditor Bump Statement on New Charter School Campaign
BOSTON, MA — Auditor Suzanne Bump today released the following statement related to the recently launched charter school campaign:
“This afternoon, Governor Baker helped launch “Fact Check: Public Charter Schools in Massachusetts,” a public information campaign intended to provide information about charter schools to inform policymakers. However, the campaign itself needs to check its facts. It has come to my attention that this campaign is misstating the findings in an audit my office conducted in 2014 of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) oversight of charter schools.
Specifically, the campaign uses my office’s audit to demonstrate that there are currently over 37,000 students on the wait list. Our audit specifically states: “We estimated that unduplicated counts taken at the end of the lottery process in March 2013 should have been no more than 38,034 students (with 14,800 from Boston), as opposed to the 40,376 unduplicated count reported by DESE. However, even that adjusted count was significantly overstated to an extent that could not be quantified because, as DESE managers subsequently told us, a majority of charter schools roll forward waitlist entries from prior years that may no longer be applicable. They noted that students could remain on a school’s waitlist for several years, but stated that they could not estimate the number of students involved.”
In addition, DESE’s count included at least 2,342 probable duplicate entries that DESE had not identified as duplications. Because DESE’s waitlist compilation process did not use a software application designed to provide uniform data, avoid duplication, and facilitate comparison of entries across multiple charter school waitlists, DESE has a limited ability to detect students who are listed on the wait list multiple times at multiple schools.
It had been my hope that this audit would serve as a tool to provide meaningful, unbiased, and complete data so that when this debate next took place, policymakers and the public would have access to more facts. I have long believed in, and as State Auditor am committed to, the notion that better information makes for better public policy. However, the lack of complete data when conducting this audit made it impossible to provide the tool my office sought to develop. When incomplete information is presented as fact, as is the case by this campaign, policymakers are not afforded the ability to make unbiased decisions and the public is misled. The education of our children is too important to base these important decisions on misleading information.”
Massachusetts Charter Schools and Their Problems With “Attrition”
The debate about lifting the Massachusetts charter school cap continues to rage on, in anticipation of November’s vote on Question 2:
Question 2 on the November ballot will ask voters if they support giving Massachusetts the authority to lift the cap on charter schools. As it stands, no more than 120 charter schools are allowed to operate in the state; there are currently 78 active charters.
A “Yes” vote on Question 2 would give the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the authority to lift the cap, allowing up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing charters each year.
Priority would be given to charters that open in lower-performing districts. New charters and charter expansions approved under this law would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.
Pro-charter researchers have been weighing in. I’ll get to their arguments in due time, but for now, I want to concentrate on a key issue in the charter cap debate: attrition. Determining whether attrition affects charter school results is central to the argument for (or against) their expansion in Massachusetts and elsewhere. If charter schools shed kids year after year — especially if those kids are low-performing — then their vaunted performance advantages are in question, particularly when compared to public district schools that aren’t losing students.
The Massachusetts charter sector has been pushing back hard on this point. Here, for example, are the “facts” from the Massachusetts Charter Public* School Association:
The attrition rate in Boston and in Gateway City charters “has remained lower” than the attrition rates of district schools in those communities, according to data by (DESE) in Dec. 2015 (2014-2015 school year).
The attrition rate at Boston charters (9.3%) is significantly lower than in BPS (14.2%).
In Gateway Cities, charter attrition rates (6.2%) are lower than Gateway districts (11.4%).
From 2012-2014, an average of just 82 students left charters and returned to Boston Public Schools, according to BPS numbers – one-tenth of one percent of BPS total enrollment of 57,000.
Yeah, uh… no. Not really.
You see, “attrition,” for the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, has avery specific meaning:
This report provides the percentage of attrition by grade from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next for students enrolled in public schools, including charter schools, in the state. The information is as of October 1 of the school year selected. [emphasis mine]
In other words, “attrition” is the percentage of students who only leave a school’s rolls during the summer. Which may be an interesting statistic, but does not include all of the students who leave during the school year.
Further, “attrition” as defined by MA-DESE only tells half of the story we need to hear if we’re going to evaluate charter school performance. What we really need to consider is whether the students moving out of charter schools are being replaced at rates equal to the replacement rates for students moving out of public district schools.
If we only consider a school’s attrition over time — all of its attrition, not just the students leaving in the summer — we don’t consider its “backfill”: the students coming in to replace the ones who left. Students in economic disadvantage are often more mobile than students who are not, which means that urban centers, where charters proliferate, are more likely to have student populations who move in and out of different school districts.
Here’s an urban school that backfills as much as it attrits students.
Notice the school gains as many students as it loses. Let’s assume this is just for one grade; if so, that “cohort” will remain the same size no matter how large its attrition rate is.
But what happens if the school doesn’t backfill?
This school has exactly the same attrition rate as the first school. But because it doesn’t backfill, its cohorts keep shrinking. Every year it loses students, but it doesn’t take in enough in the same grade to replace them.
Again, this is a key issue in determining if charters can be scaled up to take a larger share of students. If charters are not backfilling, they are probably serving a less mobile student population — and one that is likely in less economic disadvantage. They are relying on the public district schools to take the students that are coming into the district, which raises some profound questions about how, exactly, the “successful” charters get their gains.
So now that we’ve described the real issues in this debate, let’s go to the data. We’ll focus on Boston as the city is, by far, the largest district in Massachusetts and will likely see the greatest amount of charter expansion if Question 2 passes.
In this analysis I focus on high schools, for several reasons. First, we don’t have to concern ourselves with the differences in grade level served between charters — who often serve elementary and middle grades along with high school grades — and public district schools. Second, we’re less likely to see the type of attrition that occurs between grades 8 and 9, when students move into high school and often attend a private school.
Let’s start by seeing how Boston’s high school students divide up between charters and public district schools:
A few things to note here. First, there are two flavors of charter school in Boston: independent charters, and “Horace Mann” charters, which are sanctioned by the Boston Public Schools and staffed (mostly) with unionized teachers. I’ve marked the independents in red, the Horace Mann charters in purple, and BPS in blue.
There is no question that the independent charter sector is still relatively small in Boston, at least as far as high schools are concerned. That alone ought to give supporters of Question 2 pause: how can they be so sure these schools can maintain their alleged “gains” (we’ll talk about whether these “gains” actually exist in another post) if they expand? What if they can only function on a smaller scale?
This is why we have to look at the size of the cohorts as they pass through from Grade 9 to 12. What, for example, happened to the graduating Class of 2014 as they moved from freshman to senior year?
We lost a few schools because they are so new that they hadn’t yet had a cohort pass through from freshman to senior year. I also took out Boston Day and Evening Academy Charter because it is an alternative high school that mixes grade levels.
Every independent charter school in Boston had a higher cohort attrition rate in 2014 than BPS as a whole.
In the case of City on a Hill and Phoenix, their 2011 freshman class shrank by more than half by the time they were seniors. That is a remarkable difference compared to BPS.
But is it part of a pattern?
In the last decade, Boston’s charter sector has had substantially greater cohort attrition than the Boston Public Schools. In fact, even though the data is noisy, you could make a pretty good case the difference in cohort attrition rates has grown over the last five years.
Is this proof that the independent charters are doing a bad job? I wouldn’t say so; I’m sure these schools are full of dedicated staff, working hard to serve their students. But there is little doubt that the public schools are doing a job that charters are not: they are educating the kids who don’t stay in the charters, or who arrive too late to feel like enrolling in them is a good choice.
This is a serious issue, and the voters of Massachusetts should be made aware of it before they cast their votes. We know that charter schools have had detrimental effects on the finances of their host school systems in other states. Massachusetts’ charter law has one of the more generous reimbursement policies for host schools, but these laws do little more than delay the inevitable: charter expansion, by definition, is inefficient because administrative functions are replicated. And that means less money in the classroom.
Is it really worth expanding charters and risking further injury to BPS when the charter sector appears, at least at the high school level, to rely so heavily on cohort attrition?
It doesn’t matter what you call it — you’re still shrinking.
* Notice where the world “public” is put in the title of this group? They desperately want us all to believe charters are “public” schools, even when the courts and other public authorities have ruled repeatedly that they are not.
When Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo wanted to meet certain members of the hedge fund crowd, seeking donors for his all-but-certain run for governor, what he heard was this: Talk to Joe.
That would be Joe Williams, executive director of a political action committee that advances what has become a favorite cause of many of the wealthy founders of New York hedge funds: charter schools.
Wall Street has always put its money where its interests and beliefs lie. But it is far less common that so many financial heavyweights would adopt a social cause like charter schools and advance it with a laserlike focus in the political realm.
Hedge fund executives are thus emerging as perhaps the first significant political counterweight to the powerful teachers unions, which strongly oppose expanding charter schools in their current form.
After hearing from Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Williams arranged an 8 a.m. meeting last month at the Regency Hotel, that favorite spot for power breakfasts, between Mr. Cuomo and supporters of his committee, Democrats for Education Reform, who include the founders of funds like Anchorage Capital Partners, with $8 billion under management; Greenlight Capital,with $6.8 billion; and Pershing Square Capital Management, with $5.5 billion.
Although the April 9 breakfast with Mr. Cuomo was not a formal fund-raiser, the hedge fund managers have been wielding their money to influence educational policy in Albany, particularly among Democrats, who control both the Senate and the Assembly but have historically been aligned with the teachers unions.
They have been contributing generously to lawmakers in hopes of creating a friendlier climate for charter schools. More immediately, they have raised a multimillion-dollar war chest to lobby this month for a bill to raise the maximum number of charter schools statewide to 460 from 200.
The money has paid for television and radio advertisements, phone banks and some 40 neighborhood canvassers in New York City and Buffalo — all urging voters to put pressure on their lawmakers.
Teachers unions have historically opposed charter schools — which receive taxpayer funds but are privately run, and whose teachers usually are not unionized — contending that they drain money from regular public schools.
The United Federation of Teachers, the New York City union, has taken notice. It is sending its own message over the airwaves: that fat-cat charter supporters are “spending over a million on false attacks against teachers and public schools.”
Before now, said Boykin Curry, a partner in Eagle Capital Management, who attended the breakfast with Mr. Cuomo, “A lot of hedge fund and finance people in New York had decided state politics was too dirty and focused on their philanthropy.” Mr. Curry, a founder of two Girls Prep charter schools in New York City, added, “I think there’s an awakening now that we can be a force in Albany, but we’ve got to play a tougher game than before.”
Mr. Williams, a former education reporter for The Daily News, has intensified his activities, hiring Bradley Tusk, who managed Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s re-election campaign last year, and top Albany lobbyists including Patricia Lynch, a former aide to Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, who will be crucial to the success of any charter bill in the Legislature.
Late last month, Education Reform Now, a related advocacy group also run by Mr. Williams, received a promise of $1 million from the Robin Hood Foundation, a Wall Street charity, in recognition that “this is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said David Saltzman, its executive director.
Last week, a bill to raise the cap on charter schools passed in the State Senate by a ratio of three to one, with a number of Democrats in support. It is now in the hands of the Assembly, where charter proponents have been in the minority.
Critics of charter schools suggest that their sometimes stellar academic results are deceptive because they enroll relatively few students who do not speak English or require special education, or both.
The cap-lifting bill passed by the State Senate got through in part because it requires charter schools to take on more of those students.
But with their lobbyists, phone banks and door-to-door canvassers, the pro-charter forces are turning up the heat by invoking the June 1 deadline by which the state must apply for $700 million in education grants from the federal government in the competition known as Race to the Top, which promotes charter school growth as one of its many goals.
Mr. Silver, in a statement on Friday, said his Democratic majority conference would review issues related to the Race to the Top “in the near future.”
Meanwhile, many hedge fund managers are expected to attend a $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser on Wednesday at the Harvard Club for Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo. Mr. Hoyt, a Democrat and a charter school supporter, acknowledged that the money could help — but only so much.
“Compared to the resources that the teachers union has, it’s not enough,” he said. “Some big-shot millionaire is not going to go ring doorbells and get hundreds of people in a phone bank.”
The issue of charter schools in some ways crosses party lines, although there is no Republican equivalent of Mr. Williams’s Democratic political action committee. There does not have to be one: Many Republican officials readily embrace charter schools, whose ideological roots are in a free-market model of education.
Much of the policy around reforms that charter schools embody — rewarding teachers based on student gains; having longer academic years; emphasizing discipline — has been promoted by conservative research groups like the Hoover Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Former President George W. Bush supported charter schools, but so does President Obama — which has given political cover to many Democratic supporters to be more outspoken.
New York State United Teachers, the statewide union, produced a report last month listing what it called abuses by charter school officials, including instances in which for-profit management companies signed questionable loans or property rental deals with the schools they were hired to run.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, has melded these companies — which run only about a dozen of the 140 charters in the state — into all pro-charter forces in his talking points, accusing hedge fund managers of putting “profits above education.”
“I think they should donate their money, and they seem to have a lot of it, directly to the education budget,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “They seem to be willing to spend anything, which always leads me to suspect motive.”
Charter supporters say the unions’ own motives are clear: “To protect their own self-interest, often at the expense of children,” said Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager who is on the board of KIPP New York, which runs six charter schools.
The financial titans, who tend to send their children to private schools, would not seem to be a natural champion of charter schools, which are principally aimed at poor, minority students.
But the money managers are drawn to the businesslike way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results, primarily measured by test scores; and, not least, their union-free work environments, which give administrators flexibility to require longer days and a longer academic year.
It also does not hurt that the city’s No. 1 billionaire, Mr. Bloomberg, is a strong charter school supporter. He is the host of the fund-raiser for Mr. Hoyt, and at times, Democrats for Education Reform seems an extension of the mayor’s own platform.
Besides more charter schools, the group and the mayor have called for ending the use of seniority as a basis for layoffs and for granting principals more power to fire teachers they consider ineffective.
Mr. Cuomo also has expressed support for charter schools. A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to answer questions about the breakfast at the Regency, but Mr. Williams said it had gone well.
“We said we were looking for a leader on our particular issue,” he said, and as a result, when Mr. Cuomo is next required to disclose his contributors, “You will see a bunch of our people on the filing.”