Charter school expansion: More reasons for skepticism

As the state legislature moves ahead with a plan to open the door to lots more charter schools in Indiana, news stories keep appearing that make you wonder why.

In Monday’s Indianapolis Star, Scott Elliott explains how Indiana charter schools can use “sponsor shopping” to avoid being held accountable. Fountain Square Academy, a grades 5-12 school sponsored by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, is slated to become the first charter school in Indiana to close for poor performance. But it may be able to stay open by switching its sponsorship to Ball State University.

Sound unlikely? Elliott recounts how, in 2006, the mayor’s office, in a “devastatingly detailed” report, rejected a proposal from the Imagine Schools charter chain. But three months later Ball State approved the first of what would be four Imagine schools in Indiana – schools that are among the worst-performing charters in the state.

Department of Education officials claim House Bill 1002, being debated by the legislature, will hold charter schools accountable. But in fact it will be up to the sponsoring organizations – and to a certain extent a new state charter-schools board – to ensure that the schools perform.

The legislation extends the ability to sponsor charter schools to at least 30 private colleges and universities. So opportunities for charter operators to shop for sponsors could be greatly enhanced.

KIPP gets a kick

Probably no charter school operation has a better reputation for helping poor and minority kids succeed than the California-based KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school system.

But a recent study from Western Michigan University could scuff up KIPP’s image. It found that KIPP schools have high attrition rates, with up to 15 percent of students leaving each year between sixth and eighth grades. And because of private donations, KIPP schools spend about $5,000 more per year per student than traditional schools, the study found. (Jim Horn provides details at Schools Matter).

KIPP schools may outperform traditional public schools, “but they’re not doing it with the same students, and they’re not doing it with the same dollars,” Gary Miron, the study’s lead author, told the Washington Post.

KIPP, which runs about 100 schools in 20 states (including Indiana) and the District of Columbia, disputed the study, arguing it used flawed methodologies and relied on faulty data.

The Turkish charter connection

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently on Fethullah Gulen, described as “a major Islamic political figure in Turkey” but a resident of Pennsylvania, and the 125 U.S. charter schools run by his followers.

It says that “federal agencies – including the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education – are investigating whether some charter school employees are kicking back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen known as Hizmet, or Service, according to knowledgeable sources.”

“Religious scholars consider the Gulen strain of Islam moderate, and the investigation has no link to terrorism,” the Inquirer reports. “Rather, it is focused on whether hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators, and other staffers employed under the H1B visa program are misusing taxpayer money.”

OK, you say, another vaguely scandalous charter-school story from the East Coast. But wait! Two Indianapolis charter schools, Indiana Math and Science Academy North and West, are operated by Chicago-based Concept Schools Inc., reportedly part of the Gulen network. One is sponsored by the Indy mayor’s office, the other by Ball State.

Doug Martin has written a detailed post about the Gulen connections in Indiana. Or you can read a good summary at the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette Learning Curve blog.

9 thoughts on “Charter school expansion: More reasons for skepticism

    • Stuart – thanks for the response and for the link. KIPP cites Mathematica in its response to Miron, which I linked in the post. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Mathematica is confusing apples and oranges by comparing departures from KIPP with departures from neighboring public schools. When students (especially poor students) leave non-charter schools, it’s typically because they move to a different attendance area – they move for family and economic reasons, not in order to change schools. When they leave charters, they’re not bound by attendance areas and are likely leaving by choice. There’s a difference.

      • Where are you getting information on why students leave KIPP schools vs. why they leave nearby public schools? That seems rather speculative, and in any event, the point is that Miron has been roundly rebutted in his claim that KIPP schools see markedly HIGHER levels of attrition (for whatever reason that attrition might be occurring).

      • I suppose it’s partly speculative, partly anecdotal and partly based on what I saw when my own children attended a high-poverty elementary school. Poor families tend to move a lot because of economic circumstances, and when they move their children often change schools. If parents have made the decision and commitment to place their child in a charter school, and have the means and desire to get them there, I’m guessing that school-to-school bouncing would happen less often. I’m not knocking KIPP; just saying there are differences between charters and traditional schools that would come into play when you make these kinds of comparisons.

      • Also, I misstated something: when Mathematica did an actual study that looked at actual kids, they found that KIPP has LOWER attrition for black males than other public schools do.

  1. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice funded this study by Gary Miron.

    The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice was created by the Michigan teacher’s union association (the MEA) and receives substantial funding from the NEA.

    Gary Miron knows this and he knows where his bread is buttered.

    Most of Gary Miron’s studies are funded by The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

    And by not revealing these easily-discovered facts (took me about five minutes of searching), The Washington Post pronounces this latest investigation to the world as an unbiased study.

    Our country is failing because our journalists are failing.

    • Thanks for commenting, but the Great Lakes Center did not fund the KIPP study. (Miron: “Its flattering to think that folks think we had a budget to work with but we did not.”). The fact that Great Lakes Center gets union support is well known; I’ve seen it reported in mainstream media several times. But it’s debatable whether this matters. Bill Gates has an agenda, yet the Gates Foundation clearly funds valid and valuable educational research. Most drug research is funded by drug companies. It’s relevant to know who funds studies; but the important question is whether the studies are properly conducted and stand up to public and scholarly scrutiny.

  2. Pingback: Islam and the Free Market of Privatized Education: "Friending" the Gülen Charter Schools

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