Hagopian says the setup exists in the standardized tests policymakers across the nation have increasingly used to measure the gap in academic performance. The gap, he says, too often separates students of color from their white peers, and hold teachers and school leaders accountable for closing it.
Catching Students Who Are Falling Behind
President Obama has said, "There's nothing wrong with testing. We just need better tests ... that track how well our students are growing academically so we can catch when they're falling behind, and help them before they just get passed along."
Though the mechanisms that made the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act so powerful have become largely unpopular, many, including Obama administration officials, still support the law's central aim: to shine a bright spotlight on inequities in the nation's education system.
But Hagopian sees it differently, especially when it comes to racial inequities in schools. He recently edited a book titled "More Than A Score" that criticizes education policymakers for becoming too obsessed with standardized testing.
'Disproportionate Impact' On Students Of Color
"When you discuss the problem of black success in terms of their failure to succeed or their failure to achieve," said Hagopian, "and you don't discuss the fact that the opportunities are being systematically denied to them, then you blame our black youth for the problems that our society has created."
This post has been updated to include a response from National Heritage Academies.
A couple of years ago, auditors looked at the books of a charter school in Buffalo, New York, and were taken aback by what they found. Like all charter schools, Buffalo United Charter School is funded with taxpayer dollars. The school is also a nonprofit. But as the New York State auditors wrote, Buffalo United was sending " virtually all of the School's revenues" directly to a for-profit company hired to handle its day-to-day operations.
Charter schools often hire companies to handle their accounting and management functions. Sometimes the companies even take the lead in hiring teachers, finding a school building, and handling school finances.
In the case of Buffalo United, the auditors found that the school board had little idea about exactly how the company – a large management firm called National Heritage Academies – was spending the school's money. The school's board still had to approve overall budgets, but it appeared to accept the company's numbers with few questions. The signoff was "essentially meaningless," the auditors wrote.
In the charter-school sector, this arrangement is known as a "sweeps" contract because nearly all of a school's public dollars – anywhere from 95 to 100 percent – is "swept" into a charter-management company.
The contracts are an example of how the charter schools sometimes cede control of public dollars to private companies that have no legal obligation to act in the best interests of the schools or taxpayers. When the agreement is with a for-profit firm like National Heritage Academies, it's also a chance for such firms to turn taxpayer money into tidy profits.
"It's really just a pass-through for for-profit entities," said Eric Hall, an attorney in Colorado Springs who specializes in work with charter schools and has come across many sweeps contracts. "In what sense is that a nonprofit endeavor? It's not."
Neither National Heritage Academies nor the Buffalo United board responded to requests for comment. (Update: NHA spokeswoman Jennifer Hoff said in an emailed statement, “Our approach relieves our partner boards of all financial, operational, and academic risks – a significant burden that ultimately defeats many charter schools. Freed from burdens like fundraising, our partner boards can focus on governance and oversight … NHA and its partner schools comply fully with state and federal laws, authorizer oversight requirements, and education department regulations – including everything related to transparency.”)
While relationships between charter schools and management companies have started tocome under scrutiny, sweeps contracts have received little attention. Schools have agreed to such setups with both nonprofit and for-profit management companies, but it's not clear how often. Nobody appears to be keeping track.
What is clear is that it can be hard for regulators and even schools themselves to follow the money when nearly all of it goes into the accounts of a private company.
"We're not confident that sweeps contracts allow [charters schools and regulators] to fully fulfill their public functions," said Alex Medler, who leads policy and advocacy work at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter regulators. The organization discourages the arrangements. "We think this is an issue that needs attention."
Officials have gotten glimpses of questionable spending by some firms using "sweeps" contracts.
Take the case of Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, another National Heritage Academies school. In 2012, state auditors tried to track the $10 million in public funding given to the school, only to conclude they were " unable to determine ... the extent to which the $10 million of annual public funding provided to the school was actually used to benefit its students." From what auditors could tell, the school was paying above-market rent for its building, which in turn is owned by a subsidiary of National Heritage When Charter Schools Are Nonprofit in Name Only - ProPublica:
Since it opened in September, the state’s first charter school has lost its special-education coordinator, principal, board president and half the rest of its board. By Wednesday, it must prove to a state board that it can solve problems in four major areas.
Just months after it opened, First Place Scholars, the first charter school in Washington state, is in turmoil.
Its first principal resigned in November, more than half of its original board of directors have left, too, and the state’s charter-school commission has identified more than a dozen potential problems that need to be fixed soon if the school wants to keep its doors open.
Among them: hiring a qualified special-education teacher for the roughly two dozen students who need those services, and completing background checks on some of its nonteaching staff.
Members of the Washington State Charter School Commission, charged with vetting and overseeing charter schools, say they are hopeful that First Place will turn itself around and that the school is on track to complete its corrective action plan on time.
But if it doesn’t, the school will face stricter negotiations that could ultimately lead to its closure.
The school’s rocky start is bad news for charter supporters, who barely got a charter law passed here two years ago after trying for nearly two decades.
Joshua Halsey, the commission’s executive director, said his group takes the school’s problems seriously.
“We’re monitoring this very closely,” he said.
First Place opened in September as the first charter under the 2012 measure, which has been hailed as one of the strongest in the country and allows for up to eight charters to be opened each year for five years.
Campaign supporters promised that the bar for instructional quality and sound financial management would be set high for nonprofits seeking to open charters — free, independently run but publicly funded schools that aren’t bound by many of the same restrictions governing typical public schools. In exchange for agreeing to a set of goals, called a charter, charter schools receive roughly as much public money as traditional public school districts do.
So far, the state’s charter commission has approved seven other charter schools. Six will open in 2015 and one in 2016. Spokane Public Schools, which also may authorize charter schools, has approved two, both opening in 2015.
First Place was the first charter to open in part because it wasn’t starting from scratch. It had long been a private elementary school, founded to serve homeless students, in partnership with Seattle Public Schools.
Located in the former Odessa Brown medical clinic in Seattle’s Central District, the K-5 school focuses on students who have been homeless or have experienced a variety of other traumas. Classes have 14 or 15 students each. Becoming a charter is helping First Place expand from about 45 students to up to 100.
Halsey, the state charter commission’s executive director, chalked some of First Place’s problems up to being the state’s first charter school.
“It’s one thing for a district to open a new school — it’s a whole different story when you talk about a whole district being established,” Halsey said. “And that’s pretty much what these charter schools are.”
When First Place opened this fall, some said a lot was riding on its success.
But Steve Sundquist, the charter commission chairman, said Tuesday that he didn’t think First Place’s troubles represent a setback for the state’s broader charter-school movement.
“This will not be the only case of struggle,” he said. “But I believe ultimately we’re going to see a successful story here.”
Troubles pop up
First Place hit its first bump when Halsey sat in on a board meeting in September and noticed the board went into executive session, saying they wanted to discuss personnel matters, which is appropriate, but also “other” issues, which is not a legal reason for public boards to meet in private. Several parents then complained to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction about the school’s special-education practices, prompting Halsey to visit the school Oct. 30.