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Education Opinion

ED Charter Abuse, DC Is No Atlanta, & For-Profits in Court

By Rick Hess — July 05, 2012 6 min read
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After tomorrow, I’ll be taking a four-week summer blogging break--I’ll introduce your impressive line-up of guest stars tomorrow. Meanwhile, things have backed up while I finished the Cage-Busting Leadership manuscript (which went off to Harvard Ed Press on Tuesday). So, today, I want to hit on a couple stories that I’ve really been meaning to touch upon.

Charter Abuse at U.S. Department of Ed: First up, people sometimes ask why I’m a little nervous about the Gates-sponsored urban “charter compacts,” pledges by charters to ensure their students are demographically representative of the community, or state efforts to apply teacher quality legislation to charters. Well, the problem is that each step along this path does a little more to import into the charter sector the pathologies and pettifogging bureaucracy that so hinder district schools. In an astonishing (but, unfortunately, not altogether uncommon example), one Peter Gelissen, an attorney with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education, has initiated a classically burdensome and bizarre witch hunt against charter schools in Washington, D.C. In a note sent my way by one DC charter school, Gelissen wrote:

Attached is a notification/data request letter for a complaint against your School recently filed with the Office for Civil Rights. This is one of 46 complaints that were filed by the American Diabetes Association and University Legal Services against the DC Public Schools, the DC Public Charter School Board, and 44 individual DC Public Charter Schools. FYI, if you have no students with diabetes at your School, you need only reply to those parts of the letter relating to allegation two (which concerns staff training and grievance procedures). The timeframe within which we are requesting a response to the letter is 32 calendar days from today's date - July 23, 2012.

Unfortunately, the five-page, single-spaced letter isn’t a Word document, so it’s a hassle to share the choice bits. But here are a few highlights. Even though Gelissen says that OCR has thus far made no determinations about whether the complaints have any merit, he’s ordered these 44 schools to provide: a “specific, narrative response to each of the complainants allegations;" “the school’s policies and procedures on, and narrative descriptions of, the school’s practice applicable to, the care of students with diabetes, including all relating to the provision of diabetes-related services;" “a description of--and all methods relating to--the method by which the school identifies students who have diabetes;" “copies of the section 504 and all other health plans for each school student with diabetes;" “the number of school staff knowledgeable about diabetes, including registered nurses, who are present at the school and the settings in which such staff are required to be present;" “diabetes-related training the school has provided or arranged for school staff during the 2010/2011 and the 2011/2012 school years;" and oodles more. The complaints included allegations that some schools did not have “adequate numbers of properly trained staff to monitor and administer medication” to students when they’re transported to and from school or during extra-curricular activities and field trips.

Gotta admit, I don’t want teachers doing PD on diabetes services. I’d much rather they put the time into, you know, instruction. District schools don’t meet every need of every child, but use some schools to meet the needs of particular students. Rather than ask every charter to invest a lot of time and energy in training and planning that will apply to, at most, a tiny handful of children, I think it makes more sense to acknowledge that small, stand-alone schools aren’t equipped to meet every special need for every child, and to proceed accordingly.

Otherwise, multiply this little Kafkaesque exercise by all the imaginable complaints about every category of special need, every statute and regulation relating to public funds, every conceivable complaint that some special interest or grudge-holding group can surface, and expect schools to bulletproof themselves against all of that, and you realize how easy it is to prevent educators from actually focusing on education. This petty bureaucratese is why districts and schools get paralyzed by paperwork and compliance, and wind up unable to focus their energies on teaching and learning. Importing these pathologies into the charter sector is mindless and destructive, and yet apparently this is precisely what staff attorneys at the “charter-friendly” U.S. Department of Ed are busy doing.

Good News on Cheating in DC: Second, on a more cheerful note, I’ve wondered just how much cheating has taken place in the NCLB era. My instinct has been a lot, given the laughably weak security protocols in most districts and the increasing incentives for school leaders and teachers to care about test results. For that reason, I found the Atlanta cheating scandal unsurprising and have expected more of the same. One district that has drawn a lot of attention is Washington, D.C., in part, I suspect, because Michelle Rhee’s critics have been eager to find ways to question her legacy.

Two weeks ago, though, Alvarez & Marsal reported on its analysis of the 2011 DCPS CAS. The CAS was administered in 1,124 classrooms in 2011. Of those, 60 were flagged for investigation (due to things like erasure patterns or answer clusters). After investigating, A&M on June 22 cleared 58 of the 60 classrooms of any impropriety. This means that just two out of 1,124 classrooms, one in King Elementary and one in Langdon Elementary, were found to have had instances of tampering or fraud. That’s a rate of less than one-quarter of one percent, which is really damned good--and a testament to the teachers in DCPS and to the system’s leadership.

I’m still concerned about how much cheating there may be, but these results are good news for DCPS and a promising bellwether. One group of folks that ought to be watching all this with bated breath is the research community. Why? If testing results happen to be shot through with cheating or manipulation, it raises huge questions about the body of research (on teacher quality, school improvement strategies, and the rest) resting on the faith that these results are valid and reliable.

Judging For-Profits: Two big court-related stories dealing with for-profits are worth noting, one in higher ed and one in K-12. In a big setback for ED, an Obama-appointed federal judge struck down key elements of the administration’s controversial and ill-conceived “gainful employment” regulations for higher education. He found that ED “failed to provide a reasoned justification” for its 35 percent threshold on the required loan repayment rate under gainful employment and has ordered the Department to go back and try to redesign and/or justify its decisions. We’ll see what happens next, though it’s unlikely anything will reemerge before the election--and it’s an open question what DC will look like after November (and the betting is that a President Romney would either scrap or largely gut the gainful employment push). Meanwhile, in Wake County, North Carolina, a state judge ruled that that North Carolina Virtual Learning Academy, a statewide virtual charter which will be managed by K12 Inc., can’t open this fall. The state and ninety districts sued to stop the school from opening, charging that it would siphon funds and students from other school systems and that it had circumvented the state’s charter approval process. (See Sean Cavanagh’s Ed Week reporting for the particulars here.

The bottom line? American schooling, in K-12 and in higher ed, is mostly about spending public funds, through public institutions, and in accord with public rules. This is what can make the whole for-profit/non-profit distinction so distracting at times. Everyone in this space is steered, limited, and entangled with policymakers, bureaucrats, and courts. And these things aren’t going away. The question is whether the rules that get written encourage performance and cost-effectiveness and serve the public weal. The courts, for better or worse, are going to be an increasingly large piece of that debate as the recent wave of reforms gets applied and challenged.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.