"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Texas-Sized Charter School Corruption

The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle speaks:

Charter schools, which Texas began allowing in 1995, were supposed to set educators free — and they did.

. . . .

Unfortunately, the worst charter schools were free to fail — sometimes spectacularly, in ways that involved large amounts of money and criminal charges. In the Houston area, for instance, The Prepared Table saw its charter revoked in 2002; four of its administrators — a pastor and three relatives — were alleged to have stolen $3 million from federal and state programs. The Jesse Jackson Academy (with campuses in both Houston and Fort Worth) closed in 2008 amid charges it had misappropriated $3.2 million in federal grants. And last year, Gulf Shores Academy had to be reformulated after school administrators allegedly swindled more than $10 million from the state.

Given that dismal history, it's almost a relief that the latest bad news about Texas charter schools doesn't involve anything illegal. The Texans Can charter-school chain may be infuriating. But it appears to operate entirely within the law.

As the Chronicle's Jennifer Radcliffe recently reported, nine of the school's 10 schools are rated “academically unacceptable” by the state, and three are on the verge of being closed for repeated failure to meet federal standards. At Houston's Main Street campus, state data show that none of the 15 freshmen enrolled in 2001-02 managed to earn a high school diploma within six years. That's a 0 percent success rate.

Admittedly, the Can schools have set themselves a hard task: They cater to dropouts, recovering drug addicts and teen parents. But even when compared to other schools that serve kids with similar backgrounds, Can earns very low marks. As Robert Sanborn, president of Children at Risk, told Radcliffe: “There's no way to maneuver the statistics around to say they've been a success.” And given that abysmal performance, we're furious about the way the Can system spends its money. Can's top six executives earned a combined $880,000. Founder Greg East, then the president, pulled down a cool $236,000 — more than twice the base salary of Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of KIPP and a leader of the most-hailed charter system in the nation. Can's vice president for branding and communication — yes, Can has one — earns $120,000.

Where does that money come from? The state provides $32 million to the schools each year, and vehicle donations account for another $8 million. Maybe you've heard Can's $2.5 million-a-year advertising campaign, which urges us to “Write off the car, not the kid.”

We say: Write off those charter schools. Their money — both the state funding and the vehicle donations — could be better spent. By continuing to support failing schools, either through tax dollars or through charity, we are writing off the kids. And they deserve better.

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