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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feds Continue to Shovel Money to Charter Scams and Encourage High Poverty Quotas

If you have ever wondered why fewer than 1 in 5 charter schools (17 percent to be exact) in the U. S.  has higher test scores than the public schools that are being replaced by these segregated charters, look no further than the unattended and unregulated open money pits that corporatists inside the U. S. Department of Education have made available to any scam artist with the chutzpah to put together a fraudulent charter school grant application. 

You can bet that when Public School Enemy #1, Chris Christie, has his hatchet man, Cerf, reject a charter school application in New Jersey that it must smell worse than a boat ride on Newark Bay.  And yet that has not stopped Duncan's boys at ED from approving a charter grant to the same smelly application that Cerf rejected, to the tune of $600,000.

And how did this get by the "heavy-handed Federal watchdogs" that Newt Romney is always crying about? Because there aren't any, not at ED, at least.  The people who read and grade the federal charter applications are private contractors who can't look at any evidence beyond what is in the application, even if the evidence is printed in the New York Times--as it is today.

What the private contractor consultants at ED are looking for is to see if applicants are following the guidance (aka bribery directives) provided by ED, which will earn applicants bonus points on their applications.  For instance, the highest point value for established "high-quality" charters who want to open new ones goes to those that can demonstrate that more than 60 percent of their students are low income:   
. . . . In order to receive preference under these competitive preference priorities, the applicant must identify the priority or priorities that it believes it meets and provide documentation supporting its claims.
These priorities are:

Competitive Preference Priority 1—Low-Income Demographic (10 Points)

To meet this priority, an applicant must demonstrate that at least 60 percent of all students in the charter schools it currently operates or manages are individuals from low-income families (as defined in this notice). . . .
Now you don't have to be a James Coleman scholar to understand that social capital is real, and that social capital does not accrue when the majority of the school population is poor, and that social capital does accrue in socioeconomically integrated schools where the percentage of poor children within a school population is kept under 40 percent poor, or no more than 50 percent at most.  

So that, in fact, the Obama Administration is rewarding the containment and miseducation of children because corporate know-nothings inside his Ed Department do not know James Coleman from Gary Coleman.  Federal policy, in fact, is incentivizing the least academically and socially effective mix of children one could ever conceive, and in doing so, it is rewarding the least effective segregating learning environments through its own stunning levels of disregard, ignorance, and apathy.

Here's the nightmare story from New Jersey, well-documented as always by Michael Winerip, NYTimes:
In the last couple of years, Sharon Akman, a real estate agent, applied to the state of New Jersey three times to open a new charter school in the Highland Park area, to be called Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School.
Each time, she was rejected.

Then on Oct. 6, one week after the state’s most recent rejection, the United States Education Department announced that it had approved a $600,000 grant to finance Ms. Akman’s proposed charter.

It would have taken federal officials just a few phone calls to determine that there were many good reasons for the state to have rejected Ms. Akman’s applications.

For one thing, they have been full of misrepresentations.

Ms. Akman, who declined to comment for this column, writes that the charter school would be located in St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick, even though the bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, Paul G. Bootkoski, has repeatedly said that the building is not available.

Ms. Akman’s documents list community supporters of the school, including Jun Choi, a former mayor of Edison, and the directors of the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, who have written in e-mails made public that they are not supporters.

The application says there is a need for a Hebrew charter in the Highland Park-Edison-New Brunswick area, even though there are many Jewish private schools close by and, as Ms. Akman has told state reviewers, no community survey has been done.

The application says that the families served by the New Brunswick schools, which are predominantly black and Hispanic, support the Hebrew charter, even though school leaders and the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter do not.

Since March 2010, community volunteers from Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick have been battling to stop the school from opening, arguing that it would drain resources from traditional public schools in order to provide a free Jewish education that should be the responsibility of private schools.

For each child who leaves a district to attend a charter, the charter receives 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil spending allotment. In modest-size communities like Highland Park, with a district of 1,500 students, that can take a substantial bite out of a school budget.

What has been so frustrating to opponents is that despite repeated distortions in the Tikun Olam applications, the charter still may open in September.

How could federal oversight be so lax?

Part of the answer is that charter schools are a top priority for the Obama administration, making federal officials predisposed to support them.

And part of the answer, as Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, explained in an e-mail, is that federal officials see their oversight role as limited. The department hires private consultants to rate the quality of a charter applicant, but those consultants “cannot use information not included in the grant application,” he said.
In other words, if Ms. Akman writes that Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III supports the charter, the federal consultants are not permitted to interview Mr. Barnes, who would have been happy to tell them that he does not.

This prohibition against using outside information is intended to ensure that no special measures are taken to either favor or hinder an applicant, although what it really invites is fiction writing.

Mr. Hamilton points out that the federal grant does not take effect unless the state approves Ms. Akman’s application. The federal role, he said, is to “operate as a funding source for applicants proposing to open high-quality start-up charter schools,” although it is hard to imagine why an applicant would propose a low-quality charter school. 

An applicant with a $600,000 pledge in her pocket may be seen in a new light by state officials. In mid-October, Ms. Akman wrote to the state’s acting education commissioner, Christopher D. Cerf, requesting assistance in winning approval for her fourth application. “We were just granted a substantial federal charter school grant,” she wrote him, and would “love to have a meeting to better strategize and prepare for our reapplication.”

How Mr. Cerf responded is not known. E-mails between Ms. Akman and Mr. Cerf’s office were released after a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act. While Ms. Akman’s string of e-mails was made public, responses from Mr. Cerf’s office were redacted.

What we do know is that in mid-October Ms. Akman made her fourth try, as 1 of 42 applicants statewide.
And in December, the state made its first cuts, leaving 17 applicants — including Tikun Olam.

Next week state officials are to announce which are approved. If Tikun Olam is successful, the school plans to open in September with 100 students.

Ms. Akman has repeatedly refused to talk to reporters. She did not respond to a dozen e-mails and voice mail messages left at the real estate office where she works, Century 21 J. J. Laufer in Highland Park. When I called the personal cellphone number she listed on the state application, a woman answered. “Who’s calling?” she asked, and when I explained that I was a reporter, she said, “I’ll tell them you called, thank you,” and hung up.

While I have independently confirmed the facts in this column, a lot of the distortions were first dug up by Darcie Cimarusti, an opponent of the charter school. She is an interior designer and educator with four children in Highland Park schools who is now a stay-at-home mom, and she has devoted an extraordinary amount of her time to stopping the charter.

“Since May this has become my full-time job,” she said. “Some weeks, far more than 40 hours a week.” She has been joined by several dozen community volunteers.

All over the state, volunteers, mainly women, have been working to keep charter schools out. Mostly they’re from prosperous suburbs with high-quality public schools: Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills, Maplewood, Teaneck, Cherry Hill.

Even so, it is an uphill battle against an education establishment that includes Democrats (President Obama) and Republicans (Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey) with strong financial backing (the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations).

A spokesman for the state’s Education Department, Justin Barra, said in an e-mail that in the next review round for charter applications, representatives of Tikun Olam would be brought in for “an intensive in-person interview.” As for possible misrepresentations, he said: “Several individuals in the public comment process have raised concerns about potential inaccurate statements in the application. We will investigate these concerns.”

In New Jersey, there is no limit to the number of times a group can modify its application and reapply for a charter, and Tikun Olam does not hold the record. “We do have applicants that have submitted more than four times,” Mr. Barra said.

Mr. Hamilton, the federal spokesman, said that if the Education Department “becomes aware of material factual misrepresentations,” it could terminate the grant.

An investigation would not require much digging. The list of public officials who supposedly support the Tikun Olam charter — but in interviews have said they really do not — is in the first paragraph on Page 18 of the federal application.

Right after that, in Paragraph 2, the charter supporters provide some of the translations of the Hebrew words “tikun olam,” including “perfecting the world.”

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