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Millot: Arrogance and Idiocy in Massachusetts Chartering Policy

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi Setting aside the question of legality, the political appointees running Massachusetts public education would probably not recommend their approach to the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School (GCACS) application as a case study in good policy making. Just about everyone but the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education and the majority of Board members who voted to approve the problematic school probably would suggest it as a lesson in improper political influence.

TWIE readers who have been following this series (starting here) will not be surprised that I see three parties who failed completely to meet their public obligations, and whose gross errors bring a more general problem in chartering into stark relief.

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Millot: How MA Ed. Agency Head Overrules Staff and Gets a Charter Approved

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi There was nothing particularly remarkable about the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School (GCACS) application process until AFTER the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) Charter Schools Office (CSO) staff wrote its recommendation against approval for the Department's Chancellor and Board.

Then the political appointees got involved.....


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Millot: The Local Politics of One Massachusetts Charter School Fiasco

The politics6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi of charter schools is highly partisan, but the divide is not drawn along party lines. The contest is better understood as 1) between those who benefit from the traditional public school system based on geographically defined districts, and those who do not, and 2) a small part of a much bigger playing field where elected officials' positions on any issue are as likely to be conditioned on political agendas as the substantive merits of the case.

Both factors are relevant to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's (BESE) decision to approve the application for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter Schools (GCACS); one more than the other. Both have broader implications for the integrity of charter approval in every state. Today, I’ll cover the local angle.

This tale is set in Gloucester, the historic fishing port captured in Kiplings' Captains Courageous, Longellows' The Wreck of the Hesperus, and the maritime paintings of Winslow Homer. The city's steep decline following the end of the Atlantic fishery has been memorialized in pop culture as the backdrop for the semi-fictional novel and movie A Perfect Storm, and the nonfictional teenage "pregnancy pact" and soon-to-be released namesake Lifetime Original Movie. 

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Money: What To Make Of Pearson Giving To New Leaders?

Pearson_education Here's an interesting development reported in EdWeek's District Dossier:  the old guard (Pearson) is giving a chunk of change to the new guard (New Leaders).  Or, just as important:  the new kids (New Leaders) taking money from the older kids (Pearson).  It might be a first -- this intergenerational transfer.  And the benefits to both sides are pretty obvious.  But $3M for 45 principals isn't any bargain.  That's roughly $67,000 per candidate. 

Millot: MA IG Report Spotlights the Political Underside of Charter Authorization

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wiThis series examines how political pressure from Massachusetts' Secretary of Education Paul Reville led Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Mitchel Chester to see that the application of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School (GCACS) was approved by the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). This month, the state's independent Inspector General, Gregory Sullivan, found the charter  "in violation of the provisions of law, regulation, and procedure.... never validly awarded and should be deemed void ab initio." The Governor seems to agree. The Commissioner, the Board and the charter applicant (holder?) beg to differ.

The case offers insight into the political nature of charter authorization, and why the charter market will not be ready for the scale implied by RTTT until the responsible agencies internalize objective criteria for charter approval and retention. My goal is to untangle the web of political competition - Democrat v. Republican, executive v. legislative branches, local v. state government, and pro v. anti charter, interesting as they are - set it aside, and get at the substantive issues of policy raised for the national market in public charter schools.

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Millot: Where I'm Headed With These Series On Abuse in the Charter Market

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi Markets don’t work very well for society if participants can’t trust the information provided by research, sellers are prepared to bend and then break the law in pursuit of their business plans, buyers lack the capacity or motivation to pursue quality outcomes, regulators can’t be expected to base decisions on objective facts, and the people managing the hundreds or thousands of market actors don’t take their duty of loyalty seriously. Public markets, funded by the taxpayer and even more reliant on good faith and transparency, work even less well.

The market for public charter schools isn't working well enough to scale.

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Millot: RTTT, I3 Probably Won't Change School Reform's Supply Side

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wiI am not an edwonk, although I play one on TWIE. I earn my living selling market information and advising on strategy. This month marks the seventh year I've been providing clients of K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets Report with grant and contract RFPs. Last week Alexander asked for my views on how the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive grant program might affect the organizations providing products and services to improve public schools. I received a similar request from an education reporter, who also asked about Investing in Innovation (I3).

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Millot: What Kind of Charter Market Do We Want? (II)

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi Whatever the potential merits of management organizations, their ambiguous legal position in today's charter market is no accident, but the deliberately unfinished business of state legislatures. Charter statutes were not passed for their benefit, but to promote independent community schools.  The Imagine fiasco should warn us that it's time for the states to tie up this very loose end. Unfortunately, the history of charter legislation across the nation implies that change is not likely. I don't see a good way out.

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Millot: What Kind of Charter Market Do We Want? (I)

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi My series on Dennis Bakke's memo and Imagine's behavior raises two issues of policy:

• Can today's charter laws be enforced viz a viz Management Organizations?

• Can Management Organizations achieve scale within current legal bounds?

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Millot: Charter Agencies Outmatched By National Management Organizations?

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Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers... said Ball State University, which granted all of Imagine’s charters in Indiana, should have never done so considering the hand Imagine Schools Inc. had in the charters’ founding.... 

Kelly Soderlund and Dan Stockman, Ft Wayne Journal Gazette, November 1, 2009

(Larry Gabbert, Director of Ball State's University's Office of Charter Schools) said attorneys looked over Imagine's governance structure before the charter was issued, and everything passed the legal test.... Richmond....said it appears Ball State... failed in its duty to ensure local control. "That is absolutely unacceptable.... If the governing board is compromised, from that point on everything else has the potential to be compromised."

Soderlund and Stockman, Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, November 2, 2009

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Millot: Legal But Questionable Stategies to Control Charter Boards

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi Sometimes you can protect yourself from board members that you chose, by getting undated letters of resignation from the start that can be acted on by us at any time.... Probably the most important concept that needs to be grasped by potential and sitting board members for our new schools going forward is that Imagine owns the school, not just the building.

Denis Bakke, President, to Imagine Schools developers, directors and principals (Sep. 4, 2008)

The slippery slope towards a captive charter school board begins with two moves entirely within the law. The first is to recruit and develop boards rather than approach ones that arise independently from their communities. The second involves facility financing.

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Millot: Condem Bakke's Intention But Understand His Motivation

It is... our money and our risk, not theirs.

Denis Bakke, President, to Imagine Schools developers, directors and principals (Sep. 4, 2008)

We cannot condone theft, but we can sympathize with the laid-off father who intends to steal groceries, motivated by the need to feed his hungry children. Denis Bakke hardly became Imagine Schools' CEO in a fit of amnesia - he knew (or should have known) the laws governing charter schools before he entered the market. Nevertheless, while his memo to senior staff on charter school boards expressed wrongful intent with unambiguous clarity, his motivations for gaining control over schools in the Imagine network address show-stopping problems faced by every for- and nonprofit school management organization.

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Millot: Imagine's Bakke - CMO CEO Behaving Badly

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi I suggest that Imagine boards and board members have two significant roles. The first is to "affirm" (vote FOR if legally required) significant items like our selection of the Principal and the budget.... The second and most important role of board members is to advise (Millot emphasis)us on all matters of employment, policies, school climate, shared values, growth, building, academics and financial.

Denis Bakke, President, to Imagine Schools' developers, directors and principals (Sep. 4, 2008)

Memos like this are not intended for the public. It takes a rare combination of stupidity and arrogance for any CEO to explain attitudes and operating policies to staff that are clearly contrary to the law and public policies governing their market. Nevertheless, we have to thank Denis Bakke for providing his extreme views of charter school boards to help readers understand both Imagines' violations of law and more fundamental business problems faced by "E" and "C" MOs.

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Millot: E/CMOs - Bakke Memo Suggests Bad Actors, Bad Oversight, Bad Law

[They] will believe that they are responsible for making big decisions about budget matters, school policies, hiring of the principal and dozens of other matters…. Before selecting board members we need to go over the voting process and our expectations that they will go along with Imagine…. It is our school….

Denis Bakke, President, to Imagine Schools developers, directors and principals (Sep. 4, 2008)

A lot of times, we’re not involved. Sometimes a group comes together and doesn’t approach us until they’ve decided to move ahead with the charter... We ask questions, but as I said, it’s not always ideal.

Larry Gabbert, Director, Office of Charter Schools, Ball State University to reporter (Nov. 1, 2009)

Even though (Imagine) formally doesn't control the charter or the charter board, the school would really not exist if Imagine doesn't stay, and that's the leverage Imagine has over a board… That's basically the same model Imagine uses everywhere.

Troy Bell, former Director of Development, Imagine Schools to reporter (Nov. 2, 2009)

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Millot: Professional Ethics on Holiday from EdSector? (III)

Growing Pains: Scaling Up the Nation's Best Charter Schools: This Education Sector report takes an objective look at how prepared the nation's best charter schools are to meet the challenge of rapid expansion.

From Education Sector’s home page

Objective: not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: “an objective opinion.”

From Dictionary.com

If Growing represents the culmination of an ordinary process of objective research, as Communications Manager Kristen Amundson suggests, she should have no difficulty providing a statement from EdSector’s Research Advisory Board saying as much....

Returning to AERA’s Ethics Standards, Section IV covers Editing, Reviewing and Appraising Research. The first standard returns us to the decision to involve NewSchools’ director Kim Smith’s in the peer review of Tom Toch’s Sweating.

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Millot: Professional Ethics on Holiday from EdSector? (II)

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As a critical consumer of policy studies, I'm sensitive to analysis on behalf of advocacy. But until I saw the difference between Sweating and Growing, I never thought EdSector reports would cut inconvenient facts rather than address them head on. Surely there is a principled counter-argument for the viability of CMO finances and the underlying business model. I still prefer to believe that this fiasco is an aberration rather than evidence of a pattern.

The further I get into AERA’s ethical code, the more I'm convinced that EdSector's current communications strategy – the editing process was "not... out of the ordinary," we’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, and those who differ are confused, mercenary, disgruntled or mean – is counterproductive.

Mistakes were made. EdSector would be much better off if incoming board chair Margaret (Macke) Raymond and Publisher Andrew Rotherman issued a statement saying as much, announcing that Kim Smith has decided to leave the board in the best interest of EdSector, and noting that the nonprofit's Research Advisory Board has been asked to develop an ethics policy to guide future publications. The controversy would end immediately. Indeed, EdSector would look pretty good for policing itself when less confident organizations might stonewall.

Meanwhile, back to the salt mine, assessing this situation in light of AERA's ethical standards.....

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Millot: Professional Ethics on Holiday from EdSector?

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi We believe that by marrying the methodological rigor of sound research with the communications excellence of the best journalism and the real-world impact of policy analysis Education Sector is uniquely positioned to both make a compelling case for fundamental reform and to promote change directly with policymakers.

From EdSector's Our Mission and Strategy

How could EdSector change Tom Toch’s critique of CMOs in Sweating into the pro-CMO rhetoric of Growing? By ignoring the professional ethics that support “sound (education) research.”

Universities and research organizations maintain formal ethical systems for their research staff and managers. These consist of a written code of behavior, procedures for the review of materials intended for publication, and a process to investigate violations. EdSector appears to have no system to define or enforce professional standards. Like many small nonprofits, it relies on informal norms, the integrity of staff and management, and oversight exercised by its board of directors. EdSector could only publish Growing  because this approach failed on multiple occasions.

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Millot: Ed Week's Story on Toch's Sweating v. EdSector's Growing

My series on Sweating v. Growing will proceed as planned for next week, but in the meanwhile.....

Debra Viadero's article in today's online edition of Education Week (Study Casts Doubt on Strength of Charter Managers) is worth reading if you are trying to determine the extent to which EdSector manipulated Tom Toch's Sweating draft, and whether it makes any difference. The gap was wide enough for Toch to disown EdSector's authorless Growing report, but Edsector argues that "the sort of editing process it went through would not be something out of the ordinary."

All I can say is that every research analyst should hope it is extraordinary, because if what has happened to EdSectors co-founder and co-director is the ordinary course of business in education policy research, the ordinary staff member is little more than an intellectual serf.

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Millot: Read Toch's CMO Report Here

6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi Education Sector’s November 24 report, Growing Pains: Scaling Up the Nation’s Best Charter Schools examines the problems CMOs face trying to replicate their various philosophies of teaching and learning in new public schools. Considering the source, the content and conclusion are predictable and deserve little attention: While each CMO faces operational problems, the concept’s success is more a matter of removing charter advocates’ longstanding list of government barriers – inadequate per pupil payments, a lack of access to facilities or financing, etc, etc.

Yet, the report demands close review - because it’s real author, content and conclusions have gone missing. Until now.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.