Saturday, August 13th, 2022

Revelations about bogus academy prove charter schools need better oversight

Revelations about bogus academy prove charter schools need better oversight

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So what are charter schools, anyway?

About 3 million children—a large share being brown (33%) and Black (26%)—in 43 states and Washington, D.C., attend charter schools, which are tuition-free, publicly funded, and independently run. The specter of poorly performing schools remaining in existence or how the GOP positions it as “school choice” and a savior for poorly managed districts couldn’t be further from the original concept of charter schools. In return for being freed from the rules and regulations of a traditional public school, charter schools are supposed to be held to a set of standards delineated in their charter. That charter is a legally binding contract, subject to review every three to five years. Apparently DeVos missed that part when pushing for charter schools in Michigan, particularly in Detroit. After all, poorly performing schools are supposed to be on the chopping block.

So where does the money come from? Charter schools receive funding based on how many students are enrolled and they also get grants from the federal government. But they can also raise money through private funding, and philanthropy has been a big boost in creating some charter schools, especially in urban areas for lower-income students like LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, which has shown promise. Other big funders have been the family of Sam Walton, who founded Walmart; Bill and Melinda Gates; Netflix founder Reed Hastings; Michael Bloomberg; and of course, DeVos.

DeVos hoped to use her post to steer more money to religious schools while creating more charter schools. Until this summer, the dumpster fire that is Detroit’s charter school system was the most searing indictment of her misplaced vision. But it recently got upstaged by a bogus school in neighboring Ohio. What makes it even worse is that it was glaringly obvious that this school was bogus—and it took a football game for this school to be exposed.

A major mishap on ESPN

On Aug. 29, Bishop Sycamore, a little-known team from Columbus, Ohio, took the field for a nationally televised game on ESPN against one of the most powerful high school teams in the country, IMG Academy. Much of the coverage about the game revolved around a bombshell revelation in the second quarter by ESPN’s own announcers: Bishop Sycamore’s claims to have a roster full of Division I recruits could not be verified. Indeed, this game turned out to be so much of a mismatch that announcers Amish Shiroff and Tom Luginbill were openly concerned about the safety of the Bishop Sycamore players.

We have since learned that Bishop Sycamore had problems that made its deceit of ESPN look minor-league. According to The Columbus Dispatch, Bishop Sycamore shared an address with an athletic complex in northeast Columbus. A worker at the facility recalled seeing the team practice, but couldn’t recall any classes being held there.

The Dispatch also reported that Bishop Sycamore was not listed in Ohio’s directory of charter schools, but a year earlier had been listed as a “non-chartered, non-tax supported school” that was allowed to opt out of getting a charter for religious reasons. Such schools are required to submit a report to parents and the state Department of Education certifying that they’ve met minimum state standards for operating a school. They are also required to submit attendance and participation reports to the treasurer of the local public school district—in this case, Columbus City Schools. This is standard practice in most states; school districts are almost always required to account for any private school students in its attendance zone.

However, The Dispatch later reported, Bishop Sycamore hadn’t even begun to comply with those requirements. Officials from Columbus City Schools revealed that Bishop Sycamore had never submitted the required attendance and participation reports. Even more tellingly, Columbus school officials noted that there was no Bishop Sycamore in the Ohio Education Directory.

Coach Roy Johnson and Bishop Sycamore founder Andre Peterson told Bishop Sycamore’s parents, and also state officials, that Bishop Sycamore met standards—but there doesn’t appear to be any way to verify that those standards were met. On the contrary, all available evidence suggests they didn’t even begin to meet those standards. Moreover, this could have been brought to light with just a few phone calls and emails from ESPN.

One of those calls should have been to Ben Ferree, the former assistant director of officiating at the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA). Ferree told Awful Announcing that he is very familiar with Johnson and Peterson via his dealings with a similar school, Christians of Faith Academy. In 2018, Ferree called COF Academy for what was supposed to be a routine check when a non-OHSAA school played OHSAA members. He needed to verify COF’s enrollment for the purposes of OHSAA playoff seeding. COF claimed to have 750 boys enrolled in its first year of operation. Ferree knew this was bogus; if a school with that many boys had opened in the state capital, he would have known about it.

When Ferree checked out COF’s address, no one there had even heard about the school. Under the circumstances, the OHSAA declared COF Academy was not a legitimate school, which ultimately led the Department of Education to yank its charter. Ferree spent the next three years investigating COF, shifting his focus to Bishop Sycamore when it opened in 2019. He is convinced that Bishop Sycamore is COF risen from the ashes, or at the very least is a linear descendant; indeed, he told USA Today that when Bishop Sycamore took the field for the first time in 2019, its uniforms were exactly the same as the ones COF wore in 2018. Ferree believes Johnson used both COF and Bishop Sycamore as a piggy bank. He has evidence that suggests Johnson took travel stipends intended to pay COF/Bishop Sycamore’s travel expenses and used them to line his own pocket—as much as $10,000 per game.

On Aug. 31, just 48 hours after that now-infamous televised game where Bishop Sycamore lost 58-0, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered an investigation into the school.

Within hours of DeWine’s announcement, all of Bishop Sycamore’s opponents had dropped the school from their schedules, all but ending their season. Soon after that, Peterson fired Johnson.

It took some time, however, for Bishop Sycamore to realize that the jig was up. On Sept. 6, Johnson’s successor, Tyren Jackson, told local NBC affiliate WCMH-TV what most of us already knew: Bishop Sycamore wasn’t really a school. Based on what is now known, if there isn’t already a criminal investigation into this so-called school, there damned well better be—by either the Franklin County prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, or both.

A rose withers in concrete

Indeed, when I first read about this, my thoughts turned to an equally problematic school in my hometown of Charlotte: Concrete Roses STEM Academy. That school imploded in spectacular fashion in 2014, a mere 20 days into the 2014-15 school year. The North Carolina Office of Charter Schools cut off Concrete Roses’ access to state money for not filing required financial reports in July or August. The school’s board was caught unaware, and opted to surrender the charter—forcing parents to scramble for a place for their kids.

However, it soon emerged that there were serious questions about why this school was even allowed to open. There was no budget for maintenance, and there were numerous complaints that the curriculum wasn’t ready. Kids often came home with no books or homework. School founder Cedric Stone later told local CBS affiliate WBTV that he was short on cash, and didn’t have the manpower to market the school. And yet, he was somehow able to find enough money to make company car payments while many teachers and staff never saw a penny. Worse, since the state had no record of Concrete Roses, the stiffed teachers were unable to draw on unemployment pay while looking for new jobs.

And yet, state officials had narrowly approved Concrete Roses’ charter—a decision that exploded in their faces when the school couldn’t even last a month. In hindsight, we in North Carolina should have demanded an explanation for how this school was allowed to open. Hopefully our counterparts in Ohio won’t make the same mistake.

Digging out of the not-so-virtual wreckage

It’s not as if the powers that be in Ohio weren’t warned. The state is still digging out from the wreckage of another disastrous charter school in Columbus, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).

Opened in 2000 by Republican megadonor William Lager, ECOT was busted by the state in 2016 for inflating its attendance figures, and closed in 2018 after being ordered to refund $60 million in state money. School officials fought the decision for five years before the state supreme court upheld the order earlier this month.

However, it turns out the inflated attendance figures were the least of ECOT’s problems. It had a student-to-teacher ratio of 30 to 1, and guidance counselors were responsible for up to 500 students each. Since ECOT was almost entirely virtual, teachers were unable to provide support in person even though many of the students had issues that demanded it, such as medical issues or problems with bullying. At one point, ECOT’s graduation rate was an anemic 39%, and 80 students failed to graduate on time for every 100 who did. With those numbers, it’s only fair to wonder how this school lasted for 18 years.

A success story only on paper

Another parallel comes from Latin Academy, a charter middle school in Atlanta. At first glance, it was a success story; its academic performance far outstripped that of public middle schools in Atlanta. But it turned out that founder and principal Christopher Clemons was using the school as his own bank account. He siphoned off over $600,000 and spent it on, among other things, luxury cars, cruises, and strip clubs.

The fraud was only discovered when a new principal got access to the bank records and saw some of the outrageous charges—as much as $5,000 in a single day. The financial problems were so severe that the Atlanta school board voted to pull Latin Academy’s charter. However, the Latin Academy board saw the writing on the wall and voluntarily surrendered the charter.

It later emerged that the Latin Academy board allowed one person to approve invoices and sign checks, contrary to its own accounting policies. The board also frequently met behind closed doors, in violation of state open meetings laws. Clemons ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 10 years probation for his misdeeds. But this would have never happened had anyone asked questions about the unusual charges.

Looking ahead

Looking at the dumpster fires that were Bishop Sycamore, ECOT, Concrete Roses, and Latin Academy, one thing is clear: We must demand more oversight of these schools. These schools are supposed to hold to the standards written in their charters, in return for being freed from state regulations. But those standards mean nothing if there’s no way to enforce them. It’s not enough to put the operators of these sketchy schools under the hot lights. Those who oversee them—or are supposed to oversee them—deserve as much scrutiny. There is a lot of cause for concern when it comes to charter schools:

But while charter schools’ independence can be a source of their appeal, it can also lead to problems, ranging from financial mismanagement to nepotism. And in the face of strong pushback from parents, authorizers can be hesitant to shutter a charter school, even when a school is suffering from serious and long-running financial and academic issues.

Headline-generating charter scandals have driven some charter school advocates to push for more regulation and a more-managed market approach to school choice. But plenty of charter advocates remain staunch in their support for a purer, free-market approach.

Among the other common criticisms of charter schools? Those who oppose them argue that they divert vital resources from cash-strapped school districts, they educate proportionately fewer students with disabilities, they cherry pick students, they rely on punitive discipline practices, and they are more racially segregated than their traditional public school counterparts.

That applies in particular to the Bishop Sycamore case. Any investigation into Bishop Sycamore will not be credible unless those who failed to expose this sham of a school before 2021 are held to account. Had anyone actually bothered to verify the claims made in Bishop Sycamore’s “certification,” and had anyone made sure that Bishop Sycamore complied with all legal requirements, the dangerous ESPN game would have never happened.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some successful charter schools out there. For instance, the nation’s largest charter school, Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, recently won the Academic Decathlon for the eighth time. On balance, though, charter schools don’t seem to work in practice, even if they are a good idea on paper. After all, if a questionable charter school is allowed to stay open for years, it’s a sign that the powers that be aren’t willing to put teeth in the standards that those schools are supposed to meet. And if school owners are allowed to set up shop when they should have never been allowed to do so, it’s another sign that there are no standards.

And there isn’t yet enough research one way or another to prove if charter schools are quantifiably successful:

The figure below shows some notable results from the [The Center for Research on Education Outcomes] CREDO studies. The key takeaway is that charter school students, in general, perform about the same as their matched peers in the traditional public schools, but there is variation across different types of schools and groups of students. For example, students in urban charter schools generally perform better than their matched pairs—likely for an assortment of reasons—while students in online charter schools perform much worse.

Charter School Performance Compared to Matched Traditional Public Schools

However, we should consider whether a charters versus traditional public schools comparison is the right measure in the first place. Part of the rationale for charter schools is that they should generate innovation and competitive pressure that improve charter and non-charter schools alike. If those improvements occur—and there is some evidence for this—these comparisons might understate the benefits of charter schools. If charter schools harm traditional public schools by, for example, reducing funding or creating funding uncertainty—and there is some evidence for this, too—these comparisons might understate the costs of charter schools.

Regardless, test score comparisons paint an incomplete picture of charter school performance. We care about a much broader set of outcomes, including how charter schools affect racial segregation, to what extent they create options for disadvantaged families, and whether they are truly producing innovative school models. The related research is too expansive for this overview but summarized nicely in a 2015 NBER report.

But if states aren’t willing to actually hold charter schools to the standards they’re supposed to meet, we should question why we even have them in the first place. In the same breath that we insist that those who allowed Bishop Sycamore and its students to slip under the cracks must be held to account, we must demand that state and local officials put their money where their mouths are and put some teeth in those charters. Otherwise, there is no defensible reason to allow them to exist.

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