Thursday, July 18, 2019

Charter Scandal a Product of Shabby Law and Ignored Oversight by Thomas Ultican

Notoriously clever operators of an online charter empire were indicted for allegedly stealing $50 million dollars. The Grand Jury of San Diego County heard the testimony of 72 witnesses and voted out a 67-count indictment against Sean McManus, Jason Schrock, Justin Schmitt, Eli Johnson, Steven Zant and six others. The charges were centered on the byzantine operations of the A3 Education organization which took full advantage of weak charter school laws in California.
From the indictment,
“Conspirators knowingly obtained state funding for children who were not assigned certificated teachers as required by law, were not in contact with the charter school, and who were not provided any educational services during the dates claimed.”
“Conspirators themselves, and through subordinates courted small school districts across California who were suffering budget woes and suggested they authorize charter schools as a means to generate additional state funding for the district in the form of oversight fees.”

The Small District Authorizer Model

Carol Burris was one of the first people to identify McManus as a predator. In her 2017 investigative report “Charters and Consequences”, she wrote about the Wise school which calls itself a Waldorf inspired charter school. She noted,
“No one really seems to be wise to Wise—except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project.”
“The former Academy of Arts and Sciences CEO, Sean McManus, described Wise as “a boutique program that people usually have to pay for, so to be part of a free charter school appeals to a lot of people in the area.” Wise and the state funding it brings left the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so did Sean McManus, who is now listed as the CEO of a new corporation–California STEAM Sonoma.”
“Despite its classroom schedule, Wise refers to itself as a ‘learning based resource center.’ This classification allows California STEAM Sonoma to sponsor the program, and the Liberty School District to acquire the cash cow.”
Wise is still in operation under the name Heartwood Education Collaborative. McManus exited the Academy of Arts and Science (AAS) in 2016. AAS renamed itself Compass Charter Schools. Shortly after leaving AAS, McManus cofounded A3 Education with Jason Schrock.
Heartwood Educational Collaborative
Heartwood (AKA Wise) Education Collaborative Independent Journal Photo
Carol Burris recently posted,
From 2009-2015, McManus was the CEO of the Academy of Arts and Science Charter Schools for which he served as CEO from 2009-2016, developing his model of using cash-strapped, small districts as authorizers of online charter schools that draw students from all over adjoining counties in exchange for fees.”
“And who gave the seed money to start this adventure?”
“The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) did.”
“Eleven Academy of Arts and Sciences charter schools that used the for-profit K-12 curriculum received a total of $2,825,000 from the CSP state grant to California. Today, all 11 schools are closed.”
McManus and his associates at A3 implemented the small district authorizer model with a vengeance.
Previously, one of McManus’s first forays into using small district authorizers was with New Jerusalem Elementary School District which authorized the Academy of Arts and Sciences – San Joaquin and CalSTEM – San Joaquin. For unknown reasons, AAS closed both those schools and its renamed successor Compass Charter Schools has departed San Joaquin County. New Jerusalem only had 22 Public School Students this year but it had 4,809 Charter School Students, few of whom lived in their Tracy, California area. New Jerusalem appears more sinister than just a cash strapped small district.
Apparently, part of the problem McManus had at AAS was that some of their schools were blended learning academies which meant they had physical addresses. This led to a law suit by Los Angeles Unified School District for opening schools in their district without notification and the closure of some schools. A3 Education has been careful to only implement Independent study; AKA 100% cyber schools with no physical addresses for students.
A3 Small District Model
Based on California Department of Education Enrollment 2018-2019
All of the schools listed above with the various districts have the same business address, 3300 Irvine Ave. #330 Newport Beach, Ca 92660 which is A3 Education’s business address. The non-profit tax filings available for theses schools all show this address and have some combination of Rob Sikma, Kevin Tu, Eric Johnson and Klarc Kover on their boards. As an example see these legal documents for California Steam San BernardinoCalifornia Steam SonomaUniversity Prep and Uplift California.
Board member Eric Johnson is probably the person indicted in San Diego under the name Eli Johnson. Board members Sikma, Tu and Kover all testified before the grand jury investigating A3.
Various California news sources reported details about the alleged scheme to steal $50 million. San Diego’s Courthouse News wrote about the funding of the charter schools,
“The funds were then transferred to multiple companies owned by McManus and Schrock, including A3 Education, A3 Consulting, Global Consulting Services and Mad Dog Marketing. The money was spent on start-up investments and real estate and some funds were wired directly to themselves or family members, according to the indictment.”
“Another co-defendant, Steve Van Zant, 56, created the company EdCBO to provide back office services for A3 Charter Schools. He hid his involvement with EdCBO and McManus by filing all corporate paperwork under another person’s name, prosecutors say.”
The Los Angeles Times stated,
“From the affiliated businesses, at least $8.18 million went into personal bank accounts, some in Australia, and into charitable trust accounts for McManus, Schrock and their wives, and $500,000 went to a family member of McManus, according to the indictment.”
“McManus and Schrock also used $1.6 million of A3 Education’s funds to buy a private residence for McManus in San Juan Capistrano, the indictment states.”
“The alleged violations included Valiant Academy paying A3 about $3.6 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year. The invoices were approved for payment by McManus at A3 and another man, neither of whom were employees of the charter school, according to the district’s report.”
“The school also paid Mad Dog Marketing — a company that has common ownership with A3 — $288,000 during the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the report.”
The Voice of San Diego added,
“An early step in establishing the A3 empire came when Steve Van Zant, a former superintendent of Dehesa Elementary School District, “brokered” the sale of an online nonprofit charter school to A3 for $1.5 million, prosecutors say.”
“In winter 2017, Chris Thibodeau was performing an annual audit of Cal Prep Sutter in Sutter County …. He noticed that McManus was listed as the CEO of Cal Prep Sutter, but that the school was also doing business with McManus’s company A3 Education.
The Voice of San Diego explained that prosecutors allege McManus and Schrock fabricated a set of minutes dated July 6, 2016 that said McManus was replaced as CEO by codefendant Eli Johnson. They purportedly used these false documents to allay Thibodeau’s concern about “related transactions.”
Sean McManus appears to have fled the country and is thought to be in his native Australia. The other 10-defendents have entered not guilty pleas.

State Charter Law was Designed to be Weak

Cyber Charters in California can serve all of the students in the home county of the authorizing district plus all of the students from bordering counties. That means these eight small school districts gave A3 access to millions of students.
A3 Athorizer Map
Voice of San Diego Map of Counties Served by A3
In the school year 2018-2019, Dehesa Elementary had 5010 students in online only schools. Of those 2267 were in kindergarten to third grade or 45.2% of the total. There were similar numbers in the other districts. Why would people put babies in front of computer screens? It must be that the main attraction for these cyber schools is home-schooling.
Since home-schooling does nothing to build community and is driven mostly by religious convictions, why should taxpayers fund it? All Americans should have freedom of choice, but taxpayers should not be expected to pay for private choices. The public already provides the world’s best public education system for free; taking funds from those public schools for the benefit of a small minority is inequitable.
The state of California puts more than $80 billion annually into k12 education. Because that money is a natural target for profiteers and scammers, extra vigilance is needed. However, California’s charter school law was developed to provide minimum vigilance.
During its early stages, several billionaires like Carry Walton Penner, Reed Hastings and Arthur Rock made sure the California charter school law was designed to limit governmental rules and oversight. For example, charter schools are not required to meet the earthquake standards prescribed in the 1933 Field Act, which holds public schools to higher building code requirements. Since that laws enactment no public schools have collapsed in an earthquake. The picture of the Education Collaborative School above is evidence that students in a known earthquake zone are now at increased risk of injury and death.
A few weeks ago Louis Freedberg observed that a key weakness in California’s chartering law is that there are no standards for authorizers and a lack of expertise. He also wrote about the number of charter authorizers saying, “unlike many states, California has hundreds of them: 294 local school districts, 41 county offices of education, along with the State Board of Education.” Among these 336 authorizers, several are school districts of less than 1,000 students which have neither the capacity nor training to supervise charter schools. Some of these small districts look more like charter school grafters than public school districts.
state audit dated October 17, 2017 reported,
“ActonAgua Dulce Unified’s and New Jerusalem’s decisions to authorize the outofdistrict charter schools we reviewed may have resulted partly from weaknesses in the districts’ authorization processes. Specifically, neither of the two districts has an adequate process for ensuring that petitions comply with state law.”
This state audit which was promptly ignored by Governor Brown and the legislature was pointing directly at the weaknesses in California’s chartering law that A3 Education is accused of exploiting. A3 is not the only organization that is using these weaknesses. K-12 Inc. is selling products into both A3 and California Virtual Academy. Furthermore, K-12’s relationship with California Virtual is legally questionable. Pearson Corporation is using Connections Academy to market their online products and Epic is also looking to expand their own dubious online schools.
Not only are state officials not reacting to warnings from auditors, they are providing the offenders loans through the Charter School Revolving Loanprogram. The A3 schools have received over $2,000,000 in loans through this program.
A majority of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Charter School Policy Task Force supported banning authorizing charter schools outside of district boundaries. Secretary of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond explained,
“Prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools located outside of district boundaries would allow for greater local control and oversight of charter schools. In addition, such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
In addition, the task force unanimously backed a call to “create a statewide entity to provide training for authorizers.” A majority also proposed enacting “a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”Concerning this last point Thurmond’s report said, “There  has  been  growing  concern  that  virtual  charter  schools  are  operated  without  appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students …”

A Few Points and Observations

A3 Education was looking to expand across the country. In 2016, Johnson, Schrock and McManus put together a proposal for Ohio Steam Columbus. The Colorado group Thompson School District Reform Watch reports that Justin Schmitt is still involved with Foundations Learning and Colorado’s Online Charter’s. They also note that Schmitt has virtual charter school interests in Arizona. Schmitt brought Mosaica virtual schools to California which A3 purchased and evidently Schmitt was part of the purchase. It is also interesting that A3’s Marketing Director, Mary Clare Coyle, lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
In an April EdWeek article, Arianna Prothero and Alex Harwin reported,
Nationally, half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year. … The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in mathover the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”
The charter school experiment is a national disaster. It has clearly failed and virtual charter schools have a lengthy history of corruption and poor performance. Shut them down and only allow elected school boards to provide online education. It is time for an extended moratorium on new charter schools while existing charter schools are carefully transitioned to management by elected school boards.
Maybe Alice Walton and Charles Koch think property rights are the only freedom to be valued. Maybe they want to end public education. Maybe they think markets are a magic elixir that never fails. I don’t! I agree with the statement in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, “Market fundamentalism – the irrational belief that markets solve all problems ….” I believe in democracy, human rights and public education.

Busing and School Segregation Used for Politics not Policy by Steven Singer

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If children of all races went to the same schools with each other, it would be harder to treat them unequally.

Moreover, it would be harder for them to grow up prejudiced because they would have learned what it’s like to have classmates who are different from them.


Perhaps that’s why it was so astounding when Kamala Harris brought up the issue of school segregation and busing at the first Democratic debates.
 
If you’re anything like me, for the first time these debates made Harris look like a viable contender for the party’s Presidential nomination to face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.


During the debates, Harris called out front runner and former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s as a way of combating school segregation.

The California Democrat and former federal prosecutor rightly said that 40 years ago there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”

But her star-making moment was when she made the whole matter extremely personal.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”
 
The tactic was so successful that Biden has been fumbling to apologize and explainaway a history of obstructing desegregation ever since.

Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the debate showed Biden had lost half of his support among black voters since earlier in June.


It could almost be a masterclass in how to make a political point to both boost your own campaign and change the narrative to improve national policy.

That is if Harris actually backed up her rhetoric with action.
 
While perfectly happy to support busing as a measure to stop segregation in the past, she seems much less comfortable using it to stop our current school segregation problems.

Because even though the landmark Supreme 
Court decision that found racial segregation to be unconstitutional – Brown v. Board of Education – is more than 60 years old, our nation’s schools are in many places even more segregated now than they were when this ruling was handed down.

So the question remains: in some areas should we bus kids from black neighborhoods to schools located in white ones and vice versa to ensure that our classrooms are integrated?

Since the debates, Harris has waffled saying busing should be “considered” by school districts but she would not support mandating it.

In subsequent comments, she said she’d support a federal mandate for busing in certain situations where other integration efforts have not been effective or when the courts have stepped in to provide the federal government that power. However, she does not believe that either of these conditions have been met.

Frankly, it sounds a whole lot more like someone desperately making things up as she goes along than someone with a true plan to fix a deep problem in our public education system.

She rightly attacked Biden on his record but then came up short trying to prove that she would be much different, herself, if elected.

However, that doesn’t mean all Democratic candidates are so unprepared. A handful have detailed integration policy proposals.

The most obvious is Bernie Sanders.

In fact, it is a cornerstone of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education.” Not only would he repeal the existing ban on using federal transportation funding to promote school integration, he would put aside $1 billion to support magnet schools to entice more diverse students. However, the most ambitious part of his desegregation effort goes beyond legislation. Sanders promises to “execute and enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act in school systems.”


At least two Supreme Court rulings have taken away the federal government’s power to enforce Brown v. Board. The first was 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley ruling which established that federal courts could not order desegregation busing across school district lines. They could only do so inside districts. So in big cities like Detroit – where the case originated – you have largely black city schools surrounded by mostly white suburban ones. The ruling forbids busing from city to suburban districts and vice-versa thereby destroying any kind of authentic desegregation efforts.

More recently, in 2007, the Supreme Court’s Parent’s Involved decision put even more constraints on voluntary busing programs.

Sanders is acknowledging these problems and promising to select judges to the bench who would work to overturn these wrongheaded decisions.


However, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro comes in at a close second.

As you might expect, his school integration plan focuses on real estate and housingissues. According to his Website, Castro’s plan includes:

“Fulfill the promise of Brown v Board of Education through a progressive housing policy that includes affirmatively furthering fair housing, implementing zoning reform, and expanding affordable housing in high opportunity areas. These efforts will reduce racial segregation in classrooms.”

In other words, Castro hopes to work around the courts by incentivizing integration in neighborhoods which would also increase it in our schools.

It’s a good plan – though perhaps not enough in itself.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt Castro’s sincerity here. Unlike Sanders’ plan, Castro’s education policy statement is littered with jargon right out of the school privatization, edtech and high stakes testing playbook. These are, after all, the same people who have worked to increase segregation with the promotion of charter and voucher schools.

For instance, the second point of his plan is called “Reimagining High School” – a monicker stolen from the XQ Superschools program, a philanthrocapitalist scheme to rebrand school privatization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

This shouldn’t be surprising coming from 
Castro. In 2013, the mayor went on a tour of cities sponsored by Education Reform Now – an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a school privatization lobbying network. In the same year, he was also a featured guest at a ribbon cutting ceremony for IDEA charter schools. In 2010, he admitted he had no problem taking money with strings attached – a reference to the Obama administration’s chief education initiative of offering education grants if states increased reliance on high stakes testing and charter schools. In particular, Castro said: “I would have taken the Race to the Top money if I was mayor, dogcatcher, or whatever.”

And speaking of standardized testing and edtech, there are other telling hints that he’s on the neoliberal bandwagon in his current education plan:

“Provide educators and public schools flexibility in defining success, including competency-based assessments and support for transitions away from seat-time requirements. Provide maximum flexibility for school leaders, teachers, and students to work together to develop rigorous, competency-based pathways to a diploma and industry recognized credentials,” [Emphasis mine].

These terms “competency-based” and “rigorous” have strong associations with the privatization industry. “Competency-based” education programs usually mean making kids do daily mini-standardized tests on iPads or other devices and other untested cyber education programs. “Rigorous” has been associated with topdown academic standards like the Common Core that provide students with few resources or even taking them away and then blaming kids for not being able to meet arbitrary and developmentally inappropriate benchmarks.

Castro has some good ideas, but his troubling associations and language give any person familiar with these issues reason to pause.

Of course, Castro has not yet made a real mark among those Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

Perhaps more important is the relative silence of a more popular candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

She hasn’t spoken much about integration efforts on the campaign trail. Along with Sanders, she is a co-sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, the leading congressional vehicle for school integration. However, that legislation is deeply flawed because it not only increases grant money for desegregation but also gives a big chunk of change away to charter schools.

In the past, Warren has supported a kind of school voucher program to separate where a student is enrolled in school from where they live entirely, but you can add it to the list of education issues she has not seen the need to clarify as yet.

It’s no surprise that so few Democratic hopefuls want to address the issue of desegregation – especially doing so through busing.




I went to an integrated school from Kindergarten to high school. My daughter goes to the same district. I teach at another integrated school.

The benefits of attending such a school far outweigh any negatives.

If students have to spend more time getting to and from school via buses to reach this goal, it wouldn’t matter if we valued the outcome.

In fact, many white parents don’t mind putting their kids on buses or driving them to get away from minority children.

Certainly we should try to minimize the time it takes to get to and from school but that shouldn’t be the only consideration.

They say we get the leaders we deserve.

If white people really want to defeat Trump, they may have to start by defeating the bigot inside themselves first.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to theBadass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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Will This Be On The Test? by Steven Singer

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As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”

Seriously?

Will this be on the test?

In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?

What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?


I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.

So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.

It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.

The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.

But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.

On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.

Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?

He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.

I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.

And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.

If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?

After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.

Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.

It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.

It will just be.

And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.

Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.

Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?

Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.

But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.

People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?

When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?

Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?

Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?

Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.

It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.

This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.

This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.

But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.

Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.

We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.

So, you ask if this will be on the test?

The answer is yes.

Everything is on the test.

But you’re asking the wrong question.
 
That’s what I really want to say.
 
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.

Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.

“Yes.

It will.”


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the author and YouTube personality John Green. It was partially inspired by a speech he gave to introduce his video about The Agricultural Revolution:

“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.

It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.

You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.

The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.

The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.

And everything, everything will be on it.

I know right, so pay attention.”


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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