Chicago's mayor packs public schools executive ranks and Board of Education with charter school zealots... Cleveland's main daily newspaper exposes Ohio charter school corruption while Chicago's dailies churn out charter school propaganda as 'news'

At a time when charter school supporters in Chicago now occupy the mayor's office and the Chicago Board of Education, as well as lobbying extensively in Springfield to ensure that their schools are not held accountable in the same way public schools are, one of the biggest scandals in Chicago's media is the uncritical cheerleading for charter schools that passes as "news" in Chicago and most of Illinois. Except for Substance and The Reader, charter schools' public relations handouts become "news" stories in the daily newspapers, without critical comment.

Chicago's new public schools "Chief Executive Officer" Jean-Claude Brizard (above) with billionaire Penny Pritzker. Both are outspoken supporters of charter schools. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.During the mayoral campaign, Rahm Emanuel made statements about Chicago charter schools that were factually untrue and indicated his intense bias against Chicago's real public schools. Then he appointed both executives and Board of Education members whose biases against real public schools and on behalf of charter schools were well known. Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard's wife is a charter school operator, according to news reports from Rochester New York. Emanuel's pick for "Chief Education Office", Noemi Donoso, has experience in charter schools for more than a decade — but almost no experience in real public schools. Among those appointed to the seven-member Chicago Board of Education by Mayor Emanuel, billionaire heiress Penny Pritzker has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools and openly hostile to real public schools. In December 2010 Penny Pritzker helped organize a massive fundraising effort on behalf of "Stand for Children", which was sponsoring legislation attacking the Chicago Teachers Union. The Nobel Street Charter school "Pritzker Campus" routinely sends its pushed out students back to the real public schools — especially Kelvyn Park High School and North Grand High School — while the Pritzker family puts its millions behind Rahm Emanuel's charter school lies and the expansion of Chicago charter schools.

As comments from Ohio are showing, the same problem has long existed in Ohio, and the lobbying pattern on behalf of deregulated charter schools, both "non-profit" and "for profit" seems to be the same in most states.

But suddenly this week, Ohio is changing.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city's major daily newspaper, has published a major investigative story (front page, June 20, 2011) about how one Ohio "Edupreneur" bought the votes of Ohio legislators in order to expand the controversial "White Hat" charter schools across the state. The schools are now mired in controversy and corruption charges. Meanwhile, Chicago's two daily newspapers, the Sun-Times and Tribune, have been publishing charter school puffery and piffle as "news" on a regular basis. The most notorious puff pieces from the pages of the Chicago Tribune are the regular stories hyping the claims that Chicago's Urban Prep charter high schools are working miracles for African American boys by getting all of them to get into college upon graduation. In the process of reporting such news (and ignoring the racism implicit in the notion that African American boys in Chicago require a miracle to get into college), the Tribune's reporters, who have been covering this story for three years, simply repeat the talking points of the Urban Prep promoters and the charter school publicity centers in Chicago.

Since Urban Prep has not been in business long enough to know whether any of its graduates have complete college (in four or any other number of years), it's impossible to know what to make of these claims. But a closer look at the Tribune shows that Sam Zell, the Chicago billionaire who still owns the Tribune despite having driven it into bankruptcy, hates unions and public schools. Sam Zell contributed $100,000 in December 2010 to the union-busting efforts of "Stand for Children." The Tribune's news reports apparently are always going to be slanted to reflect the biases of the Tribune's owner (even if he has bankrupted his property less than three years after he bought it with other people's money).

The Cleveland stories are actual news, done by careful investigation reporting:

House-Senate budget committee faces major questions on charter schools, Published: Monday, June 20, 2011, 6:00 AM, Cleveland Plain Dealer, By Aaron Marshall, The Plain Dealer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- David Brennan has cast a long shadow over this year's state budget.

The Akron charter-school magnate who has given more than $5 million to Republican politicians dating back to the mid-'80s as he built a 31-school empire was the force behind a series of charter school amendments slipped into the GOP-controlled House's budget bill in late April, House Speaker William G. Batchelder has said.

The amendments — which would allow for-profit operators to run schools without supervision and operators with terrible track records to open new schools — were roundly condemned, even by advocates within the charter schools movement.

Facing an uproar, Senate Republicans, who also hold a majority in their chamber, stripped out the provisions and put in new accountability measures. Now, as Senate and House leaders settle in for nearly two weeks of work to unify the two versions of the budget, the issues of how charter schools should be supervised and who should be allowed to open new ones loom as major sticking points.

Charter school law built amendment-by-amendment

In one sense, it's fitting the House and Senate are debating dozens of changes to charter school law in the state budget. The very creation of charter schools in the Toledo area was accomplished through an amendment to the state budget bill in June 1997. Five weeks later, another amendment slipped into an unrelated measure expanded the program to Ohio's eight largest school districts.

From those beginnings, the charter school movement in Ohio has grown to include more than 300 schools serving about one of every 20 schoolchildren in Ohio and swallowing up about one in 10 state school-funding dollars.

Although they cost about twice as much in per-pupil funding, charter schools overall still lag behind Ohio's largest school districts in state report card scores although the gap is narrowing. Brennan's schools see some of the lowest rankings, with 20 of his 31 schools receiving rankings of academic watch or academic emergency.

Yet, despite the size and cost of the rapidly growing system, most of the laws governing charter schools have been passed by amendment with only one bill, a 2003 charter schools rewrite, done through the normal legislative process of a stand-alone bill.

While it may have been done initially to muscle in provisions that couldn't have passed on their own, it has produced a patchwork system open to manipulation, said Terry Ryan, a vice president for Ohio programs and policy for the Fordham Institute, which operates seven charter schools in Ohio.

"Each budget cycle you end up trying to solve the immediate problem that resulted from the last budget go-around and create new opportunities for charter schools operators, and they aren't ever put into a holistic package," said Ryan, who worked with the Senate on its changes. "It's been piecemeal and it's been reactionary and it really hasn't resulted in an effective system."

For example, only in 2006 did state lawmakers put into place a provision that forces poor-performing charter schools to close after three years of hitting the lowest ranking. But schools considered "dropout prevention" programs are shielded from the 2006 law. In 2008, the state board of education suggested that dropout prevention programs be judged by the percent of students they graduate, but that idea hasn't gained any traction at the Statehouse.

Sen. Tom Sawyer, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Education Committee, called it a mistake for the legislature to handle charter schools through the budget process time and again.

Across the aisle, Senate Republican Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate's Education Committee, agrees.

"I think the process has been not one that lends itself to things being carefully thought through," she said.

Process prone to influence

On April 28, after House lawmakers had announced the charter school provisions sought by Brennan, the reaction from others within the charter school movement was swift and strong. The founder of a highly rated Cleveland charter school, Perry White, said the changes would make Ohio "the poster child for bad charter policy." Ryan said it would turn Ohio into "a laughingstock."

Giving cash for help

Besides David Brennan, here are some of those in the charter school or e-school industries who have given more than $10,000 to Ohio politicians and/or political parties in the last decade.

Almost all of the contributions were made to Republicans coffers.

William Lager, ECOT and Altair founder; $ 943,452

J.C. Huizenga, National Heritage Academies; $129,725

Michael Bradley, Altair; $88,500

Bradley Martensen, Altair; $53,500

James Thomas, Altair; $41,750

Coletta Musick, E-Schools Consultants; $31,500

Richard Lukich, Constellation Community Schools; $14,575

Dennis Bakke, Imagine Schools; $10,250

Drawing the most heat were amendments stripping away oversight by charter school sponsors, allowing unlimited expansion of charter schools and granting funding of $1 million a year for high-school dropouts up to the age of 29 to attend charter school dropout prevention programs, including 18 run by Brennan's company, White Hat Management.

All of those provisions were deemed the "most important" and "important" categories of changes suggested by Tom Needles, Brennan's chief lobbyist, in a March 2 memo to House Republican staffers.

While it's fairly standard for lobbyists to be involved in crafting legislation in the Ohio General Assembly, Brennan's lobbyist had extensive and ongoing conversations behind the scenes with House Republicans. Needles even sat down with the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission to draft budget amendments, a practice that House Democrats have introduced a bill seeking to ban.

Needles did not return a call for comment for this story.

That Brennan has so much influence over GOP policy decisions made in the legislature isn't a new development -- the rise of charter schools in Ohio can be traced in a large part to him -- but it isn't a scene that plays out elsewhere in America, according to Ryan.

"You certainly have a lot of interests involved" in Ohio, Ryan said. "But the notion that a big, for-profit charter schools operator has as much sway in the legislative process that you see in Ohio is unique to Ohio."

Batchelder, of Medina, a long-time proponent of charter and voucher programs, has defended the amendments, saying about one-third of the provisions sought by Brennan became part of the bill. He told reporters in early June that there is no connection between campaign contributions and influence in the budget process. In the last election cycle, Brennan and his wife, Anne, gave House Republicans $217,000.

"People are always fired up about conspiracies of some kind or another, or the other one that always just burns me up to no end is the one where they say so-and-so contributed money and therefore the guy voted this way. That's not my experience," Batchelder said at the time. "My experience is, particularly somebody like me who has all kinds of ideas and so forth, no, they contribute to me because they agree with the issues that I stand for."

Brennan amendments turn toxic

While House Republicans such as Rep. Ron Amstutz of Wooster initially defended the changes sought by Brennan as bringing much needed "flexibility" to the system and dumping "a variety of restrictions that don't make sense," it's hard to find House Republicans willing to defend them now.

Previous stories

June 6: West Side charter school could be an academic sail and a neighborhood anchor: editorial

May 25: Take charters away from Ashe Cultural Center: editorial

May 13: No carte blanche for charters: editorial

May 12: Report rips Ohio's e-schools for poor performance and graduation rates

April 30: Charter school amendments in Ohio House would favor for-profit operators

April 21: Ohio tax money used for charter schools and voucher programs

Feb. 22: Cleveland school board considers sponsoring five more charter schools

Nov. 26: Hold Ashe Culture Center accountable for its charter schools: editorial

More about charter schools

Amstutz didn't return calls for this story. The other House Republican on the conference committee, Rep. John Carey, lost his cell phone connection with The Plain Dealer when asked if he was willing to go to bat for the provisions. He didn't call back.

With the House seemingly in retreat mode over the much-criticized provisions, it appears likely the Senate will stand tall on its preference for keeping the current governing system largely intact.

"I think Ohio had been burned in the past by not putting enough accountability on charter schools," said Lehner, the Senate Education chair. "We have had difficulty in how to deal with charter schools that were consistently failing because of that, so I think there's tremendous caution in the Senate to not do things that could set us back."

Gov. John Kasich backs both nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, but hasn't shown any support for the controversial House provisions. His spokesman, Rob Nichols, would only go so far as to write in an email that the governor is "completely confident that the conferees will reach an agreement on the issue that will satisfy everyone involved."

Who should be allowed to open new charter schools?

Shaping up to be a key issue in the conference committee discussions will be what grades the schools of current charter school operators will have to make to allow them to open new schools.

Kasich's budget proposal said no one with a charter school currently in academic watch or academic emergency -- effectively the bottom 44 percent -- could open new schools. The House took out Kasich's language and eventually inserted language saying that only charter school operators with schools in the bottom 10 percent would be banned from expanding.

Meanwhile, the Senate said charter school operators must have at least 80 percent of their schools rated above academic emergency to open new schools.

As the conference committee wraps up its work and sends it to the full legislature for approval sometime in the last week of June, this chapter of the charter schools debate in Ohio will close. Lehner said she hopes future charter school debates focus more on improvement instead of expansion.

"We need to get away from pro-charter and anti-charter, and pro-teacher and anti-teacher fights and look at pro-quality issues," she said. "I don't know that it's in our best interests to keep further expanding charters as much as it is further expanding quality in all school settings."

Charter school operators are among big donors to GOP

There are plenty of big-money donors to the Republican party, but Akron industrialist and charter-school operator David Brennan stands out.

He has delivered more than $5 million to Republican candidates and caucus campaign funds since he became actively involved in politics in the mid-80s.

Other charter school and e-school operators have gotten into the game in recent years, including William Lager, founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), an electronic school that gets about $64 million a year in state education funding. Lager nearly matched Brennan dollar for dollar the last few years. People affiliated with Lager's management company for ECOT, Altair Learning Management, also are among the top givers from the charter school or e-school industries.

© 2011 All rights reserved. (accompanying editorial)

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According to one comment: The story has been covered far more extensively by the Akron Beacon Journal and lately by the Columbus Dispatch, but not in any comprehensive way by the Plain Dealer… till this morning. It is nice to see that we are getting the news in Cleveland after all this time.


June 21, 2011 at 11:47 AM

By: John Kugler

Theft of Public Funds

Head of Charters Earns $204,000

By Hailey Heinz

The head of three charter schools with fewer than 500 students combined earns $204,000, more than any superintendent in New Mexico except APS' Winston Brooks.

Brooks earns $256,000 a year to oversee a district of 94,000 students; Scott Glasrud oversees the Southwest Learning Center in Albuquerque with a combined enrollment of 495.

Albuquerque school board president Martin Esquivel called Glasrud's salary "beyond ridiculous," adding that it raises questions about accountability at charter schools.

"I think the perception is going to be that this charter school has set up its own private fiefdom using public money," Esquivel said in an interview. "There's really no way to justify this at all."

Glasrud's schools came under scrutiny last month after he refused to provide bank statements to the Albuquerque district, saying doing so would violate the schools' autonomy. He, along with Mike May of Amy Biehl Charter High, eventually released the documents.

Aggie Lopez, former APS board president and current president of the Southwest Secondary board, said Glasrud is "worth every penny," adding that he has produced excellent results in student achievement and school performance.

The state education secretary, Veronica Garcia, said charter boards have flexibility to set salaries at any level they want.

Glasrud said he deserves his salary, because he does more than a traditional principal and because his schools produce high test scores.

His pay is broken into three contracts for $68,120 at each of three schools, Southwest Primary, La Luz Del Monte and Southwest Secondary. The three charters are in one building at Candelaria and Morris.

Glasrud said his job is more like that of a superintendent than a principal, with responsibilities that have included payroll, finding and financing the school building, negotiating contracts like buses and maintenance, and setting the school's academic schedule.

"Just like anyone, I negotiate the best deal for myself and my family," Glasrud said.

The next-highest-paid superintendent in New Mexico is Stan Rounds of Las Cruces, who earns $168,000 to oversee a district of 24,000 students, according to the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators.

The superintendant in Mora, which has a similar enrollment size to Glasrud's school system, makes $100,000 per year.

The salaries of charter school principals are set by the governing boards at each school. There are no state laws that limit or govern how much a charter principal can make, which Garcia said is part of the fundamental idea of charters.

"Charter schools have boards, and they have that flexibility in how they set teacher or superintendent salaries," she said. "The idea is they can be more competitive in hiring and also perhaps have greater accountability in terms of firing."

Glasrud's schools are currently authorized by Albuquerque Public Schools, but they will switch to state supervision beginning in July.

Lopez also said Glasrud is more of a superintendent than a principal, and she pointed out that the Southwest Learning Center schools are highly successful, with a graduation rate of 95.2 percent. The schools also consistently make Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading.

"The parents demand the best, and so far we've gotten it," she said.

But Esquivel said the schools' performance cannot be directly compared with APS, because of the difference in demographics.

"Some would try to compare the academic achievement to APS, without disclosing the fact that they have nowhere near the same poverty issues," Esquivel said.

About 20 percent of the students at Glasrud's three schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is the traditional measure of poverty. Across APS, that number is 58 percent.

The charters also have a lower percentage of minorities — who statistically score lower on standardized tests — at between 30 and 35 percent. The districtwide number is 69 percent.

Still, Glasrud's schools do outperform schools with similar demographics. Some schools with similar poverty levels include Cibola High and San Antonito Elementary School.

According to the state Public Education Department, 52 percent of Cibola students were proficient in math last year and 70 percent were proficient in reading. In comparison, 61.4 percent of Southwest Secondary students were proficient in math and 77.2 percent were proficient in reading.

At San Antonito Elementary School, 88.6 percent of students were proficient in math last year, and 91.6 percent were proficient in reading. At Southwest Primary, those numbers were 92.9 percent and 95.7 percent.

Read more: ABQJOURNAL NEWS/METRO: Head of Charters Earns $204,000

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