Wednesday, May 03, 2006

School district shenanigans

The following is my BrainstormNW column from April. This problem is growing worse, and eventually we may need to file a lawsuit to stop it.

School District Shenanigans

It has been more than six years since Oregon passed its charter school law. Since then, I’ve been involved with dozens of charter school projects, mostly helping the schools navigate the approval process in which they must convince a school district to grant them their charter.

Time and again I’ve seen school districts pull shenanigans that should land them in court, but they know they benefit from the classic power imbalance: a fledgling non-profit with few resources can afford neither the time or the money to run to court every time the district jacks them around, and the districts know it.

Districts have had six years to figure out how to neutralize charters. Led by the Oregon School Board Association legal staff, school districts have pretty much figured out how they can stop any charter proposal they don’t want, even if legions of parents in the district want the school.

In a column I wrote last year, I wondered aloud whether the charter school movement would avoid the fate that has met every other promising reform to come down the pike in the last fifty years: become assimilated by the “Blob” (Big Learning Organization Bureaucracies.)

I’m sorry to report that in many respects, that is exactly what is happening in Oregon. School districts have not only learned how to complicate the chartering process to discourage all but the most persistent schools, but have also learned how to use the law to suck down grant dollars that were supposed to go truly independent charter schools.

Charter schools can apply for a federal start-up grants of about $350K over the first three years of the project. For most new charters, there is no way they could pay for the start-up costs without these grants. The grants are administered on a competitive basis by the Oregon Department of Education. They give about 10-15 of these grants each year.

In the last several years, the majority of the grants have gone not to independent charter school projects, but rather to “charter schools” that are run by school districts. In many cases, the district charters are simply alternative schools by another name.

Districts are required to offer alternative education programs for students who have dropped out or left school because of disciplinary reasons. Why not “convert” their alternative school to charter status, and get $350K from the state to do it?

There has even been a case of a district getting the grant to convert an alternative school to charter status, then when the funds run out, converting it back to alternative school status!

The State Department of Education could put a stop to this, but despite our repeated complaints, the bureaucrats there don’t see it as a problem.

Frustrating as that is, it pales in comparison to the runaround some charters are getting from the school districts during the approval and start-up phases. When a charter proposal is fortunate enough to get approved by the board, it must then negotiate a contract with the district that is supposed to reflect the provisions of the proposal. That's when the fun really begins, especially if the district retains the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) to handle the “negotiation.”

With the OSBA involved, they invariably insist on all sorts of contractual provisions that were never discussed during the entire four month approval process. Often the provisions they insist on contradict what the approved charter proposal said. And if the charter school refuses to accept the conditions the OSBA unilaterally decrees, they then tell the district to rescind the approval!

We’ve pointed out that this behavior is against the law. The charter school statute reads:

“The sponsor and applicant shall develop a written charter that contains the provisions of the proposal that have been duly approved by the sponsor and public charter school governing body.”

That means they can’t just try to cram new provisions down our throat unless we agree. So far, we’ve had no success convincing them to follow the law. Their attitude seems to be: “so sue us.”

Of course they know a lawsuit would be a year or more to conclude, during which time the school would stay on hold – not a bad result if your goal is to delay the project anyway. Especially if your attorneys are paid by tax dollars.

Despite these struggles, Oregon’s charter school law has resulted in a good number of terrific schools who were generally fortunate enough to get started before the “Blob” figured out how to strike back.

But I’m not very optimistic, unless the Oregon Department of Education takes a leadership role in holding school districts and the OSBA accountable, that Oregon’s charter law will result in the robust, innovative and high achieving network of schools that it once promised to create.

4 comments:

gus miller said...

Rob:

This subject deserves an "investigative report" by the media or a think tank.

I would be interested in seeing how much public charter school grant money has been awarded to and spent over the years by school districts, teachers, ESDs, government agencies etc. compared to the intended results the money was supposed to attain. Even better would be a companion study on non-governmental grants and the results thereof.

For now, I am hoping that the best of the currently operating public charter schools will demonstrate beyond doubt their value to families and students who have shown faith and support for public charter schools.

Anonymous said...

Its about time that the Oregon School Board Association Monopoly is abbolished. They are supported by our tax payers dollars. They have to much control over local and state education for a non govermental agency calling themselves a non profit. What is more disturbing is that two of the members of the Oregon State Board of Education members sit on the OSBA board.
Any charter school application that makes it to the state is going to have to make it through an expanded criteria at the ODE level. The Oregon State Board of Education is a card carrying OSBA member. Therefor it has no snow balls chance of ever being approved. ODE makes certain of that. They can dish out the criteria but in March of 2006 The Department of Education came in and found they were not doing there job and were cited. They are not doing their job now when it comes to charter schools. We need change.

movermike said...

Rob, your take on the firing of Vanguard Learning?

Anonymous said...

I am now regretting a great missed opportunity;

When a family member plunged into the charter approval process, she came home every day with outrageous stories. I nagged her to document the experience, but the process had her stretched so thin, it wasn't an option at the time. I was half inclined to quit my job and make a project of it myself, but I'm not in a position to take a year off!

The interesting part was the district alternative school which was being converted to a charter at the same time. The difference in the process of the Alternative school and the school created by my family member was incredible. It was light speed and fast tracks vs. detours and a Sunday driver.

The grant splits are very interesting too. A huge percentage comes off the charter's grant money and disappears somewhere within the district. We're talking hundreds of thousands going nobody knows where!