Month: <span>September 2013</span>

Carpe Diem: Seizing tax dollars for charters

carpe diem

The Latin phrase, carpe diem, has been popularly translated to mean seize the day or seize the moment — or go for your next opportunity. Well, a charter school operator by that name has its sights on seizing Texas tax dollars for an educational program that spends public money to buy lots of computers while hiring few teachers. It also is tailored more toward highly motivated students than children who really need help.

Carpe Diem has distinguished itself for high student test scores in Arizona, where it got started, and for cavernous, cubicle-filled classrooms that resemble call centers. Along the way, though, there have been allegations of possible cheating and a sweetheart real estate deal in Indiana that could give the school’s landlord — an entrepreneur with close ties to that state’s governor — as much as a half million dollars of Indiana taxpayers’ money.

Now, Carpe Diem wants to set up shop in San Antonio, and its application is to be heard this week by the Texas Education Agency. It is among a number of charter applications that largely will be decided, under a new state law, by state Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who assumes the charter approval authority once held by the State Board of Education. I wrote about another controversial applicant, Great Hearts Academies, in my previous blog posting.

Remember, charter schools – although relieved of some state regulations – receive an allotment of tax dollars for each student they enroll, and they are attracted to those tax dollars like flies to the picnic table. Some charters are good. Others are out to cash in on the taxpayers – and raid traditional public schools.

The Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Ariz., has received considerable attention for its high student test scores and high student-teacher ratio. The school operates under a so-called “blended learning” model, a combination of online and face-to-face instruction. According to the Arizona Republic, students spend most of their time at computers. In one recent school year, each major subject had only one teacher who was responsible for 240 students in grades six through 12.

That arrangement may be fine, some educators believe, for highly motivated students who are self-starters. But what about the millions of other students in Arizona, Texas and elsewhere, many from low-income families, who need smaller classes and more attention from teachers? Their best opportunities are still found in traditional public schools. In fact, according to a story last year in The Hechinger Report, Carpe Diem tended to lose a higher percentage of students each year than traditional schools in Yuma did.

In spring 2010, the Arizona Republic reported, Pearson Education, the company that administers the Arizona student achievement test, flagged the reading test taken by Carpe Diem sophomores for having a higher-than average number of erasure marks. Pearson said one group of 27 Carpe Diem students had a total number of wrong-to-right erasure marks seven times as high as the state average. The school denied any cheating, and the state apparently didn’t increase monitoring.

And, now Carpe Diem is expanding in Indiana and, it hopes, Texas, among other places.

Earlier this year, The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., reported that Ambassador Enterprises, a company owned by businessman Daryle Doden, which is providing space for a new Carpe Diem school, will be paid $1,000 for each student who enrolls, up to 550 students, plus “associated property costs.” Daryle Doden is a political contributor to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the father of Eric Doden, the governor’s appointed director for statewide economic development.

The newspaper reported that the Indiana Charter School Board rushed to approve the Carpe Diem deal despite strong community opposition. It wrote, “The community knows exactly what the deal is – hundreds of thousands of dollars being sucked out of area school districts as rent paid to Ambassador Enterprises.”

You don’t think that could happen in Texas? Think again.



Controversial charter operator knocking on Texas’ door (Corrected)

(Corrected: The hearing this week is on Great Hearts’ application to add campuses in Dallas, not San Antonio, as previously posted.)

The new state law that will expand the number of charter schools in Texas over the next several years also includes provisions supposedly designed to make it easier for the state to clamp down on bad charter operators and screen out less-than-desirable applications. One of those provisions is about to be put to its first significant test with an application from a controversial, private Arizona charter operator with a history of serving mainly affluent white students – not the low-income minority children that the self-styled education “reformers” claim to want to help.

One of the “reform” provisions in Texas’ new charter law takes the primary authority for granting charter applications from the elected State Board of Education and gives it to the appointed state education commissioner. Acting under his new authority, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams will hold a meeting in Austin later this week to interview several charter applicants, including the Arizona operator, Great Hearts Academies.

Great Hearts is scheduled to open its first Texas school – in San Antonio – next year under an application approved by the State Board of Education, acting under the previous law. In its latest application, Great Hearts is seeking to add campuses in Dallas.

Last year, the Metro school board in Nashville voted four times in about three months to deny Great Hearts’ applications there, despite pressure from the Tennessee Department of Education to admit the operator (see the story linked below). The Nashville board had reservations about several issues, including Great Hearts’ commitment to assuring diversity in student admissions. Initially, Great Hearts proposed separate schools for students of different economic backgrounds – a decidedly backwards step in equality of educational opportunity and a throwback to the bad old days of separate-but-unequal segregation.

In San Antonio, Great Hearts has been hitting up wealthy donors to help get its first campus up and running and has been promising that private donations – plus its per-pupil charter school allotment of state tax dollars – will make it unnecessary to charge tuition in the Alamo City. But it has been a different story in Arizona, where Great Hearts operates several charters.

At least one Great Hearts school in Phoenix is seeking an average $1,500 contribution from each student family during the current school year to meet the gap between public funding and other donations. How many families in San Antonio’s economically disadvantaged community – those whose children supposedly are the primary beneficiaries of charter education – can afford that kind of money?

You know the answer, and so, presumably, does Commissioner Williams.

So, just which students – besides those with deep-pocketed parents — is Great Hearts targeting?

The headmaster of that same Phoenix school, perhaps not so incidentally, sent an email to school parents last year strongly opposing an Arizona ballot initiative that would have raised at least $800 million for education funding, including charter schools. The initiative failed.


Check out “Teach,” airing tonight on CBS


Remember “Waiting for Superman,” the pro-charter school propaganda movie of a few years ago that blamed public schools and public school teachers for the country’s educational ills? If you had forgotten it, please forget it again. But you may want to give its director, Davis Guggenheim, another chance and take a look at his latest movie, “Teach,” which is set to air this evening on CBS TV at 7, Central Time.

Check your local listings.

I haven’t seen the new movie, but colleagues in the educational community give it much better reviews than Guggenheim’s previous effort deserved. Check out one review and a trailer by clicking on the link below.

“Teach” follows the working lives of four teachers as it tries to make the basic point that great teachers – not high-stakes testing and other get-rich schemes of education privateers – make great schools. We knew that already, of course, but all too often the truth gets buried in political myths and rubbish.

This movie doesn’t have much to say about the financial difficulties of being a teacher or what we as a society must do to help teachers stay in the profession and provide them with all the resources they need to help their students succeed. But this time, at least, Guggenheim puts the education focus where it needs to be.