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    Fresh out of undergrad, I joined the Nashville crew of Teach for America. I spent my summer alongside other new TFA members, who all seemed to have joined for the same reason: We had no idea what we wanted to do with ourselves. So we’d spend the summer grabbing a brown-bagged breakfast with blacker-than-black coffee at 5 a.m. and take an hour-long bus ride to our summer-school site in rural Mississippi in order to delay figuring out the next steps by two years.

    When I returned to Nashville after the clipped, fast-forwarded teaching “institute” (a single summer-length training session), the oversized group of 100 recruits visited a charter school in the area: KIPP Academy. All of the teachers we met were young, probably late twenties or early thirties. My memory of this tour is clouded by over five years, but what I remember is their selling point, never directly stated as such: We’re better for kids than a public school. We have more resources. Everyone wants to be here, so we hold a lottery. We hire only the best.

    According to KIPP’s website, their percentage of students entering college has risen 7 percent above the national average of 63 percent, though, in 2016, it dropped to 3 percent below the average. To compare, JCPS’ percentage of students entering college in 2016 was 4 percent above the national average, beating KIPP that year. KIPP notes that their elementary and middle school students “develop skills faster than their peers” and that “KIPP Nashville students are on-track to graduate from college at three times the rate of their peers.”

    It’s difficult for me to swallow self-reported numbers — like a recent graduate padding their resume. And, anyway, KIPP’s data seem mixed. Slightly above average at best, oddly correlated data at worst. Their annual report is host to a lot of nice infographics with few sources. Most of the data aren’t compared to public schools, and the report doesn’t indicate how those data were obtained. It’s a looks-good-on-paper series of percentages that you’ll have to take KIPP’s word for — if you can figure out what the percentages even mean or match up with.

    But for many Nashville charter schools, these types of numbers definitely seem too good to be true: according to The Tennessean, charter schools in Nashville are sending illegal mass text messages to bolster enrollment, not providing proper — read: legal — services to students with disabilities, forcing underprivileged families to fork up cash for uniforms and running at multi-million-dollar deficits, all while pestering the school board to approve even more charters, so they can increase real-estate deals.

    A charter school, according to JCPS, is “an independently run public school that is granted flexibility in operations in return for higher accountability for performance.” Charters have contracts — charters, if you will — to establish how they operate and what their performance missions and goals are. JCPS notes that charters “must accept all students, are tuition-free and are subject to Kentucky Open Records and Open Meetings law.”

    Charter schools make their own decisions about curriculum, resources and hiring. They receive public funds but are operated by private groups or organizations. They don’t go through the rigorous requirements of a JCPS public school — like requirements for teachers to obtain a master’s degree within 10 years of employment or a publicly-elected school board.

    They receive your tax dollars but are managed by a private entity. They don’t have to listen to regulations beyond things involving state- and federally-mandated guidance on safety, disability or discrimination. Or, at least, they are supposed to listen to such regulations.

    The punchline being: charter schools run themselves, without input from the community. A mysterious, don’t-ask-don’t-tell of potential results.

    Charter schools aren’t some magical cure-all for the woes of public school. In fact, some have been fronts for real estate profit or other nefarious goals. The state of Michigan pays $1 billion per year for charter schools with low accountability — including schools that are run by for-profit companies that don’t always disclose how they spend money.

    In Detroit, the public school system was under state control since 2012, seeing six separate “emergency managers” appointed by the state in that time. That’s Harry Potter Defense Against the Dark Arts numbers. The school system was in need of a change, with a $10-million deficit after mismanagement. So they dissolved the teacher’s union, cut all employees and let charter schools reign — what appears to be the wet dream of Governor Bevin’s newly-appointed interim education commissioner, Wayne Lewis.

    But it didn’t help enrollment, so schools closed. One neighborhood near Detroit, Highland Park, now has no schools to serve its community. Parents are forced to send their children to a school district where they can’t vote. They have no control over the elected officials or school board.

    Other Michigan charter schools have been caught for cheating (teachers guiding students during standardized testing); felony embezzlement (using $25,000 meant for textbooks spent on a down-payment for a home); infrastructure issues like roof leaks and broken heating systems; poor security. And while this is not to say that public schools may not have had these problems, public schools at least had to report to a superintendent — not a for-profit entity.

    To top it off, Michigan students ranked last in improvements to student proficiency. And the charters were the worst of the worst, with 70 percent of them in the lowest rankings in the lowest-ranking state.

    To make all of this even worse, Michigan has the highest number of charter schools run by for-profit entities.

    And Betsy DeVos’ home state isn’t the only example of charter schools in need of detention: In North Carolina, some non-profit charter schools are also connected to for-profit ventures that buy land, develop real estate for the schools — and then rent the property to the charter schools at exorbitant rates. This same for-profit venture charges the school to manage its hiring, bookkeeping and other administrative tasks. This practice is not uncommon; in fact it is almost the norm of charter schools. It’s happened in Florida, where the owners of the largest charter in the state also control the schools’ campuses, collecting nearly $19 million in rent. It’s happened in Washington, D.C., where charter-school founder Kent Amos received money from a private management company that was paid by the same charter school started by Amos. It’s happened in Ohio, where a charter school reported higher enrollment and attendance numbers than auditors found, providing more than $5 million in extra income. It’s happened in California, where a charter school could not explain a four-year total expense of $3 million.

    Why would Kentucky be any different? It’s unlikely to be.

    Governor Bevin’s hand-picked Board of Education seems to be cut from the same cloth. Hal Heiner, the founder of Capstone Realty, is a supporter of charter schools and a public critic of JCPS. Wayne Lewis has been a chair of groups called “Kentucky Charter Schools Association” and “Kentucky Charter Schools Advisory Council.” He’s going to make a recommendation, likely today, about whether the state should assist JCPS, take over JCPS, or leave it be. 

    Lewis, an obvious charter school advocate, would control the management of JCPS in the event of a school takeover. Wonder what he’s going to recommend.

    Charter school advocates say people are unhappy with public schools’ poor performances. In a 2017 blog post, Lewis wrote that charter schools allow competition and other options for public education, allow for parents to decide where to send their child and are held to “higher standards of academic performance accountability.”

    But a poll of nearly 100,000 parents and students shows that 90 percent of parents believe that JCPS has effective leadership. This poll, called the Comprehensive School Survey, was sent to JCPS employees, families and students in grades four through 12, to be filled out and returned between January 8 and March 16. Ninety-one percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their child’s school. Ninety-three percent said schools have challenging content.

    In the midst of teacher protests, school district closures and talk about pensions (read: money), it’s important to me to stifle a common misconception: teachers in Kentucky aren’t asking to be paid more money (though they deserve it).  

    A petition notes that they are asking for an improved pension plan with a locked-up account, public funding only for public schools (not charters), prioritization of new funding sources (like gambling or legal marijuana) to fund schools and the drained pension fund, prioritization of students’ health and education and an end to provisions that prohibit teachers and their spouses from receiving social security benefits. So, sure, the fight is about money. But not in the ways you might think.

    I think by now it’s fairly clear that many in Kentucky’s legislature don’t support educators, between Bevin blaming them for abuse and the legislature tacking pension reform onto a sewage bill.

    If all that doesn’t give you the heeby-jeebies, this might: Joe Sonka, a reporter from Insider Louisville, uncovered a possible connection between the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition and the Koch Brothers, billionaires who own the second-largest private company (oil) in the US. They’re the ones who spent $20 million to convince you that the GOP tax plan is great.

    The group, which supports a state takeover but is not registered with the Kentucky Secretary of State, holds a board with Pastor Jerry Stephenson, who also acts as a leader and director for the Kentucky Education Restoration Alliance, whose more-than-five-pastors board of directors includes newly-elected Board of Education chair Milton Seymore and Representative Phil Moffett of District 32.

    This group was paid $7,000 by the Koch Brothers.

    Oh, and remember Hal Heiner? The new Bevin-appointed Board of Education member who also owns a realty company? Yeah, he’s the chairman of another group called Kentucky Coalition for Education Reform, which lists the very same Jerry Stephenson as a director.

    Kentucky’s new law allowing charter schools, which we won’t see in effect until next school year at the earliest, has some red-flagged ties to other states’ charter school corruption. Twisting it themselves: calling for competition in educating students, giving out self-reported statistics, a red herring to pad their pockets with tax money through shady, but legal, for-profit Education Management Organizations, often run by the same people who founded the charter.

    I couldn’t hack it as a public educator. I may have had issues stemming from TFA’s all too brief training institute or from being hired a day before school started. But at least I didn’t have to deal with a state legislature hell bent on making it worse.


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    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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