WEEKLY NEWS DIGEST (December 12-18, 2011)



Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools.” By Stephanie Saul. New York Times. December 12, 2011. By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing. Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll. By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers. Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States. The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk. The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost. The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

2 charter schools allowed some families to bypass lotteries; L.A. Unified will weigh a ban on preferences like those at Larchmont and Los Feliz, which admitted some students in return for special services or volunteering by parents.” By Howard Blume. Los Angeles Times. December 12, 2011. Two popular Los Angeles charter schools have allowed some families to bypass a lottery for admission in exchange for providing special services or a substantial volunteer commitment. The practices of Larchmont Charter School and Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts have raised concerns that such preference policies, if allowed, could open the door to well-connected friends or wealthier families who promise to contribute. In effect, critics say, charters could end up functioning more like private schools than campuses almost entirely supported with tax dollars. Neither school concealed its enrollment procedures and they were tolerated by the charter school office of the L.A. Unified School District, but exposure of the practices is prompting the Board of Education on Tuesday to consider a ban on such preferences. Under state law, independently run charter schools are open equally to students without regard to family resources. Lotteries are held when applications exceed classroom space. “It’s pretty obvious if you’re going to have a lottery, you have to make it equal for all the families that are applying,” said Bennett Kayser, a frequent charter critic who joined the school board this year. “There shouldn’t be end runs around the process.” Larchmont ended the practice after one year and Los Feliz appears likely to follow suit; the issue was detailed in an L.A. Weekly article in October. The controversy involves a twist on the concept of founding parents. Under state law, a charter’s founding parents are guaranteed admission. Few contest this allowance; parents who spend substantial time and resources to begin a school should not then be excluded by the luck of the enrollment lottery, the thinking goes.

Florida Charter Schools Failing Disabled Students.” By John O’Connor and Sarah Gonzalez. Morning Edition/National Public Radio. December 14, 2011. Tres Whitlock is stuck in a public school where he feels ignored. He wants out. The 17-year-old would-be video game designer researched his options online and found his perfect match – Pivot Charter School. “It’s computer-based and I think I will do better,” he says. But when Whitlock tried to enroll in the school, he found a series of barriers in his way. The reason? He has cerebral palsy, and school officials say they don’t have anyone to take Whitlock to the bathroom. Whitlock and his parents are convinced their story isn’t unique — and enrollment data backs them. A StateImpact Florida/Miami Herald investigation shows most charter schools in Florida are failing to serve students with severe disabilities. Statewide, 86 percent of charter schools do not have any students classified as severely disabled. That’s despite state and federal laws that require charter schools to give equal access to these students.

CPS to add 12 charter schools; Despite some low scores, networks get OK to open more campuses.” By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah. Chicago Tribune. December 12, 2011. Chicago Public Schools announced plans Monday to add 12 new charters, including more campuses for networks with less-than-stellar scores. Noble Street Charter Schools rank high among city high schools, but the state’s recently released detailed performance data show that other well-known charter networks like United Neighborhood Organization, Catalyst and LEARN have struggled with campuses that have not met district averages on state exams. Yet, under a proposal before the Board of Education on Wednesday, the politically connected UNO, with three of its nine schools falling below district averages, is slated for three new elementary schools for 2013. LEARN stands to get a new campus next school year and two more in 2013 despite struggling with its South Shore campus. And Catalyst, whose two campuses appear to be underperforming, is expected to get the OK to open a third school.The charter announcement comes as the district fends off protests and community efforts to save failing schools from being closed down or keep teachers from being replaced in turnarounds. The district next month will begin holding hearings on 10 proposed turnarounds, five immediate school closings and two gradual closings called phaseouts. School closings and turnarounds are always emotionally charged issues, but this year they come tinged with a sense of unfairness. Not one charter school made the closings list even though state performance data revealed that some had students performing nearly as badly on state exams as those at neighborhood schools targeted for closing.
Related story:
CPS Plans 12 New Charter Schools.” Chicago News Cooperative (chicagonewscoop.org). December 13, 2011.

Charter School Approved for Affluent Brooklyn Enclave.” By Fernanda Santos. New York Times. December 15, 2011. The panel that oversees education policy in New York City approved the first charter school for brownstone Brooklyn on Wednesday night, backing a plan to give it space inside a building already shared by three other public schools. The Panel for Educational Policy handed a significant victory to a network of charter schools run by Eva S. Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman, in her quest to expand its reach to affluent parts of the city. The new school, in Cobble Hill, will be Ms. Moskowitz’s 12th in the city, but only the second in a well-to-do enclave. The other opened last summer on the Upper West Side amid protests similar to what the Cobble Hill school faced on Wednesday as it gained its final approval, during a meeting that lasted hours. The teachers’ union brought opponents by the busload, and they flocked to the microphone to offer their views during the meeting, at Newtown High School in Corona, Queens. The opponents hurled insults and accusations at the panel’s members; the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott; and several of his deputies. Though the meeting happened far outside the communities affected by the plans voted on by the panel, the crowd was boisterous. One opponent held a sign reading, “How dare you?” — and there were jeers to drown out testimony from those who spoke in support of charter schools. The panel also approved locating two other charter schools, one of them also part of Ms. Moskowitz’s network, in buildings occupied by district schools in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the city’s poorest.

L.A. school board ends preference practice at charter schools; Campuses will no longer be allowed to offer admission in exchange for volunteer work or other services.” By Howard Blume. Los Angeles Times. December 14, 2011. The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday agreed to ban charter schools from offering admission to families in exchange for volunteer work or other services. The admission preference had been offered by two popular charter schools overseen by the L.A. Unified School District. One, Larchmont Charter School, ended the practice recently. The other, Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, was already headed toward dropping the preference. The schools have long waiting lists; the law provides for a lottery when there are more applicants than spaces. Critics said permitting families to skirt the lottery was unfair and could lead to serious abuses, such as enrollment based on connections or because parents promised substantial donations. Charters are independently managed, free public schools exempt from some regulations that govern traditional schools. Until recent exposure of the practice, the school district’s charter school office had tolerated the preference policies. In one instance, the charter office directed Los Feliz to rename the beneficiaries, calling them “founding parents” rather than “community participants.” But the district didn’t order the school to stop what it was doing. A third campus in Los Angeles, New West Charter Middle School, continues to offer admission to selected volunteers, but it is overseen by the state rather than L.A. Unified.

Alderman Puts School in Limbo.” By Dan Mihalopoulos. Chicago News Cooperative (chicagonewscoop.org). December 13, 2011. Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th Ward) on Monday decided to delay a City Council vote on a zoning change request from the clout-heavy United Neighborhood Organization, which needs the legislation to proceed with its effort to build a charter school in Sposato’s ward.The freshman alderman’s move effectively killed UNO’s plan to construct and open the new school in time for the 2012-13 school year, said Juan Rangel, UNO’s CEO and a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The dispute in the far Northwest Side ward provided the latest flashpoint in the long-running battle over charter schools, with Sposato caught between the city’s most politically influential Latino group and the Chicago Teachers Union. UNO’s charter school network has grown rapidly in recent years, despite strong opposition from organized labor. On Monday evening, Sposato said he had not yet decided whether he would reject the project but he wanted to continue to gauge public opinion in the ward. He said he had received a lot of feedback for and against the proposal. The issue was the topic of a raucous community meeting last month. The crowd at the meeting “overwhelmingly shot it down,” Sposato said. “They didn’t want it.”


Congress Investigates ‘Lavish’ Executive Pay At For-Profit Colleges For Profit Colleges.” By Chris Kirkham. Huffington Post. December 13, 2011. Over the past three years, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee have investigated bonuses and executive pay at companies that benefited from billions in taxpayer dollars: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG and others bailed out after the 2008 financial crisis. Now, Democrats on the committee have turned their attention to another industry whose fortunes are closely tied to federal money: for-profit colleges. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House oversight committee, has requested executive compensation information this week from 13 Wall Street corporations that own for-profit colleges. According to letters he sent to the companies’ executives Monday, Cummings is seeking information on how what he termed “lavish” executive pay at college corporations is tied to the quality of education and student performance at such schools. “When compared to public and non-profit schools, for-profit companies spend a smaller percentage of their funds on student education, reserving more for marketing, advertising, recruitment and other non education expenses,” Cummings said. “Their student success rates are lower, and their students are more likely to default on loans. But their CEOs consistently make much more than their counterparts at public and non-profit schools.” Including salary, bonuses and stock options, the majority of chief executive officers at the 13 companies received more than $3 million each in compensation, according to Cummings’ office and securities filings from the companies. The top executives at DeVry Inc., ITT Educational Services Inc. and the Apollo Group Inc., which owns the University of Phoenix, all received more than $6 million, according to the most recent securities filings detailing executive pay. By contrast, the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, received a base pay of $714,000, and a total estimated compensation of $874,000, according to federal tax documents from the non-profit institution.

Two Families, Two Takes on Virtual Schooling.” By Heidi Mitchell. Wall Street Journal. December 15, 2011. With all the talk about online education lately, it’s clear that the vision evoked by the words “home schooling” is changing. The image of Mom and kids sitting at the kitchen table has given way to a child logging onto a virtual class from the home office. The number of students in kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled in virtual schools nationwide has grown to 225,000 from 50,000 a decade ago—and 30% year over year since 2001, says Susan Patrick, chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit advocacy group. Some parents choose virtual schooling to accommodate a heavy schedule of extracurricular classes or interests; others feel their children’s needs are better served outside a traditional classroom. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., offer full-time virtual schooling. Florida Virtual School became the first state-funded online school in 1996. In most cases, children attending a virtual school remain part of their local public school district. That means the school district retains state funding for the child. The state signs a contract with a company to provide virtual curricula. In Wisconsin, for example, state auditors found that virtual charter schools there cost about $6,500 per student annually, in line with national averages, says Susan Patrick, chief executive for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a not-for-profit advocacy group for virtual studies. By contrast, if parents enroll a child in private, parochial, or traditional home schools, the district loses funding.


Stony Brook University to Get $150 Million Gift.” By Richard Perez-Pena. New York Times. December 13, 2011. James H. Simons usually shuns publicity, though some attention is inescapable for a hedge fund billionaire and major philanthropist. But on occasion, he allows one cause to draw him into public view: Stony Brook University, where he was a mathematics professor long ago. He joined two governors, David A. Paterson and Andrew M. Cuomo, in pressing the Legislature to shore up the finances of the State University of New York, the parent system of Stony Brook, in part by raising tuition. He made it clear that he could be very generous if the state acted, and this year lawmakers made the kinds of changes he sought. On Wednesday, Mr. Simons, 73, and his wife, Marilyn, will announce the biggest gift by far in SUNY’s history, $150 million to Stony Brook. It is the sixth largest donation ever made to an American public university, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and is twice as large as the previous record for a gift to a public university in New York — the $60 million that the Simonses’ foundation gave to Stony Brook in 2008. Most of the money will go to research in medical sciences, including the construction of a life sciences building and the creation of a neurosciences institute and a center for biological imaging, as well as to the study of cancer and infectious diseases. Other portions of the gift will help pay for 35 new endowed professorships, and will create 40 fellowships for graduate students. Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, president of Stony Brook, said that the donation, to be given over seven years, was more than triple the amount the university typically raised from all donors in a year. The university is 54 years old, he said, but “this is our rebirth day.”

Redefine your child’s ‘dream school’.” By Suze Orman. Op-ed. USA Today. December 13, 2011. For decades, the cost of college has grown much faster than inflation. Total college debt stands at nearly $600 billion. And what all the official tallies leave out are the hundreds of billions of dollars more borrowed through private loans, credit cards, home equity lines, 401(k)s and IRAs. Quite simply, the money parents should be saving for retirement is going to pay for their kids’ college education. Colleges and universities themselves are part of the problem, not the solution. Many financial aid offices don’t clearly explain to students and parents the breakdown between grants and loans. It’s all just bundled together into one enticing — and seemingly doable — aid package. It’s such a rampant problem that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working with the Department of Education to come up with a standardized one-page document that clearly spells out to every student and parent what it will cost to attend college. Fortunately, a few universities are realizing their duty to step up to the plate by themselves. The University of Phoenix, for example, makes all its students go through a free and mandatory three-week orientation course to make sure they understand the full costs of college before they sign on the dotted line. These efforts are encouraging. Clear disclosure could help families make smarter choices. But even if we do get a standardized, easy-to-comprehend document, the truth is, it’s still up to every family to step up and be willing to make the smart — and tough — choices. What has got to change is the attitude that it’s OK to pay any price to go to the best school you can get into.

$150 Million for Stony Brook.” By Jennifer Maloney. Wall Street Journal. December 14, 2011. Jim Simons, the mathematician, philanthropist and billionaire hedge-fund manager, will announce on Wednesday a $150 million donation to Stony Brook University—the largest ever gift to a SUNY school, university officials said. Dr. Simons, 73 years old, was chairman of Stony Brook’s math department before founding Renaissance Technologies Corp., which has a campus in East Setauket, Long Island, near Stony Brook. The gift—from Dr. Simons; his wife, Marilyn Simons; and the Simons Foundation—will go mostly toward medical research, including the construction of a health-sciences building to house a new neurosciences institute and a center for biological imaging. The Simons Foundation already had held the record for the largest gift on record to a public university in New York, for its $60 million gift to Stony Brook in 2008. In all, the family and the foundation have given more than $300 million to Stony Brook over the past 20 years, the school said. Marilyn Simons is an alumna of Stony Brook and president of the foundation. “This gift represents a milestone moment—a transformational moment—in the history of our young institution,” Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said in a statement. Part of the latest gift is a $50 million matching grant to create 35 endowed professorships across academic disciplines. Other portions will fund merit scholarships for undergraduate students and 40 graduate student fellowships.

Stanford Drops City Bid.” By Joseph De Avila and Michael Howard Saul. Wall Street Journal. December 17, 2011. After months as a presumed front-runner in an international competition to build a new applied-science campus in New York City, Stanford University unexpectedly dropped its bid on Friday. A short time later, the other top contender, Cornell University, released its own surprise update: The school said it had received a $350 million anonymous donation toward building a campus, the largest gift in the university’s history. The fast-moving developments came as the city nears the end of the competition, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a year ago and lauded as a sign of New York’s growing influence as a science and technology hub. Out of dozens of initial inquiries, the city received seven proposals, some of them joint bids between two or more institutions. The prize: city-owned land for the campus and up to $100 million in infrastructure. Stanford’s exit appears to leave Cornell as the favorite to win the race.
Related story:
Stanford Ends Effort to Build New York Arm.” New York Times. December 16, 2011.

The Price to Play Its Way.” By David Segal. New York Times. December 17, 2011. The library at the Duncan School of Law may look like nothing more than 4,000 hardbacks in a medium-size room, but it is actually a high-tech experiment in cost containment. Most of its resources are online, and staples like Wright & Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure — $3,596 for the multivolume set — are not here. Duncan, which opened two years ago, has 187 enrollees, all of whom have wagered that this library — and everything else about the school — is up to scratch. Because before these students can practice in every state, Duncan needs the seal of approval of the American Bar Association, the government-anointed regulator of law schools.m That means complying with a long list of standards that shape the composition of the faculty, the library and dozens of other particulars. The basic blueprint was established by elite institutions more than a century ago, and according to critics, it all but prohibits the law-school equivalent of the Honda Civic — a low-cost model that delivers. Instead, virtually every one of the country’s 200 A.B.A.-accredited schools, from the lowliest to the most prestigious, has to build a Cadillac, or at least come close. Duncan’s library costs $750,000 a year to maintain — a bargain when compared with competitors. The debate about legal education has focused on tuition costs in the stratospheric layers of the law-school world. But what of the ground floor? Duncan hopes to draw students from economically distressed parts of the country, including the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, and sincere efforts have been made to keep overhead to a minimum. But tuition here is still $28,664 a year. With living expenses and various fees, the student handbook warns, the total price tag for a year runs $50,000. The reason, according to Pete DeBusk, a retired businessman and the school’s main benefactor, is the A.B.A. standards. Without them, he says, Duncan could have cut its tuition in half, maybe by two-thirds.

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