State Board of Education wavers on green-lighting questionable charter school operators

State Board of Education wavers on green-lighting questionable charter school operators

- in Education

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Poor track records, allegations and charges of academic fraud linked to companies hoping to educate North Carolina’s school children

The State Board of Education planned to decide this month whether or not to give the go-ahead to 18 charter schools that hope to open in the Fall of 2016.

But upon learning of allegations and charges of academic fraud and other abuses at charter schools in Florida that are managed by Newpoint Education Partners—a company that hopes to open two charter schools in Wake and New Hanover counties—the Board indicated Wednesday that they are likely to temporarily put the brakes on allowing that charter management company to do business in North Carolina, a decision that will be determined in a final vote Thursday.

And as for the other 16 charter school hopefuls? They may have to wait a bit longer to hear the good (or bad) news too, as members of the State Board came to understand that many of the charter school applications recommended by the Charter School Advisory Board came with significant reservations about their ability to carry out their intended missions.

The Board may decide on Thursday to delay a final decision on all 2016 charter school applications for another month or two.

We’re in this for generations,” said Board member Greg Alcorn, a businessman from Rowan County said. “To be in a hurry to make a decision…is not necessary.”

School managed by Florida-based EMO hoping to open NC charters faces allegations and charges related to academic fraud

A formal investigation by the Florida State’s Attorney into allegations of grade tampering at a charter school managed by Newpoint Education Partners has resulted in criminal charges handed down just this week—just as the charter school management company had hoped to nose its way into doing business in North Carolina.

A teacher at Newpoint High School has been charged with assisting several students with cheating on end of school tests, violating Florida law.

The four misdemeanor counts that the teacher, Christopher Fowler, faces come after the school district had already completed its own investigation into some of Newpoint Education Partners’ schools and made the decision to revoke the charters of Newpoint High and the middle school, Newpoint Academy.

Other findings of the school district’s investigation include students not completing curricular requirements; numerous missing or incomplete academic records for the schools’ students; allowing the employment of an individual who had not passed a background check; and teachers drinking alcohol with students on a senior trip/cruise, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

Just before the allegations surfaced, the Newpoint schools were the recipient of Florida’s school recognition funds for excellent academic progress. Newpoint Academy received $15,861 and Newpoint High School received $11,392 in awards during the 2014-15 school year.

On June 16, the Florida school district will decide if Newpoint’s elementary school will also lose its charter.

Newpoint Education Partners applied to open four charter schools in North Carolina for the 2016-17 school year, its first time looking to do business in the state.

Newpoint withdrew one application and a second didn’t make it to the final round of consideration. Two other schools, Cape Fear Preparatory Academy (New Hanover) and Pine Springs Preparatory Academy (Wake), were recommended for approval by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), which is tasked with reviewing applications and advising the State Board of Education on which are worthy of opening.

Those recommendations, however, came with reservations.

Meeting minutes of the Charter School Advisory Board indicate that CSAB members were aware of Newpoint’s questionable academic track record. Of the ten charter schools that Newpoint manages in Florida, four are ‘F’ schools according to Florida’s accountability system. Another is a D school, four more are C schools and one more is an A school.

Newpoint had one of its charters terminated in 2013 thanks to low enrollment and financial instability. The education management company shuttered two other charters as well thanks to their inability to find appropriate facilities.

In their interview with the Charter School Advisory Board, the nonprofit board that would run Pine Springs Prep and contract with Newpoint Education Partners persisted in their confidence in the EMO, despite its poor track record. CSAB members also questioned the school’s unclear plans for transportation and lunches.

The confidence in Newpoint expressed by Pine Springs Prep’s board members, one of whom is Rep. Paul Stam’s policy analyst, Gregg Sinders, was enough to persuade the CSAB to recommend them for a fall 2016 opening, along with Cape Fear Preparatory in New Hanover County—in spite of concerns raised by external reviewers peppered throughout the schools’ applications that called into question the feasibility and probable success of the two proposed charters. (Read the school’s applications, with commentary from reviewers, here and here.)

But the charges handed down this week following the Florida State Attorney’s investigation proved to be the tipping point for the Department of Public Instruction, which advised the State Board of Education on Wednesday to hold off on making any final decisions on the charter applications related to Newpoint Education Partners.

The Department of Public Instruction has been made very recently aware of very serious charges and allegations about an education management organization connected with two applications before you today,” said the Office of Charter Schools’ Robin Kendall.

DPI is asking the State Board to send the two applications back to the CSAB for further inspection and recommending that they re-invite the boards and education management company to come back to the table and explain the allegations and charges related to the Florida schools.

State Board of Education member Becky Taylor, who also sits on the Charter School Advisory Board, expressed her support for the move on Wednesday, saying the recent allegations and charges associated with Newpoint are all red flags.

We want to make smart decisions here,” said Taylor.

Other charter applications under scrutiny too

The 2016 batch of 18 charter applications faces what appears to be an unusual amount of scrutiny, as many of the applications were moved forward with considerable reservations.

Many applications received very close votes, only narrowly making the cut. And notably, the majority of the approved applications this year are backed by national for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), rather than being run only by small, independent and locally-based nonprofit boards.

As N.C. Policy Watch reported last week, the charter advisory board recommended that the State Board of Education delay to 2016 its vote on one of the 18 applicants, Capital City Charter School (Wake County), thanks to concerns over the ability of the school’s EMO to provide services.

That EMO, Florida-based Accelerated Learning Solutions, Inc. (ALS, Inc.), also plans to open Town Center Charter High School in Gaston County in 2016, which was recommended by the advisory board, but barely—reviewers voted 6-5 in favor of opening the school in 2016.

ALS, Inc. currently operates one charter school in Charlotte and is scheduled to open another this fall. The EMO has come under intense scrutiny for unrealistic enrollment projections and poor academic progress of its students.

The CSAB cited concerns about the ALS’ capacity to manage all of the three schools it plans to open. Also noted on Wednesday: ALS would retain 97 percent of charter school revenues to use as it sees fit for operating the schools.

Recently the State Board of Education has taken steps to ensure that EMOs are held accountable for how they spend those public charter school dollars, following 2014 legislation that some interpreted as a way for for-profit EMOs to shield the salaries of their administrators.

Former Office of Charter Schools director Joel Medley, who recently announced his departure in order to go head up the state’s controversial new K12, Inc.-backed virtual charter school NC Virtual Academy, gave a report to the State Board last month about concerns over a number of other recommended charter applications.

Those concerns primarily centered around a lack of confidence with regard to whether or not the charters, though recommended, will ultimately be successful in carrying out their proposed missions thanks to stretched capacity, poor track records elsewhere and unrealistic enrollment targets.

“The longer I deal with [charter schools], the longer I see the importance of governance,” said State Board of Education chair Bill Cobey as members discussed the various concerns presented to them over the latest group of charter applicants.

“I hope we can follow the schools that are potentially at risk very closely,” said Cobey of the prospective charters, noting recent failures of charter schools that have left families scrambling to find appropriate educational options for their children.

Expressing concern about the feasibility to do just that, State Board member Wayne McDevitt ran through a lengthy list of all of the oversight and monitoring responsibilities that are placed on the shoulders of a very understaffed Office of Charter Schools, which include dealing with exploding charter school numbers and their associated acquisitions, renewals, revocations, expansions, replications and even litigation.

“I do think we’re running on some limited resources,” said State Board member Becky Taylor.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will decide if they will take the unusual step of delaying their vote on all 18 recommended charter school applications, citing the need to devote more time examining each of the charter school applicants’ proposals. They have until August 15 to make a final decision.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC