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Opinion | Washington Post digs into Washington County charter fiasco

Larry Lee

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When a newspaper with the national impact of The Washington Post covers a story out of tiny Washington County, AL, you immediately know there is something serious afoot.  In this case, it is the Washington County charter fiasco that got the attention of veteran education reporter Valerie Strauss, who has worked for this newspaper for nearly 30 years.

Because of her vast experience with all things education, Strauss did an excellent job interviewing people from both sides of the issue and adding info about charter schools that are not common knowledge.

While the article is gripping, what really jumped out at me is the fact that state superintendent Eric Mackey would not talk to her and charter  commission chairman Mac Buttram gave her only a brief, very generic email response.

As the folks in Washington County will quickly tell you, this entire process has been shrouded in secret with info being ether very difficult, or impossible, to obtain.  Which only leaves us to wonder what are Mackey and Buttram trying to cover up?

Read the entire article here.

Here are portions of what Straus wrote:

In Alabama’s Washington County, a charter called Woodland Preparatory School has been approved by state officials to open even though: 

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 * The mayor of the town where it will be located says he doesn’t want it and doesn’t know anybody who does.

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* A national organization that evaluates charter school applications gave the thumbs-down on Woodland’s application, saying it did not meet educational and other standards benchmarks.

* It’s sponsored by a new nonprofit organization while at the same time being built by a for-profit Utah company. It will be operated by a for-profit Texas company headed by a man who founded a controversial charter school network in the Lone Star State. That company is contracted to receive 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.

.* Residents fear the charter school will drain resources from traditional public schools, and say they have no recourse: The Alabama Public Charter School Commission — the panel that approved the new school — is autonomous and answers to no one, its chairman says.

Thad Becton is president of Washington County Students First, a nonprofit organization formed in 2017 that drew up and submitted Woodland Prep’s application to the state commission.

Becton said in an interview that “moms and dads” want better educational options for their kids, and that’s why Students First is trying to open Woodland. Asked who belongs to his group, he said, “We currently have business owners, teachers and even a librarian among our group.” He did not respond to a question about how many people belong to his group.

He said some students are already enrolling, although he would not answer queries about how many. It’s fewer than 50, according to a person with knowledge inside the Washington County School District. The school’s application says it expects to have 260 students in its first year.

Becton said the school would open this summer as an alternative to the county’s traditional public schools, which he said are academically “so bad that there are nearly 900 students attending surrounding county schools, traveling daily or home-schooling.”

However, the latest state report card shows something different. The state report released in December 2018 and covering the 2017-2018 academic year shows Washington County schools with a “B” grade, the same as a few of the top-ranking districts in Alabama. That was up from a “C” the year before. Woodland Prep’s school site sits near three schools that have grades above the state average, local officials said.

Before the commission approved Woodland, the school’s application was given to the nonprofit National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which had a contract with the Alabama State Department of Education to review charter applications. It analyzed Woodland Prep’s application and said the proposal “does not meet the standard for approval.” The association’s assessment said:  Woodland Prep’s educational plan “does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design.”

Woodland Prep’s education plan :does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design.”  It was concerned that the application included limited information about the company that will operate the school. A draft contract between that company and the school was not provided for review.  The financial plan and capacity section of the application only “partially” met standards, with no information provided about the “fundraising track record” of the board that would govern the school.

Mac Buttram, head of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, did not directly respond to a query about why the commission approved Woodland Prep despite the negative appraisal of the application and local opposition. He said in an email: “After the Commission reviewed the application and interviewed the applicants there was a vote. The majority of the Commission voted to approve the applicant.”

As it turns out, the state commission approved a few other charter schools whose applications had been found wanting by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But the association is now out of the picture: The Alabama State Department of Education dropped its contract.

Eric Mackey, Alabama’s superintendent of education, did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment about how the commission operates.

The school’s website has a page introducing its principal, identifying her as “Amy O.” and doesn’t name the school where she is now working. The woman pictured on Woodland Prep’s website is Amy Owens, also pictured on the website of Rocketship Spark Academy in San Jose, where it says she has been assistant principal and principal. A March 14, 2019, report by San Jose Inside said Spark was one of three schools in the Rocketship charter chain that the California Department of Education had cited for failing to ensure proper teacher credentialing. Owens did not immediately respond to queries from The Post.

Becton’s group won’t own the school. The deed for Woodland Prep is held by Woodland Charter Holdings, a Utah company that has one registered agent, a woman named Jennifer Lind who is identified on the website of the for-profit American Charter Development company as its office manager. She did not respond to phone and email queries for this article.

Woodland Prep will be operated by a company based in Sugar Land, Tex., called Unity School Services (USS), whose founder and chief executive officer is Soner Tarim.

Tarim previously co-founded and served as chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, a charter school chain that critics say is part of an informal network of scores of charter schools operated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher from Turkey who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and is wanted by the Turkish government.

A number of schools in the unofficial network have been investigated over a period of years by state and federal agencies amid allegations regarding hiring practices that favor Turkish nationals, abuse of the H-1B visa process and preferences in the awarding of contracts to related Turkish businesses. Former employees have alleged that they were required to contribute some of their salaries to the Gülen political movement, although representatives of Gülen have denied it over the years.

According to the management agreement between the Alabama school’s founding organization and USS, the “annual fee to be paid for operational services performed between July 1, 2019 through June 20, 2020 will be 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.”

It is all way too murky.  Too much misinformation being tossed about.  Not way enough transparency.  Too many “players” who are controversial.  Financial arrangements that just don’t meet the smell test.

Perhaps most baffling is that it is the RESPONSIBILITY of the state superintendent to look our for ALL the children of this state who attend public schools.  Yet he is refusing to do so.  He is refusing to talk to the media.  He will not allow people from Washington County to be on the agenda for the May 9 state school board meeting.

The children of  Alabama–and the citizens–deserve better than this.

 

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