Pennsylvania Governor Has Questions About Charter Schools.

While many states have had charter schools for 20 years or longer, Alabama did not pass a charter law until 2015 and only two were in operation in the 2018-19 school year.

Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter law in 1991.  California followed in 1992.  Pennsylvania got a charter law in 1997.

However, many states are now starting to look at how charters have performed, how they have impacted traditional public schools and how laws should be changed to get more accountability.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is one of the voices calling for change.  Here are recent comments he made on charter schools, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday pledged to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter-school policy to increase accountability for the schools, which have long been a source of controversy.

At a news conference at a school in Allentown, Wolf said he would direct the state Department of Education to change regulations for charters, including tightening ethics standards, charging fees for services provided by the state, and allowing school districts to limit enrollment at charters that don’t provide a “high-quality” education.

Wolf also said he would push to revise Pennsylvania’s charter law, which he called “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation.”

“I want to create a level playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools,” Wolf said, and “increase the accountability and quality of the charter-school system.”
It’s the latest effort in Pennsylvania to reshape the charter-school movement, which has grown even as the divisions over it have deepened. More than 143,000 students attended Pennsylvania charter schools last year, up from 79,000 students nearly a decade earlier.

Describing charter schools as increasingly costly to school districts, and in some cases poorly performing, Wolf said the current system “isn’t good for anyone.”
 “We have been talking about charter-school reform since I became governor,” Wolf said. “And my actions today are the result of the fact that we haven’t really done anything. So I’m going to do something, and hopefully this will be the start of a conversation.”
Joyce Wilkerson, president of the Philadelphia school board, on Tuesday commended the governor for “stepping up to the plate on this critical issue,” saying state charter law “is outdated and repeatedly ranked as one of the worst in the country.”
“Quite frankly, I find it encouraging,” Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), who chairs the House Education Committee, said Tuesday. “I agree it’s long overdue.”

Sonney said he planned to introduce cyber charter reform legislation, though he did not know whether House leadership would support it.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) called for a special session on charter-school funding, saying the issue had “reached a crisis point.”

Pennsylvania’s charter-school funding formula, passed into law in 1997, was “the best available platform at that time,” Browne said in a statement. “However, now it has created an irreconcilable financial conflict between charter and traditional schools which mandates both in-depth review and responsible legislative and executive action to address.”

Under the charter law, school districts fund charter schools based on enrollment. Charter schools have become one of the biggest expenses for school districts, along with pension contributions and special education services.

Charter schools have a large presence in cities like Philadelphia, where about one-third, or 70,000 of the city’s 200,000 public school students attend charters.

The issue isn’t limited to brick-and-mortar charters in urban areas. Districts across the state pay for students to attend cyber charter schools — and at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters. Pennsylvania has one of the country’s largest cyber-charter school sectors, and researchers have repeatedly flagged the schools’ poor performance on tests.

Wolf on Tuesday cited a June report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which described the performance of the state’s cyber charters as “overwhelmingly negative.”

Will The Charter Commission Begin To Act Responsibly?

The state charter commission held their organizational meeting on August 27, 2015.  At best, one can only conclude that they have conducted business since then in a very haphazard manner.

For instance, a close examination of commission minutes (some of which are posted on-line and some of which are not) shows the only election for chair and vice-chair was at the first meeting in 2015.  However, their bylaws clearly state that terms of both are for one year.  Which means there should be an election each year.

Ed Richardson was picked as chair at the first meeting.  Thomas Rains and Gloria Batts were picked as co-vice-chairs. But when Richardson became interim state school superintendent in 2017 minutes say that Mac Buttram moved from vice-chair to chair  But when was he elected vice-chair?  The minutes don’t say.

Minutes from April 25, 2017 say the commission would elect officers at the May 2017 meeting.  But if an election was held in May 2017, the minutes say nothing about it.

The only mention of another election came at the September 22, 2017 meeting when Mac Buttram called for a motion to elect a vice-chair since he had moved to chair.  Henry Nelson of Birmingham was elected.

Complying with by-laws is basic behavior for any organization.  Let’s hope the five new charter commission members just selected will insist on doing so.

And speaking of minutes, ones for the commission are simply not thorough enough for the public to understand what is really going on  For example, the minutes of February 4, 2019 say Mac Buttram introduced David Marshall as a new commissioner.  Who did he replace?  The minutes don’t say.

I am secretary of the board for the national Rural Schools Collaborative.  Minutes are not distributed to the board without me first reviewing them for accuracy and for making sure they reflect what happened at a particular board meeting.  The charter commission is a public body.  They should be held to a higher standard than they have exhibited in the last four years.

They should also post their agenda publicly at least one week prior to a meeting.  This has not been the case.  In fact, the agenda is not available to the public until they show up for a commission meeting.

When Woodland Prep was given a one-year extension on June 7, board member Henry Nelson asked why no one from Washington County  attended the meeting.

It was because they did not know discussion of an extension was on the agenda.  Had they known, they would have been there.  But it is 175 miles from Chatom to Montgomery and you don’t hop in your car and make that drive unless you have a good reason.

This is a 10-member commission.  Five new members were chosen August 8.  Two others have been selected since the first of the year.  In other words, there is a new sheriff in town.  Let’s hope he demands this commission show more accountability and act professionally..



Five New Members Selected For Charter School Commission

The state school board voted today (August 8) on six openings for the 10-member state charter school commission.  They picked five new members.  Two “incumbents,” Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery, were replaced.  Only “incumbent” Henry Nelson of Birmingham retained his seat.

New members picked were: Paul Morin of Birmingham, Jamie Ison of Mobile, Syndey Rains of Mobile, Kimberly Terry of Morgan County and Marla Green of Montgomery.

The fact that Governor Ivey chose to not offer chairman Mac Buttram for reappointment is also quite significant.

Couple these five with Allison Haygood of Boaz, who went on the commission in May, and the dynamics of the group shift appreciably.

There is little doubt that the fiasco over Woodland Prep in Washington County played a HUGE role in all of this.  As we have recounted over and over, the commission made bad decision after bad decision, beginning in May of 2018, when they ignored the recommendation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that Woodland Prep not be given the go ahead to their decision of June 7, 2019 to grant Woodland Prep a one-year extension on opening.

And though Washington County is very remote and very rural, news of what has gone on there has spread far and wide across Alabama.  Former state representative Elaine Beech of Chatom recently told me that she can’t go anywhere in the state without someone mentioning Woodland Prep to her.

The people of Washington County have been relentless in telling their story and providing documentation that info the charter commission was given by Woodland Prep supporters was not reliable.  Every educator in the state owes these good folks their gratitude.

And it is fair to say that there will be a substantial effort in the regular legislative session of 2020 to revisit the present charter law and make much-needed changes.

We were told when this law was passed in 2015 that it was the strongest charter law in the nation.  However, as we have seen since, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The bylaws of the charter school commission say right up front that their mission is “to authorize high-quality public charter schools.”   The vote by the state school board today says loudly that they don’t believe this has been being done.

About The Thursday Vote For Charter Commission Members

I made my first visit to Washington County concerning the Woodland Prep charter last April.  From the get-go, something did not seem right.

What in the world is a guy from Texas doing in tiny Chatom, Al wanting to open a charter school in an area where school age children are drying up and blowing away?

And why is it that every time his name pops up about Washington county, it is news in Turkey?

Why is a company out of Springville, Utah spending $90,000 to buy12 acres in the middle of nowhere that is valued at $19,000 on the tax rolls to build a $6 million school.

It is all as unreasonable as David Bronner, the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama announcing he will build a 36-hole golf complex halfway between Millry and Chatom.

The economics make no sense whatsoever.  And never doubt that this is ALL ABOUT economics.  Soner Tarim did not become a millionaire living in a 6 bedroom house in Sugarland, Tx because he is driven by a desire to help kids in places like Washington County..

Tarim is a conman–a damn good one.  He is also controversial and connected to the Gulen charter school movement.  Some in Turkey consider him a terrorist and a threat to the ruling party in Turkey.

(In june he told the Texas school board that he can not go back to Turkey.  but he did not tell them that if he does, he will be arrested.)

He opened his first charter in Houston in 2000.  Built this into a chain of more than 50 schools called Harmony.  There have long been concerns about how all the money generated by Harmony was being spent.

American Charter Development, the folks buying the land and building the school, also has a questionable background.   One linked to Chinese investors and EB-5 visas.  (Tarim’s wife is Chinese)

Tarim and Harmony parted ways in 2017.  No one seems to know why.  But one has to suspect that it was not an amiable breakup.  You don’t walk away from being CEO of a multi million dollar company without something amiss.

So when Tarim tried to get back in the charter business in Texas in June, the folks who know him well, the Texas state school board, told him NO.

So why does this guy show up in Chatom, Al?

Because charters are brand new to this state where no one knows who he is and he can easily pull the wool over people’s eyes.  And lo and behold, he finds the chair of our state charter commission, Mac Buttram, who has already enjoyed the perks of a trip to Turkey sponsored by a Gulen friendly group, eager to help him.

(Buttram told the charter commission on June 7 that he had been to Turkey.  He also said that he had questioned Tarim about any connection to Gulen which he denied.  Surprise, surprise.)

Unbelievably, our charter commission has been complacent throughout this whole episode..  When the national reviewer the state had used since 2015 said Woodland Prep should not be approved, they were ignored by the charter commission.

(In June Tarim told the Texas board that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers don’t know what they are doing.  Yet in the last 10 years they have reviewed 500 applications.  Tarim also said that folks in Alabama did not know what they were doing until he showed them how to grade the application that he says he prepared.)

The charter commission DID NOT do their due diligence.  i am told that the commission made ONE phone call to Texas to vet Tarim.

They allowed themselves to be lead around by the nose.  They should be embarrassed.  It is very hard  to believe they have taken their jobs seriously.

The mess in Washington County WAS NEVER about education.  It has always been much, much bigger than this.

This Thursday, August 8, the state school board will vote on who fills six of the 10 positions on the charter commission.  They can take a HUGE step in the right direction with well-chosen votes.  There are no “incumbents” for three of these seats.

The clear cut choices for these are Paul Morin of Birmingham, who serves as the state’s after-school programs coordinator for Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds  Act; Sydney Rains of Mobile, executive director of the Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment and Jamie Ison of Mobile, a former member of the House of Representatives..

As to the three slots where incumbents are being re-nominated, the decision is more difficult.  (For each open seat, even one with an “incumbent”, two names go to the state school board where they choose one.  So the three members being re-nominated each has an alternative nominee.)  I have not been able to get much info on the alternatives so a judgment as to how well they might do is difficult.

However, we already know the “incumbents” have totally botched the Woodland Prep situation and because of this, my gut says don’t keep them around to cause the kind of harm to another community they have caused in Washington County.  Maybe their “challengers” won’t be any better but it is hard to believe they could be any worse.

I say roll the dice and put six brand new people on the state charter school commission.  And then as soon as they take office, take them all to Washington County so they can get a first hand look at the consequences of uninformed decisions.

Changes Coming To Charter Commission

The charter commission should have 10 members.  But it presently only has nine since Chad Flincher resigned in March.  (The charter law says vacancies will be filled within 60 days.  But why pay attention to the law?)

Of the remaining nine members, five are serving terms that expired My 31, 2019.  Two of these appointments are by Governor Ivey, two by Speaker McCutcheon and one by Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh.  (The vacant Fincher slot also “belongs” to Marsh.)

All parties have now submitted their nominations to state superintendent Eric Mackey.  According to the agenda for the August 8 state school board meeting, these will be voted on then.  Since the final selection falls to the state school board, two names must be submitted for each commission seat.  Even if an incumbent is re-nominated, someone else must also be proposed for this seat.

Since all members serve staggered two-year terms, five seats are up each year.

There will be at least three new members since Governor Ivey did not re-submit the names of Chairman Mac Buttram and member Charles Jackson.  Instead, her recommendations for Buttram’s seat are Paul Morin of Birmingham and Mark Martin of Birmingham.   I have known Morin for years.  He serves as the state’s after-school programs coordinator for Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  He probably knows more educators around the state than anyone I know.

I do not know Martin, who is executive director of Build Up Ensley, a community re-vitalization program.  He was principal of a charter school in New Orleans.  His name was also submitted by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth in May.  However, Allison Haygood was selected instead.

Andre’ Harrison is a former superintendent for Elmore County.  He is executive director for AdvancED, which accredits school systems throughout the state.  I have known Andre for years.  He is a good guy, but seems to me he has a conflict of interest because of his job.

Sydney Rains is executive director of the Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment in Mobile.  I do not know him.  But my good friend, former Mobile County superintendent Martha Peek, has worked with him on a number of ventures and gives him very high marks.

Senator Del Marsh has nominated one-time state house member Jamie Ison of Mobile and Hunter Oswalt of  Fairhope to take Fincher’s seat.  Ison works in real estate.  I do not know her, but know of her.  As with Rains, Martha Peek speaks well of her.

Oswalt is a young lady who owns Read-Write: The Learning Center in Daphne.  I do not know her.  This will be the third time she has been nominated.  She was nominated by Speaker Mike Hubbard in 2016 and Governor Ivey in 2018.She worked for a charter school in Atlanta and had a relationship with Teach for America in Texas.

Speaker McCutcheon has re-nominated incumbents Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery County. Both of them voted to approve the Woodland Prep application in May, 2018 and to give them a one-year extension on June 7.  I do not know either and emails to them have not been answered.

McCutcheon nominated Morgan County teacher Kimblerly Terry along with Ledbetter and Montgomery business woman Marla Green, along with McInnis.  I do not know either.

Marsh re-nominated Henry Nelson of Birmingham, who has been on the board from the 2015.  Nelson voted to approve Woodland Prep. Marsh also nominated Steve Sipel of Birmingham, a businessman and founding board chairman of Legacy Prep charter.

Once again there is the glaring omission of representation for rural Alabama,  More than 40 percent of all public school students attend rural schools, but Allison Haygood, who is a principal in Boaz, will be the only commission member from a rural location.  This lack of understanding the circumstances of rural schools has had a huge role in the Woodland Prep charter disaster.  Haygood is the only commission member who voted NO to giving Woodland Prep a one-year extension on June 7.

If you know any of these nominees and want to offer your input to state school board members, or simply want to give your thoughts on the charter commission, here are their email addresses:

District 1–Jackie Zeigler:

District 2–Tracie West:

District 3–Stephanie Bell:

District 4–Yvette Richardson:

District 5–Ella Bell:

District 6–Cynthia McCarty:

District 7–Jeff Newman:

District 8–Wayne Reynolds:

AEA Sues Soner Tarim And Woodland Prep Charter For Fraud

Attorneys for the Alabama Education Association filed suit in Circuit Count in Washington County August 2 alleging that Soner Tarim, the Texan with the management agreement with Woodland Prep, has submitted false information to the state charter school commission on behalf of Woodland Prep in his efforts to establish this charter school.

At the same time Tarim has been working with Woodland Prep he was also trying to get approval to open charters in Houston and Austin.  The AEA court document refers a number of times to the fact that Tarim made statements to the Texas state board of education about Woodland Prep that were untrue.

Some of this included false info about the performance of Washington County public schools, about the level of opposition to Woodland Prep from the local community, about why the application he says he wrote for Woodland Prep did not meet standards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, about school enrollment numbers, etc.

As we have been documenting here for months, Soner Tarim is a fraud.

Granted, he could sell Eskimo pies to Eskimos, but he does it with smoke and mirrors and ignores facts.  And the fact that the members of the present Alabama charter school commission allowed themselves to fall under his spell, rather than doing their homework, is also shameful and even more reason members of this group should be replaced as soon as possible.

One of the more incredible pieces of this whole sordid mess is what Tarim told the good folks in Texas about his role in getting state approval for Woodland Prep.  He told, without hesitation, a Texas board member that he wrote the Woodland Prep charter application.  When the board member then asked why this application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School  Authorizers Tarim said this group does not what it is doing.  (I contacted NACSA and learned they have reviewed 500 applications from across the country in the last 10 years.  Yet, according to Tarim, they don’t know what they are doing.)

Then, incredibly, he said that the Alabama charter commission did not know what they were doing either until he showed them how to grade an application.  Alabama had used NACSA to grade applications since the charter law was passed in 2015.  We paid them more than $100,000 for their service.  Of course, Tarim has a ready-made answer for everything and it is ALWAYS the other guy’s fault.

Tesas has figured out who Tarim is.  This is why on June 14 the Texas state school board denied Tarim’s request to open four charters in Austin.  They have a long history with him because he opened his first charter in Houston in 2000.

As board member Georgina Perez told me in an interview after she voted against Tarim, all he deals in is “alternative facts.”  The people in  Washington County are well aware of this because time and time again he has cited “facts” about their public schools that are fiction–not facts.

Thankfully, AEA has stepped up to the plate.

But had the Alabama charter commission done their work, there would be no need for a law suit.  They would have listened to the national reviewers in May, 2018 and rejected the Woodland Prep application.  But they, and others, were mesmerized by Tarim and failed the people of Alabama and caused months of misery for Washington County.

It is one of the most shameful examples of failed government I have ever witnessed.