Too Many Questions, Too Few Answers

As the debacle with Woodland Prep in Washington County continues and as the state charter commission resembles a lap dog more than a watch dog, questions keep piling up in my mind.

Soner Tarim, the self-proclaimed education guru from Texas, who owns Unity School Services that has management contracts with both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy in Montgomery, was just denied his application to build more charters in Texas by their state school board.

He started the Harmony charter network in Texas in 2000 that had more than 50 campuses when Tarim parted ways with them in 2017.  He is well known there.  So with a 17-year record, why did he run into a brick wall before the Texas Board of Education on June 14?  What do folks in Texas know that folks in Alabama don’t?

Four Republicans and four Democrats voted against him.  So it was not a partisan issue..

I have talked to one of the Republicans and one of the Democrats who voted against him.  Both spoke openly.  One says he used “alternative facts,” the other said he can’t be trusted.  Both say he is more interested in making money than educating children.

So when Tarim appeared before the Alabama charter commission on June 7, why did the members of this commission believe everything he said?

Tarim has long been linked to the Gulen movement, an organization many believe is dedicated to overthrowing the Turkish government and is often referred to simply as FETO.  (Tethullahist Terrorist Organization).

Mac Buttram chairs the Alabama charter commission.  At the June 7 meeting he said that he has been to Turkey.  (Buttram was a state representative from 2010 to 2014.  Gulen affiliated organizations have sponsored trips to Turkey for U.S. legislators for years.)  Who paid for Buttram’s trip?  What was the purpose for going?

At this same meeting Buttram said that he had spoken to Tarim about any Gulen connection and Tarim denied it.  But recently Tarim said at a hearing in Texas that he can not return to Turkey.  Why?  Because the Turkish government has  identified people involved with Gulen and they will be arrested if they go home.

The charter commission retained the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago to review all charter applications and recommend whether or not they should be approved or denied.  We paid them $113,000 for their services over several years.

NACSA said both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy should be turned down.  But the charter commission approved both.  And lo and behold, both have management contracts with Soner Tarim.  Coincidence?

Texas state board member Aicha Davis asked Tarim why the application he said he prepared for Woodland  Prep was turned down by NACSA.  He told her that it was because they did not know what they were doing.  And then added that people in Alabama did not know either until he showed them how.

So he prepared the application–and then helped grade it too?  Talk about a sweetheart deal.

Alabama no longer uses NACSA.  And even though the organization told me they have reviewed 500 application in the last ten years, Tarim knows more than they do.

(When Tarim testified before the Texas board on June 14, he was asked why he claimed in his  application that six Austin public schools were failing when the Texas Education Agency said they were not.  Tarim’s response?  He used his own grading system.)

At the June 7 meeting where Woodland Prep asked for a one-year extension because they can not find enough students to open their school by August as they originally planned, the attorney for the charter went into a rant about a letter John Dickey, Washington County superintendent, sent to the charter asking what their enrollment was and that he wanted the names of these students.  The attorney said Dickey should be ashamed to ask for names because this violated certain regulations.

The attorney is the one who should be ashamed because his statement was untrue.  Dickey has the letter to prove it.  But did the charter commission ask for a copy of this letter?  Nope.  They just believed this lie.

At the same meeting Woodland Prep supporters said they have always held public board meetings.  Wrong again.  And again there is documentation to prove the point.  But didn’t matter to the charter commission.

At the June 13 work session of the state school board, assistant state superintendent Tony Thacker gave a report about the charter commission meeting of the previous week, which he attended.  He said that commission member Tommy Ledbetter “read the riot act” to Woodland  Prep warning them not to miss deadlines.  This is especially interesting since the charter has already missed several deadlines and no one said a word about it.

The Woodland Prep application claimed that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools.  (There are no private schools in the county.)  This number is bogus and can not be verified.  So when Mac Buttram asked Woodland Prep about the number, he was told that the lady who got it had access to lots of data and since she is now dead, they would not question it.

It’s unfortunate the lady is deceased.  But the number was wrong when she was alive and it is still wrong.  Yet, Buttram took the Woodland Prep answer at face value and moved on.

The application had a number of red flags.  It contained false information about who was supporting the school.  It had “support” letters that were unsigned.  So why did none of this raise a red flag for charter commission staff?  Why didn’t they verify the support letters?

Too many questions.  Too few answers.

Don’t taxpayers deserve better than this?  Our children damn sure do.

 

What Is “New Schools For Alabama” And Why Are Taxpayers Giving Them $400,000?

When the senate sent its education budget to the house during the past legislative session, the line item for the charter school commission was increased from $200,000 to $900.000 and there was an additional $500,000 for New Schools for Alabama.

I could not find anyone who knew what New Schools for Alabama was, what they did, or had even heard of them.

And when the house whacked on the senate’s version of the Education Trust Fund, the line item for the charter commission was cut back to $800,000 and there was no appropriation for New Schools.  But because I am old and cynical and have watched politics for a very long time, I smell a rat.

Sure enough, at the June 7 charter commission meeting, chairman Mac Buttram said that $400,000 of their new $800,000 would go to New Schools.  This was confirmed at the state board work session of June 13 when Logan Searcy, the state department of education employee assigned to the charter commission, talked about this same financial arrangement.

But who is this?  I can not find that they are a non-profit or have been incorporated.  Apparently it is only a web site–and one that is inaccurate.

Clink on the link above and one of the first things you see is the proclamation that Montgomery is getting four conversion charter schools.  This is totally wrong.  The Montgomery Education Foundation wanted to convert some Montgomery schools to charters, but when this came up for a vote before the Montgomery school board back in February, the person who made the motion could not even get a second and that was the end of that.

But someone running this website wants us to believe that this never happened.  And now we’re going to give someone this incompetent $400,000?  We’re gonna take $400,000 away from the children of Alabama to apparently give someone a job?

And what will this job be?  According to the web site, it will be to search far and wide for folks to bring charter schools to Alabama.  In other words, we are taking money from the Education Trust Fund to put charter schools across the state that will take money from local school systems.  Are you kidding me?

This makes as much sense as Alabama football coach Nick Saban sending money to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn to increases his recruiting budget so he can find players who can beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Just one more example of how our public schools are under attack from politicians who will swear on a stack of bibles that they are great supporters of public schools.

It is total and complete BS.  Friends, this ain’t about educating children–it’s about MONEY.

Texas State School Board Member Wonders Why Alabama Charter Commission Believes Everything Soner Tarim Says

Pat Hardy of Fort Worth has served on the Texas State Board of Education since 2002.  She has been re-elected five times.  A Republican, she has more than 30 years’ experience in education.

She has received a bushel basket full of honors and awards along the way.

Hardy was one of four Republicans on the state board who joined with four Democrats on June 14 in voting to reject the application of Soner Tarim to open new charter schools in Austin.

(Tarim owns Unity School Services which has management contracts with Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery.)

While she does not oppose all charter schools, she has great reservations about Tarim’s record with charters and his motivation for being involved in education.

This was apparent on June 14 when she asked Tarim if his schools used Common Core standards, which, by Texas law, is illegal there.

Tarim assured her that they did not and even said that Common Core was a “dirty word” and that his standards were “all Texas.”  Then Hardy pointed out that Harmony charters, where Tarim was CEO for years, received a $30 million “Race to The Top” grant from the U.S. Department of Education and that in order to get this money, the recipient had to use Common Core.

Suddenly, Tarim looked like the cat that was caught swallowing the canary.

When I explained to Hardy that Tarim is involved with Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy, she was dumbfounded and wondered how well folks in Alabama have done their homework.

Lots of people in Alabama wonder the same thing.

Supposedly the staff of the state charter commission made one phone call to Texas to vet Tarim.  It’s for sure they did not call Pat Hardy.

Anyone who listened on June 7 when Tarim appeared before the charter commission would have to join Hardy in being skeptical of him. Time after time, both he and Woodland Prep supporters, gave out false information and were never challenged.

In fact, at the state school board work session on June 13, an assistant state superintendent who attended the charter commission meeting, talked about what a good job the commission did in questioning Woodland Prep.

He even stressed that a commission member “read the riot act” to Woodland Prep that they could not miss deadlines.  This is amazing in light of the deadlines they have already missed—and not been held accountable.

It would all be laughable—if it wasn’t involving children.

 

Kyle Whitmire’s Take On Alabama Charter Commission

Editor’s note: Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, more commonly known as AL.com.  He has never shied from calling out things that make no sense to him.  He does just that in this recent article about the state charter school commission and Washington County’s Woodland Prep.

Rules?  Those are for public schools, not charters

“One of the first things you learn when starting school is that there are rules.

No chewing gum.

No fighting.

No pants or skirts above the knee.

No talking in class.

Break the rules and you will suffer consequences. Or so we’re told as kids.

But when it comes to charter schools in Alabama, rules don’t seem to matter much — for administrators and state officials, that is. Not the students.

As the Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon uncovered last month, a charter school in Washington County, Woodland Prep, appears to be breaking lots of rules, and state officials who are supposed to enforce those rules don’t seem to care. In fact, they seem to be in on … just whatever the heck is going on there.

This story is deep and weird — onion layers of non-profits and for-profits, a school principal (identified on the school’s website only as “Amy O.”) who won’t be the school principal after all, connections to a Turkish exile and Islamic preacher, and more.

But I want to focus on the folks at the top. The people who made the rules, and then broke them.

When Alabama legalized charter schools in 2015, the Alabama Legislature created the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, and it set out a process for the creation of new charters in the state.

A handful of school boards, just five, asked to be allowed to approve charters. Most left it to the state. But those local systems, like Birmingham, that asked to approve charters rarely if ever do for reasons easy to understand — it’s their districts’ money that will be redirected to the charters.

And that’s where the Charter School Commission comes in. The Commission can overrule a school district, but when they do, they’re supposed to do certain things.

First, the Commission is supposed to determine whether there’s a genuine need for the charter school.

And second, the Commission is supposed to make certain the proposed charter school meets nationally recognized standards.

In Washington County, neither seems to have happened.

In public forums there, an overwhelming majority of speakers opposed the charter school. The mayor in Chatom, the Washington County seat, says he doesn’t know anyone who’s for it.

But let’s assume that the Charter School Commission’s job was always to overrule local officials and ignore community push-back. There’s still that national standards hurdle to clear.

Woodland Prep didn’t check that box, either.

The Alabama Department of Education hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to review applications and make certain charter applicants are up to spec.

The NACSA said Woodland Prep didn’t meet its standards, and raised questions about the school’s curriculum, management and financial plans.

And yet, the Commission approved Woodland Prep for a charter, anyway.

It didn’t follow its own rules.

This isn’t the only instance where the Commission has ignored the NACSA after it raised concerns. The association has questioned the qualifications of other charters, too.

When a reporter from the Washington Post asked why, Commission President Mac Buttrum all but said “because we said so.”

“The majority of the Commission voted to approve the applicant,” he told her in an email.

Well, that answers everything.

The Alabama Department of Education has dropped its contract with NACSA, but state Sup. Eric Mackey wouldn’t answer the Post’s questions, either.

But from the outside in, it sure looks like the Commission lowered its standards so the school could pass its test — you know, the same thing school privatization folks accuse public schools of doing.

And lawmakers, including state Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, who pushed charter school legalization in 2015, seem to be fine with how things are working out.

This isn’t the first bait-and-switch we’ve seen like this. The Alabama Accountability Act, which Marsh also pushed through the Legislature, promised private school scholarships for students zoned for failing schools — only for scholarships to go to students zoned for schools doing just fine.

But Woodland Prep is something new.

We’re told incessantly that education is an investment in the future. But not all investments pan out. Many go bust. If Woodland Prep were a publicly traded business, you’d be a fool to put your money in it.

But because it’s a charter school, the government is already doing that for you.

Accountability? Transparency? Standards? These were all the things we were promised. But the message from Montgomery is clear: Rules are for public schools, and public schools only.

Not for charters, and not for those who gave the charters a pass.”

Texas State School Board Member Minces No Words About Soner Tarim

Since Soner Tarim of Sugarland, TX has management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy charter schools, I watched with great interest when he appeared before the Texas Board of Education, on June 14, trying to get approval to open eight new charter schools in Austin and Houston.

Board member Georgina Perez of El Paso cut him no slack.  In fact, when the chair asked if she had any questions, she quickly replied, “I have six pages of them.”  She only made it to page five before the chair asked her to let some other members have their shot.  A former teacher, she is one of five Democrats on the 15- member panel.

And she was not joking about having a lot of questions.  About why Tarim used untrue facts and figures in his application, about why there was no diversity on the board of Harmony charters that he once ran, about his attitude toward students with discipline issues, etc.

“He attempted to create his personal set of alternative facts,” Perez told me in a telephone conversation.  She was especially critical of his comments about students with discipline records.

At one point, Tarim asked her if she wanted “those kids” in her classroom.  She quickly responded that these were the students she taught for years and she was glad to have the opportunity to work with them.

“Someone with his attitude should not be allowed near a school,” she told me, “much less involved with running one.

Perez is definitely not a fan of charter schools.  “I think they are a detriment to democracy,” she told me.  “In spite of their use of the term ‘public’ on their advertisements, they are not accountable to the public, yet–in Texas—they are 100 percent funded by taxpayers.”

“And for people like Soner Tarim, charters are about only making money—not about educating children.”

As I have talked to folks in Texas in recent weeks I sense that that their honeymoon with charters is coming to an end.  Perez agrees.  “For years we have been a Petri dish for charters,” she says.  “But now, even Republicans who have been so supportive of them in the past are asking questions.  They are wanting to know where  the return is on their investment.”

Tarim’s application was denied by the Texas board.  Four Republicans joined four Democrats in opposition.

The actions of the Texas board and the questions of Georgina Perez are in stark contrast to how the charter school commission in Alabama views Tarim.  While we seem to believe anything he says, folks in Texas who know him well, certainly don’t.

We love to talk about going to other states to learn things about education.  Right now we are looking at how five states teach math.

Seems we would be smart to listen to our neighbors in Texas when it comes to charter schools and especially what they think about Soner Tarim.

 

What Is The Charter School Commission And How Is It Created?

The charter school law passed by the legislature in 2015 established the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, an entity that has stumped its toe repeatedly during the controversy involving Woodland Prep in Washington County.

Let’s take a closer look at this commission.

Members are nominated by the governor, lt. governor, president pro tem of the senate and speaker of the house.  The governor fills four slots, the lt. governor has one, the president pro tem has two and the speaker has three.  At least two names are submitted for each seat on the board to the state board of education who make the final choice.  (So while technically all commission members are chosen by the state school board, this is more formality than anything else as the school board has no input into who the nominees are.)

All nominees to the first board had to be submitted to the state superintendent by June 1, 2015.  Five were appointed for one-year terms and five for two-year terms in order to create a “staggered” board.  Now all nominees are for a two-year term, with five terms ending on May 31 each year.  No one can serve more than three terms.

(However, there is no provision in the law for handling transitions beyond the first year.  Which is why there are now five members serving whose terms expired May 31, 2019.  Supposedly there is an Attorney General’s opinion saying that members may serve until they are either re-appointed or replaced.  The law should be amended to require nominations be submitted to the state superintendent by March 31.  Since nominees are first presented to the state board at a work session and then voted on at the next regular meeting, at this moment the earliest we can have new members is August.  The law should be changed so that a two-year term is no longer than two years.)

The law also states that the board should be geographically diversified, taking into consideration the eight state board of education districts.  This is not the case at present as four are from Montgomery, two from Madison County, one from Auburn, one from Birmingham and one from Marshall County.  Since a seat formerly held by Chad Fincher of Mobile is now vacant, there are no members from south of Montgomery.

Of the original ten members, only two remain, Mac Buttram  of Huntsville and Henry Nelson of Birmingham.  Both of their terms expired May 31, 2019.  Both can be reappointed.  There are three others whose terms expired May 31.  Charles Jackson and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery and Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County.  All are eligible to serve another term.

A little noticed provision of the charter law is that the minority party in both the senate and house shall appoint one of the members nominated by both the president pro tem and the speaker of the house.  I do not know if this has been adhered to in the past.  I have contacted both Democrat senators and house members and no one knew of this provision.  They do now.

The commission selects a chair and vice-chair.  Ed Richardson was picked as chair at the first commission meeting, Aug. 27, 2015.  However, the minutes of that meeting only say there was a tie vote of four to four for vice chair.  Nothing else.  Apparently Mac Buttram was picked as vice chair because the minutes of Sept. 22, 2017 say Buttram became chair when Richardson stepped down to become interim state superintendent.

(These minutes are not available on the commission web site.  Only those from meetings in 2018 and 2019 are.)

There has been controversy about who has jurisdiction over the charter commission.  Attorneys for the state department of education have steadfastly maintained that the department can not oversee activities of the commission.

However, Section Five of the guidelines for the commission, which were written by the state department, say:

The department will oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this Act.” 

Hard to be more plain than this.

This section also says: “The department will conduct a special review of an authorizer with persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of the public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances. In reviewing and evaluating the performance of an authorizer, the department will apply nationally recognized standards for quality in charter authorizing issued by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. If at any time the department finds that an authorizer is not in compliance with an existing charter contract or the requirements of all authorizers under this Act, the department will notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem and the authorizer will have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”

All in all, too many questions remain about the present board and their willingness to accept anything they are told at face value by those seeking a charter school.  It is time we try some new members who will recognize that their over-riding responsibility is to the students of Alabama, not someone wishing to make money at their expense.