We’ve all heard someone say something and immediately did a double take. And we say to ourselves, did I just hear what I think I heard?
This was certainly my reaction the first time I heard what Soner Tarim, the Woodland Prep “education consultant,” said when questioned back in June by a member of the Texas state school board. Tarim was trying to get approval to build four new charter schools in Austin.
Board member Aicha Davis of Dallas wanted to know why the Woodland Prep application for Washington County was turned down by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers before being approved by the Alabama charter school commission. She first asked Tarim who prepared the application. He quickly told her that he did.
Then it got interesting when she followed up by asking why NACSA said the application should be denied. In so many words, Tarim told her that NACSA didn’t know how to grade a charter application. (This is quite an accusation considering that a source with NACSA told me they have reviewed 500 applications in the last 10 years. They were also the only reviewing agency Alabama had ever used until Tarim came along. So according to him, apparently Alabama should never have hired NASCA.)
He then followed up this statement by saying that Alabama didn’t know how to grade an application either until he told them how to do it. That’s when my jaw dropped.
So a guy from Texas who is trying to make money in Alabama tells the charter commission what they should do?
(Check for yourself, you can see the video here. Go to the 35:50 minute mark to hear the exchange I refer to.)
If Tarim told the truth, this is more than unbelievable. It is conduct way outside the bounds on the part of the charter commission. Did you ever have a teacher or professor who let you grade your own test? What would have happened to such a teacher if the principal found out what they were doing? There would have been hell to pay for starters. And a good chance someone would have lost their job.
Or maybe Tarim was not telling the truth. After all, one of the reasons he did not get his four charters in Austin approved was that board members caught him constantly trying to make up his own facts. As we posted here, board member Georgina Perez told me in a telephone interview that Tarim loves to use “alternative facts.”
Whatever the case may be, it is just another example of what a mess the Woodland Prep effort to put a charter in Washington County really is. Either the charter commission is dealing with someone who can not be trusted, or they are so negligent in their own duties that they can not be trusted.
It’s a classic case of how NOT to conduct business.
My last post was about University charter school on the campus of the University of West Alabama. As I wrote about the methodical approach they took to building public support, about the $350,000 they had pledged to the school before they applied to the state for approval and about the success they have achieved so far, it was impossible not to compare this undertaking to the to the unmitigated mess that has taken place with Woodland Prep in Washington County.
There is simply no comparison. One is daylight, the other is dark.
Nor could I take my mind off the fact that in the eyes of the state charter school commission, these two efforts are considered as equals.
So let’s make some comparisons:
The initial impetus for University charter came from the board of trustees of the University of West Alabama. They challenged university president Ken Tucker to search out alternatives to a woeful local school system. However, it was a completely different story with Woodland Prep where a wife sought revenge because her husband was dismissed from the county school system for inappropriate behavior.
There was not an outcry of parents upset with their local schools. The county system was rated a B. Of the seven schools in the system, three are graded as B, four are C. There is not a private school in the county. (There had been one years ago, but it went out of business.)
University charter had an existing building they could move into. Woodland Prep did not. They had to build one. (Their application said this would be built on donated property. But truth is, someone paid $92,000 for 12 acres, which my sources say is about double what it was worth.)
University charter had an abundance of education “infrastructure” at their disposal. Woodland Prep had none. Fact is that University charter is in one end of a building that houses the dean of UWA’s College of Education in the other end. So University charter did not have to seek out someone to tell them what is needed to run a school.. But those trying to start Woodland Prep were totally in the dark as to what they needed to do. They were just as dependent on outside “experts” as they would have been had they been trying to start a hospital.
(And the “expert” they hired, Soner Tarim of Sugarland, TX, is so suspect that the Texas state board of education turned him down in June when he wanted to open four charter schools in Austin.)
If there has been a groundswell of support for Woodland Prep, I haven’t been able to find it. In fact, they have had trouble getting people to join their board and remain on it. On the flip side of this coin, there has been a tremendous amount of opposition to this charter from the local community. Some 200 people showed up in Chatom on April 29 at a community meeting in opposition to the charter, 60 people rode a charter bus to Montgomery on May 9 to attend a state school board meeting and meet with legislators and at least 100 locals stood on the courthouse house lawn on August 2 when AEA announced they were suing Woodland Prep’s board and Soner Tarim for fraud because of misinformation in the charter application submitted to the state.
This is in stark contrast to community response to University charter, where enrollment climbed by more than 100 students between the first year of operation and the current school year.
As to local fund-raising, if Woodland Prep has been successful, it is a closely-guarded secret. In fact, one of the reasons the National Association of Charter School Authorizers said their application to open should be denied was their lack of demonstrated fund-raising capacity.
The NACSA says in its review: “…no information is provided about its fundraising track record. This is a concern, as the applicant’s plans include raising $500,000 to launch the school and secure its facility.”
On the other hand, University charter had $350,000 when they applied to the state.
Daylight and dark. Though some have tried to claim that since both Sumter County and Washington County are both very rural, these two situations should be viewed as comparable. Such a claim is beyond bogus.
And again, how the state’s appointed state charter school commission can ignore the obvious and green light both of these applications is beyond comprehension.
The University of West Alabama in Livingston, the county seat of Sumter County, faced a dilemma. It was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit faculty to come to their school. The reason? The local school system..
College professors value education for their children. After all, a good education is why they have their job.
But when they looked at the Sumter County public schools they saw a system of five schools with only one rated a C, the others were D rated. And the private school was on its last leg.
So UWA’s Board of Trustees tasked President Ken Tucker with looking for a solution. This was in 2016. An initial committee became a task force in January 2017. They zeroed in on creating a charter school as the best solution. The next step was getting community input and feedback. Focus groups met with local stakeholders. Surveys helped determine local priorities. School safety and teacher quality were two of the top priorities.
J. J. Wedgeworth is head of school for University Charter. She has been part of the effort from the beginning. “It was crucial that we listen to local voices,” she says. “This had to be a community effort, not a university effort.”
Once the decision was made to apply to the state for a charter, a goal was set to have $300,000 in the bank by the time the application was submitted. They had pledges for more than $350,000 before applying.
The school opened in 2018 with 321 pre-K through eighth grade students. They added the ninth grade this year and have a total of 427 students. The student body is about 52 percent African-American and 45 percent white. All teachers are certified.
Being located on the university campus is a huge plus as professors are readily available to teach things such as music, drama, robotics, etc.
While no doubt their are critics of this school, I am not one of them. They are meeting a need and they are not cutting corners. They are not answering to a charter management organization whose bottom line is profit.
This is the standard the state charter commission should never waver from. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the past, let’s pray that with new members now on the commission, it will be the case in the future.
Editor’s note: Diane Ravitch is probably the best known voice in the U.S. who is a constant critic of what is today loosely clustered into “education reform.” A native of Houston, she is an education historian by training. She was an assistant U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush. She also served as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board which supervises NAEP.
Though she first supported No Child Left Behind, by 2010 she realized that this program, based largely on high-stakes testing and school choice, was failing the nation’s students and became an ardent critic. This lead to her writing the book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and Choice Are undermining Education in 2010. This was a New York Times best-seller. This was followed by Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools in 2013. It was also a best seller.
Her blog gets 100,000 views per week. She and Anthony Cody began the Network for Public Education in 2013. I was on the original board of this organization. It now has more than 300,000 members nationwide.
It was recently announced that New Schools for Alabama, a Birmingham-based non-profit dedicated to helping charter schools get started in Alabama, was awarded a $25 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education.
Here is Ravitch’s post on this topic:
“Betsy DeVos was sad to see that Alabama had only four charter schools. So she awarded $25 million to an organization tasked with generating more private charters to drain money away from the state’s underfunded public schools.
The state charter commission has been mired in controversy since giving its approval to a Gulen charter school in a rural district where it was not wanted.
The rationale for charters is that they have more flexibility than public schools, but if flexibility from state regulations is needed, why doesn’t the state grant flexibility to its real public schools? Why doesn’t it abolish burdensome regulations and mandates for community public schools?
Next time you hear a pundit say that DeVos doesn’t have the power to do damage, think of her unilateral control of $440 million in the federal Charter Schools Program, which has become her personal slush fund.”
Illinois passed a charter school law in 1996. Today there are nearly 70,000 students in charter schools in Illinois. However, all is not well there.
In fact, the governor recently signed into law a bill abolishing the state’s charter school commission. Here is a report:
“Illinois abolished its charter commission on Friday, the body reviled by school districts but valued by charter promoters for offering a recourse to local disapproval of school proposals.
As widely expected, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 1226 into law, close to the deadline for him taking action. The bill will dismantle the commission by July 1 and will hand off oversight of 11 schools, which the commission previously approved, to the state Board of Education next summer.
The state board will take over the responsibility of hearing appeals on charter school openings, closings and extensions. The state also will dole out funds it had collected to oversee the schools that the commission had approved. Once the state board takes over the commission’s role, the board will be able to levy a 3% fee on any state-approved charter school to help cover the cost of oversight.
Since the bill’s passage, the charter commission has been conducting business as usual. It has been preparing to consider applications from schools that will seek to renew their charters. It also has been continuing overseeing schools, including Intrinsic charter in Chicago, which the commission approved on appeal last spring and which will open a brand new high school in the Loop next month.
“Our work is always bent toward making sure that students and families have access to schools,” said Shenita Johnson, director of the commission. “We continue to do our work regardless of any uncertainty.”
Until Pritzker signed the bill, Johnson had held out hope that the governor would veto it. She said she was used to uncertainty, because the commission has long been a lightning rod for criticism from charter critics and districts that don’t want their decisions overruled — both of whom have sought to eliminate the body.
Last year the legislature tried to severely weaken the commission, but then-Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the attempt, and Senate failed to override the veto.”
And once again we should face the irony that while Alabama seems to be increasingly mesmerized by charter schools, states with years of experience with them are becoming convinced that all that glitters is not gold.
The Alabama Education Association filed suit against Woodland Prep and their education “consultant” Soner Tarim in Washington County Circuit Court on Aug. 2. The suit charges that both the charter board and Tarim have committed fraud through the use of both documents and data that can not be verified and were used without permission.
Some of this included false info about the performance of Washington County public schools, about the level of local opposition and about the application which was turned down by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
The association has now put up a web site (stopwoodlandprep.com) where anyone can view documents pertaining to the case, including the suit itself, can be seen.
It is especially insightful to look at “Woodland Prep Application Part 2.” Scroll though the many, many pages until you come to page 562 about support letters. There are 17 of them. Four of them are unsigned. If someone is truly in favor of something, would they not sign their support letter? One of these is from Jessica Ross, who runs the library in Chatom and was also listed as a Woodland Prep board member, though she disputes that she ever agreed to this.
Another is from Betsy Easterbrook, which never mentions Woodland Prep or even charter schools. One is from business owner Angie Thornton who has stated adamantly said that once she found out more detail of what Woodland Prep was all about she asked that her letter not be used.
Another is from Robert Giordano, who is with American Charter Development out of Springville, Utah. the company building the school. This is like a car dealer writing a letter to the bank telling them to lend me money so I can buy a car from them. Still another is from Mel Ann Sullivan, who lead the charge for Woodland Prep and worked for the Washington County Economic Development Initiative This is on development authority letterhead, though the group’s board did not support Woodland Prep and had instructed Ms. Sullivan that she should keep arm’s distance from the charter effort.
Then county commissioner Mark Platt also submitted a letter. However, he did so after being told the charter would be located in the McIntosh community–not 30 miles away between Chatom and Millry and that it would have no impact on the public school system. Both of which were not true.
You can go to page 584 and find where Dr. Sarah Odom, an education consultant in the county is listed as an “advisory team” member, something she staunchly says was never the case. Even her resume’ is listed in its entirety.
Yet, the state charter commission ignored all of this. They did not do proper due diligence. It’s hardly any wonder that four members of this commission have just been replaced. .