Never intended to become a parent advocate until I watched the great schools in my little town come under attack. The more I learned about what was happening the more I read. The more I read the more I saw how what is happening here is tied to towns across not only New Jersey, but the country. And now I'm in the thick of it, and I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
No Transparency At NJDOE Or For-Profit White Hat. What Are They Hiding?
White Hat has been sued by the governing boards of some of the schools it manages. According to the lawsuit, White Hat collects at least 95 percent of the schools’ tax funding. It also owns everything from computers to student files. The governing authorities of the schools involved in the lawsuit would like to gain access to the materials and equipment and to decide if they want White Hat to continue to operate their schools.
For the 2010-11 school year, no Ohio White Hat school earned higher than the equivalent of a “C” on its state report card. Most were rated “D” or “F.”
Common Pleas Judge John F. Bender gave White Hat until March 6 to provide tax returns, building leases, transactions with its subsidiaries and other information to 10 charter schools that had contracted with the firm for management services.
“Public money must be accounted for,” Bender wrote in a 19-page order.
The judge asked attorneys for both sides to meet with him March 7 to discuss whether White Hat has complied.
For nearly two years, the company has fought against disclosing the information, arguing that it was proprietary.(emphasis mine)
Make sure to read the comment section of the Dispatch article. The people of Ohio clearly see that they are being taken for a ride by this for-profit management company, and that their legislators are allowing it to happen. I have written about Governor Christie's desire to allow for-profits to manage charters in New Jersey. If he has his way, New Jersey will not be far behind Ohio.
Notice how White Hat is claiming they don't have to open their books because the information is "proprietary?"
This reminds me of the NJDOE's refusal to release charter application reviewer comments. I have been denied this information several times (I am expecting the third denial early this week!) The reason for the denial is that the information is "deliberative."
Let's break this down a bit.
In all of our research we have learned a lot about the application review process, both at the state level for charters and at the federal level for grants. (And by we I mean all of the fine folks I have been working with to battle Tikun Olam.) In comparing these processes one thing is very clear. For all the problems with the federal process, it is COMPLETELY transparent. When you file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a grant application, whether it was approved or denied, you also receive the reviewers scores and comments. This is because the applications are scored, and the highest scorers get the money. It's just that simple.
But the public is not allowed to see reviewer comments on charter applications. Applicants can see them, and the proposed Quest Academy even posted them on their website, but concerned citizens or districts that want to see them to better understand how the NJDOE is making their decisions are denied.
So why can we see the reviewer comments on a federal grant application but we can't see the reviewer comments on a state charter application? Simple.
In New Jersey the decisions are not made based on the reviews. The decisions are left to the Commissioner of Education.
This is why the reviewer comments are considered deliberative. They are not the final deciding factor. New Jersey's charter school law gives Acting Commissioner Cerf the power.
Jersey Jazzman did a great write up on this topic. The only detail he missed was that the reviewer comments on the Regis Academy application were not released in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. Cherry Hill did OPRA them, but they were denied. The reviewer comments were part of documents released for their appeal of the approval of Regis Academy.
And clearly it is a good thing they appealed, since the reviews clearly show that the application was not scored well by the three reviewers. This is from Cherry Hill Superintendent Dr. Reusche's Assembly Education Committee testimony:
In attempting to determine why this charter was approved, we filed an OPRA request for the application review sheets; the DOE denied our OPRA request, but later released the review sheets to our solicitor as part of the official record on appeal. Here’s what we found: Three reviewers reviewed the application, giving scores of “Meets the Standard,” “Approaches the Standard,” or “Does Not Meet the Standard” in 14 categories. Three reviewers, 14 categories, for a total of 42 indicators. Regis’s application was deemed to meet the standard in just 20 of the 42 possible indicators. That’s a score of 47.6%. Shouldn’t a charter school application be subject to at least the 80% standard that school districts must achieve in the NJQSAC review?
If we could see ALL of the reviews of ALL of the applications that were considered in that round, how many denied applications would we find that scored much higher than Regis? It's hard to imagine that all 56 of the applications that were denied in that round scored lower than 47.6%. So why did Regis get approved?
What we really need is for someone with some power to OPRA the reviewer comments for ALL of those applications, and to do it in a very public way. Individuals like me and school districts like Cherry Hill are easy to deny information.