Saturday, July 14, 2012

Benjamin Rayer, New Jersey's King Of The Cybercharters

This is the story of Benjamin Rayer, and how he got approval for not one, but TWO charter schools from the NJDOE.  It's an unlikely story, since our protagonist isn't even a resident of our fair state!!  But that didn't deter Benjamin from applying as the lead founder for both charters, no siree!  After all, he knew he had the right reformy qualifications to get ahead in New Jersey!

He is on the Springfield Township Board of Education in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  As you can see, his short bio on the district website lists his most impressive qualifications:

Having connections to Broad will certainly get you places in New Jersey!

But it also says he's CEO of Touchstone Education.  What's that?
Touchstone Education operates high-performing secondary schools that are changing the landscape of education across America. By integrating modern technology and best in class education strategies, we provide every student with a personalized education that ensures that all of our students are accepted to college and are prepared for the worlds of work and life.
So how many schools is Touchstone Education currently operating to back up this claim that they "are changing the landscape of education across America."  


Touchstone is a start-up charter management organization (CMO), and Merit Prep Newark will be the first school it operates.  


But, they must be great, because they have some big plans and big money.  After all, the Charter School Growth Fund has given Touchstone $3.6M.

Rayer, founder of Touchstone Education, a charter management organization (CMO), does not hide that he hopes to take his model national. He has already drawn impressive sums from some big names in education reform. 
One is the Charter School Growth Fund in Colorado, which is putting up more than $3.6 million for Rayer’s CMO. The fund is headed by Kevin Hall, the former president of the Broad Foundation, a big force in education reform circles.

Ah, one Broadie scratching the back of another Broadie.  And really Mr. Mooney?  A "big force?"  That may be the understatement of the century...

The Charter School Growth Fund website states:

Portfolio Member Profile:

Touchstone Education is a new school management organization that will operate secondary (grades 6-12) blended learning schools across the United States. Touchstone will open its inital charter schools in Newark and Trenton, New Jersey in August 2012. Touchstone was created to reimagine secondary school by combining effective instructional practices and new technology to deliver personalized learning programs so that students are prepared to succeed in college and in life.

Planned Impact:

During the first phase of Touchstone's growth, it plans to launch six schools in New Jersey that will ultimately create over 3,600 new seats of student capacity in blended learning secondary schools.
New Jersey is just the "first phase" before he takes Touchstone national.  And man, does he have some big plans for New Jersey or what?

Why did he pick New Jersey as a stepping stone instead of his home state of Pennsylvania?  Let's take a look at when his charters were approved and see if we get any answers there, beyond the obvious Broad connections which seem to have served him pretty well thus far in our story.  

Both of Rayer's charters were approved in the 2011 expedited round of applications.  If you look at the list in the link you will note that this was the first time he applied as well, so he hit a grand slam his first time at bat.  Pretty impressive.  He applied for Newark Prep Charter School (Now called Merit Prep Newark) and Trenton Prep Charter School (Now called Merit Prep Trenton), and both won approval.  They were two of eight applications approved in that round.  

Carly Bolger oversaw that round of applications as the Director of the Office of Charter Schools, until she left at the end of 2011, supposedly for "personal reasons." Turns out, Bolger and Rayer both worked for the Philadelphia School District's Office of Charter, Partnership, & New Schools, and they worked there at the SAME TIME.  Rayer was her boss.  

 Benjamin W. Rayer  Chief, Charter, Partnership & New Schools Officer 
 Timothy Field Deputy
 Carly Bolger Coordinator, Charter Schools
 Doresah Ford-Bey Manager
 Dee Gardner Confidential Secretary
 Stacy Goodman Coordinator, Charter Schools
 Adrienne F. Hawkins Coordinator, Teacher Advancement Program
 Susan Ostrich TAP Director-Philly TAP
 Darcy Russotto, Ph.D           TAP Specialist
 Margaret Sears, Ed.D TAP Specialist
 Yvonne L. Soto Coordinator, Innovation and Partnership Programs   

Looks like the stars really aligned for our protagonist.  A Broad infested NJDOE, Broad buddies with big money, and a former employee running the application process in New Jersey!  

And where will Merit Prep Newark be located?  It will be co-located at 909 Broad Street in Newark, along with TEAM, KIPP and Newark Collegiate Academy, so it would seem that Rayer has been welcomed with open arms by the established Newark charter elite as well.

In case you think all of this was an easy feat, the story of Tom Vander Ark will dispel that notion.  

Vander Ark is no slouch himself.  He was the former Executive Director of Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was also poised to run two cybercharters in New Jersey, Newark Prep (approved as Vailsburg Prep) and Spirit Prep, and he also had approval for a cybercharter in Brooklyn.  He had his own CMO too, called City Prep Academies, and Vander Ark claimed he was also going to get money from the Charter School Growth Fund.  

Mr. Vander Ark had been unable to get any money from the Charter School Growth Fund or other similar national organizations. He had basically abandoned the idea of beginning a charter management organization and left the three schools-in-progress to find outside help on their own.
Mr. Tillotson, the consultant, said: “It signals what’s wrong with the so-called charter school community. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a charter gets a charter. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a building gets a building. And then somebody who doesn’t care about the communities can turn their head and walk away.”
Without the big money from the Charter School Growth Fund, despite his pedigree, Vander Ark just couldn't get his charters off the ground.  Now Newark Prep and Spirit Prep are in the hands of K12 Inc., but that's a story for another day...  For the purposes of our story, it looks like Rayer's Broad connections at the Charter School Growth Fund may have been the difference between success and failure.  

There is just one last chapter left to tell in the story of Benjamin's ascention.  In case you haven't put it together yet, Benjamin is both the lead founder of the charters AND the CEO of the CMO.  This was made abundantly clear in the application for the charter.  (See pages 57-58).  Touchstone was originally called Platform Academies, and remember Merit Prep Newark was approved as Newark Preparatory Charter School (I know, it is hard to keep track with all of this name-changing!)
After the charter is granted and pending Board approval, Newark Preparatory Charter School will enter into a management contract with a high-performing non-profit charter management organization (CMO).
If approved, the CMO will provide management, operations and instructional program consulting services to Newark Preparatory Charter School.   The CMO will be responsible for providing the overall academic program and tools to execute and apply at Newark Preparatory Charter School. The CMO will also manage all business operations of the school including financial management, facilities and human resources.  Newark Preparatory Charter School will negotiate with the selected CMO to determine a fee that will be in the range of 12% of the school’s local and state share of equalization aid. The term of the contract is expected to be one-year and can be renewed annually. The contract can be terminated with cause. The contract may also be terminated upon written agreement of both parties.  
Newark Preparatory Charter School will consider a contract with Platform Academies, a non-profit school management organization which is launching schools in NJ for the first time in the fall of 2012, with strategic guidance and financial support from the Charter School Growth Fund of CO.  For Year 1, Platform Academies has agreed to waive, if necessary, the CMO fee in the event that it would cause a budget deficit.  Therefore, the fee is not included in the planning budget at this time.  Newark Preparatory Charter School will also follow all applicable NJ vendor bidding regulations by seeking bids from at least 2 other high-performing CMO’s.  However, given that the Lead Founder of Newark Preparatory Charter School, Ben Rayer, is also the Founder and CEO of Platform Academies Incorporated, we have included information about Platform Academies’ business plan here.  (emphasis mine)
The Office of Charter Schools actually questioned Rayer on this very point in a Request for Addenda to the application, and wanted assurances that all transactions would be at "arm's length." (See pages 4-5).   The only concrete assurance given was that if Rayer's CMO won the bid (*cough*) to run the charter, Rayer would not be on the Board of Trustees.  

I don't know about you, but that doesn't reassure me too much.  

I would like to see the RFP's that went out looking for two other "high-performing CMO's" that may have been able to provide these services to the taxpayers of New Jersey for less than "the range of 12%."  Amazing how Rayer's CMO, which remember, is a start-up, managed to come out on top and get the contract for a high-performing CMO!    

I'd also like to know who is on the Board of Trustees. Then maybe we would could find out how this decision was made.  Just knowing that supposedly Rayer isn't on the board doesn't really impress me.  

I have scoured the Merit Prep website, and all I can come up with as a contact is Erika Ellison, Director of Operations for Touchstone Education.  Anyone else think it's peculiar that the only contact for the charter works for the CMO?  No principal or lead person contact information, just someone from corporate who seems to have no background in education, other than working for Mastery Charter Schools, where coincidentally Rayer was the Chief Operating Officer before he worked for, and mysteriously resigned from, the School District of Philadelphia.  

There is no list of Board Members either.  No list of meeting dates, or minutes of previous meetings, which you will find on just about any district website.

And look at this statement about the influence Vander Ark had on the charters he was planning to manage:
The newspaper first reported in early July the news about the diminished role of Vander Ark, who had provided essential services such as professional writing for the charter application, forming the charter school boards, footing lawyer fees, and initial interviews for staff. (emphasis mine)
So forgive me if I don't buy that Rayer has had no influence on the appointment of the Board of Trustees, especially since we have no idea who they are and how they decided to select his CMO to run the schools for which he also served as Lead Founder.

So, that's how you do it friends. That's how you get yourself poised to open a whole slew of charters in New Jersey, and if you're successful there, maybe the nation.  You just need the right connections to get a couple approvals and a lot of money.  

Then make sure there is no public trail of the bid for your CMO to run the chain of charters you got approved and voilà, you're the self appointed King of Cybercharters in New Jersey!


  1. Fantastic. Only if the NJEA would send this out to all members in an email blast. Or maybe (lol) the Star-Ledger. Not counting on either.

    1. Out in Seattle we have 2 outstanding education blogs - Dora, Sue, Charlie, Melissa should ALL be paid by The union - as a high school math teacher in Seattle for 6 years, I've learned more from their blogs, and their many contributors, than I ever learned from the NEA, WEA or SEA (national, state and local unions). I've learned about policy battles, about the history of those battling, about legislation, about the district, about the state ... It is stunning and appalling to me that The union that I pay can't do what these citizens do for zip. By the way there are 70 or 80,000 other members paying our union.


  2. Holy cow, Darcie! You are doing amazing work! If you can find this out, why aren't our media outlets working as hard? You are an inspiration!

    Now, as for the story, CC imported many things from Colorado, including his preferred model for evaluating teachers. So really it seems CO is a package deal. They have Broadies, charters, charter fund management firms, and teacher evaluations. I also Googled "Charter School Growth Fund in Colorado" and frankly, I am deeply disturbed with the correlation of schools that are publicly funded and fund management firms. The rise of publicly funded and privately profited schools are so wrong and goals are diametrically opposed. Disgusting.

  3. Thank you KR and Commuting Teacher!

    Please do help spread the word. People need to understand why this is REALLY happening. While there is lots of talk about the best interest of children, there seems to be an awful lot of big money interest in these cyber charters.

    You have to ask yourself why. The Charter School Growth Fund is nothing more than a way to temporarily funnel cash into charters until the money starts pouring back out. Check it out:

    My favorite line:

    CSGF's portfolio will reach financial sustainability on public revenues at scale over the next decade.

    Translation: We'll be making a tidy profit off of public dollars real, real soon.

  4. This is how the ultra rich, Republican corporate slugs view public education in America. It is just another wide open, extremely lucrative BUSINESS opportunity that requires a complacent and cooperative government officials, ill informed citizenry, and an aggressive, ideological national privatization program piloted by soulless shadow corporations. "Conspiracy Theory" anyone? Where is Mel Gibson when you need him?

  5. Public Education is the new "gold rush" for corporate greed. To get an idea how gold rushes work, watch HBO's miniseries, Deadwood. It's about the 1870's gold rush in the Dakota Territory. Viewer Advisement: Be prepared for debauchery and disregard for human suffering as to make one squeamish.

    Still, it will prepare you for sleaze that will attempt to profit and the final outcome; a few major players holding most of the gold with the rest working in the squalor of a pocked landscape their enterprising will leave behind.

    That is the future of education IF left to the hands of sell-out politicians in both parties, profiteering corporations, blind-eyed newspapers, and even complicit union leaders. Thank goodness for blogs like this one. There is no hope without parents, educators, and citizens advocating like you do here. Thank you.

  6. "The best interest of children" is more like collateral damage...if it happens on the way to the goal then that's okay. The relative silence of the press, the close ties between policy makers, TFA, Broad... indicate a more coordinated assault on the public than a few education snake-oil "entrepreneurs". They do not know teaching, child development,or the level of mastery it takes to move a room full of today's children toward shared and individual goals. They do know profit, connections, cronyism...Education and children ARE the collateral damage, but it isn't likely in their best interest. Profit, control and a share in the spoils is the real goal.

  7. Impressed beyond words. I admire and support your efforts. Well done Darcie!

  8. Thomas Ultican
    Thank you for such painstaking work. A few months ago I did a piece on DFER and learned how much of this school privatization is being done behind closed doors, but this kind of corruption cannot stand if people like yourself continue to speak against this vapid immorality.

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  10. Merit Prep is a school that treats the children like they are criminals and crooks. These people uses the word "I have your child/children best interest at heart" but then strip them from everything once they walk into the biulding. Merit Prep founders believe that our children is not worthy of going on educational field trips which they didn't do this year at all. they does not have a gym, the children are not allowed to ask questions or to learn from and with each other. Merit curriculum does not include a social skill setting. There are teachers there that calls children stupid in there faces and nothing is done about it. One of the math teachers acts like he is on drugs, always angry, nitpicking the children for no reason and they keep the children stressed out on a daily basis. We as parents supports organizations like this that only see our children as a dollar sign and as a New Jersy resident (Essex County) enough is enough. These charter schools are overated and the sad thing about it is that these people that open these charter schools believe that the public sector schools that educated them are not a benefit today but was a benefit for them when they went to school to get their education. I believe that there is a lot of corruption within the Touchstone organization and they need to be booted out of New Jersy.

    1. Hi Anonymous, PLEASE feel free to reach out to me about your experiences at Merit and with Touchstone. I would love to talk to you about it. Thank you for reading my blog, and thank you for your brave comment.