Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Diane Ravitch Is Public (Charter) Enemy Number One; or How Public Money Just Keeps On Feeding Private Greed

I literally laughed out loud when I read the woefully misguided attempted take-down of Diane Ravitch in yesterday's Trenton Times.

It was written by charter founder/leader Debbie Pontoriero.  I first came across Pontoriero when I helped the good people of Florence Township successfully defeat the expansion of the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence. Riverbank had taken root in Florence before the backlash against boutique suburban charters became vogue. 

Pontoriero, who identified herself as Riverbank's School Business Adminstrator (SBA), presented the expansion of Riverbank Charter School of Excellence to the press as a done deal.
Debbie Pontoriero, Riverbank’s business administrator, said the school’s founders are confident that the department will renew the charter and approve the proposed expansion given the school’s high performance record on standardized tests as well as other evaluations.
My, she's awfully cocky, isn't she? What Potoriero didn't factor in was that engaged parents in Florence Township were not about to lose more programs and services for their students to support the expansion of a charter that segregates and divides their community.

She also didn't bet on Florence's State Senator, Diane Allen (who just happens to sit on the Senate Education Committee) sending a letter to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf stating that Riverbank's expansion was not in the best interest of the entire community.

And she sure didn't bet on Cerf owning up to the fact that in a small town like Florence, a charter is likely not needed and can be a real burden. These are Cerf's own words when he testified before the Senate Education Committee after Senator Allen questioned him about the role of charters in a district like Florence.
The first thing I look for is whether the proposed charter would meet an unmet need.  You can define an unmet need in lots of different ways.  You can say we don't have a school that focuses on the Italian Renaissance so I'm going to build a charter that focuses on the Italian Renaissance.  I'm being overly facetious, but for me unmet need means that there are children who are being underserved in terms of their basic educational rights. Right? So, if there is, and by the way you can find this in large communities and small communities, but if there are children that, I am much more sympathetic to a charter application if there are kids that are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need. 
I also look at the economic impact on a district and one of the, um, I'm hardly an economist, but I can tell you that the smaller the district's budget is, the greater the impact a charter school has and that's because certain costs are fixed, and certain costs are variable. You have to have a Superintendent's salary whether you have one school or 50 schools and therefore when you have a charter school in a smaller community it has a larger impact. (emphasis mine)
Faced with pressure from the community, no support from their legislators, and the not so encouraging comments from the Commissioner, Riverbank withdrew their expansion request, and alas, Riverbanks' burgeoning excellence was stopped in its tracks. 

But let's get back to Pontoriero's guest opinion column. Here's the meat of it.
Ms. Ravitch erroneously criticized charter schools for using public funding that could have been used for public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and most charter schools in New Jersey are educating students for less than 90 percent of the per-pupil allocation. 
She stated that charter schools do not accept children with disabilities or who speak English as a second language in order to ensure better test results. The fact is that charter schools are open to all students on a space-available basis with preference given only to children who reside in the district where the charter school is located. According to law, charter schools cannot discriminate in its admission policies or practices —- the same as public schools.
Every single one of Pontoriero's talking points is unmitigated claptrap.  

Most charters are getting less than 90% per pupil? Show me that data, and show me that charters are educating the same population of students and actually deserve equal funding.

Charter schools are open to all students? Then, Ms. Pontoriero, how do you explain the fact that Riverbank charter has NO Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, and significantly less special needs and low income students than the local elementary school?

And whatever you do, don't miss this nugget.
Perhaps Ms. Ravitch should rouse the traditional public schools that are in danger to reach out to their local charter schools to learn what best practices they are implementing to achieve academic success.
I sure hope Ravitch can "rouse the traditional public schools" to start excluding those pesky kids with "needs" so they can start implementing those charter "best practices" tout suite! 

Pontoriero also cited CREDO's New Jersey charter school study as proof positive that charters in New Jersey are outperforming traditional public schools. I can't imagine how many times I will have to refute the recitation of the CREDO study as "proof" of anything, but here it goes...

Read Bruce Baker here and Julia Sass-Rubin here on the shortcomings of the study, and read me here for everything you need to know about CREDO's serious credibility problem. CREDO's Louisiana study has also been discredited by a blogger who previously worked inside the Louisiana DOE and actually handed the data over to CREDO for the study.

The CREDO study was bogus.  Plain and simple.

But why would Pontoriero go out of her way to write and publish a weakly argued opinion column about Ravitch, one of the most renowned education historians of our time, right on the heels of  her New York Times best selling book?

Because the charter movement has allowed Pontoriero to cash in on the poorly regulated "public" schools we call charters. That makes Ravitch public (charter) enemy number one to the likes of Pontoriero.

Allow me to explain. Note that in the byline Pontoriero identifies herself as "founder and head of school of the Pace Charter School of Hamilton."  Pace? I thought she was the SBA at Riverbank!

Yeah, well, she's pulling down salaries at both.


Yup, she's pulling down $156,750 working at TWO different NJ charter schools, and these were her salaries in 2011. Who knows what's she's making now.

The only Annual Report I can find for Pace is from 2009 (nice accountability NJDOE!) and at
that time Pontoriero was also listed as their SBA. I can not find a current reference for an SBA on the Pace website. Is it possible that she controls the finances for both charters?

Pace was founded by Pontoriero and approved by the NJDOE in 1999. Riverbank was founded in 2008 by Beth Kelley, then a teacher at Pace Charter School of Hamilton. Riverbank is little more than a satellite campus of Pace, and it appears that Pontoriero may control the finances at both charters.

Just for the heck of it, let's see how Pace's demographics compare to a local Hamilton Elementary School.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

But the truly shocking part isn't the story of yet another charter leader skimming kids and raking in mad cash. This is from Pontoriero's LinkedIn account:

Can you imagine what she rakes in as the ED of the "largest Abbott Preschool Provider in Mercer County" ON TOP of the $156,750 she makes on charters??

To make matters worse, it appears that Deborah is not the only Pontoriero cashing in on the Abbott Preschools. The director of the main office is a Patricia Pontoriero and Oh. My. God. read this from a 2006 Bergen Record report called "How Public Money Fed Private Greed."
Over and over, auditors found inflated rents -- some had doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in a single year. The owners of Little Tots in Asbury Park took home an extra $136,500 by nearly doubling the rent, auditors said. They never told the state they were both landlord and tenant. 
Rental costs at Little Kids College in Trenton shot up 31 percent. Owner Deborah Pontoriero told auditors that her landlord -- who was also her father -- had refinanced his mortgage and passed the costs on to the Abbott program. (emphasis mine)
Little Kid's College and PACE share an address at 528 South Olden Ave. 

While Chris Cerf is investigating the finances of private special needs schools that service public education students, may I suggest he add an investigation of Pontoriero's charter/Abbott empire to his to-do list?

Maybe it's all above board, but it sure looks fishy, and she sure it defensive.

So why did Pontoriero take it upon herself to write such a weak, poorly argued criticism of Ravitch's appearance in Princeton last week? Because if Ravitch keeps pointing to the "private greed" behind charters, folks like Pontoriero will keep being exposed.

Sources (completely stolen from Bruce Baker!)


  1. another brilliant exposure of charter greed, lack of DOE accountability and the tail wagging the dog. OMG. How much will it take to stop this nonsense. But tomorrow we have another concern as the Senate Ed committee considers legislation to give Commissioner-not-accountable- Cerf a $5million slush fund......

    Well done Darcie and thank you - I truly get so mad when I start to uncover it that I could not form coherent sentences around any of it. We are lucky you are blogging!

  2. Darcie, CREDO is a pro-charter organization under the auspices of the right-wing, pro-privatization, free-market Hoover Institution at Stanford. CREDO exists to promote charters. It makes some effort to conceal that and is routinely described as a Stanford University project (implying that it's impartial academic research), but it is listed on the Hoover Institution's website as one of its projects. So when a pro-charter organization comes out with findings that support charters, that shouldn't be treated as news.

    Here's the Hoover Institution clarifying that CREDO is run under its auspices.

  3. The charter boosters claim that charter schools are public or private depending upon when it suits their purposes. In other words, they talk out of both sides of their two mouths. The California Court of Appeals (2007-01-10) which ruled that charter schools are NOT "public agents." []

    The 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals (2010-01-04) which ruled that charter schools are NOT "public actors." []
    The US Census Department expressed difficulty in obtaining information from charter schools because they are NOT public entities. []

    The National Labor Relations Board joins a host of other government agencies that have unequivocally ruled that that charters are "private entities." []
    And there are cases in which the charter operator him/herself insisted that a charter school is a private entity.

  4. Charter schools are private schools getting public money. No one gets to vote on the charter school board of directors, no one gets a direct vote on the charter school budget. No one gets to vote on whether a charter school is imposed on their district or not. Just shut up and accept this new school whether it is needed, wanted or not. The charter school does not work in cooperation with the duly elected school board and they certainly don't work in cooperation with the REAL public schools. They have an adversarial stance and yes, they do drain funds and resources from the REAL public schools.

  5. From the Diane Ravitch blog: In a case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, an Arizona charter successfully argued that it was a private corporation, not a public school. In Chicago, the teachers at a charter school wanted to form a union, but the charter founder argued before the National Labor Relations Board that the charter was operated by a private corporation and not subject to state labor laws.

    Anthony Cody reviewed this case and concluded that we should accept the claims of the California Charter Schools Association that charter schools are private entities, managed by private corporations that are outside the purview of the law.

  6. This is exactly what the public needs to hear. Again, and again, and again! Maybe America will wake up?

  7. I'm sure I will take a lot of flak for wading into this debate, but I feel that I must set the record straight. While I agree that there are a lot of problems with charter school laws and implementation in many parts of the country, not all charters are the same state to state. In Minnesota, charters are truly public schools - except that they have a number of additional requirements that traditional schools do not have. Minnesota charters are required to have an authorizer that has the power and the responsibility to terminate a charter school contract if the school is not performing in terms of academic, financial or operational performance - can you say that about traditional schools? Annual public reports are required to be approved by the board of directors and the authorizer. The board of directors is required by statute to be made up of a licensed teacher majority - talk about teacher led schools. Charter schools in Minnesota are required to submit an annual audit to the Commissioner of Education. Charters must also adhere to all statewide accountability requirements for standards and assessments.

    As for the budget, in Minnesota the dollars flow with the student so charters receive no more funding than traditional schools. In fact, unlike the traditional schools we are not allowed to levy additional tax payer dollars to cover costs, refurbish facilities, or reinvest in technology. To the contrary, charter teachers and administrators take on many additional duties at no extra pay to provide for our schools, including driving buses, lunch duty, after school programs and extra curricular activities to name a few.

    With regard to the issue of selective enrollment I will give you the current figures at my school. 45% of our students are receiving special education services, versus 22% in the local district. 50% of our students receive free or reduced lunch versus 35% in our local district. We almost identically mirror the demographics of the local district. The majority of our students are labeled as "at-risk" and have not been successful at their home school. The majority of them come to us 2-3 years behind in math and reading. So unlike the misrepresentation that is often portrayed about charter schools we serve all students.

    I believe that public education is the only hope for democracy, but I feel that too many in the education field are afraid of providing choice. Not every school is right for every student. Students and parents should be given options when it comes to their education. In St. Paul for instance 40% of parents have chosen to send their children to charter schools. If a parent wants to send their child to a charter school, a district magnet school, the school district across town or provide home school options they should be given that opportunity.

    1. So basically, charters rob schools of funding and overwork both students and teachers to what end...for test scores and budget attainments? Now both the public and charter schools are starving for funding and achievement becomes a difficult identifier for the teaching staff because of student demographics. Instead if supporting a dual system where money is being shared, why not work to improve the public system?

  8. The funny thing is, since its inception, Riverbank Charter School has forced the Florence school district to take a hard look at itself and said district has undergone some great changes! No, I don't think it's solely due to the opening of Riverbank Charter; a lot has to do with a progressive, aggressive new Superintendent and a more-aware school board, but I believe strongly that the Charter School aided in excellent changes within the district. I also know that promises of positive change within the schools were made to the state by the district to support the testimonies that the Charter is unnecessary within the township. Thumbs up!
    Regards from a Florence Township Tax Payer who has and will continue to support the Charter School long after my children have completed 3rd grade and moved on to the District's Riverfront Intermediate School...a school that I support equally!

  9. Choice? Where's the choice when a charter school is imposed on a high performing school district without the consent or vote of the residents of a given school district? Who gets to vote for the charter school board of directors? Most of the school boards in NJ are filled through democratic elections. Who gets a direct vote on the charter school budget? A charter school is like a separate school district unto itself and does not work in cooperation with the district schools. Having dual or parallel school systems competing for public tax dollars is very foolish, costly and unsustainable.

    1. My district was not high performing when the charter was established. Homework really should be done before blanket statements are made

    2. My district was not high performing when the charter was established. Homework really should be done before blanket statements are made

    3. Why don't the residents, the tax payers, get to choose (vote) whether they want a charter school in their district or not, before significant amounts dollars are wasted on a failed educational experiment. That's real choice.