Selling our Babies from PA to CA-Private Profits for Public Wards

Worst person alive might go to former judge Mark Ciavarella, the Pennsylvania  judge who sent thousands of kids to private juvenile jails for minor offenses and received kickbacks for it, ruining and arguably ending young lives.

In California we have our own scandal, where foster kids are over medicated by doctors with conflicts of interest, serving as spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies and, earning millions in fees for clinical trials.  Sadly, while the prescription practices seem unethical, are downright harmful to kids, and the amount of medication has been called negligent on its face in many cases—it’s completely legal.

In both cases we see the intrusion of private profits into public agencies and the most vulnerable children.  This is a real.  And while we hear folks carping in Oakland about Steph curry visiting schools and “selling our children” I would hope that we can focus on the real criminals and actually start to listen to the real victims.

Kids for Cash in Pennsylvania

Let me recap, first the blatant burn in hell worthy story, detailed in the new movie, Kids for Cash and taken from the Daily News,

Hillary Transue, 14, created a fake, humorous Myspace page about her school’s vice principal.

Justin Bodnar, 12, cursed at another student’s mother.

Ed Kenzakoski, 17, did nothing at all.

It didn’t matter.

They were brought before Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and, without warning or the chance to offer a defense, found themselves pronounced guilty, shackled and sentenced to months of detention in a cockroach-infested jail.

They were trapped in the juvenile justice system for years, robbing most of them of their entire high-school experience.

Judge Ciavarella, who sentenced around 3,000 children in a similar manner, was later sentenced himself to 28 years in prison for financial crimes related to his acceptance of $2.2 million as a finder’s fee for the construction of a for-profit facility in which to house these so-called delinquents.

This is so dirty.  I really never would wish for someone to be assaulted in prison, but I understand those who would cheer for that in this case.

California’s Scandalous Treatment of Foster Children

Less obvious though potentially equally damaging is California’s own scandal highlighted by the Mercury News, where many foster kids’ medications teeter between negligence and exploitation.

In case you aren’t familiar with the issue, many children who are wards of the state are drugged as a way to control behavior.  According to a recent study nearly 1 in 4 adolescents in California foster care received psychotropic medication, often to control their behavior — not address the serious mental illnesses that many of the drugs were approved to treat.

I experienced this working in the system, while some kids did benefit from meds, many more were just dulled by them, and there wasn’t an effort to really get the right dosage or right drug.

Let’s take a look at the report

A mere 10 percent of the state’s highest prescribers were responsible about 50 percent of the time when a foster child received an antipsychotic, the riskiest class of what are known as psychotropic drugs — with some of the most harmful side effects. ..

Many of the highest prescribers stand out for other practices that raise questions about their judgment or objectivity: A psychiatrist who oversees treatment at a Riverside County group home for troubled children is a self-proclaimed “spokesperson for pharmaceutical companies.” A doctor training psychiatry residents at a San Diego children’s center once prescribed an antipsychotic to an out-of-control kindergartner. And a veteran Visalia child psychiatrist touts a drug approved to treat mania and schizophrenia as an effective “sleep aid.”…

Prescribing by nonphysicians may be violating state law — “Physicians” are the only professionals who can receive authorization from the juvenile court to prescribe psychiatric drugs to foster children, but more than 600 nurse practitioners and physician assistants have prescribed the medications to thousands of patients, an apparent violation of state law that has gone wholly unnoticed.

So, foster kids, who often have too little agency, are overprescribed dangerous drugs, often in violation of the prescription rules and by people who may not even be qualified to write prescriptions.  Even worse there are appear to be huge conflicts of interests—where prescribers represent drug companies and also engage the kids in clinical trials.

And this matters for kids,


Rochelle Trochtenberg, a once-heavily medicated foster youth who now serves as California ombudsperson for foster care, called the reluctance to even monitor prescribers a failure of “staggering” proportions.

“What I see in these numbers is: We don’t really treat, we use chemical restraints. We drug,” said Trochtenberg, who said doctors blithely prescribed multiple meds rather than help her recover from the deep pain and trauma of childhood abuse.

“Medications are so overused — and so significantly — that it’s outrageous there’s such a lack of leadership in holding doctors accountable, and holding the system accountable.”

Real villains and real victims

We don’t have to look far to see kids being abused.  It is usually our most vulnerable children, those who may not have effective advocates and struggle to advocate for themselves.  Thankfully there is new legislation to help address the foster child medication.  But we will need more.  And laws are only as effective of their enforcement.

So, as the school year begins, and the rhetoric starts to heat up in Oakland and elsewhere, we need to focus on the real villains and the real victims.  So much time, and so many words are spent boxing shadows, in elite arguments, and over trivial matters like a school visit by a basketball player, when right in front of our eyes (if we looked and listened) our most vulnerable children are being condemned.  And with all the divisions there are a lot of things we could work together on that actually matter.

Children need us.

2 Things You Need to Know about the “Charter Movement”

Everything you hear about charter schools is true.  And everything you hear about charter schools is false.  That’s what 20 plus years working with them has taught me.

They send high numbers of low income kids to college, they pick and choose students, they are safer.  They disproportionately suspend certain kids, they save taxpayers money, they are run by hucksters. They outperform traditional district schools, or they don’t.

It’s all true.  This duality was highlighted in the recent John Oliver segment, which was seen as critical of charters (and has twisted more than a few knickers), highlighting fraud and lax authorizing, but the segment started with boasting about the college going success of KIPPsters.  And both are true.

Whether charters tend to meet their promise of delivering innovative equitable education, depends nothing on the label, “charter”, but the plan and people behind it.  There is no essential ingredient to a charter, except independence, about the weakest organizing principle you can think of.

There is no common content in charter schools

Charter law varies widely between states, authorizer practices vary even more widely.  And the individual charters themselves run from end to end of the spectrum.  This is both in terms of program, and also in terms of outcomes.

Just within Oakland you have military schools, Waldorf, Montessori, arts schools, schools that emphasize testing, schools that don’t, schools that suspend a lot of kids, schools that suspend very few.  Many of these schools don’t necessarily like or even respect the educational methods of their “colleagues.”

Same with students served, some charters over-represent high needs students, some under-represent them, some outperform the district, some underperform.  It’s the gamut.  Outside of the label and resisting control—Charters don’t see themselves as some collective.  And there is no common genetic marker in the DNA of charters, just a shared birth story.

I have long argued there is no “charter movement” just a bunch of folks who want some independence from districts—for all range of motivations, most good, some bad, some the jury is out on.

So charter folks honestly need to lighten up when a comedian pokes fun at some real malfeasance (and clean the house).   I don’t defend “charter schools” some charter schools are horrible.  Look no further than Livermore.

I have lobbied for charters to be closed and others not opened.  There is nothing magic about the label “charter” that makes a school better.  Or worse.  More ethical, or less.

The charter=good and charter=bad worldviews are both wrong some of the time.  And they will continue to be because there is no essential content in a “charter.”  So we need a new paradigm.

It sounds trite, but we really do need to discard the content-less labels and look transparently  at school quality, ethics, and equity.  That is exactly what families care about—if anyone bothered to ask them.

OUSD’s Year in Review and the Challenges Ahead

By most accounts Oakland Unified is doing pretty well.  Our schools are as fully staffed as they have been in recent memory, public support is at historic highs, academically we are making progress and progress with some of most historically underserved students, and financially we are as strong as ever, with an improving bond rating.

So despite the rancor in Oakland, things are going relatively well.

Nobody should be satisfied either with where we are or even the pace of progress, but most should agree that we are moving in the right direction.

The District has developed some of its own notable successes, like Coliseum College Prep, which boasted a 91% grad rate, in the Flatlands.  It has also smartly expanded bilingual support, restorative justice practices and specialized support programs like the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

You can see from the graph below—the public is liking what they are seeing based on the most recent polls (you can click the graphic for a clearer image)



But before we call it a day and proclaim mission accomplished there are some thorny issues that need to be tackled

Some Big Challenges Ahead

Overall Achievement and Equity– Even with the increases in graduation rates, they are still too low for many subgroups.  Native American students have less than a 50% graduation rate and English language learners, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, African American males and special education students are under 60%.  And while this is the best it has ever been in Oakland, it’s not good enough.  And as I keep harping on, Oakland has some of the most unequal access to quality schools in the country.

Read the report (above) page 32, low income students in Oakland are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest scoring schools on reading—the largest disparity in the country.  And while racial achievement gaps are slowly closing, they are still too wide for anyone to be comfortable with, I hope.

Facilities– While Oakland Unified had a slight uptick in enrollment this year from 36,981 to 37,089 students, it is a district with significantly fewer students than 15 years ago (even when charter students are added to district students).  And many charters are in private buildings.

Here’s the chart from the latest 2012 OUSD Facilities Master plan

2016-08-22 (1)

OUSD has some buildings bursting at the seams, and others less than half full, it also has undeveloped lots.  At the same time, the growing charter sector has struggled to find adequate school spaces, even as the voters gave them the right to “reasonably equivalent” public facilities in Proposition 39.  This is part of a larger issue of coordination between charters and the district, which is being worked through in the equity pledge.

So I know some folks don’t like it or personally agree but by law charters are public schools and by law they have a right to basically equal public facilities.  Oakland has not provided those buildings to charters (and I know it’s tricky) but right now OUSD is likely on the losing side of multi million dollar lawsuit from the State Charter Association.

We need to find a better way to allocate sites, and also settle this suit.  There are a lot more losers than winners if OUSD’s students are on the hook for legal fees and damages.  Some solutions in a future blog, but it’s completely doable.

Staffing stability and local trends

Without great, committed, responsive, stable staff nothing else will matter.  No workplans, no curricular changes, no technology, no restorative justice, or career preparation—it all depends on staff.  And Oakland’s turnover is too high, particularly in special education and harder to staff subjects.

This is a tough one, Oakland will never be able to pay what wealthier districts can, based on how  California funds schools.  We also will continue to have a high need student population, who really need, great and responsive teachers.

With rapidly rising rents and property prices, many Oakland teachers won’t be able to live here.  These and other factors conspire to continue a churn of educators and ongoing vacancies, and instability for children who need consistent, caring adults.

OUSD will need to work with the City, other local governments, and developers to get creative on teacher housing and affordability.  And we also need to do a better job with the incredible human capital in Oakland.  I am shocked to see the challenges we have finding bilingual staff, when we have a ton of smart, hard working, passionate former Oakland students, or others who would feel at home in Oakland, we might more deliberately develop.

But we will need to get creative here, and really do more with less traditional resources.   Adequate funding is a continuing issue in Oakland that requires a statewide funding fix.  And while we should work for that, we can’t wait for it.

Thank You

Oakland is doing relatively well.  This is a credit to the Board, Supe, staff, stakeholders and families.  This is incredibly, hard, hot, and contentious work, and the stakes could not be higher.  So let’s keep the progress moving, the debate robust and civil, and tackle some of our ongoing issues together.

I obviously have not agreed with everything the Board has done, but I have generally admired their commitment, and deliberations, in a very difficult and thankless job.

Looking forward to another year of progress, hopefully with more light and less heat.


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The Best NYC Charter School Story You Haven’t Heard

A predictable war of words has erupted around interpreting the latest set of NYC test scores. The charter sector has touted its successes, with Success Academy Charter Schools front and center, and the mayor has increasingly pushed back, critiquing the results, Success Academy itself, and broadly tarring the sector.

Missed in the battle of the elephants are some other remarkable outcomes. First and foremost among them is an autism-inclusion charter school in Harlem that posted the top scores for any independent charter school, all while serving high-needs students in an authentic and responsive way.

I have written about Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem before. A school our Incubator helped start that deliberately recruits and reserves spots for students on the autism spectrum. The school has a robust program of support that integrates students on the spectrum and helps them develop socially in a safe and staged way. 

This is crucially important work from a societal standpoint and would be worthy of applause for even taking on the challenge. But when you see the development of students and also the awe-inspiring outcomes, this is a lot more than a social development program, it is one of Harlem’s highest performing schools.

Outstanding Results

Take a look at the scatterplot below provided by the NYC Charter Center. Neighborhood Charter shines.

Scatterplot of test scores for NYC independent charter schools

While the analysis does not take into account differences in student populations, and schools that tend to serve more disadvantaged students tend to have lower overall scores, nobody can argue that Neighborhood is “creaming” kids. And the work it is doing is much deeper than a test score.

One story from the school really struck me. A parent was talking about how her son was basically mute in school, but at Neighborhood he had started to open up, talk, make friends, and develop a previously nonexistent social circle.

The joy and contentment is evident on kids’ faces when you visit, alongside a responsive design where every class has individual supports for students.

And the results are really remarkable—75.4% of their students are proficient in math, compared to 16.7% in the district. 69.7% of kids are proficient on English language arts, compared to 21.5% for the district.

After the Rhetoric

So let’s move beyond the mayor’s history of talking loud but carrying a small stick on school reform. It really is not about charters versus district schools—at least parents don’t see it that way. And somewhere along the line I heard that this was supposed to be about parents.

It’s about good schools that treat families fairly. So please, let us move beyond the education wars in NYC, and the personal battles between the Mayor de Blasio and Ms. Moskowitz. You guys don’t like each other. We get it. We don’t care.

A good first step was the mayor’s visit to DREAM Charter (full disclosure: I was on the founding board), and I hope he goes out and sees some of the other great work happening in the community. 

These fights may make us feel important as adults but they do nothing for children. And if we are honest, there is so much need in NYC that we don’t have time to waste tearing each other down, when so many families need us to work to build something better.

Humpty Dumpty and “Public” Charter Schools

Some people in Oakland don’t like charter schools, most of them seem to live in the Hills, and have good neighborhood choices. Meanwhile many Flatlands families are voting with their feet, choosing public charter schools.  Lost in this debate is the fact the families at charters are more likely to be low income, people of color and English language learners than District school families.

But what is the real meaning of “public” schools and why does it matter?

An author attempted to address this in a recent editorial in the Oakland Post ‘There’s No Such Thing as a “Public charter school.”’  First I think the state legislature (who is the elected representative of the people) disagree, they explicitly defined charter schools as public schools in the law.  But let’s dig into the claims.

The PR conspiracy and the Purported Origins of Charters

According to the author,“ the term “public charter school” was developed by a PR firm to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.”

Really?  Albert Shanker from the AFT is the philanthrocapitalist who founded this atrocity?

Here’s what the tubes in the interwebs say,

In 1988, education reformer and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker proposed a new kind of public school—“charter schools”—which would allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to educating students. Publicly funded but independently managed, these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded.

Far from a PR conspiracy by billionaires—charters can be laid at the feet of the teacher’s union.  No multiple shooters in grassy knolls, just the union trying to innovate and  empower stakeholders, which they should be applauded for.

Democratic Accountability by Voting Makes Something “Public”

The author further states,

Public institutions—schools, libraries, zoos—are, at least in theory, funded by 
taxes from all the people in its jurisdiction—local, state and national—and are held accountable to and by those people through that fundamental process we in a democracy call voting.

Personally I don’t remember voting for the zoo board or have any sense of its accountability publicly.  And if you want a philanthrocapitalist conspiracy look no further than the public libraries—the robber baron Carnegie founded that system.  And even with the schools.  So the OUSD traditional public schools stopped being public schools when we were under receivership, and the State ran our district?  Really?

I don’t see voting and democratic accountability consistently in any of the examples that the author gives, and indeed we are in a republic whose founding fathers explicitly rejected a democracy by popular vote, however you may feel about that.

Charter Boards Suck and District Board’s are Awesome

Again from the author,

Most public schools are accountable to an elected school board made up of community 
members. Residents of that community have the right to be present at Board meetings, weigh in 
on votes and debates, and access public financial documents.

Charter schools are run by executive boards, committees or corporations whose members often 
live outside the community in which they are located and are not accountable to parents or 
the taxpayers/community members who fund them.

From the first line here there is an admission that some public schools aren’t accountable to an elected school board, which seems to undermine the overall argument, but anyhoo…

In terms of process they are wrong, charters, as far as I know, follow the Brown Act (Open Meetings Law), they hold public meetings, must have public comments, and must share financials and other documents.  All of mine do. The boards I am on have parents elected from the whole parent body (not just voters), do District’s require that?

And when families or staff or anyone shows up or comments it is listened to and matters, we are a community, and listen to, and care about stakeholders.  And I guarantee you families that come to our meetings prefer them to the chaos and waiting of the OUSD meetings, where folks from outside the community hurl invectives that I wouldn’t allow at the dinner table at our elected representatives.  I can’t speak to every charter.

What Are the “Public” Schools Really

Democracy often means two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.  Don’t get it twisted, poor Black and Brown folks have made up the meal historically and still do.

When schools were legally segregated—those were the democratically accountable public schools.  When I worked as a public interest law firm and helped sue OUSD for failing to serve English learners—and they fought and fought not to serve kids, paying lawyers rather than teachers—those are democratically accountable public schools.

When we have a set of enrollment rules that allocates educational opportunity by zip codes, zip codes created by redlining and segregated housing and reinforced through structural racism- those are the democratically accountable schools.

If I wanted to create a system that would guarantee segregation, guarantee that the kids with the most needs are typically in the weakest schools and the kids with the relatively least needs are in the strongest ones.  I would build it the way the traditional democratic system is—by neighborhood.

And let’s carve out the most exclusive island for those not even satisfied with the segregation of the Hills- Piedmont.  Where they get 5k more per kid, and the admission price is $1,700,000 for a home.

This “public education” system is systematically unequal.  I challenge anyone to show me more than 3 urban districts where more than 50% of Black boys graduate in 4 years.  When you look at the NY Times analysis of test scores in “public schools” nationwide—you can’t find a single district where Black students are at parity or above White ones, and poverty is an almost equally common crippling condition.  Check it out click a district, every district shows these persistent inequalities.

So if democratically accountable means waiting 4 hours to give a 1 minute public statement, in a rigged system, where at least a third of our parents can’t vote for their “elected” representatives, either because they aren’t citizens or have lost the right to vote, then I am not so sure.

And again if democratic accountability is the key—our families that most systematically need high quality public schools can’t even vote.

So who is the wolf and who is the sheep.  And believe me I haven’t seen the wolves offering to change the dinner menu, none of them are offering to open up enrollment rules at their neighborhood schools, and forsake some of their well-inherited privilege.

Public Schools Serve the Public

I personally judge who the public schools are by who they serve.

Not mentioned in the Post article is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

And the author admits the law says, “charter schools are public schools”, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. Folks may personally disagree but they would be factually wrong.

This isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.

When You Can’t Choose Housing

The parents I see, those who can’t move to better neighborhood schools, don’t have time for these academic debates.  And it is always poor Black and Brown families who are asked to sacrifice their children on the altar of principle.  They should remain in the school with a substitute all year, where the 5th grade class is broken up and put in with kindergarteners, as described at a recent board meeting, by those parents.

Or the student board director who talked about high school students with subs all year, who didn’t receive a grade.  Believe me that’s not kids in the Paideia program or kids in Hillcrest.

Or the settlement where students had “fake classes” in some Oakland high schools—literally taking the garbage out, I don’t think that counts as AP—again not in the Hills, you can guess the names of the schools where this took place.

And this is nothing against those schools and the folks working their butts off for kids, it’s the system.  We are always outnumbered and always out gunned, always getting the short end of the stick, the leftover opportunities.

So charters are public schools, but when I look at how the public schools have historically dis-served Black Brown and Poor kids, the loaded deck on a tilted playing field and the wolves salivating over dinner.  Maybe we do need a new definition of “public schools” because if the past sets the course for the future, I want no part of it.