Thursday, March 29, 2012

Public Education Dictionary: Creaming

If you are like me and didn't grow up on a farm you may be only vaguely familiar with the concept of creaming.You see, cream is made from milk, whereby the non-homogenized milk that comes out of the cow will naturally separate if left to sit, and the thicker part of the milk--the cream--rises to the top.

The act of "creaming" is when you remove the very top of the milk and set it aside to be used for making ice cream or baking or what-have-you (for you scientists, the
technical definition).

To describe how this term is used in public education, I offer the following parable.

I recently challenged a friend of mine who runs a service business which has about 1000 customers. I bet him a dollar (and pride) that I could run his business better than he could. To prove this I would take half of his customers and after a year's time we'd see who would have happier customers and higher profits. 
On the face of it, I made an offer to my friend he couldn't refuse: obviously he knows that I know nothing about his business, so he can't lose, right? 
He took the bet and we got down to the details on how we'd actually arrange things (which he agreed I would dictate). 
My arrangement was this: that I take his 500 best customers who have the most money and the fewest customer support issues. Also, if I find that over the course of time any of his customers become problematic or unprofitable, he will be obligated to take them back.
Needless to say, I won the bet. How could I lose?
You see, I engaged in the "creaming" of my friend's customers.

So when you hear critics of Charter Schools accuse them of "creaming" the best students, this is what they mean.

Charter schools engage in "creaming" in several ways:

  1. There is natural selection at work with Charters (which admittedly is not as big a factor in our area as others). Charter schools advertise a "better" product than the surrounding schools, and as a tendency, only the most education-oriented parents will apply--which are exactly the kids who tend to do a lot better in school.
  2. Second, there's selective marketing. Charter schools get to market their product any way they want, and they can target whomever they want. Needless to say they tend to target students who will maximize their test scores, profits, and so on. Bullis Charter School, in our case, is generally marketed in the richest part of our community, Los Altos Hills (where they also have a lottery preference).
  3. Third, in the case of our Charter experiment here in Los Altos, there's the issue of "suggested donations". At the information night, the pitch you here is along the lines of the following: "We need $5000 per student per year to maintain our school. If you don't pay this, one of your fellow parents will need to pay to make up the difference--or else our school will cease to exist". Obviously this will, as a tendency, heavily discourage parents who cannot afford $5000/year per child.
  4. Rejection of kids who are not "cream". Charter schools are free to expel any child they want, whenever they want--just like any private school could.  
One poster on a comments section in Seattle had this to say about Charter Schools (and creaming):
"If charter schools are so incredible, you should be able to name one that performs better than public schools without additional money, being selective about admissions, or expelling kids who do not perform academically.
I have never heard of one and have repeatedly asked proponents to tell me one so that I can read up on it. However, nobody seems able to do so. Can you please help me out? You are so certain of their success, you must have heard of one, yes?"
So far, no takers.

is an important concept to understand as it underscores how Charter Schools do not solve any real-world problems, they simply move them around. They take the easiest, cheapest-to-educate, highest-performing children and concentrate them in a single school, 
leaving public schools with the rest, making the Charter school look great, the public school look terrible, and reducing diversity for everybody.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bullis Charter School: a "Post War" Vision

Post-war Bullis Charter School: The Value and Cost of Educational Choice and Experimentation in Our Community


I have said in the past that there are only two ways out of the Bullis Charter School mess:
  • BCS would have to be shut down (in an orderly fashion e.g. not taking in any new students and the school being slowly eliminated over the course of many years). 
  • BCS would have to be taken completely private
Today I will discuss a third way.

An Opening?

Recently I was struck by reports from a recent LASD community meeting: the tone was different than the past, and Ken Moore (the Chairman of BCS) afterwards went on record as saying exactly that. Maybe this community, I thought, could really heal after years of deep division--Ken's statements about the meeting are heartening and cannot (and should not) be ignored. Maybe this is an opening.

Below I’ll present a vision of “Post War Bullis Charter School”. It shows the way forward by crafting a vision of what “peace” could look like. We cannot know how we should get somewhere unless we know where we are going.

With that, for the first time I am putting forth an idea that actually includes having a “charter school” in our midst (although in a very different form than what we have today).

A Customer's Viewpoint

My own introduction to BCS was the same as many LASD parents: the BCS parent information night. At that event I learned a couple of things:
  • That BCS had interesting programs which might be appropriate for my child (great). 
  • That BCS would cost us at least $5000/year per child (for my family: okay, we can afford that). 
  • That they were on a campus that, while perfectly adequate, was somewhat more shabby looking than other campuses and was part of another school campus (for us: an advantage). 
  • That BCS really, really, really wanted us to like them (weird oversell). 
  • That teacher's unions and LASD were actually evil and bad and the cause of all the ills in our society (huh? what this got to do with anything?). 
  • That the Charter model was better and blablablablabla (huh? what this got to do with anything?). 
For us, the last thee factors outweighed the first three: the presentation left us with a very negative feeling for this school. For this and a few other factors we chose our neighborhood school, which has worked very well for us.

If I were to give BCS some "marketing advice", I'd tell them to not "oversell" and to drop the "cause" baloney from their pitch. Pretty straight-forward.

While this seems like an obvious and rational move, it turns out they can't change their anti-public school rhetoric. Not while they are at "war". Their “pitch” to us parents, however flawed and self-defeating, was exactly as it must be given the circumstances.

The Lies of War

Over 2500 years ago the Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus told us, “In war, truth is the first casualty”.

Our own little "war" in this community has been no exception—it has thrown the Truth out the window and created an alternative reality that we all have to live in.

But let’s imagine for a minute there was no war. It was over. It was a distant memory and nobody cared about it anymore than they harbor animosity toward England over the Revolutionary war.

In this new world we would all “just know” the following simple truths: 
  • That BCS was started under specious circumstances and was driven by anti-District and anti-public schools sentiment, and should have never been started in the first place--but that doesn't matter now because it’s become something completely different
  • That it really costs parents $5000/child per year and it always will--but that’s fine since some parents can afford that and it provides an interesting new product. 
  • That its campus is not as lovely as other local public campuses (until we built the new one with the bond we passed for a 10th campus) and it’s farther away from its students than neighborhood schools (by definition)--but that's okay since it’s perfectly adequate and it’s actually an advantage since it weeds out parents who care about such things. (I know a lot of BCS parents think this but aren’t “allowed” to say it because of the War!). 
  • That the school really costs the District a little money even without sharing the parcel taxes--but that’s okay since it offers the "value of choice and experimentation" to our community. It’s an expensive indulgence but our community is wealthy and places a high value on education and we’re willing to take risks as long as they are paid for and don't detract from those in need. 
  • That its appeal will always be limited based on the cost ($5000), on its experimental and different programs, the fact that it is not inclusive for special-needs, and the fact that it’s not a neighborhood school—and that our normal public schools here offer excellent programs. But that's is okay: it’s a choice, not a “cause”. The Charter is part of the public school system, not a replacement for it. 
  • That the Charter model is not appropriate for our community in the way it purports to be for their original intent, which is low-scoring schools and disadvantaged kids. But that’s okay: with eyes wide open we can use the Charter laws “as a legal structure” and nothing more—and even being "anti-Charter" in the bigger picture could be compatible with supporting this school. (For instance we have no homeless shelters here in LA/LAH which is appropriate for us but we all agree that such things are appropriate elsewhere). 

A Clean Slate: No More Lies

With all of the “lies of war” put aside we can envision a new Charter School that actually fits into our community: 
  • One that does not sue our District ever again. One that is chartered by our District and in cooperation with it. 
  • One that understands its “place” in the community as being a luxurious indulgence in experimental education, not a “sanctified right”--and that our "default" free education here must come first in priority. 
  • One that is heavily funded by private donations for programs and facilities. A school that taps into the enormous pool of private wealth here to enhance our District’s offerings. 
  • One that has been given a mandate by the community in the form of a school facilities bond, funded partially out of private donations, specifically for the purpose of a Charter school. 
  • One that does not engender a massive "response" from the community in the form of heated online discussions, critical websites about Bullis Charter School, blogs, and so forth. All of this would be a distant memory--and even lamented as an artifact of war
  • One that could, perhaps, innovate and experiment in areas involving the more challenging areas of education such as special-needs; one that could formally include outreach (and combined integrated financial assistance) to less advantaged kids. (Imagine a “free-slot lottery pool” that includes a number of “free forever” slots for qualified families). 
  • One whose name is not a remnant of a war (“Bullis”) but perhaps is instead reflective of the great positives locked within our community (“the Gordon Moore Academy” ?). 

The Way Forward: Peace

So how will we achieve peace? I have said many times that this is the year that large numbers of parents are getting involved in deep and serious ways for the first time ever. In just three months, LASD volunteer parents have created a massive online presence and have drastically changed the conversation online. Offline efforts are just beginning.

Parents are the only thing that can really stop this war, and since only BCS can stop the war, it is up to BCS parents to act.

The current BCS leadership is characterized by long-hardened "warriors"--many of whom are professional attorneys and litigators. They have been "grinding an axe" over the District and public schools for the better part of a decade. Most BCS parents, on the other hand, want what we wanted when we looked at BCS: a great education for our children.

BCS parents must take up the cause to change the course of the leadership at BCS, or circumvent it, if necessary. Nothing less than a complete change in mentality is needed.

The war needs to stop--and so do the lies.

In peace we could create something truly amazing and worthy of our amazing community. We are world changers here--but only in peace can we so operate.

Bullis Charter School: Choice Costs Money

Recently the famous actor Wesley Snipes, reported to a Federal penitentiary to start serving his three year sentence for tax evasion. Mr. Snipes bought into the rhetoric that his shady lawyers fed him: that there was a “loophole” in the law that would allow him to get out of paying his income taxes.

As a society we condemn Mr. Snipes because what he is doing is not fair. He is in effect, sticking the rest of us with a bigger tax bill. We condemn him even though many of us don’t agree with all of the things our Federal Government spends money on--but we all know that we benefit from living in a civilized society where things are decided by popular vote. We know that all of us are saddled with the national debt (for instance) and simply disagreeing with the existence of that debt does not excuse you from paying your fair share.

We have a very similar situation playing out here in our community.

Our local school district—LASD—is a democratically-controlled institution which along with State and Federal governments has saddled us with certain obligations that our District must pay for.

Many agree with these obligations, such as a strong degree of help to special needs kids (LASD spends almost 20% of its budget [pdf] on this) and many benefited from another very large expense that our District must pay: teacher retirements (about 9% of LASD’s budget [ibid]). Those teachers taught many of our citizens who went on to become very successful and wealthy grown-ups.

But like Wesley Snipes, you don’t get to decide whether you agree or don’t agree with these expenses. The fact is that we are saddled with them, and somebody has to pay for it.

Bullis Charter School’s financial model is based on the idea that their students should be exempted from the expenses that the rest of us must share.

Bullis Charter School effectively discourages expensive-to-educate special needs kids (they offer to “ship them off to County” which no parent would ever accept in our District). Most, in our generous community, agree (and have voted accordingly) that special-needs kids should be given an excellent education. But BCS does not help pay for this expense that the rest our children, in the form of curtailed programs, do pay for.
Bullis Charter School does not share in the payments to our retired teachers and their health benefits. And of course our District has a typical burden imposed by facilities overhead (about 9%).

As such, the more kids there are at BCS, the more the rest of us must pay for these fixed expenses in the form of curtailed programs and higher student/teacher ratios.

Like Wesley Snipes, Bullis Charter School is vehement that it should not pay for the things the rest of us must pay. They call these obligations, “wasteful spending” and accuse our District and its Board of Trustees of being irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.

Unlike Wesley Snipes, however, BCS has found some loopholes that legally work--at least for now.

Add it all up, and BCS excuses itself from about $15m in annual expenses that “the rest of us” must pay—about $3,400 per student.

So just who are “the rest of us”?

Anybody who has ever attended a BCS “information night” knows that the school must raise at least $5,000 per child per year in order to maintain its programs. This is no mere “suggestion” like the suggested $1000 LAEF donation (which averages about $500 per child): without these donations, BCS would cease to exist. If one parent fails to pay, other parents need to make up the difference—and they certainly don’t hesitate to let you know that.
As such, while we don’t have the exact numbers (BCS is private) it’s logical to assume that the lion’s share of BCS parents pay at least the $5000/child per year minimum—about 460 of them.

For comparison, only about 40 parents out of 4500 in our District (about one percent) donate $5,000 or more to LAEF.

So in short, “the rest of us” is, for the most part, “the 99%”.

Fortunately there is some good news here: our District benefits from a parcel tax, which partially makes up for BCS’s lack of contribution of their fair share of the overhead burden. Per the BCS website itself, the “funding gap” is $2,874 (although some dispute that number and using other records it can be shown that the actual difference in funding is about $1,090).

Another way to look at it is that a “typical” LASD student will effectively receive about $6,120 ($9,520 total, minus $3,400 in these obligations) to spend on their own education. Per county records [pdf], on the other hand, BCS spends about $13,430 per student.

Often BCS supporters brag about their “efficiency” that allows them to offer enhanced programs and and lower student/teacher ratios—the implication being that our District is incompetent and wasteful.

But there is no magic: BCS can do more, because they get more and ignore the obligations that the rest of us legally cannot and morally should not.