Momma Bears is sniffing out privatization in the suburbs. We know parents like those in Williamson County are very concerned about privatization threatening their high achieving public schools. Now, we are hearing concerns over possible privatization in the Memphis suburb of Germantown, another high achieving school district.
Something peculiar is going on in the Germantown mayor’s race.
When Germantown formed their new school system, Shelby County Schools transferred all but three schools to the new municipal district. Three schools that ironically bear the name of Germantown (known collectively as the three G schools) continue to be operated by the unified Shelby County School system even though they are located within the heart of Germantown city limits.
This has been a big source of angst for the community. Not having all the Germantown schools has also forced the issue of new school construction on a city that is still reeling over the loss of three perfectly good school buildings and struggling to finance their brand new school system. Then, along comes a mayoral candidate promising to get those schools back. Take a look at the promises made on George Brogdon's website.
Momma Bears is smelling privatization in those campaign promises from a candidate who is endorsed by a former Shelby County School Board member who favored converting the three Gs into charter schools.
But back to Brogdon’s “innovative solutions.” Well, we all know privatization means appointing friends instead of electing officials. So the fur on the back of our necks stands up when we see this wannabe mayor with plans to appoint a team of leaders in education. Who needs a mayorally appointed education team when Germantown already has an elected school board?
Well, you won’t need a school board's permission to form a charter school because state law allows the Tennessee Department of Education to overturn the school board decisions to reject charter school applications. So it’s a good thing Brogdon’s team will include some “state-wide leaders” who “have intimate knowledge of the school issue.” Those always come in handy when trying to win state approval.
So what do you need to form charter schools? According to the handy dandy charter school formation flow chart below, you need a founding group and some investors. Interestingly, Brogdon has lined up team members who have “already pledged their support if George is elected.” Hmmm....support as in money?
You also need a facilities plan. This must be the part where Mr. Brogdon will “wipe the slate clean” and begin negotiations with the cash strapped Shelby County Schools who sold Lanier Middle to the highest bidder.
And this is the part where Momma Bears lets you know that privatization no matter how well intended, is never an acceptable solution because every dollar that goes into charter schools comes from public schools. So Mr. Brogdon, let's catch you up on education reform:
1. Teach for America doesn't really teach
2. Success Academy isn't really a success
3. Charter schools aren't really public
This is the second in our three-part series on charter school corruption in Tennessee.
Be sure to also read parts one & three. Click on the links below:
It’s Halloween time and, right on cue, Governor Haslam has donned one of his greatest costumes yet--that of an empathetic, kind leader who actually cares what teachers and non-campaign donors have to say.
Parents and teachers have been expressing concerns with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for a while now, but, for some reason, he has just now announced that he has put together advisory teams and panels that will supposedly “listen” to the opinions of teachers and parents from across the state. These panels will then reportedly make recommendations for changes in our state (i.e, Common Core) standards to the TN Board of Education. (For more information on this plan, click here.)
This seems like a very wise and thoughtful move by the Governor. But many people, including us Momma Bears, think this is a complete farce. And based on the people and organizations involved in this grand scheme, it seems pretty clear to us that the man behind the mask has no intention of doing anything other than keeping Common Core in place.
This review process will supposedly be completed at the end of 2015. This means that the state legislature could not vote on changing our state standards, based on the recommendations of this commission, until the winter/spring of 2016. If things go according to Haslam's plan, Common Core in its current form will, at minimum, be used until the end of the 2015-2016 school year. This gives the state a 1 ½ year-cushion to keep CCSS in place and to wait for the Tennesseans who are spitting mad about CCSS to finally get tired and shut up.
The process used to select the teams and panels for this commission was shrouded in secrecy. We have no idea how these people were chosen, but we strongly suspect that Haslam's private meetings with teachers and administrators this summer were linked to the selection process. (Remember those meetings? The ones where school board members, the media, and elected officials were not allowed to attend?) In fact, 1 of the 2 teachers who represented Bradley County at one of the meetings, Amber Caldwell, ended up on the Math Advisory Team for grades 6-8. And, not surprisingly, Amber made her support of Common Core very public before her hush-hush secret summer meeting with Haslam. Some people might think this is a coincidence, but Momma Bears happen to think Haslam used these meetings as a way to find teachers who would toe the party line in these advisory teams. (For more information about these secret meetings, please go to this link.)
Some of the organizations and people that have been selected to participate in this process appear to have personal interests in keeping CCSS around. (Click here to see a list of those selected):
It’s time to wrap this up for now because we have our Baby Bears we must tend to. But, as you can see, Momma Bears are not fooled by Haslam’s weak attempt to address our concerns about Common Core. If you would like to know what we would like to see from our Governor and elected officials, stay tuned for a follow up blog post...
Your tax dollars... given to unqualified, inexperienced people who have no oversight and pay themselves huge salaries and give lucrative contracts to their friends & family... to teach the most precious, priceless things in our world... children.
When they screw up, politicians and the government turn a blind eye.
Why do these charter schools get away with this? Because they are smart and sneaky and rich. They deliberately donate money to politicians who pass laws to benefit them and protect them.
So, what's a Momma Bear to do? Yep, we blog about it. And let the Legislators know that the voters are on to them. So, this is #1 in a series of exposing Charter School Corruption, courtesy of www.tennessee-education-matters.net, who generously gave us permission to share all the dirt they dug up on Rocketship. We know you think this stuff can't happen to your schools. But, it is here and coming to a school system near you. Read this clever and insightful blog, share it, and tell your elected officials you're not fooled. You want excellent public schools for every child in TN. You want community schools that are governed by the community; schools that are not there just to make a buck on the backs of kids with your tax dollars; schools that will not flip the school into a real estate deal and skip town when it doesn't work out. Who loses? Well, it is not going to be Rocketship. It will be the kids and the taxpayers.
Can They Be Stopped???
Rocketship is a California based charter school chain with plans to expand across the United States. It is known for its blended learning approach to education. As many as 50 rocketeers (otherwise known as students) are piled into a learning lab where they spend much of their time in front of a computer screen. Rocketship curriculum relies heavily on on-line lessons reducing the role of a classroom teacher. It has its fair share of critics. A Forum article reveals that education experts are less than impressed with Rocketship's methods. The charter school chain has experienced plummeting test scores and legal setbacks. Another problem for them is the angry parents who created a website devoted to stopping Rocketship. As a result, Rocketship seems to be re-thinking its approach and reducing its class size as it rolls into Tennessee. More about that here.
In 2012, Rocketship was expected to join Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD) and open charter schools in Memphis and Nashville for the 2013-2014 school year. But things did not go as planned. Katy Venskus, vice president of policy at Rocketship, says that it was challenges with growing the CMO [charter management organization] in new regions that have slowed new schools. “Moving into new regions as a national network was more complex than we expected,” she says.
By the way, the spokesperson for Rocketship that was just quoted above... Well, she's a felon
Katy Venskus also known as Katherine Heringlake "was charged with felony theft and forgery in April 2002 in Dane County Circuit Court and pleaded no contest to the theft charge in August of that year, with prosecutors dropping the forgery charge." At the time, Venskus was the board president of NARAL-Wisconsin. Years later as a lobbyist for Education Reform Now, a group that favored mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools, Venskus once again faced theft charges. This time she was accused of felony theft and felony identity theft related to prior employment with the lobbying firm, Public Affairs Company. Now, she is employed as a VP at Rocketship.
A year later than anticipated, Rocketship opened its school in Nashville with the help of Andre Aggasi and his buddy, Bobby Turner who operate the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund. Their company locates and purchases real estate to build a new charter school. Turner-Agassi also fronts the construction costs and acts as general contractor. After the school is built, they execute a long term lease with the charter school operator and assist them with securing long term financing.
He's a Playah
Here's how the deal works:
The Turner-Agassi or The Canyon Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund provides the investment capital to purchase property for the site of a future charter school. After buying the real estate, the Agassi group designs and constructs the school building. Upon its completion, the Agassi group will retain ownership of the property but the charter school operator will receive a long term lease with an option to purchase. Agassi's group helps the charter school operator obtain a loan and will even provide bridge financing if necessary. The loans are paid with tax dollars earmarked for public schools. So, basically, Agassi's land investment company is enticing charter school operators into a rent-to-own deal with the tax payers footing the bill.
Andre Agassi makes no apologies for "his market-driven approach toward helping schools despite criticism that comes with it." In fact, he told USA Today that he embraces the concept of profit with a mission. But what exactly is his mission?
In Palm Beach County, Florida, Agassi purchased a ten acre tract in Boynton Beach to build Franklin Academy, a K-8 charter school located within 2 tenths of a mile (a three minute walk) from Hidden Oaks Elementary School, a PK-5 public school built in 2005. Hidden Oaks serves a large population of special needs students having 4 classrooms for students with Autism, 1 Pre-Kindergarten classroom for students with Autism, and 3 classrooms serving students with Intellectual Disabilities. But Franklin Academy's website is devoid of any mention of special education, bragging instead on its enrichment programs and academic enhancements. So, what's the mission? To segregate special education student from those who are gifted? Or could it be something more basic? Like making money?
According to the Palm Beach County property records, the Florida Charter Foundation has a 29 year lease on Franklin Academy. The lease contains a provision for two 10 year extensions. At the end of the lease, the Florida Charter Foundation has an option to purchase and a right of first refusal. The leased property is valued by the tax assessor for over $9.2 million. But this multi-million dollar property is exempt from taxes. Even though, the property is owned by a private investor, it is considered a public school. This means Agassi's investment group gets to collect money from its lease without having the expense of paying property taxes.
Property records also show two deeds (see here and here) recorded in 2013 where Agassi took ownership of the property. The total purchase price for the land was $1.97 million. On December 26, 2013, Agassi investor group recorded a mortgage on the property in the amount of $11.4 million.
Click the pictures below to go to the links to view them on line.
Green Cards for $ale
From the Washington Post: Wealthy Americans [like Andre Agassi] have been funding U.S. charter schools for years now through their hedge funds, private foundations or personal fortunes, but it turns out that super-rich foreigners are forking over big money to American charters too.
Do you think it’s for the kids?
There is a "federal program known as EB-5, [where] wealthy foreigners can in effect buy U.S. immigration visas for themselves and their families by investing at least $500,000 in certain development projects." In particular, foreign nationals are buying up American charter schools. Their investments are rewarded with an immigration visa. Much of the foreign investments are finding their way to Florida charter schools through Chinese investors who have already put in at least $30 million as of 2012 with promises to invest even more in the future.
Promotional materials for Agassi's Franklin Academy project explains how the EB-5 program works: "Foreign investors seeking a direct route to a U.S. Green Card via the EB-5 immigrant investor program are offered the unique opportunity to invest as little as US$500,000* in a first-rate American Charter School project. The investment will take the form of a loan made to an experienced developer, which is a partnership between Discovery Schools, Inc. (a Florida based Charter Management Organization) and Turner-Agassi, a leading charter school development company, founded by the tennis champion, Andre Agassi."
They're Here Already---The Nashville Deal
It's interesting that the Rocketship charter chain felt the need to purchase property and build a new school when there were plenty of vacant school facilities in Nashville available to charter school operators. In fact, Tennessee law requires that school districts provide a list of vacant and underutilized properties to the state for use as potential charter schools. See below for latest MNPS list of properties.
“We just thought that was a good site and a neighborhood we wanted to serve, and it made sense to build ‘ground-up,” said Laura Kozel, Rocketship’s vice president of facilities. “The next time we open a school there, it very well could be a renovation.” But notice that Rocketship didn't go forward with its planned school in Memphis....
Could there be a reason for Nashville getting a newly constructed Rocketship school while the Memphis project was put on hold? Hmmmm....could it have something to do with Nashville being more attractive to real estate investors? According to The Tennessean, "in the past four years, while Nashville was adding almost 17,000 people, Memphis lost more than 8,000."
Critics of the Nashville Rocketship construction project say, it's all about the rich getting richer instead of helping children. Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and a member of the National Education Policy Center in Colorado who studies and monitors charter schools says, “It’s really a scam.” To really follow the money, you would have to really understand the facilities companies.” He goes on to explain, Rocketship will pay a facility fee to Agassi's investor group. For the company’s California schools, the fee is about 18 percent. He anticipates a facilities fee in the high teens for the new Nashville school. In the end, Rocketship will own the building and “the taxpayer’s interest is not protected,” Miron says. If the charter school closes, the building is still owned by the company, even though it was paid for with tax dollars via facilities fees.
From Rocketeer to Racketeer...
"In short, education reform is a good cause. Experimentation is good — and some of the best charter schools today have experimented in what could be valuable ways. But the push, coming from Wall Street and the extremely wealthy, for this specific form of charter schools, for this specific way of funding them, is part of both short-term and long-term drives for profit that will accrue to the wealthiest while weakening the middle class. The question is not whether we should back away from the cause of education, or the cause of education reform. The question is in whose interests it should be done and who should most strongly influence the outcomes."--Jonathan Turley
Thank you to Tennessee Education Matters for their Contribution
This is the first of our three-part series on charter school corruption in Tennessee.
Be sure to also read parts two & three. Click on the links below:
Meg Norris is a doctoral candidate in education and a certified teacher in Georgia. After 18 months with Common Core in her classroom, her observations compelled her to walk away from her dream job of teaching to fight against Common Core and high stakes testing. She was banned from her former school because of her stance against Common Core. Her open letter to her students recently went viral on the internet. She is the co-founder of Mom’s Against Duncan (MAD), Opt Out Georgia, and Common Core and the Brain and speaks on Common Core, the brain, poverty and stress.
To My Students,
Since its release on Nov. 1, 2013 this letter has gone viral. It has been picked up by several dozen blogs including Diane Ravitch (NYU) and Stephen Krashen (USC). It has been published in uncountable newspapers and has been shared in dozens of countries. Meg has spoken or is scheduled to speak in GA, SC, AL, TN, NY, CO, CA, AR, OH, and TX this year. Her dissertation on the affects of Common Core on special needs children has been accepted and she will graduate in December 2014.
Momma Bears would like to thank Meg Norris for kindly allowing us to repost her letter and information on our blog and share it with our readers. You can see video of Meg and other strong voices like hers by clicking HERE.
This is a powerful video made by parents and educators. It is factual and truthful. Take 20 minutes to watch it, and then share it with your friends. Contact your elected leaders and tell them you want Common Core eliminated from your schools. That is what it is gonna take, Momma Bears. YOU hold the key to protecting your children. Speak up and be heard!
Just some moms who realize their children's public school systems in TN, as well as public schools across the country, have major threats to their survival. We research, we write, we share, and we advocate.