When a Wildlife Rehab Centre Regulates Charter Schools

Charter school “authorizers” are charged with making sure schools can be trusted with kids and with public money. Problem is, many lack the tools to do the job


Nestled in the woods of central Minnesota, near a large lake, is a nature sanctuary called the Audubon Center of the North Woods. The nonprofit rehabilitates birds. It hosts retreats and conferences. It’s home to a North American porcupine named Spike as well as several birds of prey, frogs, and snakes used to educate the center’s visitors.
It’s also Minnesota’s largest regulator of charter schools, overseeing 32 of them. 
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded, privately run schools freed from many of the rules that apply to traditional public schools. What’s less widely understood is that there are few hard-and-fast rules for how the regulators charged with overseeing charter schools are supposed to do the job. Many are making it up as they go along. 
Known as “authorizers,” charter regulators have the power to decide which charter schools should be allowed to open and which are performing so badly they ought to close. They’re supposed to vet charter schools, making sure the schools are giving kids a good education and spending public money responsibly. 

But many of these gatekeepers are woefully inexperienced, under-resourced, confused about their mission or even compromised by conflicts of interest. And while some charter schools are overseen by state education agencies or school districts, others are regulated by entities for which overseeing charters is a side job, such as private colleges and nonprofits like the Audubon wildlife rehabilitation center.
One result of the regulatory mishmash: Bad schools have been allowed to stay open and evade accountability. 
“Almost everything you see come up as charter school problems, if you scratch past the surface, the real problem is bad authorizing,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. 
In 2010, an investigation by the Philadelphia Controller’s Office found lavish executive salaries, conflicts of interest and other problems at more than a dozen charter schools, and it faulted the authorizer – the School District of Philadelphia’s charter school office – for “complete and total failure” to monitor schools. In 2013, more than a dozen Ohio charter schools that had gained approval from various authorizers received state funding and then either collapsed in short order or never opened at all. 
“Considerable state funds were lost and many lives impacted because of these failures,” the Ohio Department of Education wrote in a scathing letter last year to Ohio’s charter-school regulators. The agency wrote that some authorizers “lacked not only the appropriate processes, but more importantly, the commitment of mission, expertise and resources needed to be effective.” 
Aside from such dramatic implosions, it’s hard to tell how many authorizers are doing at this important public function. They’re generally not required to say much about the details of their decision-making. 
Take Minnesota’s Audubon Centre. As a group, the schools overseen by the centre fall below the state average on test scores. The group has several persistently low performers, acknowledged David Greenberg, Audubon’s Director of Charter School Authorizing, and a few years back, made the tough call to close one. But test scores offer a limited window into how a regulator is performing. The centre works with several schools serving high-need students in Minneapolis, and high-need students tend to have lower test scores. A full picture requires a more holistic evaluation – one that the Minnesota Department of Education is just starting this year. 
In the early years of the charter movement, charter supporters focused on creating more authorizers, in order to spur the creation of more schools. That’s still true in some states, where charters are taking off. But as the movement has matured, there’s been a realization that “having too many authorizers undercuts quality,” in the words of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter regulators. NACSA has worked to educate states and individual authorizers on what good oversight looks like, while promoting measures such as “default closure” to help bypass authorizers that may be reluctant to close chronically underperforming schools. 
While there are promising signs, NACSA acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. “It feels like whack-a-mole, but in the long term, you’re getting closer,” said Alex Medler, the group’s vice president of policy and advocacy. Even if states have some strong authorizers, weak ones can undermine the whole system, as underperforming schools can find refuge with them. 
“It’s not how many are good, it’s are there any bad ones left?” Medler said. “If you’re running a bad school, you look for the presence of bad authorizers. You ignore the good authorizer.”
Consider Indiana, a state that has sought to strengthen charter-school accountability in recent years. On one hand, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is widely regarded as a strong charter-school regulator. The schools it oversees have as a group performed better on state tests than Indianapolis Public Schools, and the office has made some tough calls, revoking charters when it sees fit and flagging suspected cheating at its schools.
On the other hand, there’s Trine University, a small private college in rural Northeast Indiana and a charter-school regulator that has taken on schools that left other authorizers, in some cases after those regulators had sought to close them. 
One of Trine’s schools is a charter operated by Imagine, a national charter-school operator trailed by a track record of questionable financial dealings at schools in multiple states. In 2006, Imagine had sought approval from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, which roundly rejected those charter applications, noting that “the evidence regarding the performance of Imagine Schools nationwide is limited and mixed,” according to internal notes from the mayor’s office. Staffers also raised concerns about the fees the schools would have to pay to Imagine. 
So Imagine tried again with Ball State University, another regulator, got approvals, and began operating several persistently lagging schools until Ball State toughened up and sought to close seven schools at once, including three Imagine schools. The remaining Imagine school – which had gotten progressively worse over the years, going from a C to a D to an F – then jumped ship to Trine University.



An Oscars Swag Bag of E-Cigs

Five vaping claims that could land squarely in the “best fiction” category


No one goes home empty-handed in Hollywood. Even some of the “top losers’’ at the Academy Awards Sunday will exit stage left with an Oscars swag bag valued at $125,000
Among the goodie bag items will be a portable vaporizer (aka an e-cigarette) that’ll end up in the hands of some of the coolest and most popular superstars out there — not a bad marketing move by an industry trying to attract new vapers. But here’s what you should know about the claims some e-cigarette companies make that may put them squarely in the “best fiction” category. (Scroll down for related stories.)
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Since publishing this story several e-cigarette companies investigated by — including one which was the subject of a legal complaint — are now facing fines and have been cited by Utah consumer protection officials for deceptive advertising


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Things You Should Know about E-Cigarettes


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States Look to Tax E-Cigarettes


Herculean task for PM Modi in improving ties with China

When PM Modi visits China in May President Xi Jinping will seek his pound of flesh, by demanding entry into SAARC as a full-fledged member. Xi Jinping also wants to settle the border issues, to the satisfaction of China, if India wants their support to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council


During the recent visit of Sushma Swaraj to Beijing, to attend the Foreign Ministers meet, President Xi Jinping met her in an unusual gesture to show China's friendship for India.  He appears to have reiterated that both India and China have taken "solid steps" to make progress in bilateral ties.
Her visit was to attend the summit of Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC), when Swaraj was able to get both China and Russia to back the UN pact against Pakistan. India has been seeking to push the 19 year old proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism to punish those who shelter and finance terrorism. China, it must be remembered, has often claimed that "foreign forces" are helping terrorists in Xinjiang province.
After the RIC meeting, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying is reported to have said that "the reform of the UN Security Council should give priority to increasing the representativeness of developing countries". China "respects" the aspiration of India and Brazil to play a bigger role at the UN Security Council.
After his return to the US, it appears President Barack Obama spoke to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to appraise him of his visit, possibly hinting at the likelihood of India's move to get the coveted honour of getting the UN Security Council permanent seat.  Pakistan has itself been eyeing the seat with the support of Beijing but its track record on nuclear proliferation and acts of support for terrorism besides chronic political instability has been stumbling blocks.  Nawaz Sharif appears to have informed President Barack that India "does not deserve the permanent UN Security Council seat as the country has been violating the UN resolutions on Kashmir".
In the meantime, China's Silk Road Fund, with a $40 billion infusion, for financing infrastructure projects connecting South Asia, South East Asia, Central Asia and Europe along an integrated land corridor has become operational. This fund is meant to finance development of roads, rail tracks, fibre optic highways etc has received enthusiastic support. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) envisons development of ports and facilities mainly in the Indian Ocean and these ports will be connected to the hinterland by a string of land arteries which, eventually, are likely to hook up the main Silk Road Economic Belt at specified junctions. All these are meant to break the connectivity bottleneck currently experienced in Asia. And these are in addition to the $50 billion that Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has on hand to offer.
According to Justin Yifu Lin, a former Chief Economist of the World Bank, "the strategy is good for the stabilization and development of the world economy and China, as it has a large overcapacity in construction materials".  All these activities will strengthen the influence of China in the region and bring about a strong influence in the area.
So, what has all these to do with the Indo-China relations? Firstly, China has been claiming Arunachal Pradesh as being a part of China, as an extension of Tibetan province, which itself was usurped by it, while the whole world watched, and did not react.  It has not accepted the actual line of control or the MacMahon Line, claiming it to be "disputed".  Not only regional area maps have been altered, but, in the past, they have continued to play around with issuance of visit visa to China as not being applicable, and issuing them, in separate detachable forms.  Border incursions, which took place even during the visit of President Xi Jinping to India and regular airspace  violations have been "treated" small border incidents of no consequence, because, the "areas are in dispute" and that clear demarcations have not been done!  Assurances have been made that these will be resolved amicably by mutual discussions!  Nothing concrete, however, has happened so far! They have claimed that people from this region "need not get visa" to come to China!
In the meantime, China has been demanding its elevation, from being a non-observer status to that of being a full-fledged member in SAARC!  There are eight permanent members, nine others, holding the "observer" status, which includes, China, US, Myanmar, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mauritius and European Union.  By its present constitution, these nine observers can sit and speak in inaugural and concluding sessions, but they are not allowed to vote or take active part in negotiations and discussions.  However, in recent times, both Nepal and Pakistan have been actively supporting China to become a full-fledged member.
India has been opposing this move and has made it clear that this matter will be reviewed after five years to consider it further. So, when PM Modi visits China in May, this issue will surely be brought up and President Xi Jinping will seek his pound of flesh, by demanding entry into SAARC as a full-fledged member and also want to settle the border issues, to the satisfaction of China, if India wants their support to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Even at this point of time, China would still seek a role that Pakistan can play in the Security Council.
China will not surrender Aksai Chin that Pakistan had ceded to them, and therefore it is going to be a herculean task that PM Modi has in his hands!  
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce. He was also associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)




2 years ago

As an Indian, I do not want Mr. Modi to improve relations with China per se. I want Mr. Modi to secure India's position vis a vis China and the rest of the World. Better relations with China MAY be one adjunct to this adventure but certainly not a vital one. There are many other cards that India could hold if it chose. For example, cutting off trade relations with China pending settlement of border disputes. China exports a great deal to India with an overwhelming trade surplus against India, and at this time, China would hurt from such a sanction. Equally, Mr. Modi could apply his mind to finding and promoting persons capable of strategic thinking to multiply and orchestrate military resources and methods. Certainly replacing extortion (aka corruption) and reservations with accountability and rule of law is one vital method for building an India with the competence and integrity that can look China and the rest of the World in the eye.

Dr Anantha K Ramdas

2 years ago

Press reports show that China's Vice Foreign Minister, Liu Zhenmin called in Ashok Kantha, Indian Ambassador in China "to lodge stern representation on Prime Minister Modi's visit to a "disputed border region". He expressed "strong dissatisfaction and staunch opposition" to the Indian side's insistence on arranging the visit by its leader to the disputed area on the China-India border.

He reiterated that the Chinese Government "has never recognized the so called "Arunachal Pradesh" unilaterally set up by the Indian side"

So, what does China expect India to do? Do they expect Premier Modi will seek China's permission for his visit to another part of India?

This Arunchal Pradesh was and is a part of India that existed even before China became a nation, as such in 1949, if I remember history correctly. Simply to say "that we do not recognize MacMahon line or the international borders" that were in force, will not hold water.

It is now India's turn to demand return of Aksai Chin first before we resume our "peace" talks. Period. Pakistan illegally ceded something that did was not hers in the first place, which itself was taken by force!

India must take a firm stand. PM Modi is bold enough to call off this visit.

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