Thursday, March 08, 2012

Charter School Hacks

As it turns out, RIDE didn't post a note about the Grace School Mayoral Academy (GSMA) public hearings on the charter school applications page (as they'd done in the past), and nobody except the Valley Breeze mentioned it (according to Google).

The application is extraordinary in one respect: it proposes to create a public charter school within an existing private school -- the Meeting Street School. Or perhaps more properly a group of private schools which includes an existing K-8 Grace School (whose relationship to the GSMA is never broached at all in the proposal), a pre-school, high school, outpatient programs, and probably others. All these schools are "known for helping children with multiple and severe challenges," although the existing Grace School (at least) integrates a diverse group of student in an inclusive model.

So the basic idea of GSMA is that each class will be made up of 17 public charter school students and three Meeting Street students with special needs. Meeting Street acts more or less as a CMO, managing the school, providing the building, choosing 5/11th of the board which oversees it, getting paid by the mayoral academy. The weird thing is that Meeting Street also provides funding to the school to educate its students. Exactly how that will work is not explained. Presumably Meeting Street will have service contracts with the mayoral academy. But it seems that 15% of the students in GSMA classrooms will not be GSMA students.

What's the point of this? Why not just have a charter school that has an admissions preference for disabled students? I couldn't puzzle this out until I looked more closely at the budget. It turns out that in the breakdown of classroom income and expenses there are three categories: charter students, Meeting Street students, and MS IEP. This, not surprisingly, is not directly explained, but as it breaks down, only 27% of the income and expenses for each classroom of 20 students is related to the 17 charter school students. The rest is associated with the three Meeting Street students. This is entirely plausible since these students require extensive services. For example, the entire instructional support costs for the charter school students in one classroom is estimated to be $67,325, while the "Therapists, Psychologists, Evaluators, Personal Attendants and Social Workers" line for MS students is over $100,000. Again, that doesn't seem surprising and inappropriate in itself. I assume that particularly the IEP column refers to expenses paid by sending school districts who outsource intensive special education services to Meeting Street. Probably there are other sources, families that can pay out of pocket, insurance, philanthropy, etc.

Regardless, this now makes a little sense. If GSMA accepts a child with "multiple and severe challenges," my understanding is that they don't get additional funding. They don't get it in the state funding formula. You essentially can't run a charter school which serves a significant number of students with "multiple and severe challenges." You'll go broke almost immediately. So this is a workaround. You can't make the sending school district (or parent, etc.) pay a charter school for extra special education costs. But a private provider can. So the private part of Meeting Street will accept that money and pass it on to the charter. Who will in part give it back to Meeting Street for rent, management costs, etc. In this particular case, it doesn't actually seem fishy to me -- either way, Meeting Street is getting paid, and they generally have a very good reputation. In general, this sounds like a terrible idea though, with all that passing money around there would be plenty of opportunities for self-dealing and skimming.

More importantly to me, if you can have a charter school which is responsible for educating non-charter or public school students, including excluding them from the lottery admissions process, you can do all kinds of crazy things that nobody ever thought possible before. GSMA is a neat hack, but it opens a huge security hole.

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