Kendall Massett, the Executive Director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, will soon be standing at a crossroads. As someone who preaches district and charter collaboration on one hand, the other hand is busy trying to find ways to get more district money to follow students at Delaware charters. This dichotomy is going to define the future of charter schools in Delaware.
As anyone breathing in Delaware is well aware, fifteen charter schools sued the Delaware Dept. of Education and the Christina School District over funds they felt should have been going to charter schools. The defining moment in the lawsuit: when Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky reversed changes to the local funding formula for school choice payments after September 1st. They could have been patient and allowed Godowsky or the next Delaware Secretary of Education and the General Assembly the opportunity to figure it out. But instead, they took the legal route which was championed by Kendall Massett. As a result, the law firm of Saul Ewing will get $300,000. How many teachers could be hired with that kind of money? How many students could have received a paraprofessional in a school room bursting with over 25 kids?
If the collaboration Massett truly desires took place, this lawsuit wouldn’t have happened in the first place. If there is blame to be thrown around regarding who was at fault with the local funding formula, that blame lands solely at the feet of the Delaware Dept. of Education. They should have been the ones answering the questions for the charters. Christina performed their due diligence and submitted their exclusions to the Delaware DOE. This originated last Winter, with Newark Charter School calling in the DOE who apparently “confessed” to the powers that be about the exclusions submitted by Christina. The DOE had an opportunity right then and there to make good on this. The charter schools could have gone public with this information and forced the DOE to do something about it. And if that didn’t work, they could have brought in the General Assembly. But instead, they kept this a secret for many months. They had to know when the public found out about this they would be understandably upset. These were huge funding changes with charter payments. This was not a wise move for the charters involved. By alleging that Christina was purposely withholding funds from these charters when the district did the same thing they had been doing for 12-13 years, which I might add was completely legal since the DOE approved them, the charters started a war. It is not that difficult to see this was the original intent. It boils down to Greg Meece having a hissy fit because his school wanted more money and if Christina wouldn’t willfully give it up, he was going to punish them and cast blame.
In an article on Delaware First Media, written by Meg Pauly on December 1st, Massett weighed in on the Christina Board of Education signing the settlement with the fifteen charters. Massett, as the go-to spokeswoman for Delaware charter schools, seemed to have some very big misunderstandings about what this settlement really is.
She said the decision most likely won’t require a vote from each schools’ entire board of directors, which could make it easier to approve.
“Because there would not be any money going out – they’re not paying out a settlement, it would be money coming in – there’s not really a fiduciary responsibility that the board would have to approve,” Massett said.
There is certainly a fiduciary responsibility stemming from this settlement. The charters, according to the settlement, would have to make sure the funds were allocated to certain functions similar to what those funds were used for in the Christina School District. As well, the Pandora’s box called tuition tax funds were brought up in the settlement. It states:
In the CSD settlement agreement, CSD has agreed to catalogue and describe, for DOE and CSD Charter Schools, those services provided by CSD to children with special needs (“Special Needs Services”) that are funded in whole, in whole or in part, with revenues generated by the levy of the so-called Tuition Tax by CSD. The objective of this undertaking is to determine whether CSD shall be financially responsible under Section 509(f) for funding the same or similar Special Needs Services provided by CSD Charter Schools to their CSD resident students. If requested, DOE will participate in the discussions and inquiry described in this subsection, and, where necessary, shall enforce this provision.
So what does Section 509(f) of Delaware State Code say?
For any student, who because of educational need requires services that are appropriately financed pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 6 of this title, either at the outset or subsequent to a decision to enroll in a charter school, the student’s district of residence shall remain financially responsible for such student and the charter school shall receive from such district a payment determined in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 6 of this title.
Which brings us back to Chapter 6 of Title 14:
§ 604 Special programs.
(a) If any pupil is counted in the preschool, intensive or complex unit and attends school in a program operated by a district other than that in which the pupil resides, by an agency of the Department of Education or is in an approved private placement pursuant to § 3124 of this title, the receiving district or the Department of Education shall collect a tuition charge for the nonresident pupil, provided approval for attendance has been granted by the sending district. Such tuition charge shall be paid by the school board of the reorganized school district in which the pupil is a resident from the proceeds of a local tax levied for this specific purpose, except that in the case of a district assigned by the Department with the approval of the State Board of Education to administer a school or program for children with disabilities, or special programs approved by the Department of Education for persons without disabilities such as programs for bilingual students or programs for pregnant students, the district so assigned shall be both the sending and receiving district in regard to that school or program and is authorized to collect tuition charges accordingly.
(b) In determining the tuition to be charged for a pupil counted in the preschool, intensive or complex units or for a person without disabilities attending approved special programs, such as bilingual programs or programs for pregnant students operated by a district other than that in which the student resides or by an agency of the State Department of Education, the receiving district or the State Department of Education shall compute the tuition by adding such receiving district’s share of educational related expenses as allowed by the Department of Education regulations. The sum so obtained shall be divided by the total number of pupils in the special program as of September 30 of the current school year. The resulting figure shall represent the amount of the “tuition charge” per pupil.
(c) In determining the tuition charged to the sending district in the case of private placement for children with disabilities, tuition will be defined as in § 3124 of this title and the sending district will be charged 30 percent of the total tuition cost. The remaining 70 percent will be covered through funding provided by the State Department of Education from the annual appropriation for this purpose.
The charter schools get IDEA Part B funding from the federal government. They receive special education funding from the state for Basic Special Education for students in pre-school (if they have those programs) and students in 4th-12th grade. They get intensive and complex funding for students in all grades. Where the tuition tax gets very complex is how it is determined. The local school board votes to set the current year’s tuition tax rate for taxpayers. It is not something the district can change on a whim. And state code is very specific about what those funds can be used for. What makes Christina very unique is that they are the management district for several special needs programs. Those are not funds the charter schools could touch based on this settlement unless they are providing comparable services. Then we get into the definition of a comparable service. Would Gateway Lab School be considered the same school as the special schools within Christina?
Where Kendall, as well as the entire settlement, performs a massive overreach is in this particular section. It is tampering with state code in unbelievable ways. State code does not legally have to honor a settlement stemming from a lawsuit between a school district and a group of charters. As well, it can not, and should not, dictate what a state agency has to do. That is what we have our General Assembly for, to create and amend laws. We can certainly discuss the merit of some of those laws, but that is the very essence of the Constitution of Delaware. A settlement should not create new contradictions that try to negate existing law. Which is why Secretary Godowsky wanted the General Assembly to intervene in this entire funding process. I am assuming the Delaware DOE signed their settlement agreement with the fifteen charters. Which is even more concerning in my eyes. The fact they would allow changes in Delaware law without approval of the legislative body charged with performing that task. A settlement cannot create laws or regulations.
What this section does is change the duty of charter schools in regards to their adherence of special education law which they should already be doing to the best of their ability. This settlement is much more than a “fiduciary responsibility” in nature, as Massett put it. Something that magnanimous in scope should be approved by a charter school board, not a Head of School or even an interim principal in one case. It is fiduciary in a sense that the charters would receive more money from a tuition tax, but it would require an oversight of the special education services within each of those charter schools to make sure they are performing at a comparable level to Christina. That could involve extra resources and staff those charters may not have. Could a charter hire that staff and pay for those resources and then submit for those tuition tax funds? Or would those services and staff have to already be in place to be eligible for those funds? The settlement does not define that.
If, for some odd reason, legislation is created out of this part of the settlement, it would require districts to collect even more tuition tax from taxpaying citizens within their district. They would have to because more would be required to go out to charter schools for those students. They should not be tasked with divvying up the existing tuition tax they receive for the students within their own district with those needs or funds they are already sending to special education schools outside of their district. That would take away from those students. But here is the major problem with this: the local boards have to determine the tuition tax rate in the summer before the school year starts. They base this on projections within their own district. How can they determine the needs of special education students who reside in their district but attend charter schools before the school year even starts? For some they can, but special education can be very fluid, evolving from year to year. It is hard enough for the districts to do this for their own students.
If Kendall Massett wants more collaboration between districts and charters going forward, she needs to stop drawing this line in the sand when it comes to money. She is going to continue to piss off the districts and they will not want to collaborate with the charters who keep demanding more and more from them. Districts can’t always get performance funds or donations from foundations. They can’t always have silent auctions like many charter schools do. All Delaware public schools have the capability of applying for grants from the state or the federal government, including charters. Districts don’t get to keep their excess transportation spending if they set their budget higher than what they actually spend. And charters are free to use this money as they please. So please, tell me Kendall, if the charters are getting what you view as their “fair share“, will you promote removing those extra perks for the charters that districts don’t get? When it comes to education funding, there is a crystal-clear difference between what a charter school needs and what an entire district needs. In some ways, it is like comparing apples to oranges. You can’t complain about charters not receiving capital funding. That was the way the law for charters was set up. It was the price of admission into Delaware public education. So by default, on paper, it would appear charters get less than districts for that very reason.
Some could argue that this latest misstep by the charters is just more of an ongoing agenda to privatize public education. Just one more chunk taken from school districts and flowing into the hands of charter schools which are actually non-profit corporations. By state law, those corporations are required to file IRS tax returns. But because of loopholes in IRS guidance, the one charter school who actually started this whole charter payment mess is the one school that does not file those tax returns. The guiding force behind the lawsuit was Greg Meece and Newark Charter School. They created the very conditions that led to the lawsuit. The settlement promises severe disruption to all Delaware schools involving special education and funding. But Newark Charter School is not transparent with their own finances the same way the rest of Delaware charters are. I have grave issues with that. And I have no doubt in my mind Kendall is aware of this.
In a News Journal article from December 5th discussing the settlement details, written by Adam Duvernay, Kendall states the following:
“I’m glad everyone will have a seat at the table, and that the process will be transparent, so we don’t find ourselves in this situation again where charter schools go for years without answers and feel like they need to resort to legal action to make their voices heard,” Massett said.
What about the questions many Delawareans have been asking the charter schools for years without any real answers? Like how certain Delaware charter schools can cherry-pick students in defiance of state and federal law? When does Newark Charter School, which created this whole mess, finally implement their plan to balance their demographics at their school? When does Newark Charter School become fully transparent with their own money the way every other Delaware charter school is required by law to do? Massett cherry-picks her statements. She wants districts to answer any questions charters have, but when those answers are needed by others, she either deflects or states it just isn’t true. And when people do take legal actions surrounding charter demographics? Like when the Office of Civil Rights asked for all charter school applications a couple of years ago going back the two years before that request? The Delaware Charter Schools Network became the organization tasked with collecting that information. And what happened? Massett informed the Office of Civil Rights the charters did not know they needed to keep that information. And then there is the matter of the now two-year-old complaint from the Delaware ACLU against the State of Delaware and Red Clay regarding practices of segregation and discrimination from some Delaware charter schools. Kendall called that “a myth.” Two years later and that complaint has gone nowhere. Forcing someone to sit at the table with a menu where there are two choices, our way or no way, is not collaboration. It is not legal action. It is manipulation that doesn’t belong in education. With education, every decision eventually affects students in a good way or a bad way. For far too long, those decisions have existed for the benefit of charter school students.
Getting real here, Kendall’s job is to promote charter schools and to serve as a buffer between them and the state in certain areas. At heart, Kendall is a lobbyist, seeking to influence the General Assembly and the Delaware DOE in ways that will benefit charter schools in the state. Charter schools pay dues to the Delaware Charter Schools Network. In a sense, they are very similar to some of the roles the Delaware State Education Association plays in education politics. But the difference is that DSEA represents the teachers in district schools. They promote or oppose legislation that will benefit the teachers within their organization. I have no doubt DSEA would love to have charter school teachers unionize. But the Delaware Charter School Network exists for a niche within public education that almost serves as a parasite on the districts they feed from. It takes from the host body and sucks the energy out of it. That is the price of school choice that Kendall cannot seem to fathom.
In 2017, education will once again be front and center in Delaware. The corporate education reform movement, led by the Rodel Foundation in Delaware, will become more pronounced with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. But in some ways, it almost seems like the charter movement in Delaware and those who advocate for them, seem to have become more emboldened with the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA. He promised billions of dollars to charter schools. To add salt to that wound, he appointed Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. A charter school lover if there ever was one. I have no doubt charter advocates across the country are feeling almost empowered by these events. Supporters of public education are very worried about what will happen to further erode an education system that has been in place long before the very idea of a charter school was introduced.
In Delaware, Kendall Massett will continue to have great relationships with the Dept. of Education and the State Board of Education. She will exert her influence on the General Assembly. If any bill is introduced that will negatively impact charter schools, she will wield her power and influence to put a stop to it. She is backed by some very powerful forces in Delaware that will not be trifled with in any way. But none of these forces see what their choices and decisions make to education as a whole. If charters and districts were funded the same way as the vo-tech schools in Delaware, I don’t think the issues with charter schools in the state would be as big. But this parasitic relationship between districts and charters is paralyzing to education in Delaware. There are other things that perform the same damaging results, but we can control how this particular relationship evolves. Districts and charters aren’t going anywhere. If charters want to co-exist with districts and have true and meaningful collaboration, they have to stop these games. And Kendall Massett, as the spokeswoman for the charters, will have to take on a different mantra. It isn’t a question of choice at this point, it is an answer that demands immediate implementation. Fair goes both ways.
If I were Kendall Massett, I would actually recommend the Christina Board of Education rescinds their vote on the settlement. Funding is important, but shaking down a district like this which will only tick off the other districts in the state, is not something to be proud of. It is not a victory when students continue to pay the price.