Colorado’s Not Quite Independent Oversight of Charter Schools

A new review of documents provided to the Center for Media and Democracy/PRWatch from the state of Colorado shows close relationships between the agency charged with administering public education and the growing charter school industry.

The Feds Have Awarded more than $82 Million for Charters in Colorado since 2010

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education approved a Charter School Program-State Education Agency (CSP-SEA) grant to the state of Colorado for $36,359,999. The federal government previously awarded the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) $45,982,596 in 2010.

The new grant approved in September 2015 is for a shorter period and thus amounts to increased federal funding for Colorado charters.

This increase comes at a time when traditional public schools for all children are facing many budget challenges—due in part to continuing problems caused by the "TABOR" law, a controversial budget law peddled by the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a pay-to-play operation funded in part by proponents of privatizing public education, such as ALEC corporate board members K12 Inc., a for-profit virtual school corporation, and Koch Industries, which is controlled by billionaires Charles and David Koch who have spent decades peddling policies hostile to even the idea of public schools. (ALEC recently held a session that included how to promote the TABOR bill under a different name since it has caused so many problems.)

The new grant announcement for Colorado and seven other states was marred by the fed's decision to approve such grants despite major scandals over the misuse of charter funds in several states--including in Ohio where poor charter testing results had been manipulated by a state official—Dave Hansen—who previously worked as a top lobbyist for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (and whose spouse, Beth Hansen, is the manager of Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign).

Colorado is slated to receive more than $11 million in 2015-2016, the first year of its renewed CSP-SEA grant.

CMD has requested materials from the CDE about its handling of the initial set of CSP-SEA grants and charters, as part of an examination of accountability for those taxpayer monies. CMD found that the federal government has spent more than $3.7 billion in Americans' taxes fueling a charter school industry in the states that is exerting increasing political influence on state and federal agencies. Colorado is complying with state sunshine laws in providing timely and responsive documents.

CMD's review of the emails and documents from Colorado reveals that the charter school industry and the state oversight agencies are even more intertwined than initially believed.

"Volunteers" Reviewing Who Should Get Charter $$$ Hail from . . . Charter World

For example, the records show that "volunteer" reviewers who evaluate and recommend which Colorado charter schools get to share the state multi-million dollar federal grant have direct connections to charter schools and are proponents of the charter school movement.

Based on an email recently disclosed from October 2014, here are the names and brief bios of people receiving an email from the state to Colorado Charter School Program grant reviewers who would be scoring charter schools seeking funding from taxpayer moneys. There are two main categories of people on the list: 1) people who worked directly for charters or the charter school industry and 2) people who worked for state or county agencies in support of charters.

1) Charter Grant Application Reviewers who Work for Charters or Charter Consultancy Companies

  • Kindra Whitmyre, who is with Colorado Digital Boces and was the principal of the first charter school in Colorado, the Academy Charter School in Castle Rock; she is also a consultant for a for-profit limited liability corporation called "Charter School Solutions" and has been a consultant to CDE
  • Sarah Knauss, a consultant with the for-profit firm "Abstract Insights," which has been providing financial services to charters since 2006 and which was created by charter school founder Lori Deacon
  • Amy Willis, Assistant Principal at the Frontier Academy, a charter in Greeley
  • Diane Borre, Business Manager for the Vanguard School, a charter in Colorado Springs
  • Jami Boarman, who appears to be connected to the Free Horizon Montessori, a charter school in Jefferson County
  • Jeff Wilhite, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Academy, a charter in Evergreen
  • Jessica Dauchy, a Director at the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter that operates in Denver and Los Angeles
  • Jennifer Arzberger, Ed.D., who led the development of the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a charter
  • Kim Miller, founder of Ridgeview Classical Schools, a charter in Ft. Collins that was ranked by a magazine as the 889th best high school in the country, primarily for high AP scores in reading; she also founded the Vanguard Classical East, a charter in Aurora
  • David Floodeen, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of The Academy, a charter school in Boulder
  • Kristen Trezise, Headmaster of Caprock Academy, a charter in Grand Junction
  • William K. Weiner, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Pinnacle Charter School, which uses charter in its name

2) State or County Staff Who Work to Advance Charters (who were on the email to grant reviewers)

  • Terry Croy Lewis, who is currently the Executive Director of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), a statewide charter authorizer created by the state; he was formerly with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and was previously the Executive Director of High Point Academy, a charter school in Aurora
  • Kristen Stolpa, Chief Authorizing Officer for CSI
  • Wendy Nelson, who was handling Quality Assurance for CSI; a few years ago she was a fellow with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (whose lead lobbyist Dave Hansen was embroiled in the Ohio scandal over charters last year) and she is now with the Northeast Charter Schools Network in Lakewood, a network for charters
  • Gretchen Morgan, Executive Director of the CDE's Choice and Innovation Unit (CDE-CI); she was previously with Venture Prep, a charter, with Paragon Education Network, a charter advocacy group, and with Expeditionary Schools, a charter incubator
  • Gina Schlieman, Manager of the Schools of Choice Office of CDE's Choice, Innovation and Engagement Unit (CDE-ICE)
  • Christina Jean, Ed.D., CDE-ICE
  • Michelle Liu, a Senior Consultant with CDE-ICE
  • Renee Martinez, CDE-ICE
  • Jessica Fuller, former Executive Assistant to the CDE Commissioner of Education and former Executive Assistant on choice
  • Kim Burnham, Compliance Grants and Awards Office in the CDE
  • Laura Noonan, who was the Innovation Schools Project Manager for the CDE
  • Jennifer Holladay, who is part of the Denver Public Schools Charter School Portfolio Management Team (DPS-PMT) and the Director of School Development and Support for charters
  • Brittany Shores, Budget Analyst on charters for the DPS
  • Maya Lagana, Director of Strategic Support for the DPS-PMT
  • Laura Gorman, the Grant and No Child Left Behind Coordinator for the Douglas County School District

In fact, the only person on that email from Gina Schliemann to charter grant reviewers who was not either working for a charter school or to promote or aid charter schools from a state and county office was April Lanotte, a Senior Instructor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who also works as a STEM curriculum consultant. Additionally, one of the emails mentioned "myrandas," which may be Myranda S. Marsh, who was with CDE and also continues to serve as Executive Director of the James Jordan Middle School, a charter in California.

That is, not a single person chosen to review the sufficiency of applicants for grants to charter schools was working as a principal or teacher at a traditional public school and no administrator whose work is focused on aiding traditional public schools as a public servant for the state or a county was included in the list of reviewers.

All volunteer reviewers for the CDE are required to sign conflict-of-interest releases stating they will not review applications in which they have "a personal or financial interest regarding which an (sic) organization or school district is recommended for CCSP," the Colorado Charter School Program. The release then lists eight examples of what might constitute a conflict of interest to make it clear to reviewers that they should not judge applications from the charter schools they work in.

CDE's release does not consider working for other charter schools to be a conflict of interest. The background of the reviewers on the 2014-2015 provided to CMD raises the question of whether all reviewers chosen by the state are part of the charter school industry. Is everyone involved in the review already a cheerleader for charters, uncritical of the concept of sending taxpayer dollars to private and quasi-private schools designated as charters?

Such close connections between charter advocates/protectors within the state with the charter industry contributed to scandal in Ohio and to the much-criticized decision of the feds to award that state huge sums for charters despite hiding and downplaying poor charter school results. Or as the famous Roman saying goes: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes," who guards the guardians?

Colorado Charters Have Closed or Been Flagged for an Array of Troubles

Colorado has almost 100,000 students enrolled in charters. Since the inception of charters in Colorado, more than a dozen schools have been closed, for reasons including sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement, illegal hiring practices, inflated enrollment, and poor academic results. These problems suggest that the process for approving charters that can receive public tax dollars has deep flaws.

CMD's review of CDE emails shows that some state officials are overtly solicitous of charters and quite forgiving of applicants' errors and omissions.

For example, when charters submit poor applications they are sometimes given second chances. In one such instance, Gina Schlieman, CDE's charter school grant manager, wrote in an email that one charter school's apparent shortcomings reflected not "the quality of their schools but the quality of the application."

Similarly, when lobbyists from the Colorado League of Charter Schools in a December 2014 meeting discussed with state education department employees draft legislation that would require charter authorizers to submit annual applications in order to advance oversight and accountability, Gretchen Morgan, the executive director of the State of Colorado's Innovation and Choice Unit, objected.

She opined, "I think that is politically ridiculous, and also creates a giant bureaucratic process… I would go for a more robust process on 5-year cycles."

The time-frame preferred by the pro-charter office for the state would allow millions to flow to charters without annual applications to help protect against fraud, misuse, or squandering of public moneys.

Colorado Charter Overseer Holds Back Criticism after Consulting … Charter Industry

The CDE's solicitous approach to charters has allowed taxpayer money to go to charters without core protections for compliance with the laws on the books.

As CMD documented in its Charter School Black Hole report last fall, it was a former business manager at the Children's Kiva Montessori School in Cortez who sounded the alarm in a message to the state in 2014: "Does anyone directing the school actually have some knowledge about federal and state employment laws?" he asked. "They had no means to actually process and pay a payroll. The CCSP Grant that had been approved is a reimbursement grant and they only had $1,000 +/- in the bank."

The whistleblower said the school had not applied for a Colorado Tax ID, had not applied-for a Colorado Unemployment Insurance Account, did not have any Workers' Comp policy or other legal requirements and yet had received government funds.

According to emails CDE's Schlieman formulated a draft response regarding the failings at the Kiva Montessori School that agreed with the whistleblower that this "is not typical or appropriate."

But, she then emailed the draft statement to the Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS), a private non-profit group, for "potential feedback … to consider for your quality criteria document."

CLCS disliked the phrase "not typical or appropriate." Schlieman's finalized response was much different after this consultation with the "industry experts," in which she modulated by saying "Some of this may not be out of the ordinary, especially depending on the exact wording that covers these areas contractually. Charters are always so interesting!"

That is not quite the same meaning as inappropriate. If the state agency charged with monitoring charter compliance with the law were not so close to the industry it is overseeing, it would be difficult to imagine a legal regulator clearing a response to a whistleblower with the regulated industry or noting that failure to follow legal requirements for workers is merely "so interesting!" (Colorado now notes in its guidelines that charters must demonstrate that they have payroll systems in place.)

Other Examples of Close Ties with Charter School Industry in Colorado

Another example of the close ties between state charter overseers and the industry is how the CDE handled the issue of giving "automatic waivers" to charters.

In 2014, when the Colorado state Board of Education was doing its rulemaking process for such waivers, Schlieman described how the charter school industry's CLCS had helped the state develop the list for waivers.

Later in that same hearing, in a discussion of whether such automatic waivers from district and state policies and union contracts should be given to so-called "innovation schools" (which are school district-run neighborhood public schools that are not represented by the CLCS), the charter school league's Dan Schaller stated that it is good to have automatic waivers so there are no bureaucratic hoops or requirements of replacement plans and so many charters request such waivers.

The full audio of that public meeting is available here (at the 37 minute mark and at the 55 minute mark).

Colorado's Close Ties with Charter School Special Interest Are Part of National Trend

Initially created as an amendment to the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program provides funding to states where charters are largely exempt from democratic oversight and control when it comes to deciding on a curriculum, student admission and discipline, and staff hiring and firing policies.

In 2010, following President Obama's then-reauthorization of ESEA, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan pledged in a blueprint on school choice that charter schools receiving funding under the program would purportedly be held to even higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools. New evaluations required states to submit plans for systems that would hold charter school authorizers accountable.

But as CMD reported last May, that mandate for accountability--which is at odds with the original purpose of the charters as extolled by ALEC and some other charter proponents-- operates mostly as a rubber-stamp.

State departments of education, like the CDE, are tasked with conducting independent reviews of applications for funding for charter schools, but it turns out the federal government and the state are enlisting unaccountable charter advocates to review state CSP-SEA applicants, and SEAs are also enlisting unaccountable charter advocates to review the charter school grant applicants.

The situation in Colorado is symptomatic of flaws endemic to the program nationwide.

Reviewers considering the applications, as well as the company contracted by the U.S. Department of Education to monitor how states comply with the program requirements, are closely aligned with the same charter industry that is fighting against transparency and accountability while lobbying hard for more of the limited funding for public schools to be given to charters.

This irony of reviewers being beholden to the industry they are tasked with reviewing is borne out by the U.S. Department of Education's 2015 call for peer reviewers for applications for the next CSP grant cycle. The job posting makes clear what the feds are looking for: charter school funders; charter school and charter management organization leaders; social and education entrepreneurs; and grant makers or managers with experience in the charter sector.

The U.S. Department of Education said it would also consider applications from "state or district education officials," so long as the reviewers "have a solid understanding of the charter school movement" and experience in "designing, evaluating, or implementing effective charter school models." Criteria such as these effectively rule out anyone who is not a charter school advocate or who may be critics of charters from within traditional public schools.

Indeed, when the fed's Charter School Program described itself in a presentation in December, it said evaluating the effects of public charter schools is only the second of "four statutory purposes." The other three are, "Providing financial assistance for the planning, program design and initial implementation"; "Expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the United States"; and "Encouraging states to provide support to charter schools for facilities planning."

With evaluation largely outsourced to charter school cheerleaders in the states and nationally, even that second-tier priority of evaluation is hardly a truly independent one.


Lisa Graves, CMD's Executive Director, contributed research to this story.