October 18, 2016 8:26 am

California Charters Gone Wild: Part 3–For-profits find a way to cash in

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california-license-to-charter-part-threeThe Wise Academy is tucked away on a Girl Scout camp on the Bothin Youth Center in Fairfax, California. Its students attend classes in yurts and barns. Wise, which stands for Waldorf-Inspired School of Excellence, follows the curriculum taught in Waldorf private schools—its students garden, enjoy a games class, and celebrate All Souls Day and Michalemas.

Students must apply to attend, and its preliminary application makes it clear that parents are supposed to pony up cash. The full application demands that families provide all sources of income. The school’s donate button has a default donation of $2,000.

A cash-strapped parent would quickly infer that their family “need not apply.”

How many students attend Wise Academy and how well do they achieve? For the taxpaying public, that is a mystery.

You cannot find this K-6 charter school, which has been in operation for 3 years, on the state’s Education Department website. Rick Bagley, the superintendent of the Ross Valley School District in which Wise is located, was never informed of its presence as required by law.

No one really seems to be wise to Wise—except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project.

The California STEAM Sonoma charter, was authorized in March of 2016 by the Liberty Elementary School District, a tiny district that serves 216 students in its schools. Wise is not within Liberty’s boundaries; it is located in the Ross Valley School District in Marin County. Liberty approved the charter in order to receive funds as an authorizer, knowing that it would neither lose students nor revenue to the school.

But Wise did not just begin last March. The school began three years ago with a different authorizer, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a different authorizing district. The Academy of Arts and Sciences, like California Steam, is an online charter school based in Thousand Oaks, California. It uses the K12 curriculum and the FUEL curriculum, both owned by the for-profit corporation K12, founded by former banker Ronald J. Packard and located in Herdon, Virginia.

Wise is not an online school, nor a storefront resource center. Its website describes a classroom based program, with regular school day classroom hours, Monday through Thursday. The former Academy of Arts and Sciences CEO Sean McManus, described Wise as “ a boutique program that people usually have to pay for, so to be part of a free charter school appeals to a lot of people in the area.” Wise and the state funding it brings left the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so did Sean McManus, who is now listed as the CEO of a new corporation–California STEAM Sonoma.

Despite its classroom schedule, Wise refers to itself as a “learning based resource center.” This classification allows California STEAM Sonoma to sponsor the program, and the Liberty School District to acquire the cash cow.

California STEAM Sonoma is bigger than just Wise. There are four recently authorized STEAM charters listed on the California State Education Department website. None have a corporation name listed, and none have “not for profit” status checked. Eli Johnson is the lead petitioner for the establishment of all four charters. His contact information is listed as eli.johnson@californiaprep.org.

California Preparatory Academy, which lists Mr. Johnson as an employee, is a not-for-profit charter school that runs two charter schools also associated with the for-profit K12. If you call the California Preparatory Academy phone number to get enrollment information, you will speak with a representative of K12, who will match you with any K12 charter in the state. California STEAM charters, like the Academy of Arts and Sciences, buy their curriculum, instruction and administrative services from K12 or from K12’s Fuel Education. California STEAM is also associated with Summit Academy, another online home school, whose mission statement is blank, but whose vendor list is ample.

All of these academies and charters appear to be non-profit shells for the for-profit K12 online school. Just type in a California zip code on the K12 site, and the non-profit schools appear.

Last spring, Jessica Calefati of the Bay area’s Mercury News did an excellent, in-depth series on K12—explaining how the connected non-profits produce dismal results for students but big profits for K12 and the authorizers. California Virtual Academy (CAVA), the largest non-profit connected with K12, recently settled with the state of California for 8.5 million dollars, although it admits to doing nothing wrong.

Unlike the connections between the charter schools and K12, the connection between petitioner Eli Johnson and the four STEAM charters is less clear. Johnson is listed as a staff member on the California Prep website with no picture, no title and no contact information. I asked a representative of K12 if she knew what Johnson’s position was with California Prep, and she thought he might be the principal. I asked the Liberty Elementary District who he was and the person with whom I spoke, knew him but was unsure of his role. Johnson made the pitch for the charter to their board. Finally I decided to ask Mr. Johnson himself.

Eli Johnson, whom I called, told me that he was the Executive Director of California Steam Sonoma. I asked him for the name of the corporation he worked for. He told me he could not remember the name.

He eventually did remember, after some prodding, that he has also been the petitioner to open “blended learning” STEAM charters in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland, Ohio using the California Prep email address.

The tangled web connecting the non-transparent and elite Wise Academy to a for-profit corporation located in Virginia is one more consequence of lax and loose charter laws that divert taxpayer dollars along a pipeline that siphons dollars away from educating kids.

A bill that would have banned for-profit charters in California was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2015. An additional bill, which would have prevented financially troubled districts from authorizing charters in other districts, was vetoed by Brown last month. The president of the California State Board of Education, Michael Kirst, worked as a K12 consultant, prior to his appointment by Governor Brown.

It is unknown how many other charter schools operate like Wise in California.