Randy Richardson is a former educator and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. Amy Moore, Ed.D is a longtime Iowa public school educator.
Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill in May 2021 that made it easier to organize charter schools in Iowa. Two Iowa-based entities took advantage of the change and applied to start charter schools the following year. Choice Charter School is an online only school for grades 9-12 that enrolled 96 students as on November 4. They hope to increase enrollment to around 300 students by the end of the year.
Hamburg Charter High School is located in Southwest Iowa and operates as a career and technical academy that enrolls 35 students. Hamburg lost its high school in 2015 after the Department of Education found they had overspent state dollars and had offered insufficient classes. The charter school provides an option for high school students in that area.
In November of this year, Iowa received its first charter school application from an out-of-state organization. Concept Schools, an Illinois-based, nonprofit charter school management company, is seeking to open the Horizon Science Academy. If approved, the school would focus on enrolling students from low-income and minority neighborhoods.
A WELL-CONNECTED FOUNDING GROUP
Concept submitted the application on behalf of a founding group that includes Roger Brooks and Sunnie Richer. According to the application, Brooks and Richer “are longtime Des Moines residents, business, and community leaders,” who connected with Concept Schools “through a mutual colleague” because they were “Struck by the lack of high-quality, tuition-free public educational opportunities in Des Moines.”
Concept Schools hosted a public meeting in Des Moines on November 29. Chris Murphy, Chief Strategic Growth & Communications Officer, spoke on behalf of the organization. The way he described the project, Horizon Science Academy would be integrated into the Des Moines public school district, with any student in district limits being eligible to attend.
Charter schools in Iowa are public institutions, funded with tax dollars. But whereas elected school board members control public schools, charter schools appoint their board members. As a result, they do not have the same level of oversight as regular public schools.
Concept Schools’ chosen Governing Board would include Carrie Bening, Sue Cronin, Jeff Goodman, former city council member Christine Hensley, well-known educator Kittie Weston-Knauer, and Iowa Department of Human Rights Director San Wong. Those board members would handle the staff hiring.
In addition to the Governing Board, the Concept Schools Regional Leadership Team are from Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois. One wonders, how do they know what is best for Iowa students and why do they deserve to share our district resources?
Murphy insisted that teachers would be public employees and have the same rights as other public school teachers, including the right to join the union. However, it wasn’t clear who would employ the teachers. If the management company ends up being the employer, then teachers wouldn’t be eligible for Iowa’s public pension system, IPERS. Murphy indicated that Concept offers their own retirement plan.
Concept Schools currently operates 31 charter schools across the Midwest. If approved by the State Board of Education it plans to open the Horizon Science Academy for grades K-3 next year with between 175 and 190 students. (That would be a tiny fraction of the 30,000 students now enrolled in Des Moines Public Schools.) A new grade would be added to the school every year.
CONCEPT’S TRACK RECORD IN OTHER STATES
In his presentation, Murphy touted the high level of achievement among students who attend Horizon Science Academy schools and the 96 percent college acceptance rate. While that does sound very impressive, it also requires some further investigation into the school and its success/failure in other locations.
The company behind the Horizon Science Academy is Concept Schools which is located in Schaumburg, Illinois. A number of reports, including a segment on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” have linked Concept Charter Schools to a Turkish cleric, Fethuallah Gulen, currently secluded in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.
Concept Schools denies any link to Fethuallah Gulen. However, Margaret Brennan and Jennifer Janisch reported for CBS News in 2017 that Gulen’s followers run publicly-funded science and math-focus charter schools in the United States. “By our count, they’ve opened 136 charter schools in 28 states, operating on more than $2.1 billion taxpayer dollars since 2010.” Those schools include Horizon Science Academies.
It’s also well known that Concept Schools and the Horizon Science Academy employ a disproportionate number of Turkish educators. A 2014 investigation by James Pilcher of the Cincinnati Enquirer found that Concept Schools, which were running Horizon and seventeen other charter schools in Ohio at the time, “annually imports dozens of foreign teachers in numbers that far surpass any other school system in the state.” At least 474 foreign teachers, again mostly from Turkey, arrived at Concept’s Ohio schools between 2005 and 2013.
Pilcher’s investigation noted that Concept Schools used H-1B visas to aid in its recruitment of Turkish teachers. “Critics say H-1B visas were designed to help companies temporarily employ highly skilled foreign workers in biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and other specialized fields – not K-12 teachers.”
In Ohio, at least 80 other public districts or private schools used H-1B visas between 2005 and 2013, including Cincinnati Public Schools and systems in Columbus, Akron and Cleveland. Those districts each use about one or two immigrant teachers a year, primarily to teach language skills. CPS hired one teacher using an H-1B visa in 2007.
Concept, on the other hand, this year employs 69 teachers on H-1B visas in Ohio – about 12 percent of its teaching staff. Almost all came from Turkey, and the few who didn’t originated from surrounding countries.
Since that story was published in 2014, Randy Richardson looked into how many teachers from Turkey are currently employed by the 31 schools Concept operates in the Midwest.
Concept helped in this research by listing staff members from 26 of their 31 charter schools. Of the 796 teachers listed, 85 (10.6 percent) had backgrounds in Turkey or neighboring countries. Among administrators the number was even higher, with 15 of the 26 principals (57.6 percent) having backgrounds in Turkey or neighboring countries. While there is nothing inherently wrong with employing teachers from Turkey, the numbers are disproportionately high.
According to reports by the Cincinnati Enquirer and CBS News, at least a few of the Turkish teachers here on H1-B visas were required to pay “tributes” to Concept officers.
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT NUMBERS, TEACHER SALARIES
There is also some doubt about how well students perform in Concept schools. Following allegations of test tampering, Innovation Ohio analyzed test scores at a Concept-run school and found a huge disparity at Horizon Science Academy Columbus between student scores on the independently administered ACT exams and their scores on state tests.
A September 2014 study by ProgressOhio documented a pattern of cheating, as well as the hiring of people with felony convictions and other unqualified teachers. ProgressOhio also highlighted the poor academic performance of many of Concept’s schools, including Buckeye-sponsored schools. HSA Columbus Middle, HSA Columbus Elementary School, HSA Dayton High, HSA Dayton Downtown (formerly Columbus West), HSA Denison Elementary, HSA Lorain, and HSA Youngstown, received an F on “key indicators met,” an important measure on the state’s report card. Noble Academy Cleveland and Noble Academy Columbus received a D.
The Gateway Charter schools in St. Louis (also operated by Concept) experienced similar results. Despite claims that 96 percent of students are accepted to a college, only 55.2 percent were accepted at a four-year college and an additional 20.7 percent were accepted at a two-year school. ACT scores at the Gateway schools declined every year starting in 2019-20, while the scores in regular public schools showed a slight increase.
The Ohio School Report Card also provides some interesting information. On average, Ohio public schools spend about 68 percent of their state funds on classroom instruction. However, a review of the Concept charter schools in the state shows that they spend between 51.6 percent and 64 percent. That is consistent with statements made at the public meeting in Des Moines, where Concept Schools said that approximately ten percent of state funds would be paid to manage the charter school.
During the public meeting, representatives from Concept Charter schools indicated that teachers would be paid a competitive salary and benefits. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Missouri published the salary of every teacher in the state along with the date when they were hired. The average salary for a public school teacher in Missouri is $52,334 per year. The average salary for a teacher in the Gateway Science Academy schools (operated by Concept) is just $47,642 per year. That’s partly because teachers in the Gateway Science schools are much less experienced. Teachers in the Gateway charter schools have an average of five years of experience, compared to an average of 12.7 years of experience in all public schools in the state.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The application to open a charter school in Des Moines goes before the State Board of Education on January 12. Those meetings typically begin at 9:00 a.m. and last throughout the day, and are broadcast via Zoom. The board provides a brief period for public comment.
To our knowledge, no needs assessment indicated that Des Moines parents were demanding an out-of-state charter operator to provide STEM education to students. The Des Moines Public Schools facilities already offer a variety of high-level science, technology and math course to students through highly qualified teachers.
Concept Schools’ application noted (and Murphy confirmed at the meeting) that Horizon Science Academy will not provide transportation services to students or families. Nor would child care be provided before or after school.
Many Des Moines families would never have the ability or finances to send their children to such a school.
Allowing a company with a variety of issues to come to Des Moines and operate a charter with public money isn’t needed right now. We’re much better off fully funding our existing public schools, and improving working conditions to address the teacher shortage, so all Iowa students could have access to STEM and other important subjects.
Top image: Photo by Laura Belin of the old Franklin Junior High School building in Des Moines. At the November 29 meeting, Murphy indicated it was one possible location for the Horizon Science Academy.