"Reimagine Education": Exhibit A Buffalo
& Keith Jones
On Tuesday, May 5, Governor Cuomo announced a partnership with Bill Gates to “Reimagine Education” in New York. Some local reaction to this announcement can be viewed, here. You can learn more on why this announcement triggered an immediate objection from parents and educators, here.
On this same day, we learned from the office of a local official about a new charter school proposed for Buffalo, called Learn4Life. We had recently seen promotions for this program in the news and on social media, but indication of Learn4Life being a charter school was not revealed. Perusing the Learn4Life website, nothing about being a charter or an affiliation with charters could be found, the same for its various Facebook Pages, including, its new Buffalo page. Several local news stories promoting Learn4Life also did not reveal that it was a charter school: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, and Story 4. It was not until we searched the NY State Education Department (NYSED) website that we confirmed that Learn4Life is one of two new charters proposed for Buffalo. Upon further investigation, it was apparent why its origins would be concealed.
Learn4Life is a charter chain out of California with a notable history of deceptive practices, yielding generous profits. Just this past January, Learn4Life was featured in this Washington Post story, titled, The 5 most serious charter school scandals in 2019 — and why they matter. Last year, a judge ordered the closing of two of its charters in June and three of its charters in August. Learn4Life was first scrutinized in the Washington Post, in 2016, and its website had since undergone a facelift eliminating its past and current charter schools for readers to trace.
Why is this Exhibit A in Buffalo for the Gates/Cuomo “Reimagine Education” gimmick?
First, Bill Gates has always been a big promoter and financial supporter of charters. Second, and most relevant, Bill Gates, along with Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have invested millions in “personalized learning”, the very practice that Learn4Life embraces and implements, and the very practice that profiteers are salivating to exploit during this COVID-19 pandemic requiring virtual learning.
Learn4Life is known for setting up space in storefronts, strip malls, and former liquor stores, where students meet with a teacher one to two days per week and complete a cycle of learning packets for the remainder. Learn4Life outcomes are troubling. In 2015, graduation rates for Learn4Life charters averaged 14% with two schools having 0% graduation rate. Dropout rates ranged from 28% to 54%.
The Learn4Life charter chain consists of about 60 charter schools serving about 45,000 students across several states. Learn4Life is a profit-driven machine leeching public education tax dollars on the backs of at-risk, disadvantaged students. With little overhead- minimal staff to manage the program and instruct students- it is ripe for abuse and turning steep profits.
According to a Voice of San Diego piece, titled, ‘A Classic Conflict of Interest’: Entangled Business Deals at Charter School Chain Learn4Life, a charter executive, named John Helgeson, founded the for-profit Charter School Capital in 2007, and then began serving as vice president at Learn4Life, in 2015. Why is this problematic? Charter School Capital loaned Learn4Life money and then kept the interest, while Hegleson profited from both in violation of California’s conflict of interest laws. In 2016, one of Learn4Life’s charter chains, Diego Plus, collected $26 million in tax dollars, while paying its chief executive $295,462.
Learn4Life is notorious for alternating officer positions and corporate and non-profit company names to conceal their profit-making schemes. One address in San Diego was found to have 13 corporate names, while an address in Lancaster, CA had 8 not-for-profit corporate names. In 2013-14, state grants to the 8 not-for-profits totaled $61 million.
How is this pertinent to Buffalo?
In November of 2019, three officials from Learn4Life, not from Buffalo, met with Buffalo Public School officials about their personalized learning program. One of them, Bill Tomey, a Vice President for Learn4Life, was a former administrator of Desert Sand Charter, known for its poor graduate rates. Another was Robert Morales, who is Senior VP of Lifelong Learning Administration Corporation (LLAC). LLAC is identified as the proposed management company in the Letter of Intent to NYSED for the Learn4Life Buffalo Charter. LLAC boasts that it is the second largest education management organization in the nation with a primary purpose to “support personalized learning”. It has a budget of about $300 million with a board that is predominately white and male. The third individual to attend the district meeting was Cheri Shannon, also a Learn4Life VP, who is identified on the Letter of Intent to NYSED as the public/media contact person for the Learn4Life Buffalo charter. Ms. Shannon was formerly Vice President of Performance and Accountability for the National Charter Schools Institute, as well as the founder and executive director of University Preparatory Academy, a charter school with a tainted history during Ms. Shannon’s tenure.
On the surface, Learn4Life Buffalo has worthy ambitions, stating in its Letter of Intent “to serve students aged 14-21” who have “dropped out or who are in danger of dropping out of school.” However, the Letter of Intent makes clear that Learn4Life Buffalo will only replicate its personalized learning model that has repeatedly demonstrated poor outcomes, stating, “L4L- Buffalo will implement L4L’s high quality school model implemented at LLAC’s 21 charter schools.” The Letter of Intent makes it clear that regular attendance in a classroom with a teacher will be minimal and online courses will be employed.
The minimal in-person support is further evident in the program’s description for “Social-Emotional Learning”. Only two sentences are devoted to explaining how it is going to address the social-emotional needs of its at-risk population, one of which defers elsewhere for support: “staff will refer students to the appropriate Mental Health Services Department for additional support services.” Evidently, implementing a whole-child model and investing in mental health professionals will cut into the Learn4Life bottom-line.
Most would agree that graduation and dropout rates in Buffalo warrant attention, investment, and resolve. As a part of the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) Education Bargain, since 2015-16, 10 new innovative high schools, including 7 new CTE programs have been established. Several will graduate their first classes this June. Enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses has notably climbed 61% with greatest gains among African American and Hispanic/Latinx students (30% and 90%, respectively). The BPS Alternative Education Program has been redesigned to include quality curriculum and teaching with expanded CTE options for historically marginalized students. Five virtual web-based credit-recovery centers have been established to assist over-aged and under-credited students graduate. These virtual pathways target the very students targeted by Learn4Life. The major difference- it supplements daily classroom instruction and does not supplant it.
BPS also has a comprehensive Adult Education Division, which annually serves about 6,500 students aged 17 or older. BPS Adult Ed teachers and students in this reputable program were recently recognized by New York State.
Though great efforts have been made by educators to continue learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and school closure, direct learning in the classroom is irreplaceable. It is safe to say that every child has had their learning interrupted and that many are dealing with trauma. This is magnified for our Buffalo students, many of whom exhibit extraordinary needs. The concept of implementing a program that will provide less for students who require more, while bleeding more expenditures from Buffalo Public Schools and students to feed a bottom-line is unconscionable.
A reimagine of education must eliminate any ploy to privatize and profitize our public education and the futures of our children.
Buffalo Board of Education Member-at-Large
Buffalo Board of Education, Finance & Ops Chair & Central District