Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why charter schools should fear card check

Efforts by teachers unions to infiltrate, take over and destroy charter schools from within are at this point scattered and sporadic; something confined to a few urban areas, like New York City and Chicago, where the unions are honing their tactics and rhetoric. But expect these brushfire battles for the heart and soul of charter schools to become a full-scale assault -- an inferno that could consume the charter school movement itself -- if a federal "card check" measure (more formerly and ironically called the Employee Free Choice Act) is approved by Congress.

The focus of most debate on the issue has been card check's ramifications for the country's business climate -- on whether making it easier to unionize the workplace, by taking away secret balloting, will lead to the resurgence of a union movement that only a few years ago seemed on the ropes. But an even greater concern should be what card check will do to U.S. charter schools, which unions haven't been able to stop but are now intent on co-opting and corrupting.

Card check's implications for U.S. public education is something that hasn't been adequately examined.

The lack of union influence is one of the defining characteristics of a charter school. It's part of what allows them to innovate and excel and hold teachers accountable for performance in the classroom. It's one secret to their success. But teachers unions that long scorned the schools, and tried to block or marginalize them, now understand that the charter school movement isn't going away, so they've adopted a new strategy: If you can't beat 'em, wreck 'em.

Instead of sabotaging charters from the outside, the new gambit is to undermine them from within, by burrowing in, organizing the staff, and letting union-inspired inertia do the rest. The passage of card check would greatly facilitate and hasten that process, laying the groundwork for an all-out, national assault on charter school independence.

Where can we look for a preview of what card check might mean for charter schools? We can look to Chicago, where one effort to unionize 3 charters is making headway, helped along, not coincidently, by a card check system in Illinois that would go national if Congress passes the bill. This report on the Chicago Public Radio Blog, recounting the efforts of one charter school company to fend-off a union takeover, tipped me off to the wider, national implications.

The company that operates the charter schools is appealing the union takeover to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming it isn't legit because there was no secret balloting, which violates (current) federal law. The unions argue that Illinois law -- which doesn't require a secret vote, but simply that a requisite number of pro-union signatures be gathered -- should apply. These are the rules that will be in force nation-wide if card check is approved.

"Under federal law, the three charter campuses fighting for union representation would have to hold an election to determine whether teachers want the union," according to the report. But "state law doesn’t require an election at the schools, because a majority of teachers have already signed union cards."

While the card check debate is now mostly viewed as a battle between unions and business, backers of the measure may have an even bigger trophy in mind -- the debasement, denuding and eventual destruction of the greatest recent innovation in American public education. Perhaps if the growing number of American charter school families come to realize that they have a dog in this fight -- and that their charter school could become just like every other public school if card check passes -- the tide can still be turned against this terrible piece of legislation.


An "official" diploma mill in Britain??

A college accredited by a government-approved body as a “high-quality institution” has been selling diplomas to enable foreign students to extend their stay in Britain.

An investigation by The Times has revealed that the Pakistani-run college has 1,200 international students on its rolls, despite claiming to have only 150. King’s College of Management, in Manchester, has offered places to a further 1,575 foreigners. It kept a hidden list of 207 people who were sold diplomas that allowed them to extend their stay in this country. The Times has also obtained a secret video recording, which reveals how the college faked attendance records to fool the immigration authorities.

The revelations follow The Times’s exposure of sham colleges yesterday. Manchester College of Professional Studies, which gave places to eight of the students arrested in April for suspected involvement in an al-Qaeda terror plot, closed last summer. King’s is not only still in business but has been recognised by a government-approved body, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges, as a “high quality institution”. Despite this, The Times has discovered that individuals working at the college are under investigation by the UK Border Agency for allegedly “assisting students to gain status by deception”.

King’s has links with another ten colleges in Manchester, Bradford and London that have been investigated by The Times. All were established in the past five years and were run by young Pakistanis who came to this country on student visas. They exploited a loophole in Britain’s immigration controls to fuel a sharp rise in the number of Pakistanis who have been given leave to study in Britain. Records show that two of the terror suspects enrolled at King’s after leaving Manchester College of Professional Studies. They were among 1,178 foreign students, most of them Pakistanis, who came to King’s over a 15-month period from October 2007 and were — at least on paper — enrolled at the college to study for a range of certificates and diplomas.

Those still overseas but already offered places at King’s include 906 Pakistanis, 535 Nigerians and applicants from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Algeria. The college, which is based in the centre of Manchester, has a more respectable appearance than Manchester College of Professional Studies. It teaches a limited range of courses to a minority — at most 200 — of the students it enrols.

For many, however, a place at King’s is merely a licence to come to Britain, where they look for full-time work. The Times has a secret recording, made last week, in which a woman confides that she visited King’s last autumn to seek the college’s help in gaining a student visa for her nephew to enter Britain. She explains that a man at the college told her that for a payment of £1,000, which was duly made, he would take care of the entire visa application process, which was subsequently successful.

When she took her nephew to enrol at the college last October after his arrival in Britain, she says that the same man told her: “Okay, I’ll get him a national insurance number. “He can work from now for one year and at the end of the year he’ll get a certificate to say he’s been attending, even though he’s not attending.” Her 18-year-old nephew, she confirmed, did not attend a single lesson in Manchester, yet he is still listed on the college database as an enrolled student.

King’s is owned by Farah Anjum, a Pakistani businesswoman, but its driving force was Tahir Siddique, a 29-year-old Pakistani who came to Britain on a student visa. He was employed at Manchester College of Professional Studies and was involved in many of its visa scams before being recruited to run the new college.

Tahir Siddique left King’s last autumn to run Yorkshire College Manchester, which changed its name to Queens College International recently. The Times has learnt that King’s is currently under investigation by the UK Border Agency, which mounted a raid on its warren of offices and classrooms earlier this year, removing a haul of documents and computers. The search warrant named Tahir Siddique in connection with an investigation into those who were “assisting students to gain status by deception”.

Dr Anjum told The Times yesterday that the college’s enrolment register was not the same as its list of active students. “When they walk into your college, you enrol them,” she said, claiming that the college had subsequently reported hundreds of its enrolled student to the UK Border Agency for failing to attend lessons. King’s kept all their names on its enrolment register, she explained, in case any of them later came back to resume their studies. Dr Anjum said that as many as 800 students had been reported for nonattendance. The Times understands that the Home Office only has evidence of 60 King’s College of Management students being reported.

The Home Office confirmed last night that the UK Border Agency is making inquiries into a number of colleges as part of a continuing investigation into the alleged use of deception to facilitate the entry into the UK of foreign nationals. Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, said that allegations of dubious practices at colleges “highlights exactly why I have brought forward changes which crackdown on abuse of the student route into the UK. “The UK Border Agency is systematically vetting colleges to clamp down on abuse of the rules. Before we tightened controls, around 4,000 UK institutions were bringing in international students. This currently stands at around 1,500. “We will act swiftly where there is credible evidence of organised abuse of the immigration system by any college — whether registered as a sponsor or not.” Opposition MPs and immigration experts yesterday expressed their astonishment that Britain’s recently reformed student visa system remained “riddled with holes”.

Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migrationwatch UK, an independent think-tank, and a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said: “It is astounding that these scams were allowed to take place under the nose of the Home Office for year after year. “What we need now is a complete reappraisal of travel to and from Pakistan and Britain, especially as conditions there deteriorate. It is now absolutely clear that greater resources are needed for effective checks on colleges in Britain. “The minister [Mr Woolas] himself admitted that there are gaping holes in the immigration system, but even he must be astonished at the scale of this chaos.”

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: “There are still big questions about the way visas are granted to students from abroad, not just from Pakistan. The system ought to be tightened up considerably, it is riddled with holes. There are still adverts in Pakistan which promote ways for people to travel quickly and easily to the UK.”

The Home Office — specifically the Border Agency — is understood only to investigate individuals who have been named by intelligence agencies. There are no comprehensive audits of students already in the country.

All but two of the ten students arrested last month in Manchester and Liverpool over an alleged al-Qaeda bomb plot were enrolled on the books of one Manchester college.

A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “We are making life tougher than ever for those who try to stay in the UK illegally. The system in place to deal with students coming to the UK from abroad is more robust than ever before. Intelligence-led operations are conducted every day of the week across the country to detect and remove those people who have breached immigration laws. Since 2008 we have been issuing foreign students with ID cards and under e-Borders the majority of the foreign students will be tracked into and out of the country by December 2010.Additional reporting by Suzy Jagger


Australia: School results compared -- despite opposition from teachers

For the first time in Queensland, parents tomorrow will be able to compare their primary school's academic performance to others in a special liftout. More than 1300 state, Catholic and independent primary schools will be listed in The Courier-Mail with information based on school annual reports.

The Queensland Teachers Union has labelled the liftout irresponsible and "bordering on deliberate fraud" but parents and the state Opposition have welcomed it.

Professor Geoff Masters, the expert commissioned by Premier Anna Bligh to help raise Queensland students' literacy and numeracy standards, said uniform test results provided a very important "snapshot", but a snapshot only, for parents.

It follows a two-month long investigation, including numerous requests to the State Government and its authorities for a centralised list of Year 3, 5 and 7 academic data. The requests have either been ignored, refused or referred, prompting The Courier-Mail to extract the information from the latest annual reports, which are legally required to be posted on school websites. The academic information includes results from the 2007 state-based tests.

Shadow Education Minister Bruce Flegg said the publication of academic information was necessary to drive change. "The reality is nobody took the deficiencies of numeracy and literacy seriously until the NAPLAN (national tests) results were made public," Dr Flegg said.

Wilston mother-of-three Penny Williams said how a school performed academically was one of her biggest concerns and she looked forward to reading the data.

But QTU president Steve Ryan said the results were meaningless unless a full disclosure of school resources, enrolment restrictions, other assessment items and "dodgy" conditions under which the 2007 tests were administered and collated, was made.


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