EPI Stands By the Rigorous Methods and Findings of Its Report on Privately Run Charter Schools and the Rocketship Company

Last week EPI published the report Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, authored by University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate. The paper includes a detailed examination of a “blended learning” model of education that replaces teachers with online learning for part of the school day, long a source of controversy in education policy debates. This approach is exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools, which is being promoted for expansion in Milwaukee.

EPI maintains the highest standards of rigorous research, and this report is no exception. Dr. Lafer’s description of Rocketship’s model was largely based on Rocketship’s own corporate documents, which were cited repeatedly in the report. In addition, the author interviewed Rocketship representatives both in Milwaukee and at the company’s national headquarters, including several top executives.

After the report was published, the author emailed a copy to Rocketship executives, inviting their comment and specifically asking them to identify any particular facts in the report they might believe to be incorrect.

While Rocketship responded by issuing a statement denouncing EPI’s report, the statement is a recitation of talking points rather than a rebuttal of the report’s rigorously researched and meticulously documented findings. Indeed, the company has not identified a single inaccurate fact in the report. Further, neither this report nor EPI as an organization is opposed to charter schools per se; indeed, the report concludes with proposals for accountability standards that would allow charter schools to function on an equal footing with public schools.

In some places, Rocketship’s statement is true but incomplete. For instance, the company notes that its teachers are licensed—but fails to mention that Wisconsin has a lower standard of licensing requirements for charter teachers than for those in public schools.1

Elsewhere, the Rocketship statement contradicts some of the company’s own statements and records. For instance, in complaining about the EPI report, Rocketship claims that the company has “NEVER contemplated a model that focused 50% of the instructional day on technology.” Yet in a 2010 interview, Rocketship founder and then-CEO John Danner stated that “we believe we will see an equal split in time between basic skills online and thinking skills in a classroom. This 50/50 online/classroom hybrid model has a lot of properties that helps us scale up.” Danner repeated this vision in separate 2012 interviews with the Washington Post and education scholar Larry Cuban.

Furthermore, in an interview with Dr. Lafer, Rocketship executives explained that “a few years ago … we thought we were going” toward a model of students spending 50 percent of their time in teacher-less computer labs, but are now looking to alternative models of integrating increased digital and online curricula across a combination of computer lab, in-class use, and online homework.2

So too, Rocketship states that it has “NEVER made instructional decisions to maximize revenue.” Yet the company’s own 2013 Business Committee documents record that in June 2012 the company “identified weak budgets due to lack of net income and fundraising,” and then in October 2012 “presented [a] solution rooted in a more efficient school model.” That model, the company’s documents show, entailed increasing class size and cutting teaching staff by 25 percent, in order to generate an additional $230,000 in net income. After this “redesigned school model” was deemed to have mostly failed, the Business Committee explored new means to meet the “need to achieve at least $200k net income improvement [per] school,” including laying off assistant principals and additional online curriculum. All of this is in Rocketship’s own official documents.

But the bulk of EPI’s report is uncontested. Rocketship does not, for instance, contest the fact that it uses technology to replace teachers, nor that this substitution is central to its fiscal model; that its schools had an average teacher turnover rate of 29 percent in 2012–2013; that only 5.5 percent of the students it serves are special needs, compared with 21 percent for the Milwaukee public schools; or that 28 percent of Rocketship Milwaukee’s revenue is budgeted for administration outside the school—more than three times the rate for Milwaukee public schools (all of these facts are fully documented in our report).

Most importantly, no one contests the fact that the model of schools being promoted for poor children in Milwaukee is dramatically different from that enjoyed by more privileged suburban students. As the report details, the 10 best-ranked elementary schools in Wisconsin all have music classes, all have libraries and librarians, all have guidance counselors, most offer foreign languages, and they boast veteran teaching staffs, many of whom have master’s degrees. Rocketship has none of these.

Knowing what makes for good schools is not, in fact, rocket science. Education policy must not be based on the assumption that there are different definitions of quality education for poor and privileged students, and should not promote a model for poor children that wealthier parents reject as substandard for their own families.

Rocketship is of course entitled to its view. But policymakers need to know the difference between personal or ideological beliefs, and social scientific facts.

EPI stands by its research and encourages policymakers, parents, and the public at large to examine this issue with care and rigor.


1. See State of Wisconsin, Act 20, enacted June 30, 2013, p. 461, https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/related/acts/20.pdf; and Wisconsin Association of School Boards, “New Laws: 2013 Act 20,” http://www.wasb.org/websites/legal/File/new-laws/NL2013_020.pdf; and contrast this with public school licensing requirements in State of Wisconsin, Statute Sec. 118.19, https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/statutes/118/19.

2. March 31, 2014, telephone interview with Kristoffer Haines, Senior Vice-President for Growth, Development and Policy; Farah Dilber, Director of Teaching and Learning; and Caryn Voskuil, Manager, School Model Innovation.