Monday, November 19, 2018

Keep Your Eye on the School Funding Ball

As you begin hearing more about the Patterson-Cupp committee's proposals for fixing school funding -- ideas that as of now hold much promise -- I want to make sure everyone is aware of what funding numbers matter as we consider future funding levels.

There are several pots of state money that go to schools. The largest is from the state's General Revenue Fund (GRF). The next largest is the Lottery Fund, which has been a problem since the beginning because all that fund did is allow state lawmakers to cut GRF funding and replace that cut with lottery money. Lottery money doesn't increase commitment to education; it just changes what percentage of that money comes from the GRF.

However, there are others that used to not be considered part of state funding, but now are (for reasons I'll explain in a bit).

The first is Property Tax Relief. This is state money that has been set aside to offset property taxes since the income tax passed in the 1970s. The deal was if schools supported the income tax, a portion of it would be used to reduce local property taxes. That's why Ohioans have, in the past, only paid $0.875 cents for every $1 of property tax raised.

However, in 2013, Gov. John Kasich eliminated this property tax relief on all future, new money levies. So while Ohioans continue to pay about 88 cents on the dollar for old and renewed levies, for new ones, they pay the full freight.

Whenever this pot of money has been used by governors to claim that the state provides about $1 billion in school funding through property tax relief, it generally has been dismissed by any serious Ohio school funding analyst. Why? Because that money doesn't go directly to school districts and kids; it goes to property taxpayers (who don't even notice the property tax cut is there, if they even know it exists at all).

The next big pot is reimbursements for Tangible Personal Property (TPP) and Utility (KWH) taxes. Prior to 2011, this payment also wasn't considered part of state support for public education, for much the same reason as the property tax relief. The reimbursement payments were created to get the support of schools during the massive tax reform included in 2005's House Bill 66. One of the reforms was eliminating the taxes on tangible personal property, or inventory. This hammered our traditional manufacturing plants, who invested heavily in equipment and inventory. However, the locally derived tax provided sometimes substantial revenue to schools and kids, so eliminating it would cause a huge cut to kids in many school districts.

So when the state created the Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) to replace TPP, the deal was it would make up for the lost TPP revenue with CAT revenue. And that was how schools ended up being OK with losing TPP. The idea was eventually that reimbursement would be replaced with something else, but until then, the state would uphold its word to schools and make the payments. So because this was simply a state reimbursement, school funding analysts also didn't count this payment as state support because the state chose to eliminate locally derived revenue with a state figure.

Until 2011.

That's when Gov. John Kasich eliminated the TPP and KWH taxes (gradually), all but eliminating what had been a $1.2 billion line item in the 2010-2011 school year. So now local districts lost state funding, so TPP and KWH reimbursements were now considered school funding cuts (as they would have been in 2005 if the state hadn't agreed to the CAT payments).

Finally, during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, the federal stimulus gave Ohio about $450 million a year (on average) to help make up for lost state revenue due to the Great Recession. The idea was states would replace the stimulus money with state money once revenues returned post-Recession. So because this money flowed through Ohio's school funding formula, it's been considered part of the state's school funding commitment.

This is a long-winded way of getting to the issue: Beware of state leaders who claim that certain pots of money should be included as part of the state's school funding commitment, for comparison's sake.

I mention this because the Ohio Department of Education has produced a truly misleading graphic on its website (which I have posted at left) dubbed "Primary and Secondary Education Funding FY 2009 - FY 2019". In it, they try to show that Ohio's greatly boosted school funding during the last 8 years. While the political implications of that timeline are obvious, I'll just discuss the policy problems with their assertion.

First of all, the period is long enough that inflation matters.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dollar in 2009 is worth $1.16 today.

In addition, it includes the property tax reimbursement as state education funding -- a figure that the vast majority of analysts would never include because it doesn't go to kids; it goes to adults who are property taxpayers.

Finally, the amount includes Lottery money, which is OK, except the amount has increased by more than 50 percent. Why? Because of VLTs and other gambling opportunities that have increased since 2011.

So if you wanted to look at money that went directly to kids (and didn't supplant GRF the way the lottery does), then you need to look at GRF, TPP reimbursement and stimulus. Those are the funds that directly fund schools.

When you do that, and build in the inflationary adjustments for each year, you'll see quite a drop in state funding for Primary and Secondary Education since the 2009-2010 school year -- $863 million, in fact.

Even if you include all the so-called funding pots ODE includes, it's a $664 million inflationary cut to Primary and Secondary Education.

Which points out the challenge for Reps. Patterson and Cupp. In order to keep pace with the Great Recession spending on education, they have to boost funding by nearly $1 billion. And they have to do it with a new Governor whose only stated K-12 initiative was to boost some poverty funding and provide a more "equitable system" (the problems with equity minus adequacy, I've discussed before).

But that doesn't mean what these state reps are doing isn't important. What it does mean is we citizens must insist that the rest of the state's leadership follows through on their good work.

And above all, it means that we all keep our collective eyes on that pesky school funding ball.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Brenner School Funding "Fix" Gets Courtesy Hearing

Within the first couple months of the 2017-2018 legislative session, state Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, introduced a new Ohio school funding plan.

As chairman of the House Education Committee, people logically thought this might be a serious attempt to fix Ohio's long-broken school funding system. And while I pointed out how absurd the plan was -- essentially giving huge influxes of cash to privately run charter and largely religious private schools while cutting funding to most local public school districts -- the plan's introduction was treated seriously be many in the media.

However, the bill -- HJR 3 -- had zero co-sponsors.

Not a one.

I thought that would be a big tell about this plan's viability and quality.

Then, in an embarrassing rebuke of the House Education Chairman's authority, the bill was sent to the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, not Brenner's committee. School funding bills should generally go to finance. But out of respect for the committee chair, one would think his big school funding bill would be sent to his committee.

Yet it wasn't.

What does all this inside baseball mean?

Well, it means that instead of being able to talk about his school funding plan for nearly two years in his own committee, drumming up support, Brenner will be given a single hearing tomorrow in the Finance committee -- a hearing that's required by House rules for all pieces of legislation filed prior to July of even years. Even the crazy bills that have zero chances of passing.

So the House Education Committee Chairman can only get a single, required hearing for an overhaul of the state's school funding system, which has been declared unconstitutional four different times.

That, my friends, is a legislator with zero clout.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Data Suggests Far Worse Fake Student Problem at ECOT

New state funding reports indicate that ECOT had nearly 8,000 fake students in its last full year of operation. According to the Ohio Department of Education, its last year of operation, ECOT couldn't account for about 20 percent of its students. However, the monthly finance reports ODE puts out suggests the number may have been closer to 55 percent.

First of all, the last year ECOT was fully operational was in the 2016-2017 school year. So I'm using that as a baseline for comparison.

In the 16-17 school year, ECOT received $103.6 million for 14,208 students. This year, it's zero dollars. A lot of news stories have tried to figure out what happened to all those students. One of the challenges appears to be that they may not have actually had all those students.

Follow me here.

Looking at the changes in charter school funding and enrollment between the 16-17 year and the most recent funding report available from the Ohio Department of Education from this month shows that Ohio e-school enrollment is down 9,851 students. However, enrollment in Ohio's brick and mortar charter schools is up 2,060 students.

So overall enrollment in Ohio's charter sector is down 7,791 students.

Assuming the vast majority of those students came from ECOT, perhaps those 7,791 students may not have actually ever been there.

Why?

Because school district enrollment is down 21,860 students from 2016-2017. If those 7,791 students returned to school districts -- the most likely landing spot -- one would expect school district enrollment to have showed an increase. But it's dropped a good deal.

To be fair, without seeing actual head counts, it's tough to explain why. Was there a big graduating class in Ohio school districts in 2016-2017 that would help explain this?

ECOT graduated about 2,000 students in 2017, but even subtracting out those students from the 7,791 "missing" students means 40 percent of the ECOT total is unaccounted for -- about double the rate that was found by ODE.

So there seems to be something going on here.

I would sure like to know how many, if any of the 7,791 students ECOT claimed it had in 2016-2017 that aren't in charter schools anymore were actually ever there to begin with. Because it looks like the state's 20 percent assessment may be significantly lower than first thought.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

ECOT gets an A in Achievement because kids weren't chronically absent. Huh?

The new state report cards just came out with overall grades being issued for the first time. And outside of telling us what every report card has told us over the years -- namely that Ohio's school districts and buildings perform far better overall on state report card measures than charter schools -- there's an interesting outcome for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).

ECOT has never done well on the state report card. Of the 53 possible grades it could have received through the 2016-2017 report card, it got 46 Fs. It was especially bad in the components that make up the overall achievement component. The overall grade is determined by merging the six categorical grades (Achievement, Growth, Graduation, Cap Closing, Improving at-risk K-3 Readers, and Prepared for Success).

This year, ECOT got an A in the Achievement Component.

How can this be when ECOT has historically been the worst performing school in the state? The answer lies in the fact that ECOT closed half way through the year. So the school did not get graded on several components that it traditionally bombed. The only Achievement category indicator it was graded on was meeting state indicators -- raw test score information. Schools can be graded on up to 26 different indicators, depending on how many students the schools tested that are in each category. For example, if a school doesn't have high school students, it won't be graded on the performance of high school students.

Last year, ECOT met 0 of the 23 indicators it was measured on. This year it met one indicator. And it was only measured based on one indicator. What was that indicator?

I kid you not. It was chronic absenteeism.

Last year, 13.5% of ECOT's kids were listed as chronically absent. This year, it was 7.5%, which met the indicator and qualified as an A.

That's right. The school that ripped off taxpayers by at least $200 million because it charged for kids who were never there, or were absent for whole months and seasons of time got an A from the Ohio Department of Education because kids weren't chronically absent.

Absolutely incredible.

So when you see that ECOT got an A in Achievement on the state report card, let's perhaps take that with a grain of salt.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

DeWine-Husted Education Plan: We'll Fix our Failures. Trust Us.

Mike DeWine and Jon Husted have had a heavy hand in determining the Ohio's current state of public education policy.

DeWine was on the conference committee that determined what the final version of the No Child Left Behind Act would look like in 2001. That law ended up creating the high-stakes testing structure we have in place and has received a lot of recent pushback from nearly everyone in the education community as incentivizing test taking over critical thinking.

Likewise, in 2001, then state Rep. Jon Husted served as the Vice Chairman of the Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee -- the most important committee of any sort at that time. In 2003, he became chairman of that subcommittee -- a position I would hold 6 years later.

When Husted was Vice Chair, the P&S subcommittee was the most important committee of any type in the legislature because it was the committee handling school funding. At the time, the Ohio Supreme Court had ruled twice that the way the state funded schools was unconstitutional because it didn't equitably or adequately provide a thorough and efficient education for our children. After Husted's attempts to fix the system during the 2001 biennial budget, the Court ruled not one, but two more times that the way Husted's system provided funding for students was unconstitutional.

So it was kind of surprising to me to read DeWine and Husted's education plan, which was just released today as part of their gubernatorial campaign. In it, DeWine and Husted said they want to reduce testing and find an equitable funding system.

Here's what it said about testing: "Standardized tests are limiting educator’s creativity and forcing them to a teach to a test."

Here's what it said about Ohio's school funding system: They "will create a more equitable funding system that directs state resources toward supportive services for children most in need."

So, the architects of the nation's high-stakes testing regime and Ohio's unconstitutional funding systems want to fix their previous failures.

I swear.

That's what they're saying.

Not only that, but there is almost zero detail about how they plan on doing this. On the testing, the Ohio Department of Education and State Board of Education have presented a promising change in Ohio's report card system that would de-emphasize testing. Are DeWine and Husted saying they want to do that? Will they get rid of certain tests? Will they eliminate the test-dependent accountability system?

Who knows?

On funding, it looks like they will be putting more money into support services for economically disadvantaged students. But will that be additional revenue? Or will it be taking money from somewhere else to fulfill that obligation? Will this be additional money for wraparound services? Or will it mean more teachers and smaller classes? Will it mean a dedicated element of the school funding formula dedicated to psychologists or other support staff?

Again, who knows?

But I find it awfully interesting that one of the key architects of the law that created our high-stakes testing system now wants to de-emphasize tests (as opponents of NCLB have said for years). And the architect of our unconstitutional funding system now wants more equity in the funding system (using the same language I and others have used for years).

I'm glad that these two men are now acknowledging that the last 17 years in which they have led Ohio and America down their education policy paths has essentially failed. But it sure seems like they're saying, "I know we tried this before and screwed it up, but trust us, we won't screw it up again."

Fool me once...

Friday, August 17, 2018

Feds Say Ohio Has No Plan to Improve Educationally Challenged Student Performance in Charter Schools

Today, I was looking at the Ohio Department of Education's (ODE) website and out of curiosity decided to check in on the state's implementation of that much-ballyhooed $71 million grant -- the nation's largest -- it received to grow high-performing charter schools here.

Later, it was discovered that David Hansen -- the husband of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Chief of Staff -- who oversaw Ohio's charter school program rigged the application by hiding the performance of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow from the federal government, breaking state law.

That got Hansen resigned (fired), and was probably the moment that swung the pendulum against ECOT among Ohio's ruling political elite for the first time. That school year was when ODE started asking ECOT whether it actually had the kids it was charging taxpayers to educate.

But it also got Ohio in a pickle and twisting through about 2 years of haranguing with the U.S. Department of Education over the state's notoriously poor oversight of charter schools. Finally, last year, the state gave out a staggeringly low $1 million of that $71 million to just three of Ohio's about 400 charter schools.

Then the state just gave back $22 million of the $71 million, saying it just didn't have enough good oversight agencies running charter schools. A fine admission. But that was the case in 2015 when Hansen lied to the feds and said the state actually did have good oversight.

Well not much has happened since April 2017 in the media about this, so I decided to check up on the grant's progress. And it's not good. At all.

In its assessment of ODE done for the federal Department of Education last October, WestEd -- a consulting firm -- wrote this staggering paragraph:
"During interviews with the site visit team, ODE did not articulate a plan for the OCS (Ohio's Office of Community Schools) to disseminate best practices for recruiting, enrolling, serving, or retaining educationally-disadvantaged students."
What? This wasn't ODE forgetting to fill out a form. ODE officials sat down with evaluators and failed to articulate how educationally challenged kids would be helped by the federal grant. I mean, WTF? Isn't that the whole point of charter schools? I mean, that's the one I hear all the time.

Oh, but that's not all.
"At the time of the site visit, the grantee’s draft monitoring protocol did not include plans to ensure compliance with Federal and State laws related to educational equity, nondiscrimination, and access to public schools for educationally-disadvantaged students."
Seriously, WTF?

Is it too much to ask that Ohio have a plan to ensure that charter schools follow state and federal anti-discrimination laws? Or that they have a plan to make sure disadvantaged students get what they need in charter schools? 

One more:
"The draft RFA does not include plans for awarding subgrants based on innovativeness. Applicants are asked to explain the effectiveness of their proposed educational program, but not the program’s innovativeness. 
There are. No words.

Nor does there seem to be much independent oversight of this program now. The state had created an advisory committee made up of several experts meant to help the state navigate the program. According to the ODE website, "The Committee shall meet on at least semi-annual basis with the first meeting occurring thirty days prior to the department publishing its first request for application for the CSP Grant.  Thereafter the Committee shall meet in June and December of each year."

Yet, the only meeting minutes (which are quite scant, by the way. But I digress.) posted on the website are from March and April 2017. The last line of the April minutes says they were slated to meet in July 2017. No minutes from July, though. And no indication this group has met since April 2017.

Yet the state apparently took applications for grants for this coming school year. No word about whether they've been granted.

So after three years and constant communication with the feds, the $71 million charter grant Ohio got in 2015 amid much fanfare has been sent to 3 of Ohio's nearly 400 charter schools for $350,000 each.

And ODE still has no plan to ensure charters better serve at-risk kids or implement innovative learning, which was the whole point of the grant in the first place.

Look, I know federal grants are a pain. I know that David Hansen's lies to benefit Bill Lager's now disgraced ECOT put Ohio behind the 8 ball. But good Lord this is awful. And it speaks once again to just how far behind we are as a state on this issue and why the country still considers us the Wild, Wild West of charter schools.

We must do better. And we must demand better. This is embarrassing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Ohio Supreme Court: ECOT can't get money for kids it doesn't educate. Really.

Well, like all courts before it, the Ohio Supreme Court came to the pretty common sense conclusion that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow should have to prove it's actually educating kids before taxpayers pay them to educate kids.

Really. It took an Ohio Supreme Court ruling to establish the pretty common sense idea that eschools should have to prove they are educating kids before taxpayers pay them in Ohio.

Amazing.

Here is the core of the Court's ruling that was handed down this morning. I remind my friends outside of Ohio that the fact the state's highest court had to write this sentence indicates just how far we need to come on eschool policy.
"We determine that R.C. 3314.08 is unambiguous and authorizes ODE to require an e-school to provide data of the duration of a student’s participation to substantiate that school’s funding."
What's more amazing is this: Two of the court's 7 Justices ... disagreed!

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell speaking at ECOT's
2013 graduation ceremony. He was 1 of 2 Justices who ruled today
that ECOT should be paid to educate kids it couldn't prove it
was educating
Two Ohio Supreme Court Justices said it's fine for taxpayers to pay ECOT to educate kids it can't prove it educated. But we are living in Ohio. Oh, and does it surprise anyone that one of those two was Justice Terrence O'Donnell who spoke at ECOT's 2013 graduation -- in his Justice's robes no less -- and bragged about how ECOT founder and massive campaign contributor Bill Lager had a direct line to his office?

I digress.

But there are very interesting tidbits in the dissent. For example, it explains over and over again that when the Ohio General Assembly established the state's charter school system, it never intended for the Ohio Department of Education to figure out whether kids going to these schools were actually being educated in them. I swear. That's what the dissent said.
"It is telling that the legislature addressed many of the concerns motivating this litigation—i.e., that e-schools should have to maintain records documenting student participation—without expressly linking state education funding to the duration of online participation."
The dissenters are correct here: It is telling that the Ohio GA wouldn't tie any of this to funding at e-schools. In fact, it's pretty clear that the reason ECOT was ever held to account wasn't because of the Ohio General Assembly, or the Ohio Auditor of State, or the Ohio Attorney General. It was because the Ohio Department of Education asked ECOT a very simple question: Prove you're educating these kids.

When they couldn't, ODE asked for taxpayer money back.

Did ODE have statutory authority to do that? The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that it did. But don't misconstrue this. The reason the court let ODE do this was because of common sense. As Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said during oral arguments when ECOT claimed that the school should be paid even if kids enrolled there do no work: "How is that not absurd?"

But the dissent makes a good point, and lays bare one of the core issues with Ohio's highly political eschool policy: The politicians who have taken money from ECOT founder Bill Lager and OHDELA founder David Brennan for more than 20 years created a system where those two guys could be paid billions of dollars and never have to educate a single kid.

Absurd as it may be, that is exactly the system Ohio's politicians set up for their contributors.

And it is a system that finally may be changing as its absurdity is revealed and those enablers begin to be held to account.