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Monday, April 23, 2018

ECOT: Now it's criminal. Literally.

Mens Rea.

I believe it was the first (or one of the first) legal terms of art I learned in law school. It means "state of mind." In other words, in order to commit a crime, you have to have the proper state of mind to fit the requirements of the crime.

Why do I bring this up now? Because it now appears that we have a smoking gun indicating that officials at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow formed the necessary mens rea to be charged with crimes.

According to an Associated Press story today (which ran all over the place, but I'll link to my former employer's version), people at ECOT -- at one point the largest single school in the nation -- were ordered to deliberately inflate enrollment so the school could keep getting paid $100 million plus to "educate" children, even if those children weren't actually at ECOT.

ECOT infamously did a remarkably poor job of educating those who were, by the way. How poor? Only 109 of 3,794 ECOT graduates from 2010 earned a college degree within 6 years of graduating. But I digress.

Back to the school's potential crimes.

According to the whistleblower who made this claim and worked for the software company that handled enrollment for ECOT, "school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state’s demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year."

That's right. ECOT was so arrogant that it ordered people to artificially inflate enrollment ... after the state had fined the school $60 million for inflating enrollment.

That's right. No question what the offenders' states of mind were. They knew it was wrong. They had been fined for doing it the previous year. And they did it anyway. Imagine what they told people to do before they were caught???? (Though, technically, they were caught in their first year of operation and on several other previous occasions, but not for as much money.)

Why the arrogance? Because ECOT's founder, Bill Lager, and other employees had invested $2.8 million in Ohio politicians since they started operations in the 2000-2001 school year.

Current Ohio Secretary of State and Lt. Gov. Candidate Jon Husted receives only known honorary degree from ECOT as Ohio Speaker of the House in 2007. Husted was one of several prominent Ohio Republican politicians who spoke at ECOT's graduation ceremonies, including Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Auditor David Yost, disgraced House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell. 

It wasn't that long ago that people went to prison for inflating enrollment figures at Columbus City Schools. What do you want to bet that the politicians who have taken a bunch of money and kudos from ECOT will do the same thing to that school's officials?

The taxpayer money involved here, if the enrollment overinflation that's been found over the last couple years is extrapolated over the course of ECOT's entire lifespan, is north of $500 million. By way of comparison, the infamous Coingate scandal from 2005-2006 ended up costing taxpayers about $50 million.

So ECOT and Lager's ripoff could be 10 times that of Tom Noe, who spent about 2 years in federal prison.

Now that we have insiders spilling the beans on the real mission of ECOT -- making money by ripping off taxpayers -- ECOT's top bananas certainly seem much closer to taking a trip up the river.

Because we now know their state of mind.

And it sure seems criminal to me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

I guess Ohio's A-F Report Cards weren't that great after all

When Ohio switched to a new A-F report card system in the 2012-2013 school year, much was made of how wonderful it was.

Here's what the Ohio Department of Education said about them, veritably gushing over the Education Commission of the States' awarding the system its highest marks:
"We released the new A-F report cards with the idea that they would be easier to understand, and provide more information to both parents and educators,” ODE spokesman John Charlton said. “This report kind of validates our efforts so far, as we continue to work on this report card. The real winners are the students in Ohio. They’re going to benefit from the information in that report card, whether it’s their parents using the data, educators using it, or whether the students are looking at it themselves.”
Folks from the education reform community claimed it created a more understandable system (because, apparently, parents couldn't decipher the words "excellent with distinction", "excellent", "effective", "academic watch" and "academic emergency"). Here's how the Fordham Institute described the new report cards:
"The Buckeye State’s new A-F report card is a wonderful opportunity for parents to gain a better appreciation of how their child’s school is doing, and to take action if necessary."
But I was concerned because the new A-F system was even more reliant on test scores than the previous system. And test scores are nearly perfectly correlated with poverty rates, not educational excellence. Here's what I said after the first batch of report cards came out:
"The new Report Card is based largely on standardized tests, which are tremendously influenced by demographics. Under this new system, a building and district's ratings are even more dependent upon their demographics than the prior system, which was pretty well dependent upon demographics as well."
So imagine my surprise when a new House Bill 591 appears and does away with Ohio's much-lauded A-F report card in favor of one less influenced by test scores. I should be excited, right? Not so fast. See, here's the thing.

It would keep the A-F report card for consequential actions -- the very things that make these A-F grades so high stakes, problematic and consequential for schools, districts, parents and kids.

What's "consequential" mean? Oh, whether a district is low performing enough that a charter school can come in. Or kids qualify for private school vouchers. Or whether a charter school closes. These -- and other things -- will all still be determined by a district or school's rating on the hated A-F report card.

And the bill eliminates several transparency reports about how schools spend money and how they educate kids. One of the things Ohio does better than nearly every other state is produce meaningful and copious data points.

Other than that, though ...

Look, I appreciate the effort to undo this misguided report card. As sponsor Mike Duffy, R-Columbus, put it, "nobody likes the current Ohio school district report card."

So why won't he just do a simple bill to get rid of the current system, replace it with a more rational system and go from there? Why would he let this system he admits everyone hates continue holding its dangerous grip on students and schools?

Again, these problems were all pretty predictable from the time the A-F report card was implemented. Yet folks couldn't stop fawning over the brilliance of turning five "grade" levels into the familiar A-F scale from the less familiar Excellent with Distinction, Excellent, Effective, Academic Watch and Academic Emergency system.

Now everyone hates it.

I'm not one to say, "I told you so."

But, well ... you know.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Do Charters Spend More than Districts, Or What Do Medians Mean?

I try to steer clear of mumbo jumbo on this blog. I wish to simplify rather than complicate already dense, complicated topics. But when it comes to expenditures in charter schools and school districts, it matters whether you know what medians and means are. So please indulge a little nerdification here.

For those who need a refresher, means are averages. Medians are midpoints among a range of numbers. So, for example, the median of 1,2,3,4,5 is 3. The average of 1,2,3,4,5 is also 3. However, when there is a lot of variation in the numbers, averages (or means) can be thrown off. Sometimes to a great degree. So, for example, the mean of 1, 2, 3, 4, 3,000,000 is 600,000. The median remains 3, which is a much more accurate way to describe a typical number in the series.

So when you have a series of numbers with wide variations, you generally want to use medians because they answer the question of what is the "typical" number. If you don't have much variation between numbers, generally averages work better.

Which brings me to the question of which schools spend more in Ohio, charter schools or school districts. These two charts will tell you both, depending on whether you want to use medians or means.

 The graphic on the left shows the median expenditure per pupil for each school type. You'll see that generally, Ohio school districts spend a few hundred dollars more per pupil than charter schools.

The chart below the median chart shows that on average, charter schools spend more per pupil than Ohio school districts.

So, what gives and which numbers matter most in determining this issue?

Well, as you can see, the average per pupil expenditure varies wildly in charter schools, likely due to the much greater variation in their financial reporting competence than anything else. For example, in the 2013-2014 school year, the largest per pupil expenditure in charter schools was more than $1 million, which probably wasn't accurate. The largest per pupil expenditure in a school district that year was a little more than $20,000 (a tiny Lake Erie island district was over $30,000). So the variation among school districts was much smaller than the variation in charters that year. And pretty much every year since.

Except for this past school year of 2016-2017.

The variation between the highest and lowest spending charter school last year was $36,000 -- not far off from the school district variance of $24,000. In the 2013-2014 school year, the reported variation in per pupil spending at charter schools was $1.4 million. And even if you discount the handful of charters who likely erroneously reported spending more than $100,000 per pupil, the difference remained well north of $85,000.

So that means in order to be fair, you had to use medians to express what a "typical" charter or district spent to account for those variations. Which means charters spent less per pupil than districts. This year, though, there's a real question if using averages now is fair game. Because the wild variations in charters aren't there anymore.

In other words, the "typical" and "average" charter school are becoming far more similar than in the past.

Why does all this matter? Because we were told (and have been told) again and again that charter schools and the private sector that drives them perform the same or better academically at lower cost than Ohio's local public schools. And charter school advocates are now saying they need more money because they can't spend what they need to spend in the classroom.

Yet Ohio's charter school sector overall spends about the same and performs far worse. Even if you want to look at medians, is the few hundred dollars' savings worth the far worse graduation rates and worse overall academic performance in charter schools?

Again, this is not saying we should eliminate all charter schools. But we should take a hint from the earlier discussion of means and medians. If there are so many poor performing charter schools and a relative few high performers to skew overall performance and cost, shouldn't we eliminate the poor performers so the high performers can thrive?

The ECOT closure is a good start toward making Ohio's charter school sector more reflective of the ideal market-based education model that's focused on quality rather than enrollment, real or imagined.

Yet we still fall short of our kids and families who want options but are instead duped into believing a few slick brochures and smooth talking sales pitches selling them on the idea that choice rather than quality should drive their children's education. It is the quality of the option that should drive the choice. And it is up to policymakers to ensure that quality is what drives their desire for more educational options.

Because that whole "better and cheaper" argument for charters? In Ohio, that dog don't hunt.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

John the Vindictive: How HB 512 Shows John Kasich Hasn't Changed

The image of Ohio Gov. John Kasich has shall we say "evolved" since he first took office. Within days of his 2010 election, he gave a famous speech where he warned Columbus lobbyists that his agenda would be unstoppable. He summed it up this way:
"If you’re not on the bus, we’ll run over you with the bus. And I’m not kidding."
Two months later, he told a room full of people about a story of being pulled over for not giving a passing ambulance the right of way. He called the officer who dared pull him over an "idiot."

A few months later, he passed Senate Bill 5 -- the most direct and serious attack on union rights mounted in the state for generations. But when organizers collected more than 1 million signatures and voters roundly defeated his legislation at the ballot box almost a year after his election, he started "mellowing".

And running for President.

As the last man standing against Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, Kasich turned into a bit of a fuzzy warm reminder for some of what "reasonable" Republicans were -- hearkening to a time when Eisenhower could carry the Republican banner without being drummed out of office. His latest book "Two Paths" is supposed to be the marker for all reasonable Republicans who want to get things done.

But John the Vindictive has not really changed. And House Bill 512 proves it. According to a Plain Dealer story yesterday, John Kasich and current Superintendent for Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria have not met since DeMaria was named Superintendent in 2016. Nearly two years and the Governor hasn't met with the man responsible for the education of 1.8 million Ohio children?

That's weird.

It makes one wonder if Kasich wasn't happy with DeMaria's selection as State Superintendent. And maybe explains why he wants more control over the pick. DeMaria, after all, was a late addition to the finalists list for State Superintendent, indicating he wasn't Kasich's first choice.

As Kasich recently told a forum last month:
"What I really want...I want to be able to run the Department of Education," Kasich said an at Associated Press forum February 2.  "I don't think we should have this elected school board."
Could it be that Kasich instead supported Reynoldsburg Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning, who famously put in scab teachers to fight the Reynoldsburg teacher strike? In a Plain Dealer story that reviewed the strike, her relationship with Kasich was described this way:
"Some even view Thomas-Manning, superintendent of the Reynoldsburg school district, as a puppet of Gov. John Kasich and former state Superintendent Richard Ross."
Trouble was, at the time the board was considering Thomas-Manning, the Reynoldsburg Superintendent was in a full out war with her Board of Education, with members calling for her to step down in the aftermath of the strike that tore apart the Reynoldsburg community. Not a good look if you're asking another board to hire you.

Thomas-Manning eventually did not have her contract renewed and received a $100,000 golden parachute from the Reynoldsburg Board of Education. Yet she continued to do consulting work for the district as recently as last fall.

Whatever the backroom dealings, it's clear that Kasich is pushing HB 512 to punish the department for something, or some things. One is clearly the board and superintendent's role in closing down the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- a huge, online charter school run by major political donor Bill Lager.

Kasich's first high school graduation address was to ECOT in 2011.

But it appears that Kasich's indifference to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction may have additional roots in DeMaria's unanimous selection as Superintendent by the State Board. And reveal Kasich's real desire to get a more divisive, loyal, union-busting figure at the department. This was the guy who tried to destroy the teachers unions with Senate Bill 5, after all.

But the bottom line is this: With HB 512, it appears that the State Board of Education -- and the voters who put 11 of them in office -- are the latest to be run over by John the Vindictive's bus.

Monday, March 12, 2018

House Bill 512: ECOT's Revenge

Last week, I testified against House Bill 512 -- the political takeover of the state's education system. During that testimony, I mentioned how HB 512 seems an awful lot like payback against the Ohio Department of Education for forcing the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow to return about $80 million to Ohio taxpayers for kids the former virtual school giant charged taxpayers for educating, but they couldn't prove actually participated.

It reminded me of when you buy an embarrassing item at a store and try to hide the purchase with a bunch of other, innocuous things. Yeah, you might be buying 50 things. But you're really just buying the one thing.

So, I decided to look at the political contributions from ECOT founder Bill Lager and other ECOT-affiliated people to co-sponsors of the legislation. And you'll never guess what I found. ECOT people gave 5 of the 8 HB 512 co-sponsors more than $74,000 in campaign contributions in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

Reineke is the primary sponsor of the bill. Blessing is the chairman of the Government Accountability and Oversight committee, which is holding hearings on the bill.

Interestingly, Koehler just announced he is no longer supporting HB 512, even though he is currently listed as a co-sponsor -- never a good sign for your legislation.

If you are trying to argue that this is a bill about kids and not punishing adults, it becomes increasingly more incredible to say that once you see just how supportive ECOT has been to the adults sponsoring this legislation.

Monday, February 19, 2018

ECOT Bills State for Students ... AFTER IT CLOSES

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow told the Ohio Department of Education on Jan. 23 that it still had 5,580 students, and the state should pay them for educating those students. Trouble was, the school closed Jan. 19 -- four days before that payment was sent to the department.

That's right. It appears ECOT wanted to be paid for students it said it was educating after the school had closed.

To the Department's credit, they issued no taxpayer money to the state's once largest virtual school based on their Jan. 23 request. But the fact that ECOT, even after the end had come, demanded taxpayer money for educating kids everyone knew weren't there because the school had closed, put a rather tight, ironic bow on this school's sordid history.

Remember, it was the fact they couldn't prove they educated $80 million worth of students over the last two years, which then the state demanded they repay, that led to the school's abrupt closing last month.

But that closure didn't stop ECOT from continuing to demand taxpayers give them money. According to department reports, ECOT's February monthly payment to charter schools is based on data received by the state Jan. 23 -- four days after the school officially shut down. 

Fortunately for taxpayers, the school only billed the state for 5,580 students -- not the 11,876 students the school claimed it had enrolled on Dec. 24, 2017 -- the last date ODE looked at prior to the school's closure.

So that meant that the school, if it only had 5,580 students, had been overpaid by about $11 million because the state had paid the school for educating about twice as many students for the first half of the school year. So the school only needed $41.3 million to educate those students all year. However, the state had already paid the school $52 million through January based on the larger enrollment.

And that doesn't include the $30 million payment the school was supposed to cough up in return for charging taxpayers $60 million for students the school couldn't prove it actually educated in the 2015-2016 school year (another $20 million in overpayments was discovered later by ODE for last school year).

So while the state did its job and didn't pay ECOT for kids it claimed it educated while it was closed, the fact that ECOT actually charged taxpayers for this is incredible.

What a scandal. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

ECOT argues in Supreme Court tomorrow that it should be paid for educating kids it can't prove it educated. Really.

Tomorrow, ECOT will argue before the Ohio Supreme Court that even though it can't demonstrate that more than 60 percent of the students it charged taxpayers for educating actually engaged in educational activity, it should still receive taxpayer money because they could have been educated by them

The state forcing the school to re-pay taxpayers $80 million for kids it can't prove ever engaged in any learning experiences at ECOT is eventually what led to the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West to drop the mega-virtual school last month, forcing the school to close and leaving hundreds of staff and thousands of families in a lurch -- a lurch caused by ECOT founder Bill Lager's love of money and fancy houses (owned under the name NestEgg Development, LLC. I can't make this up)

And while it appears that finances will be what shuts down the state's first and largest online school (though in a welcome departure from pure finances, apparently the Insight School of Ohio, run by K-12, Inc., which also runs the Ohio Virtual Academy -- currently the state's largest online school -- will be shut down for failing kids rather than accountants), ECOT's academic performance for the kids it actually did educate was not much better than those it didn't.

According to state data from the 2016-2017 school year, every penny sent from a school district to ECOT last year (which was more than $100 million) came from a district that outperformed the online giant by at least 4 of 13 state report card categories. And an astonishing 1 out of every 4 dollars sent to ECOT came from a district that outperformed ECOT on every comparable measure.
This is not to say there weren't success stories at ECOT. There were. But in the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, ECOT simply did not provide a better academic option for students than the districts they left.

And while they did graduate large numbers of students, they failed to graduate about twice as many as they actually graduated. Some of ECOT's paid supporters like posting impressive photos of their Schottenstein Center graduations. They never post a filled Fenway Park, which holds about the number of students ECOT failed to graduate since its opening.

One telling metric of the school's long-term impact on kids is how many ECOT graduates have a college degree within six years of graduation. 

When coupled with the fact that ECOT was charging taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to educate kids that never participated in learning at the school, it's clear that this school was not living up to expectations academically or financially.

As I wrote before, ECOT has generally not performed well on state metrics and have been unable to account for the children's learning experiences, but they have until recently been protected by powerful friends in the Ohio General Assembly and state government who benefited from ECOT founder Bill Lager's political largess.

And now the Supreme Court will decide, essentially, whether the school should be paid for educating kids it can't prove it educated and therefore remain open forever.