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Friday, June 23, 2017

Ohio Budget Keeps Progress on Charter Sponsor Evaluations.

Ohio's Charter School Sponsor Evaluation System has come a long way since it was introduced in 2012 as a way to track how sponsors' schools rate.

In Ohio, the state's more than 60 charter school sponsors are supposed to perform the oversight function reserved for school boards and the Ohio Department of Education on the traditional public school side. However, because Ohio is one of two states that let non-profits also sponsor schools, Ohio has been called the "Wild, Wild West" of charter school sponsoring ... by the national charter school sponsor advocacy group.

Ohio has recently tried to beef up its sponsor oversight. Now there are real consequences. If a sponsor doesn't score well, it can be stripped of its schools. If it does well, it can sponsor more and be freed of some regulation.

However, there has always been an issue with these ratings -- an issue I've discussed since House Bill 2 (which put the teeth into the ratings system) passed in 2015. There are three components to the sponsor evaluation system upon which sponsors are judged. They are:
  1. A sponsor’s adherence to quality practices
  2. Compliance with applicable laws and administrative rules
  3. Academic performance of its schools
Under House Bill 2, all three components were supposed to be weighed equally -- a calculation I saw as problematic because if a sponsor failed academically, but received As on the other two more bureaucratic measures, then they would average out to a B-. So sponsors that have academically failing schools could keep sponsoring them, while sponsors that received As in academics but didn't score as well on the other two could be kept from sponsoring more schools.

In a perfect policy world, you'd want your sponsors with the best academic ratings continuing to sponsor schools while sponsors with the worst academic ratings would be stripped of those schools.

The Ohio Department of Education tried to mitigate this issue through rule making, saying that if a sponsor failed any of the categories it couldn't open new schools (a process that seemed to me to be illegal because state law was pretty clear you couldn't weigh any one score more than the other, but I digress). However, that resulted in the highest academically rated sponsors (which were almost invariably public school districts or public education service centers) not being allowed to open new schools because they didn't do as well on the bureaucratic measures.

So you had the bad policy outcome of sponsors with the highest rated schools not being allowed to sponsor more simply because they failed to follow the bureaucratic measures.

In the current budget, which has been passed by the Ohio Senate and is now in Conference Committee, there has been a change to the system so that sponsors that fail in bureaucratic measures but excel in academics aren't automatically stopped from sponsoring more charters. 

This is a positive step because now state policy won't stand in the way of sponsors with high performing schools from taking control of more schools because they don't fill out paperwork well.

However, there was another tweak that will weigh value added measures more heavily in the academic rating prong. What does that mean? 

Value added measures sound good in theory (giving schools credit from improving kids' scores rather than simply looking at raw scores), but there are well founded issues with value added scores too that make their evaluative use questionable in some cases, especially as smaller populations of students are used. 

In general, charter schools' value added grades on the state report card tend to be better than their proficiency scores. So will the change in academic scores show better performing schools among more sponsors? Probably. Will that mean that more sponsors will be able to keep sponsoring schools because their academic ratings will be artificially boosted by this tweak? We'll see.

As with most Ohio Charter School issues, the answer will likely be murky, complicated and need a fix in two years. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Cleveland Charter Schools Once Again Proven Outlier.

A newly minted study from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) -- an outfit connected to Stanford University -- shows what we have known in Ohio for quite some time: Charter Schools in Cleveland are doing better than charter schools elsewhere in Ohio.

As part of CREDO's study on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), which found that for-profit CMOs are doing worse than non-profit CMOs, CREDO found that the Breakthrough School network in Cleveland provided a benefit of 148 extra days in math and 120 in reading. While there are serious academic questions about CREDO's methodology for determining these "days" of learning (for a good back and forth, look here), the CREDO study confirms what has been known here for a long time -- Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland are Ohio's gold standard.

This is why I've contributed to the chain and attended several of their fundraisers. My son won their Superhero race one year, in fact.

The issue is they only run 10 out of the 373 charter schools listed in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school operator database. Yes, CREDO found that other Ohio operators are doing a good job, but, again, a small percentage of Ohio's charter school students are in those schools.

The study did re-affirm what I've been saying for years -- that David Brennan's White Hat Management is awful at running schools, though pretty good at making lots of money. Their Life Skills Academies -- a dropout recovery group that has trouble graduating even 8 out of 100 students -- are particularly awful.

Here's another issue, and it's one I've brought up before. Breakthrough doesn't take all of its kids from Cleveland. Yet their performance is almost always compared with Cleveland Municipal Schools'. Breakthrough takes just shy of 20 percent of their kids from outside Cleveland. And they require large amounts of paperwork to be filled out by parents, which kind of self-selects for involved parents -- the single greatest predictor for kids' academic success.

Many of the non-Cleveland kids come from Warrensville Heights and East Cleveland -- districts that struggle with state tests like Cleveland. But the fact remains that Breakthrough has a far smaller percentage of kids from Cleveland than Cleveland schools do, and they have kids whose parents are willing to fill out lots of paperwork.

Yet they're compared with Cleveland kids whose parents may never have stepped foot in a school since their own high school days. This has been a burr in my saddle for years, despite my tremendous respect and support for what Breakthrough's John Zitzner has done in Cleveland.

The other interesting thing from the CREDO study is they only looked at CMOs that run several schools. That means they didn't include Altair, which runs the nation's largest K-12 school -- the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and its 15,000 students. Though given the Ohio Department of Education's recent ruling, that number may be closer to 6,000.

But how poorly would CREDO have found online education to be (which it found to be the worst of all charter school types) if ECOT's putrid performance were included?

I know it's encouraging to hear that some charter schools in Ohio are doing a good job. That's never been something that hasn't been said, though. In fact, I've pretty much always said this. The issue is with a nearly $1 billion a year program, we should be getting a better statewide bang for the buck rather than just a couple handfuls of schools mostly in Cleveland.

Put another way, is it worth kids in Columbus and Cincinnati losing about a quarter of their state funding each year and Ohio's public school kids overall losing an average of about $250 a year in state money due to charter school funding so that a couple dozen successful schools can operate mostly in Cleveland?

Again, the role of state lawmakers is to look out for all Ohio kids, not just the small sliver that have found a successful experience in alternative education programs. We need state leadership who is willing to put as much blood, sweat and tears into figuring out how to improve the educational experiences of the 90 percent of Ohio schoolchildren who are in Ohio's public school districts as they currently do for 10 percent who do not.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ohio Data: Vouchers Failing

I don't like writing these things. I really don't. Because even when a policy I think is folly actually works, I'm glad that kids are able to benefit.

But the latest data, both from Ohio and nationally, demonstrate pretty clearly that private school vouchers simply aren't working. In fact, they are making things worse for kids both in private, mostly religious schools, and those who remain in local public school districts.

At Innovation Ohio, we released a report today that details many of the issues. Among them:

Vouchers now affect schools and children in 83 percent of Ohio’s school districts

More than $310 million will be spent this school year sending public money to private, mostly religious schools through vouchers

Including additional direct state payments and reimbursements made to private, mostly religious schools, more than $568 million in Ohio taxpayer money is going to support these schools

Every Ohio student not taking a voucher, on average, loses $63 a year in state funding because of the way Ohio’s lawmakers have decided to fund vouchers ($63 is about $15 more per pupil than we spend statewide on instructional and non-instructional equipment combined. It’s about the cost of a new Amazon Fire tablet.)

In an era of the state providing less funding for public schools, its insatiable investment in private school vouchers force local taxpayers to subsidize them with $105 million in locally raised money to make up for districts’ state funding losses to Ohio’s voucher programs

Students who take vouchers perform worse than their public school peers on state assessments

Some of the highest performing school districts in the state lose money and students to vouchers, turning the original intent of the program on its head

In Ohio, we call vouchers "scholarships". However these "scholarships" require no actual scholarship to acquire. There are no GPA or other academic requirements to receive a voucher. All that matters is if you meet the demographic characteristics. This is a voucher program.

The Ohio Senate and House are considering bills that would expand voucher eligibility to 75 percent of Ohio's school children, despite the overwhelming evidence these vouchers aren't helping. And, of course, current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a huge voucher supporter, and President Trump's initial budget calls for a $1.4 billion voucher expansion, with plans to move that up to $20 billion shortly.

And here's something I'm very curious to understand: if the Cleveland voucher program was deemed constitutional 15 years ago because it was small, was meant to "rescue" kids from "failing schools" and financially provided far less state aid to private, mostly religious schools (as Chief Justice William Rhenquist opined during the case), then would it now pass the same muster given that it's a $310 million program, takes money from some of the highest performing schools in the state, and some vouchers provide almost the exact same level of base funding as the state's public school formula?

We'll see.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ohio Senate Tries to Sell Cuts as Increases

I'm growing weary of writing this stuff, but the Ohio Senate has once again misled Ohio taxpayers by claiming increases in school funding. The Senate's version of the budget bill actually cuts funding to Ohio's 613 school districts by about $70 million over the Ohio House's meager addition.

All the Senate has done is revert the funding levels to what Gov. John Kasich proposed, which represented about $900 million less in total, inflation adjusted dollars over this biennium compared with the budget that passed during the Great Recession.

Once again, I also have to take issue with Randy Gardner -- a Senator with whom I worked pretty well while I was in the House. He and his friends always tout how there is an historic level of state aid going into public schools.

What he fails to address is that while the state aid funding line has gone up, the overall aid has not kept pace.

You always have to watch how careful politicians in the General Assembly and Governor's mansion talk about school funding. It's always about one aid line, not all aid lines. It's like if you have two jobs and income from one has gone up 50%, but income from the other has dropped 75%. The overall result is a 25% cut.

All you need to know about how inadequate Ohio's school funding system is is to look at the monkeying they do to it. Playing around with how much school districts are guaranteed to get, or what funding cap needs to be instituted to keep increases down tells you there isn't enough money to pay for the formula.

Oh, and the formula itself? Simply a product of arbitrary increases done to a calculation last completed 10 years ago.

Another budget cycle is about to pass with the state failing to live up to its constitutional obligations to our kids. When will this end?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Nation's Largest For-Profit School In Danger of Closing.

Well, the State School Board has voted 16-1 to recover $60 million from the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the state's first and largest online K-12 school. That's because ECOT can't prove it actually educated $60 million worth of kids out of its $105 million it got last school year.

If this percentage were spread over ECOT's 17 school years and more than $1 billion paid, the state could have paid nearly $600 million in taxpayer dollars to the school for kids that were never there. The sheer amount of funding at stake here is staggering.

And it would be one thing of ECOT were doing a bang up job educating children. However, its performance is abysmal and fails to graduate more students than any other high school ... IN THE COUNTRY.

As I said on this weekend's State of Ohio broadcast, I think ECOT should close because it has failed to meaningful improve the state's educational landscape and it's fleeced taxpayers of more than a half billion dollars since it opened in 2000-2001.

But before we give credit to state policymakers for doing their jobs (finally), let's remember why ECOT's been allowed to fail: Political contributions. Its founder, Bill Lager, has given more than $1.8 million to politicians over the last 17 years -- more than $1.5 million of that to Republicans, according to

Gov. John Kasich's first address to a graduating Ohio high school class was before ECOT in 2011. ECOT has hosted numerous other political heavy hitters during that time.

Only after the shame of being associated with a nationally ridiculed school like Lager's became unbearable, and their public thievery obvious, did Lager's minions gather their spines.

This is something we cannot forget as we move forward from this shameful episode in Ohio's education policy history.

Monday, May 15, 2017

ECOT Circling the Drain

When the usually very charter school friendly Columbus Dispatch editorial page says your charter school is fleecing Ohio taxpayers, you're in trouble.

That's exactly what happened this morning to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the nation's largest K-12 school that fails to graduate more students than any high school in the country.

Here's a sampling of the Dispatch's language used to describe ECOT's plan: "attempted plundering of the treasury ... for sheer audacity there is no precedent ... raiding the state treasury ..."

Shall I go on?

At issue is whether the online behemoth is, actually, a behemoth after all. See, the state cannot verify that the school has all 15,000 or so students it claims to have. In fact, the school has about 40 percent of that number, as far as the Ohio Department of Education can tell. And a hearing officer agreed last week, ordering ECOT to repay $64 million of the more than $100 million it received from Ohio taxpayers last year because it didn't have as many kids.

ECOT supporters have long said that the way the state calculates attendance at online schools is unfair to ECOT. Yet, somehow, no other online schools (which are not the best performing in the state, by a long shot) are doing this to this degree.

Obviously, ECOT officials will try their bullying tactics to keep, as the Dispatch called it, "raiding the treasury." They held a modest rally at the statehouse last week, which was notable for two things -- competing mascots, and the fact that no major politicians showed up, a stark contrast to several years ago when Gov. John Kasich spoke at ECOT's graduation and spoke effusively of the school.

As ECOT's power wanes, it appears that not even the school's once strong advocates, who were willing to take millions of founder Bill Lager's money to fund their campaigns will stop by to say, "Hi." Quite a turn of events.

And quite a step forward for Ohio's quality-based school choice movement.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The GREAT Scholarship -- A first for Ohio cities

I haven't posted much on here about my second (or, technically THIRD) life as a City Councilman in Green. Typically, my life as an Education Policy guy and City Council don't really cross paths. One job fixes road, bridges and sewers. And the other deals with education.

Bad Catskills jokes aside, there aren't many times when Education Policy meets Municipal Policy, especially in a city like Green that isn't huge and whose mayor doesn't actually run the schools.

Well, I changed that this week when I introduced an ordinance that would create the Green Reaches Educational Attainment Together Scholarship. Yes, its acronym is GREAT.

The idea is to provide $2,500 annual scholarships to first-generation students from Green as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA in Green High School and in college (either two-year or four-year).

For years, Ohio (and other states) have cut their commitment to its higher education system, forcing families and students to go deeply into debt to pay for the college education more and more of our young people need to thrive in this 21st Century economy.

We've known for a long time that first-generation students tend to be the most at-risk for not attending college, not finishing college and having to pick up the most outside employment to pay for it.

And that doesn't even touch the fantastic economic development tool this would provide to our communities. For example (this is according to the same studies cited previously):

  • Lifetime taxes are, conservatively, $273,000 (215 percent) greater in present discounted value. 
  • Lifetime government expenditures are about $81,000 (39 percent) lower in present value. 
  • The lifetime total fiscal effect is roughly $355,000 in present value. 
  • Crime is significantly lower. 
  • Volunteering is 2.3 times more likely. 
  • The estimated value of volunteer labor is 4.1 times ($1,300 annually) greater. 
  • Employment in the nonprofit sector is twice as likely. 
  • Annual cash donations to charities are $900 (3.4 times) higher.
  • Total philanthropic contributions are $3,600 (4.7 times) higher.
  • Voting and political involvement are significantly higher. 
  • Participation in school, community, service, civic and religious organizations is substantially (1.9 times) higher. 
  • Leadership in these organizations is particularly (3.2 times) greater. 
  • Attendance at community meetings is 2.6 times greater. 
  • Neighborhood interactions and trust are significantly higher. 
I'm proud that my friends at the Fordham Institute (with whom I have quarreled over the years) have shown support for this, as are my local school folks. If you feel this is something cities should do for economic development and other reasons, please contact my city's mayor and city council members.

I am more than willing to change or tweak areas that need fixed. That's the legislative process.

Here are their email addresses:

James Ahlstrom

Chris Humphrey

Ken Knodel

Justin Speight

Skip Summerville

Bob Young

Mayor Gerard Neugebauer