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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More Evidence Ohio Charter Experiment Failing

Piggybacking on the evidence from yesterday's release of a report I authored at Innovation Ohio, which demonstrated again that the vast majority of kids in Ohio charter schools came from better performing traditional public school districts, US News & World Report's rankings of the country's best high schools provides another sobering picture of Ohio's 16-year-old charter school experiment.

Not a single one of Ohio's 97 charter high schools outperformed the state average in reading and math. Meanwhile, 167 of the 735 traditional public high schools did that. So that's an amazing 167-0 score. Not a single charter high school in Ohio rates in the top 115 high schools in the state -- the lowest rank given by U.S. News.

This confirms what Stanford's CREDO study demonstrated last year -- that the average Ohio charter school student loses a full marking period in math and half of one in reading to their traditional public school counterparts. And, CREDO showed Ohio is only one of four states where charter school performance has declined during the last four years, due in large part to the state not being more aggressive in closing the failing schools.

Remember that nearly every district in this state loses children and money to charter schools, including the finest districts in the state. So the argument that one should only compare charter performance with the poorest performing public schools is flawed. You can't take money and children from every district, then demand to be only compared with the most struggling. That's having your cake and eating it too, and it doesn't serve the needs of kids.

Excuses can no longer suffice. Action must be taken.

Ohio's charter schools are in desperate need of reform. There are some that are successfully educating kids. And charters have an important role to play in Ohio's educational landscape. But far, far, far too many are simply collecting taxpayer dollars and making the adults who run them wealthy.

It is incumbent upon the state's leaders and policymakers to wake up and make the changes that must be done. And do it before this $900 million program continues to grow in bloat and failure.

Our kids are counting on us.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Next Constitutional Commish Meeting Set for May 8

For all those interested in expressing their feelings about whether the state should eliminate the "thorough and efficient" clause in the state's Constitution, the next meeting for the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission's standing committee on Education, Public Institutions & Miscellaneous and Local Government (in which the change is being proposed) will be May 8 at 10:15 a.m. in Room 114 of the Ohio Statehouse.

Here is the list of committee members. Let them know what you think. For those of you who haven't read it yet, here's what I think.


Brenner Strikes Again

Remember state Rep. Andrew Brenner, who last month claimed that public education was socialism? Well, he's back at it -- pimping and making excuses for statewide eSchools (which are among the worst performing schools in the state) while saying those same excuses are not allowed for traditional public schools.

Here's the Gongwer Report where he does this (subscription required). The opening sentence is perfect irony when he excuses poor performance of eSchools because they "can be tied to the challenging population they serve." Couldn't that be said of major urban districts too?

Oh no. Not to Brenner, who happens to be the vice chairman of the House Education Committee. He claimed that the urbans hadn't made the "management decisions" other districts have made.

For the record, the Big 8 Urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) spent 14% of their money on administrative, non-instructional costs last year. The major statewide eSchools (the Alternative Education Academy, Buckeye Online School for Success, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio Connections Academy, Ohio Virtual Academy, Treca Digital Academy and the Virtual Community School of Ohio)? Try 23%. Perhaps eSchools should be making the "management decisions" the Big 8 have made.

And why should we be even comparing the statewide eSchools in performance or cost with the Big 8 anyway? About 80% of all statewide eSchool students come from non-Big 8 districts. So shouldn't the "apples-to-apples" comparison Brenner requested we make on performance be with non-Big 8 districts?

Anyway, remember that eSchools don't have busing, lunch rooms, buildings or any other fixed cost of a brick-and-mortar operation. Yet the average statewide eSchool still spends more per pupil than a handful of school districts, even though school districts get local revenue too. In fact, the average eSchool spends $7,266 per pupil while the average district spends $9,826 per pupil.

What's the difference?

Try operations support (busing, mostly). The average eSchool spends $78 on this category. The average district spends $1,935 per pupil. If you subtract out the districts' busing costs, the average Ohio eSchool spends more per pupil than 234 school districts, or nearly 4 in 10 districts. And they only get outspent by less than $3,000 per pupil in the Big 8.

And remember that because they're urban districts, the Big 8 are mandated to spend a lot of that money -- they have little choice. So actually, when you account for those spending realities, the average Big 8 district spends $8,490 per pupil -- not far off from the statewide eSchool average of $7,266. And remember that number includes busing. Subtract it and urbans are likely spending less per pupil than eSchools.

So how efficient are these virtual operations, really?

Which brings me to Brenner's most outrageous statement, where he claims that eSchools' performance is achieved spending "$6,000" while some districts are spending $20,000 for similarly bad results. Again, the statewide eSchools (which house nearly all of the eSchool kids) spend about 21% more than Brenner's claim -- $7,266 on average. And, for the record, there are 2. That's right, 2 school districts in Ohio spending $20,000 or more per pupil. One is Orange City Schools -- one of the state's top 5 districts. The other is Cleveland Heights, which, while struggling, is hardly as bad as, say, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- Ohio's oldest, largest eSchool.

That's it. And once you subtract costs for busing, etc. no Ohio district spends more than $20,000 per pupil. Not a one.

Again, Brenner is spinning the apocryphal story that public schools spend money less efficiently and get worse results. The truth, my friends, is the exact opposite. And when you look at Fleeter's analysis, the more discretionary money an Ohio school district has, the better they tend to perform. The highest performing districts in the state, in Fleeter's analysis, have the highest discretionary per pupil spending.

It wasn't that long ago that I discovered that the statewide eSchools received enough state money to pay for 15:1 student-teacher ratios and a $2,000 laptop every year for every student and still clear nearly 40% profit. I'm not the only one who's questioned why Ohio taxpayers should be forking over nearly double the per pupil amount for eSchools as they do for traditional public schools. The average online eSchool gets about $6,800 per pupil from the state (the rest of the $7,266 is mostly federal and private money). The average district gets a bit more than $3,500.

So, when kids go to eSchools, they typically remove more state money from the district than the state would have received if the kid had stayed in the district, which leaves kids not in eSchools (who are in mostly higher performing districts) with less state revenue.

It would be one thing if eSchools were rocking the socks off traditional districts on performance. But they aren't -- a fact Brenner, to his credit, acknowledged, before he made his excuses. In fact, ECOT graduates barely 1/3 of its kids. Yet they were able to pull Gov. John Kasich to speak at their 2011 graduation ceremony. Would Kasich go to to a traditional public school graduation where even 70% of the kids graduated? No way. Even though that's twice the rate of ECOT.

My biggest disappointment with Brenner is this: Our kids need guys like Brenner -- people who are strong choice proponents -- to be the fiercest proponents for excellence in choice. Brenner had an opportunity to stand before eSchools and demand they do better. The rest of the state has to do more with less. So should they. "The days of 35% graduation rates for double the state money are over," he could have said.

But he didn't.

Instead, he did that which folks in the choice movement have derided public school advocates for years: make excuses.

That constitutes a failure of leadership. And it's extremely disappointing. But I can't say it's unexpected. After all, the operator of ECOT -- William Lager -- did spend $180,000 on Republican lawmakers just in the last few weeks of the last budget. So perhaps Brenner is angling for some of that.

There's an old saying that goes something like this (PG rated version): "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, take their money, then vote against them the next day, you shouldn't be in politics." Brenner is in a great position to make much needed changes in Ohio's eSchool landscape. Instead, he excused their miserable failings by using misleading arguments.

Our kids deserve better.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ohio Constitutional Commissioner Unleashes Nuclear Option

First off, I want to say that I am not one of these people who think that philanthropists and corporate interests want to destroy public education. I think they want public education to look vastly different than it did for you and me, and even them.

While we may disagree (sometimes vociferously) about the different elements of that reform agenda, I do think most of them do believe in public education, as Thomas Jefferson and the Founders of this country did.

But what Chad A. Readler has suggested at the most recent meeting of the commission that's re-writing Ohio's Constitution is not that. For it can be seen as nothing but a direct attack on the whole idea of public education.

It is, in fact, the Nuclear Option.

His proposal to remove the words "thorough and efficient" from the constitutional language establishing Ohio's system of public schools is an affront to Jefferson, the Founders and anyone else who gives a whip about public education. Because without those words, the state could set up one school in every community, jam all the kids into classrooms with 100 or more students, pay teachers $30,000 a year, have them teach the Earth is Flat, and there would be no recourse through the courts.

Readler's insulting claim that this whole education thing needs to be left out of the courts is particularly galling. Look at all the great Civil Rights cases (Brown v. Board, etc.). What is their foundation? Education and access to it.

African-American children in Mississippi and Alabama would still be attending legally segregated schools, but for judicial intervention. Readler has to know this. Yet he wants to pretend that somehow judicial intervention is a bad thing to ensure that children have access to high-quality education?

And here's a bit of Law School 101: Who interprets the Constitution? That's right. The courts. So if you're writing a Constitution, as Readler claims to be doing, who would interpret the Constitution? That's right, boys and girls. It's the freaking courts!

Readler has to know this too.

But he has serious baggage. He successfully argued in the Ohio Supreme Court that there are fully state funded kids and fully locally funded kids in every Ohio school district.

It doesn't take much to know that's BS.

Just look at any state funding report and try to find which kids are state funded and which are locally funded. Better yet, ask your local school district or the Ohio Department of Education whether your child is one that's fully state funded or fully funded by local tax dollars. Don't fret when you hear crickets. Because all Ohio children receive BOTH state AND local money. It's a mix.

But Readler's Charter School clients had to argue that there's a magic group of fully state funded kids. That way, they could argue that when the state removes $900 million in state money, it's not removing any locally raised money for non-Charter Schools, a reality that likely would be unconstitutional.

The Ohio Supreme Court -- many of whose members took big campaign contributions (and have for years) from big Charter School operators -- ruled with Readler.

Never mind that when that $900 million in Charter School money and the Charter School kids are removed from the system, every child in Ohio who doesn't go to a Charter loses almost 7% of their state revenue. How's that hole made up? That's right, local money that would have gone elsewhere. Or cuts.

But Readler doesn't care. In fact, his effort to put zero constitutional standards on what public education should look like is so radical that NO OTHER STATE DOES THIS. In fact, 10 other states use "thorough and efficient" as their standard, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Just so you can understand how crazy Readler's idea is, I am linking to a list of the constitutional standards of every US state here. The list was compiled by Molly Hunter at the Education Law Center in New Jersey for Pennsylvania's Constitutional Commission. Even Montana -- yes, that Montana -- has a very high standard:
"It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state."
I mean, I would love it if Readler would replace thorough and efficient with the Montana clause. But to replace it with nothing is simply a threat to my sons' (and all Ohio children's) education. Period.

According to Hunter, here are the states that actually make education a right of its citizens -- meaning they affirmatively state that public education is critical to the functioning of Democracy: Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Not exactly a crazy, liberal list of states. Florida calls education a "fundamental value". Texas calls it "essential to the preservation of liberties and rights." Many conclude their clause with this phrase: "adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education."

Seems to me that these states take education seriously. Readler's clause would require the state to "provide for the organization, administration and control of the public-school system of the state supported by public funds." That's it. 

Let's play What Does This Look Like?, shall we?

Want to provide three schools in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati that everyone in the state has to find their way to attend? Go ahead. Because everywhere else, you can go to a Charter School, which in Ohio perform far worse than traditional public schools.

How about creating three schools (primary, middle and high school) for every county in the state? Sure. Whoever doesn't want to go to those three can go to a likely low-performing Charter School.

How about providing $100 for Readler's system? That would seem to be fine too because all it says is the public system has to be "supported" by public funds. $100 is not much, but it's support. Think that logic's flimsy? How many of you are about to file tax returns where you claim to be supporting your church at $10 a week (or less)? 

We could get even more ridiculous here. But the point is this: Readler's proposal is one of the only things I have seen in this, or any of my other jobs dealing with education policy over the last three decades, that I can confidently say is an attempt to destroy public education. 

It's not often that someone does or says something that's ironic in two ways, but that's what Readler's done here. Let's start with the first bit of irony:

1) While Readler claims he doesn't want courts determining education policy, the Ohio Supreme Court gave up jurisdiction over Ohio's education clause in 2002. So the courts aren't involved now anyway, beyond the four High Court rulings calling Ohio's system unconstitutional between 1997-2002. Any change to that clause -- even Readler's sophomoric attempt -- would actually open up the potential for a new lawsuit based on the new language.

2) Readler is a lawyer for Ohio Charter Schools, which are, technically, public schools. So this clause would actually allow the Ohio Legislature to do horrible things to Charter Schools too. Now, given this current leadership's obsession with funding even horribly performing Charter Schools at all costs, this scenario doesn't seem likely. But it could happen, and if it did, Charter Schools would have their own lawyer to thank.

Anyone who cares about public education, including Charter Schools, must let the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission  know how awful this provision is. Make your voices heard. The next meeting is June 12. Make a ruckus. Let the commissioners know that monkeying with our children's futures is unacceptable.

And demand answers from your legislators and others running for office. Would they vote for this horrific provision? If they would, then make sure they don't get your vote.

If they're getting away with it, it's your fault. Now more than ever.

So don't let them.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Transportation: Charter Schools' Literal Gravy Train

In the Akron Beacon Journal's final installment of its three-part series on Charter Schools, the paper demonstrated how unfair school transportation is when it comes to Charter Schools. The paper reported the following:

  • It costs 44% more to transport children to Charter Schools than Traditional Public Schools
  • Transportation contractors charge more than twice as much per pupil to transport a child to a Charter School
  • In Akron Public Schools, kids living within 2 miles of school have to walk, but Charter School kids are all but guaranteed a ride on the bus
  • The cost of transportation is more than $15 million more statewide because districts are forced by the state to transport kids to privately run Charter Schools
  • Meanwhile, the state has stopped helping districts buy buses and has failed to keep pace with other transportation funding, exacerbating an already tight budget crunch
The Beacon Journal series has blown the doors wide open on Charter School accountability. Day One demonstrated that even basic information -- like who's on the Charter School Board -- is mostly hidden in the Charter School world. Day Two showed how the uber-powerful White Hat Management uses state law it mostly wrote, thanks to its powerful political connections, to run for-profit schools under the guise of a non-profit. And Day Three now shows how taxpayers are being forced to pay for busing kids to Charter Schools, even though those kids simply wouldn't be allowed to be bused to their neighborhood school because of state cuts.

Again, I'm not against Charter Schools necessarily. But I am against this. I don't see how anyone could read the last three days of Beacon Journal stories and not be moved to action. How could you not be moved to reform a system that enshrines such inequities, such gross unfairness?

The Beacon Journal has promised a "multiyear" look into Charter Schools. Now that it's a $900 million a year program, and state taxpayers have spent more than $7.3 billion on these schools since 1998, the Beacon's exam is essential. It's telling that it takes a newspaper to do this. That's because state lawmakers have made it illegal for state agencies to examine Charters in depth. 

The Ohio Department of Education testified before me when I was in the legislature that they don't have the contracts between Charter Schools and their operators because ODE isn't allowed to ask for them on taxpayers' behalf. Charter Schools can give them to ODE if they want, but are under no obligation to do so. That's because these companies and their privacy is deemed more important by state legislators than the appropriate expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars.

These are your tax dollars. They are my tax dollars. We've seen the equivalent of an entire year of education funding for traditional public schools dumped into Charter Schools since 1998. And these schools perform far worse overall and spend money far less efficiently in the classroom -- the exact opposite outcome we were promised in 1998 (cheaper and better, remember?). 

I want to know how any of these outcomes reported by the Beacon Journal these last three days has improved educational experiences for children. How does hiding basic information about a school's operation help a kid learn complex math concepts? How does allowing big campaign contributors to make huge sums of money at the public trough improve our children's ability to understand Shakespeare? How does forcing districts to bus kids across cities while forcing other kids to walk two miles to a neighborhood school improve their critical thinking skills?

None of this stuff is done to help kids. It's done to help the adults who are profiting handsomely off Charter Schools. And that is about as cynical and harmful a system as I can imagine.

Today, I'm proud to be a Beacon Journal alum. On days like this, I wish I was back in that newsroom.

Well, for a minute anyway.

Monday, March 31, 2014

White Hat Exemplifies Ohio Charter Issues

The Akron Beacon Journal is really just blowing the lid off the whole Ohio Charter School scheme, as it was envisioned by those who created it 16 years ago. In its latest installment, the paper speaks with board members at schools run by the infamous White Hat Management.

White Hat Management is run by David Brennan. Since 1998, schools operated by the for-profit White Hat Management have collected $1.07 billion in state revenue. That represents about 15% of all the $7.3 billion that has been sent to Ohio Charter Schools since their inception. White Hat has collected about one out of every seven dollars sent to Ohio Charter Schools. Meanwhile, White Hat Management (mainly through David and Ann Brennan) has sent more than $2.7 million to Republican politicians and campaigns since 1998.

To all my readers outside Ohio, this arrangement is exactly why Ohio's Charter School operations have ended up being a cynical ploy in far too many instances. The core of the issue is this: the for-profit management companies (like White Hat) get 97% of the taxpayer money that's sent to the "non-profit" Charter School, yet neither the State Auditor, nor the Ohio Department of Education can find out how White Hat spends that money.

A recent court case in Columbus ruled that Ohio Charter School Boards can find out how the money was spent, but the public (whose money it is, after all) still cannot. And, oh, by the way, if the for-profit company doesn't like the board nosing through their operations, as the Beacon Journal put it: "state law allows private companies to throw out nonprofit boards that challenge them."

Can folks outside Ohio finally recognize that this is a horrible arrangement in which to try educating kids? Does anyone think, "Yeah, you know I think it's a great idea to have one person collect one out of every 7 taxpayer dollars we spend on this without any way of finding out how that money was ultimately spent, and if folks do get interested, the company can just replace them. Yeah, that'll give kids better educational experiences."

Perhaps this is why White Hat schools are among the very worst performing schools in the state. Life Skills Academies -- White Hat's dropout recovery arm -- graduates an average of about 6.6% of its kids. The average non-Life Skills dropout recovery Charter graduates 27.3% of its kids. The average non-Life Skills Dropout Recovery Charter School has a 53.6% proficiency rate. The average Life Skills? 35.4%. But don't worry, White Hat will be able to keep running their "schools" just fine.

That's because in the state's new Dropout Recovery "standards", a huge exception was granted for Dropout Recovery Schools. If their graduation and proficiency rates improve by 10% a year for two years, they get to remain open. So Life Skills just needs to improve their graduation rate to 8% and their proficiency rate to about 42%, they can stay open. Want some real outrage? Look at Life Skills Columbus North. Their proficiency rate is 8% and their graduation rate is 6%. So if they improve to about a 10% proficiency rate and a little more than 7% graduation rate, they be considered to "meet standards" by the state.

Does anyone think that a school that graduates 7% of its kids, barely 10% of whom are proficient, is really educating anyone?

Do you see now, dear non-Ohio reader, why Ohio Charter Schools are generally such a disaster?

It is frankly a miracle that any Charters in Ohio are successful. But there are a few that do actually provide excellent educational experiences for children. However, far, far, far fewer taxpayer dollars find their way into these schools' coffers. Meanwhile, Mr. Brennan has received one third as much taxpayer money as Delaware spends statewide in a year.

And the taxpayers whose money it is cannot even find out how that money has been spent.

Because the state made it that way.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Ohio Charter Schools are Different

Whenever I talk about Charter Schools with people outside Ohio, they always ask me why I'm so "anti-charter." The truth is, I'm not. I just think that the way many of Ohio's Charter Schools operate is so cynical that Ohio's Charter School laws must be changed. Now.

The Akron Beacon Journal today published the first of what promises to be a significant series of reports detailing just how outside the frame the vast majority of these schools operate. Remember that nearly $900 million in taxpayer money is going to these Charter Schools. That's our money. Yours. Mine. The same money that would otherwise have gone to our local public schools.

Now it is true that sometimes it's tough to get information out of traditional public schools. As a former reporter, I remember many rounds I'd go with districts about whether I could get information. But I never remember failing to receive this kind of information:

  • Who runs the building?
  • Who is that person's supervisor?
  • Who is the management company in charge?
  • How does one contact the school board?
  • When does the board meet?
Only 1 in 4 Ohio Charter Schools answered these five basic questions. That's right. Only 1 in 4 Charters told members of the public, who pay $900 million a year for these schools, when the school board meets. And these schools are called "public schools" throughout the Ohio Revised Code. Perhaps this is why courts around the country are finding that Charter Schools aren't actually public schools? Because they act like private schools? 

Look, Ohio taxpayers fork over $900 million a year for Charter Schools. They deserve to know how that money is being spent. Because they would be able to find the answers to these five questions on every single traditional public school website. You wouldn't have to set up phone banks to find out the answers to these basic five questions, the way the Akron Beacon Journal did for Charters.

Can you imagine if the Beacon called Akron Public Schools and they refused to tell them who the Superintendent was, or when the board met, or how to contact the board? I mean, that is just beyond imagination, right? But Charters, we are told, are just as public a school as APS. So why do they operate under such a shadow?

Ohio's Charter School system is a disaster. It needs serious overhaul. 

Ohio's Charter Schools take far more kids from school districts that outperform the Charter than the other way round. They spend nearly 3 times as much on administration than the average school district. They spend more per pupil  overall than traditional school districts. And because the state pays about twice as much per pupil for the typical Charter School kid than the typical traditional public school kid, kids not in Charters get several hundred dollars less in state revenue than the state says they need. So what's the bottom line for Ohio's Charter Schools in comparison with traditional public schools, overall?
  1. They perform far worse academically
  2. They cost the state far more
  3. They spend more per pupil
  4. They spend far more on administration
  5. They are far less transparent
Can Charter Schools work in Ohio? I simply don't know. That's because Ohio's Charter School law has been cynically put together over the years, not designed to really improve educational opportunities for kids. There are a few examples of Ohio Charter Schools that perform the way we were told they would -- as incubators of innovation that can provide needed opportunities for kids who may not be able to receive those experiences otherwise. 

But the fact that only a couple handfuls of Ohio Charter Schools fit this description, while the remaining 350 or so Charter Schools do not, proves to me that the system was never designed to grow these high-performing Charter Schools. 

All I can conclude is it was designed to allow the poor performers to thrive. 

Why? 

Because they do. 

And they do so largely in the dark.

I hope people around the country take note of Ohio's issues. They are unique, deeply entrenched and will be very difficult to change. 

But I'm hopeful they will because I know there are folks around Ohio's education community, regardless of school type or political stripe, who recognize how desperate is Ohio's need for reform. Perhaps what Ohio needs is a "Network" moment about Charter Schools.

So who will be Ohio's Howard Beale?