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Monday, August 7, 2017

Don't Worry. Even With Additional 12% Cut, ECOT Still Gets Paid. A Lot.

In another drip in the leak that has become the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal, the Ohio Department of Education last week announced that it would withhold an additional 12 percent of the school's payments for which it has billed the state.

The idea that another 12 percent pay cut will ECOT out of business is folly. How can I say that? Because I looked at the data.

According to the school's bill it sent to the state for payments last month, ECOT was set to be paid $8.1 million in July for the 14,207 kids it claimed to be educating. Annualized, that would be $97.4 million a year -- not much of a cut from the $103 million they were paid last year.

However, because the state found that in the 2015-2016 year ECOT could only account for about 40 percent of the kids it actually billed the state for educating, the Ohio Department of Education is collecting $60 million from the school -- $30 million for this school year and another $30 million next year.

This is being done in $2.5 million, monthly increments.

So instead of about $97 million, ECOT was set to be paid $67 million this school year. Another 12 percent reduction would make the payment now about $55 million.

That seems like quite a pay cut, doesn't it? And there's little doubt that it is. However, ECOT has cut its staff in half, which means that to pay all their teachers, it will cost them $11 million. That leaves $44 million for them to spend on administrators, their politically connected founder William Lager and computer-related expenses. Remember that ECOT is a virtual shcool. It doesn't pay for buses, lunch ladies, janitors, HVAC, or any of the other myriad, substantial costs brick and mortar schools contend with every year.

But here's the rub of it: the per pupil funding.

If ECOT actually has 14,207 kids, their per pupil state funding has been cut from $6,854 to $3,908 -- about the average net state funding for local school districts. However, if they continue to only be educating full time 40 percent of that figure (about 5,825), as they were found to have done in 2015-2016 (and, according to the letter from ODE, it appears there remains a concern about this inflation), then their per pupil state funding has gone from $16,717 to $9,531.

To give you an idea of how much that is, there are 8 school districts in the state that spend more than $16,717 per pupil, including all state, federal and local money put together, with the highest being the high-performing, wealthy Orange City school district in Cuyahoga County at $21,714. Only two districts -- Orange and Beachwood -- spent more than that per equivalent pupil.

There are about 130 districts that spend more than $9,531 per equivalent pupil and 435 that spend more than $9,531 per pupil. So while, yes, this is a per pupil cut however you look at it, ECOT would still be able to spend per pupil what Newton Falls spends in Trumbull County.

But this all comes down to the actual number of kids ECOT has. If the number of kids remaining is closer to the 5,825, then the school will still clean up from the taxpayers. If they're closer to the 14,207, then they will be (finally) more in line with their actual costs. 

The point though is this: Even with all these fines, ECOT will be able to survive -- maybe not quite as high on the hog as its founder is used to, but it will survive.

And now that the Ohio Republican Party, who has collected millions from Lager over the years, was shamed into returning $76,000 in donations, here's hoping the state's politics are turning away from this failed virtual school experiment at ECOT, where not even 40 percent of students receive a diploma and corruption rules the roost.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Even with layoffs and fines, ECOT will make a killing.

Recently it was reported that Ohio virtual school giant the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was laying off 350 staff members so the school could pay back the $60 million it owes taxpayers for kids it couldn't demonstrate it actually educated.

ECOT shills have said the state's decision to have the school pay back the fine over two years (at $30 million a year) by removing about $2.5 million a month from its payment schedule has threatened the school's financial viability.

Only if you think at least a 30 percent profit is untenable. I guess compared with the 40-45 percent profit they're used to receiving,30 percent a pittance. But what business wouldn't kill for 30 percent margins?

Oh, and it's probably more -- a lot more -- than that.

Here's how I calculated it. According to the latest data available, ECOT had 607 teachers in the 2014-2015 school year who were paid, on average, $36,038. Assuming that 300 of the 350 layoffs were teachers, that means there are now 307 teachers for the school's 14,207 students -- a roughly 47:1 student-teacher ratio.

However, that means ECOT -- a school without buses, lunch ladies, custodians, or myriad other traditional education costs and expenses, will only spend $11 million of the $73 million the state's preparing to pay the school this coming school year on teachers. So ECOT could give every kid a brand new, $2,000 laptop and still clear 30 percent.

For the record, ECOT kids are definitely NOT receiving $2,000 laptops and the 30 percent calculation doesn't include the 50 additional lost staff, many of whom could be making more than the teachers.

So the margin is probably larger than 30 percent. In fact, it's so large (even with $30 million fewer over the year, ECOT's per pupil state funding of $5,192 is more than what kids in 56 percent of local school districts received from the state last year) that ECOT could still pay politically connected founder William Lager his $20 million a year to "manage" and provide the software for the school and still have about $8 million to pay for its servers, administrators, etc. To give you an idea of what $8 million gets you, that's about what Lancaster Local or Brunswick City schools spend annually on administration.

In other words, Bill Lager can still clean up and the school can still run.

Of course, the school could have paid Lager a mere $10 million and kept all of its teachers, but as with nearly everything else about ECOT, profits trump kids.

No surprise there.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Don't think ECOT fine is about quality. It's about money.

There's been an interesting take from some folks suggesting that the $60 million fine being levied by the state against the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) -- the nation's allegedly largest K-12 school and Ohio's first virtual school -- is a sign that the state is getting serious about quality.

As the Akron Beacon Journal put it:
 "More important is what repayment represents, the state doing a better job of holding poor performing charter schools accountable and delivering consequences if they fall short."
Except all the $60 million demonstrates is the state is finally checking to see whether we are paying poor performing charters the correct amount. The fine has nothing to do with quality. Zip. The state says we should still pour tax dollars into ECOT, despite its horrible academic performance. Just a different amount.

The problem in Ohio is that the state never really cared about whether it was paying the right amount to schools like ECOT. And until recently it didn't really care about charter performance. Now they care about the payments, but that's a totally separate issue from performance.

ECOT has been around 16 years. It has never done well on any version of Ohio's report card. It doesn't graduate even 4 out of 10 kids.

Yet that wasn't what prompted the state to come down on ECOT -- it was whether they actually were providing any educational services to kids -- something you would think would be a basic oversight function by the state's public education overseers. But something the state hadn't done for ECOT's first 15 years -- or at least looked away when the problems did come up.

Look, I'm glad the Department is finally getting serious about how much taxpayer funding goes to charters. However, I need to see them be more serious about whether we should be giving any taxpayer dollars to poor performing schools like ECOT before I'll be willing to say the Department is finally interested in the quality of school options for kids.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trump Won't Appoint Anyone at U.S. Department of Education

After President Donald Trump appointed school privatizer Betsy DeVos to be the U.S Secretary of Education, despite the fact she had never spent a day teaching a kid or leading educators, there was a great uproar over her lack of qualifications and other issues (including her inability to comprehend the difference between how well students do on tests vs. how much better they are doing on tests).

Since then, people have generally turned away from the Department and focused on other things.

However, in what has become a pattern with Donald Trump's administration, there has yet to be a single Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education appointed to the Department. In fact, only one other appointment has been made by the President to take any senior leadership positions at the Department. There are more Obama era holdovers than Trump appointees. Of 31 senior positions, only 2 are occupied by Trump appointees. Obama holdovers occupy 7 and the remaining 22 are vacant. That's right. There is a 71 percent vacancy rate in senior level positions at the U.S. Department of Education, which is responsible for overseeing the education of roughly 74 million American kids.

Here is the list of senior level positions, as listed by the Department:

 So, what does this mean that only the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director, Office of English Language Acquisition has been thus far appointed by Trump?

It means the Department is all Betsy DeVos. That's it. No sharing of responsibility or authority. No subject matter expertise. No collaborative decision making. It's simply Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and a handful of Obama era holdovers.

That's it.

For years now Republicans have made the Department of Education their favorite bureaucratic elimination target.

Even Rick Perry remembered he wanted to eliminate the Department during his infamous "Oops" moment during the 2012 debate season.

It appears that Trump has decided to let the Department wither on the vine, consolidate the power in the hand of a single person who is historically under qualified for the position and (like his comments on Obamacare this week), just let the Department die.

While I have certainly disagreed with federal interference in education policy over the years, I believe there is a role for the Department to play, especially when it comes to funding. Many areas of the country fund their education systems less effectively than others. The federal government can help equalize that difference to a great degree so that all Americans, regardless of where they live can achieve the American Dream.

Head Start has done some really good things for many kids. Title I has generally helped rescue public education funding in many areas of the country, though its overall success is mixed. The IDEA has revolutionized the way we educate special education kids and the expectations we have on educators to meet their needs.

The department's refusal to recognize the serious problems it's had on charter schools and other education reform efforts has somewhat tempered their successes. But I would never say that the federal government shouldn't have any role to play in American education policy. Especially when every other industrialized nation involves itself this way. The inherent Balkanization of American states is what led to the death of the Articles of Confederation, after all.

Clearly, Trump is trying to consolidate power in as few hands as possible. And when those hands are as uncertain as Secretary DeVos', what you have is, by default, the President running federal education policy.

I'm not sure that's a good idea.

Friday, July 14, 2017

House GOP Won't Move Voucher Expansion -- Trump's Signature Ed Policy Initiative

A House Subcommittee yesterday declined to move forward President Trump's proposal to invest $1 billion in private school vouchers -- a longtime policy darling of his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the only real Education Policy initiative President Trump has discussed. He announced the $20 billion plan last year at a then-poorly rated Cleveland Charter School.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies reported out a bill that did eliminate teacher support programs at the U.S. Department of Education -- a really bad outcome that will have long-term consequences for kids. But it did not head the nation down the road Ohio took 20 years ago.

Last school year, Ohio taxpayers sent about $568 million to private, mostly religious schools in the form of private school vouchers, busing, administrative cost reimbursements and auxiliary services. This despite the fact that several new studies show that kids who take vouchers do worse on achievement tests after they take the voucher than they did before taking it.

We at Innovation Ohio examined our state's voucher program recently and urged lawmakers to back off from more widely implementing these programs here and across the nation. While it looks like the subcommittee took heed of the mountains of evidence that demonstrate these programs hurt kids who take the vouchers and kids who don't because of the large sums of money these program eliminate from the public system, the bill still has a ways to go.

And the subcommittee did increase funding by about 8 percent for the department's Charter School Program (CSP), which in Ohio has not been very successful at expanding better educational options for kids.

Here's what we found in the report we did at www.KnowYourCharter.com last year:

  • Of the 292 Ohio charter schools that received $99.6 million in federal aid, $30 million went to 108 schools that either closed or never opened
  • Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned
  • The charter schools that have received CSP funding and received State Report Card grades in the 2014-2015 school year had a median Performance Index score that was lower than all but 15 Ohio school districts and would have been graded as a D
One very telling detail of the subcommittee meeting yesterday, though, was this final line from the74.org's account:
"Members did not discuss the school choice plans during the meeting."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Kasich Education Vetoes a Mixed Bag for Kids

While Gov. John Kasich's line-item veto of the Ohio Legislature's freeze on Medicaid has rightly eaten up much of the veto discussion, Kasich also vetoed 11 different education provisions in House Bill 49 -- the state's beinnial budget. For a complete rundown, look here. But I would like to focus on a couple things.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

In several of the vetoes regarding charter schools, Kasich said he struck the provision because it was unfair, or treated schools differently, or lowered standards. My issue with this reasoning is, well, that's kind of been the story of Ohio's charter school system. Ohio charters have been treated differently, held to lower standards and been unfairly funded at the expense of children in local public schools since 1998.

So why the sudden call to conscience? I don't know. But let me take a few of the vetoes in turn.

1) He vetoed a provision that would have allowed charters to count student growth as 60 percent of its student achievement measure rather than the current 20 percent. He claimed this was because it would hold charters to a lower standard than local schools. But that's only true if you believe that student growth is not as effective a measure as straight performance. And while there are real concerns with how student growth is calculated and used, putting more emphasis on that measure could encourage schools to spend more time with more students rather than just focusing on high fliers whose high scores would help a school's rating more than growing the lower scoring students. That's not a horrible public policy outcome. And we have always held charters to different standards than local schools -- that's been part of the point with charter law and criticism of it.

2) He vetoed a provision that would have allowed sponsors that were stripped of their ability to sponsor schools this school year to sponsor them again this year if they scored 3 out of 4 or higher on academics. His reason? Because they would still score poorly on the other bureaucratic measures under which they are now evaluated. But this is exactly the problem the legislature was trying to address -- you have some of the highest rated sponsors for academics (arguably the most important of the three charter school sponsor measures) unable to continue sponsoring schools because they don't meet the bureaucratic measures. Instead, with his veto Kasich essentially is putting a greater emphasis on whether a sponsor fills out forms correctly than whether the schools they oversee serve kids well. I fail to see how that outcome upholds quality for kids.

SCHOOL DISTRICT FUNDING

Several of Kasich's vetoes would directly harm the funding for kids in local school districts.

1) He vetoed a provision that would have helped ease the removal of Tangible Personal Property (TPP) tax reimbursement payments to districts, forcing many districts to deal with much steeper cliffs. He claimed schools have had enough time to cope with this loss. Kasich has never really understood why removing this formerly $1 billion a year payment for kids in local schools was so detrimental. I think it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding (or deliberate misunderstanding) of the 2005 law that eliminated the TPP. In exchange for the elimination of the TPP (which went mostly to kids in school districts), the state agreed to make school districts whole with Commercial Activity Tax payments until a real replacement could be developed. It's that last part of the agreement whose promise Kasich broke in 2011 when he decided to eliminate the reimbursement payments, cutting funding to kids in local school districts by $1.8 billion in that budget. The last year before Kasich, the TPP payment was $920 million. Now it's all but gone. Which is why when lawmakers claim they've increased funding to schools, they NEVER include this lost revenue. Anyway, Kasich's draconian adherence to this false narrative about TPP continues to be one of his greatest failings. And kids will suffer for it.

2) Kasich vetoed a couple provisions that would have allowed school districts to apply for state matching funds for new buildings at lower local share matches if they phased them in over time. He claimed this would have created inequities among districts. Which is a nice sentiment, but the whole reason the legislature did this is because of the current system's inequities. Some districts are caught in a nether zone where they are considered too "wealthy" for a big state match, but also too poor to fund the whole thing -- hence the current inequity. However, if they could go for a smaller bond issue, kids in those districts might be able to access the same new buildings as many other districts in the state. Again, this punishes districts who are neither wealthy nor poor, but are less wealthy than the wealthiest.

HOSING APPALACHIA. AGAIN.


Throughout Kasich's turn in the Governor's office he has found new and creative ways to hurt rural Appalachian schools. When he developed what was supposed to be his signature "Achievement Everywhere" school funding plan (a plan that was dumped unceremoniously by his own party), the plan disproportionately hurt rural Appalachian districts. He used school funding formulations that would downplay the poverty in Appalachia. And now he vetoed a provision that would allow school districts to give state tests in paper rather than computer formats. Rural Appalachian districts simply don't have enough computers to give tests over computers effectively or efficiently. We also know that kids who take paper tests tend to do better than those who take them on computers. So Kasich is forcing kids in mostly rural Appalachian districts to take more time taking tests and in a format that's biased against them. All in the name of what? "Standards"?

Part of his decision I think stems from Kasich's sharing of the school reform bias toward assessments that show kids doing worse. I've discussed this before, but just because kids to worse on a test doesn't mean that test is more accurately assessing their proficiency in a subject. Does anyone honestly believe that a test showing that only 1/3 of students are proficient readers is a more accurate read of how kids are doing than one that suggests 85 percent are?

Kasich made some decent vetoes on education provisions. His veto of a provision that would have forced College Credit Plus students (kids who take college courses in high school) to receive a C or higher to receive college credit when college students can receive credit for a D makes sense.

His veto of a provision that would have exempted some special education private schools from state assessments was generally fair.

His veto of a provision allowing Education Service Centers to sponsor schools from all over the state was also a small victory.

But overall, Kasich's vetoes were cloaked in a veneer of fairness that hides
the unfair and inequitable approach his administration has used in education policy since 2011.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What's with Ohio Legislature's Betel Nut Crusade?

Photo from WOIO Channel 19 in Cleveland
Lost among the hundreds of budget amendments considered by the Ohio General Assembly today is something probably no one will discuss -- a provision that bans Betel Nuts from use on school or Education Service Center (ESC) grounds. The provision, which was inserted into the Senate's version of the budget a couple weeks ago, originally called for schools to develop policies for enforcement of this provision, as well as penalties for students who use them.

That enforcement requirement was removed from the final version of the budget, perhaps a recognition that asking for increased Betel Nut enforcement at a time when the same budget is cutting school districts by $896 million over the budget passed during the Great Recession, adjusted for inflation, is heavy handed.

But what gives with Betel Nuts?

I looked them up online. They're a wildly popular nut from Southeast Asia that is known to create the same sort of buzz as nicotine or caffeine. Like all things you leave in your mouth for extended periods, they are known to cause oral cancers and disease. And, interestingly, it appears Asian women prefer them to tobacco or cigarettes.

So in Asia, there's a lot of concern over these nuts, and rightfully so.

But outside of a few sensationalistic local TV news stories about Ohio authorities warning about Betel Nut danger, I couldn't find a single incident of Betel Nuts being used in Ohio schools.

As Channel 19 reported in Cleveland: "Cleveland 19 checked with Cleveland and Akron Police Departments and they did not know of any local cases. The Cuyahoga County Board of Health tells us they have heard of it, but “there is no evidence of local activity.""

Except for one.

A group of teens were found to be using them in Reynoldsburg a few months back. The description used by police?

The students were "visibly off balance."

We would join California, apparently, as the only states in the country to ban the nut from school grounds.