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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Do Charter School Advocates Make False Claims Easily Checked?

They're at it again. In a story contained in Gongwer (a paid site), Darlene Chambers, CEO and President of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools claimed that a fact on the new website http://KnowYourCharter.com (whose data I compiled) was wrong.
The charter advocacy group said, for example, the website says Stambaugh Charter Academy in Youngstown had "100% of students at school less than 3 years." The school's sponsor says the figure is not accurate.
"Stambaugh is a high quality school with a high student retention rate," Ms. Chambers said.
As a former reporter, I got that sinking feeling reporters always get when we find out something we print could be wrong. Then I checked it. Here's the actual data from the actual Ohio Department of Education spreadsheet:


As you can see, all children at Stambaugh were in the Charter less than 3 years, as reported to ODE -- the exact thing Know Your Charter reports. So the only specific criticism of the website offered by OAPCS is actually dead wrong.

I would hope that the OAPCS would be willing to issue a retraction of their statement to Gongwer. We need OAPCS to be forceful advocates for Charter School transparency and accountability, not complicit bystanders in their struggles.

Our kids deserve nothing less.

Know Your Charter

Today at Innovation Ohio, we launched a new online tool called http://knowyourcharter.com/. On it, you will be able to compare Charter and Traditional Public School data side-by-side. It essentially boils down 18 Ohio Department of Education spreadsheets into one, easy-to-use format, adding an additional layer of transparency to this $914 million education sector.

One thing that I think this site will do is keep people like me honest. For example, when Fordham published a report published yesterday in Hannah saying how Charter Schools outperform schools in Ohio's major urban centers on Value-Added Measures, you can look at their methodology and see how shaky it is.

  • They didn't include any Charters that were closed after the end of the year, even if it was for academic failure
  • They didn't include any virtual schools, even though the urban districts lose more than $55 million a year to virtual schools
  • They didn't include any special education schools, even though there's a specific value-added measure examining the academic growth of disabled kids
  • They didn't include any of the state's 90 dropout recovery Charter Schools, which in some cases graduate 2 of 155 kids
  • They didn't mention that about half of all the money going to Charter Schools does NOT come from the urban core districts, so why are we limiting the comparison to districts from which only about 1/2 of the kids in Charters come from?
Go to http://knowyourcharter.com/ and you can find out pretty quick just how meaningful these methodological issues are with Fordham's analysis. This isn't to pick on Fordham, but it's also to let you know you can use the site to double check what I do to.

It is true that transparency is the best disinfectant. So please, disinfect away!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ohio: Charters' 7.2% Grad Rate "Meets Standards". Really????

In the lame duck 2005-2006 legislative session, Ohio's legislature and historically unpopular Gov. Bob Taft exempted Ohio's Dropout Recovery Charter Schools from having to adhere to any new closure standards. In exchange, the State Board of Education had to develop operating standards for these schools by December 2007.

However, those standards were never adopted. Instead, Dropout Recovery Charter Schools operated without fear of closure, which made their operators -- including notorious political donor David Brennan's Life Skills Centers -- lots of money.

The state finally adopted Dropout Recovery standards a couple years ago. In exchange, these Charter Schools (now 90 strong) receive their own, much more lenient report card. This year was the first for Dropout Recovery Schools to have measurable data. And wow do these data raise serious questions about whether the state has any meaningful operating standards for these schools.

According to the Dropout Recovery report card, a 7.2% four-year graduation rate is designated "meets standards" (in which case, the Charter wouldn't close) while a 30% rate exceeds them. Wow. Really? 7.2%? 30%?

Sheesh but that's awful. Now, I understand that dropout recovery schools have a very challenging population of kids. I get it. But are we really going to say that spending $117.3 million on these 90 schools is a good use of taxpayer money? Dropout recovery is among the most important functions of our educational institutions. These are our most at-risk kids.

Yet the state says that if only 8 out of 111 eligible graduates graduate -- as is the case at Life Skills Center of Columbus North -- then the school has met the state's "rigorous" standards? Wow. Just. Wow.

The average graduation rate (dropout recovery schools are tracked for 4, 5, 6, and 7 years) is about 20-25% (take Life Skills out of the equation, and the rate jumps almost 5%). Shouldn't that be meeting standards? The highest 4-year graduation rate is 88.9% at Franklin Local Community School. I would think any rate over 50% would exceed standards, right? Wrong. It's 30%.

Life Skills Centers -- the largest single group of Dropout Recovery Charters -- are especially horrendous at graduating children, which I thought was the whole point of dropout recovery. They single handedly drag down the overall Dropout Recovery graduation rate by about 5% and represent 6 of the 11 Dropout Recovery schools that "Does Not Meet Standards" for four-year graduation rates in Ohio's eyes. But given that their operator, White Hat Management, is run by David Brennan, who has given $4 million to Ohio politicians, does it surprise you that these standards are so low?

And to add insult to injury, even the Life Skills Centers (whose diplomas at one time weren't accepted by the military) that graduate 2 out of 155 kids (yes, Life Skills of Northeast Ohio owns this shameful graduation rate) and fail to meet even these ridiculously low standards can stay open in perpetuity. How? By simply improving their graduation rate (and test scores) 10% a year for two consecutive years, thanks to Mr. Brennan's friends in the legislature and Governor's mansion.

So, let's do some math. The 2 out of 155 kids that graduate from Life Skills of Northeast Ohio is a 1.3% graduation rate. Improving by 10% a year for two years would put that rate at 1.573%. How many more kids is that? .43. That's right. If Life Skills of Northeast Ohio graduates the equivalent of .43 of a student more over the next not one, but two years, the school gets to stay open. That's right. He doesn't have to graduate even 1 more kid. They don't even have to improve to 7.2% and graduate 9 more kids to "Meet Standards." They just have to graduate a fraction of one more.

I wish I was joking.

Now, that, is a loophole. And that, my friends is what $4 million will buy you -- the right to run horrible schools and collect billions. Brennan has collected more than $1 billion in state revenue since Charters started in 1999 without ever testifying before the Ohio General Assembly. In fact, about 15 cents of every dollar spent on Ohio charters since 1999 ($7.4 billion total) has gone to Mr. Brennan. Let's see: turning $4 million into $1 billion.

Anyone want that return on investment? Tough to beat 25,000%.

Perhaps that's how Mr. Brennan can afford a $10 million Naples, Fla. home and guest home (the most expensive multi-million dollar property on Naples' ritzy Nelsons Walk, according to the Collier County Auditor's property appraisal office).

David Brennan's $10 million Naples property
Source: Collier County, Fla. Auditor

Don't forget that Gov. John Kasich's most recent budget gave the biggest per pupil increases to (wait for it) Life Skills Centers. Funny how that works, isn't it?

For our state's most at-risk kids, that's not funny. It's awful.

Dropout Recovery Charter Schools in Ohio are a mess. We know how to best prevent dropouts. Among those strategies -- early childhood education, family engagement teams (which Ohio paid for in the Evidence Based Model, but not anymore), and tutoring (also paid for in the Evidence-Based Model, but not anymore). Let's do what we know works.

Let's stop giving David Brennan $17.5 million, or more than $8,400 per pupil (a greater per pupil sum than the state gives to all but 3 public school districts, and more than double what the state spends -- $3,920 -- on average in all districts) to graduate 113 of the 1,496 kids in his care last year at all Life Skills Centers. Two of his schools aren't rated yet by the state, so the graduation rate is probably even worse than that.

By the way, that's a mighty lofty 7.6% graduation rate for Life Skills. That would "meet standards" in Ohio's eyes. I know. Horrific, right?

You, dear reader, know that I'm not one for eliminating Charters. I want great educational experiences for all kids, regardless of school type. But these Dropout Recovery "standards" are an embarrassment. All they do is hurt our most vulnerable children and let profiteers live lavishly.

What a travesty.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

StudentsFirst: Ohio's Charters Mostly "Stink", Should be Closed

StudentsFirst -- Michelle Rhee's education reform group -- had a rocky beginning here in Ohio. It got involved in lots of political races early and created enemies.

But over the last couple years, things have changed. Gone are the days of Rhee coming to town and hobnobbing with politicos. In fact, Rhee is gone as SF president, though she remains on its board.

StudentsFirst Ohio's Executive Director Greg Harris has made some pretty important statements. Last year, he said in the Akron Beacon Journal that "a lot of times it has to do not with how well your school is performing, but how well your lobbyist is paid."

To hear a pro-charter organization say we need to get politics out of the argument and implore the legislature to stop pouring more money into bad charters was unheard of before last year.

Harris was at it again this morning in the Columbus Dispatch. Here's what he said:

But the group will also warn parents against the slick advertising campaigns of bad charter operators. 
“We think a lot of them (charters) need to be closed, because they’re not doing a good job,” Harris said. “We think charters have a role in the education base, but we also think most of the charters in Ohio stink.” 
Now, StudentsFirst has been on the quality bandwagon for a while. But to hear that Ohio's charters have serious quality issues is unheard of from Ohio's charter school advocacy community, until now.

I know Harris a bit, having worked with him while he was at Knowledge Works and since. He's a good, sincere person who really does not like bad charters because he really believes in good ones. And while we differ on some major topics, on this we agree: Ohio's Charters mostly stink, and the bad ones need to be shut down.

I welcome Greg's courage to take on the Charter School Establishment in Ohio. His is a tougher road than mine. He's got a steep climb, but more of Ohio's policymakers need to listen to his voice, rather than bad charter operators' campaign cash.

And let's hope his and his group's leadership will inspire the more reasonable, and until now mostly silent, voices in the charter school movement who feel this way to join the chorus.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ohio Urban Districts Perform Better Than Charters

One of the quirks in Ohio's Charter School landscape is the fact that many of the state's highest performing Charter Schools, while physically located in the state's urban cores, take substantial numbers of kids from outside those urban cores. However, the urban cores are always compared with these schools.

A more apt comparison would seem to be between Charters that take all their kids from the urban core vs. urban core traditional buildings. What's amazing is this: Of the 300 Charter Schools graded on the State Report Card (not including the state's 100 or so dropout recovery schools), only 84 took 95% or more of their kids from the state's big 8 urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) during the 2012-2013 school year (the most recent data I have). None of those 84 buildings are located in Canton. Of the 248 Charter School buildings located in the counties of the Big 8 urbans, about 1/3 take 95% or more of their kids from the Big 8 urban districts.

Franklin County's a perfect example of this phenomenon. Of the 72 Charter Schools located there, only 12 took 95% or more of their kids from Columbus City Schools in the 2012-2013 school year.

Now, is it fair to compare the performance of Charter Schools that take significant portions of kids from outside the Big 8 with the performance of schools in the Big 8 that take nearly 100% of their kids from the Big 8? No.

So I looked at the performance of Charter Schools that took 95% or more of their kids from the Big 8 with the performance of Big 8 urban buildings, and what I found is this: Ohio's urban buildings (minus Canton because no Charters take 95% or more of their kids from there) outperform their Charter School counterparts, even though Charter Schools remove as much as $1,000 per child in state money (depending on the district) from every kid in a Big 8 urban building.
















Big 8 urbans outperform their Charter School counterparts on As and Bs and get smaller percentages of Ds and Fs. But perhaps the greatest disparity is in Performance Index Score -- the closest thing Ohio has to an overall school grade at this point.
















The average urban building PI score was 79.05. The average Charter PI score was 63.45. To give you a sense of scale on what a 15.6-point difference in PI scores means, Wyoming City received the highest PI score of any district last year -- a 113.013. There are 429 (of 613) school districts between Wyoming and the district that is a bigger than 15.6-point drop.

In other words, a 15.6-point difference is enormous.

Again, this is as close an apples-to-apples comparison as can be done. Where do Ohio's urban kids do better, in district buildings or Charters? The answer is pretty clear -- district buildings.

It should also be made clear that urban district performance isn't any great shakes (more than 40% of their scores are Fs and barely more than 20% are As and Bs, after all), but even that performance is better than Charters, and in the case of Performance Index, much better.

Can we have a discussion of quality charters? Please? Our kids need it.

Charters were supposed to improve performance. Instead, they're performing worse, even in the communities where they were supposed to have the most profound effects. Sixteen years and $7.4 billion into this experiment, shouldn't we be getting better results?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Report Card: Charter Value Added Grades Not Much Better

One of the only areas where Charter Schools have been able to make an argument for their success has been on value-added measures (VAM). VAM is, essentially, a growth measure. It measures actual student academic growth versus expected student growth. I've always had questions about how the expected growth is calculated, and Ohio's VAM formula is notoriously proprietary (so it can't be re-produced). But that's the idea.

I'm more intrigued by VAM at the macro, district level because its calculation breaks down as you drill into classrooms, and especially teachers. For example, there have been many incidents around the country where a VAM determined a teacher was the worst teacher in the district one year, then the best the next year -- and vice versa. But at the district level, VAM holds more promise, is less swayed by demographics than raw test scores, and is better philosophically. Though it still needs a lot of work.

Anyway, I broke down Ohio's report card, which was released yesterday, on the VAM categories the state measures. Then compared Charter-District performance. Specifically, the grades for overall value added, lowest 20% (how well do the lowest performers grow), and disabled all receive VAM scores. The state also does gifted VAM, but only a handful of Charters have enough gifted kids to qualify. So the comparison is pretty meaningless.

The results are below. As you can see, Charters do a little bit better than their raw scores would indicate. But it's still nothing to write home about.


















Districts still get higher percentages of As and Bs on all the value added categories. Meanwhile, Charters get higher percentages of Ds and Fs than districts do. So, on overall value added for example, a higher percentage of districts get As than Charters get As and Bs, even though the highest percentage of Charter As are in that category.

And even when Charters do get a higher percentage of As, as they do in the lowest 20% category, districts so outperform them on Bs that a higher percentage of districts still get As and Bs in that category. Meanwhile, Charters get higher percentages of Ds and Fs, even in this category.

Remember that every Ohio school district lost money and children to Charter Schools last year (only Ohio's tiny Lake Erie island districts did not). Even Charters in the urban core receive a significant number of kids from outside that urban core. The most famous example, perhaps, is the Columbus Preparatory Academy -- run by the for-profit Mosaica Education, Inc., which has among the highest performance index scores in the state. Yet about half the kids don't come from Columbus City Schools. So is it fair to judge Columbus based on this school's performance? Yet Columbus always is.

Overall, we know that about half of kids in Ohio Charter Schools do not come from the state's urban core districts -- the original site of Ohio's Charter School experiment. We spent $914 million on Charters last school year. And about all we can say positive is that in one value added category, they got 1% more As than districts. But we can also say that they fail at a significantly higher level in all these categories than the districts from which they receive their children and money.

And in perhaps the most bottom line measure there is -- graduation rates -- the difference is stunning:

















What these value-added data demonstrate for me is this: Ohio's Charter Schools perform marginally better overall on them than more traditional measures. But the question I ask is this: does this marginal improvement justify kids in Columbus losing $1,063 every year because the Charter School deduction is so huge? Or kids in Boardman losing $1 million? Or kids in Brooklyn losing more than 60% of their state revenue?

Yes, there are a small handful of Charter Schools that are doing the innovative things Charter Schools were originally intended to do. These tiny pockets of success could be achieved with far less damage to the remaining 90% of kids in Ohio's school districts, where, overall, they attend higher performing options. Instead, the 90% of kids in those districts lose about 7% of their state revenue because Ohio's General Assembly pays more than double the state money to Charter Schools as they do to the child's district of residence and have cared little about the performance of these schools.

Charter School proponents over the next few weeks will probably be able to drill down the VAM enough to show that schools in some area outperform Districts in an area on a measure or two. But should it be this hard to show Charter School success after $7.4 billion spent since 1998? It's not that hard in other states. But it is here in Ohio. The Stanford CREDO study found that Ohio's Charters are one of only 4 states to see their performance slip between 2009 and 2013, while the average Ohio Charter student loses a full marking period in math and 1/3 of one in reading to their public school counterparts.

Given the amount the state has poured into Charter Schools, which is now more than the state spends in a year on kids in school districts through the state's funding formula, you would think the evidence would be overwhelming that Charter Schools are superior. But instead, we have to spend weeks with algorithms and sophisticated statistical tests to find some permutation that shows Charters may be slightly better at one tiny thing the state measures. On all the big, obvious measures, Ohio's Charter Schools just don't cut it overall.

Charter School quality, not quantity must fuel this debate from now on. Whether a school succeeds should be paramount. Not whether it simply exists. We're beyond the point of asking whether we should have school choice. Fifteen years and $7.4 billion in, it's safe to say that choice is here to stay. Now we need to ask a very simple question: "What should those choice options look like?" and, more importantly, "Should they be any good?"

Friday, September 12, 2014

Did State Budget Cut Lead to Prisoner Escape?

I know I typically write about education policy here. However, I was moved to write about something else just now. For those who aren't familiar with what happened in Chardon not long ago, T.J. Lane shot up the high school, killing three people, and eventually was convicted of his crimes.

Late last night, he escaped from the Allen County Oakwood Correctional Institution. And here's where I started getting interested. That's because in the most recent state budget, the Allen County and Oakwood prisons consolidated. Let me take the language directly from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission description:
"The Department also plans to consolidate operations of the Allen Correctional Institution and the Oakwood Correctional Facility, which are also adjacent to each other in Allen County. These consolidations will allow the Department to eliminate duplicate functions and create administrative efficiencies. Over the course of the biennium, the approximately 40 staff will be cut from the Department's payroll, and the Department will save an estimated $6 million."
That's right. The facility that held Ohio's most reviled criminal didn't exist prior to Gov. John Kasich deciding to "consolidate" operations -- or lay off 40 staff. All to save $6 million. What's more amazing is the overall budget for institutional operations went up under this budget, from  $1.76 billion to $1.81 billion over the biennium. So it's not like it was done as part of a system wide cost cutting effort. No. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections specifically targeted this facility as a way to wipe out 40 jobs and save a few bucks ($6 million out of $1.81 billion is 3% of the cost).

Is there any way to prove that the decision to consolidate these prisons led to T.J. Lane's prison break? Not really. But I know that eliminating 40 corrections officers probably didn't help.

This is a cautionary tale about cutting budgets. There are consequences. Whether it means students miss out on educational experiences, or one of the country's most notorious mass murders escapes from prison. Budgets matter. Money matters. Cuts matter.

Because, ultimately, educating and protecting people matter. Yes, even more than saving a few bucks when you've got more money than ever.