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Thursday, November 16, 2017

New Sponsor Ratings Reveal Flaws in Ohio Charter Reform

The latest Ohio Charter School Sponsor evaluations are out, and once again there are serious incongruities with overall and academic ratings. Some of the sponsors (non-profit organizations that oversee Ohio's charter schools) with the highest academic ratings may be forced to close as soon as next year because their overall rating is poor or ineffective.

Meanwhile, some sponsors with effective ratings -- meaning they can keep taking on more charter schools -- have D or F grades for academics.

This system comes from House Bill 2 -- Ohio's most far-reaching attempt to reform its nationally ridiculed charter school system. The goal of the evaluation system was to put the screws to the non-profit sponsors, which are supposed to ensure the academic performance of its charter schools, but had mostly just been interested in collecting their 3 percent fees from the schools and let the schools do whatever.

The evaluations rate sponsors on a four-tier scale. The tiers from top to bottom are: Exemplary, Effective, Ineffective and Poor. If they rate in the top two categories, they can keep running charter schools. Rate in the bottom two and they may be forced to shut down. But it looks like there remain kinks in the evaluation system -- kinks I was concerned about from the very beginning of the House Bill 2 debate, despite my overall support for the bill.

What you can see in the chart to the left is a couple things: 1) All the highest rated academic sponsors are public entities -- primarily school districts and 2) While 6 of the 9 highest rated academic performers received an effective or exemplary rating, 2 were deemed ineffective and one was rated poor, meaning it will be banned from operating anymore as a sponsor.

This outcome is not in the spirit of House Bill 2 -- the landmark charter school reform law that set up this system. However, it is in the actual law. Why? Because there are three elements to the sponsor rating -- academics, adherence to current Ohio regulations and compliance with national sponsor standards set by the national charter school sponsor lobbying organization.

Sounds fair, right? Except all three measures have to be weighed equally under the law. Quick, what's your GPA if you get an A and two Fs? Right. B-. But what if you're an English major and you get Fs in Shakespeare and Chaucer and your A is in Bowling? Shouldn't it matter that you're failing at your primary function? Likewise, what if you're getting an A in Shakespeare, but you get Fs in Calculus and Chemistry?

I see the state's charter school sponsors' primary job as ensuring the academic quality of the schools they oversee. If they can dot their bureaucratic i's and cross those t's, fine. But it doesn't matter nearly as much to me as whether their kids are learning.

This is why I've pushed for greater importance to be placed on the Academic portion of the evaluation than the other two, mostly bureaucratic, portions. This way, Scioto County Career Technical Center could still sponsor its school because the school is doing very well. The Department of Education could then work with the sponsor to help dot its i's a little better. But shutting down one of only 8 out of 45 Ohio charter sponsors to receive an A for academics seems misguided and prime bureaucratic bungling.

Likewise, I would like to see sponsors with D or F ratings not be able to be considered Effective, thereby being allowed to open more charter schools.

I understand that many of these poorly rated sponsors have far more schools than the ones with higher academic ratings. However, there is also an argument to be made that with more schools, there's more leeway for failure -- one school's failure shouldn't be as important if you have 20 others that don't. Sponsors with one school sink or swim with that one school's performance.

It is also remarkable that of the 17 sponsors with D or F academic ratings, only 7 are rated overall as ineffective or poor. So while the top end of the academic rating scale is primarily populated by the top two overall sponsor ratings, the bottom end of the academic rating scale is not likewise populated by poor overall ratings.

This tells me that academically poor performing sponsors have figured out the GPA conundrum I mentioned earlier, and that if they simply pay more attention to bureaucratic details, their academic performance won't matter. That's because academics are only 1/3 of your rating. Bureaucracy is worth 2/3 of your rating.

I have said and will continue to say that a sponsor's academic rating should count for 50 percent of a sponsor's grade, with the other two counting 25 percent each.

Until this adjustment (or something like it) is made, we will continue to put some of the best academic performing sponsors on notice and let slide many of the worst performers.

How Kids Not in Charters Are Hurt by Charter Funding System -- A Case Study

It's really easy to sit back and make esoteric arguments about how Ohio's charter school funding system hurts kids who are not in charter schools. And there's a recognition from leaders in the Ohio General Assembly that the funding system -- which diverts state funding meant for a district to a charter -- is a shell game that leave school districts with far less state revenue than the state says they need to effectively educate their students. This, in turn, forces school districts to use sometimes large segments of their locally raised revenue to make up the difference.

But what does that mean for a kid attending a local public school district?

As an example, I'm going to use a student in Columbus City Schools. Let's assume he or she started first grade in the 2005-2006 school year, which would make this student a senior this year (by the way, I was first elected to the Ohio House in 2006. Wow, does this make me feel old!)

Anyway, I looked at how much state funding this student lost each year of their career because charter schools receive so much more per pupil state funding than Columbus City Schools would have received for the same kids. (Looking at state funding reports here and doing addition and subtraction based on number of students in Columbus before and after charter students leave, as well as how much state funding comes to Columbus before and after charter students leave.)

Yes, I know charters can't raise local revenue. However, the legislature has chosen to not put its money where its school choice mouth is and create a separate fund to make charter schools whole. Instead, they make up a chunk of the local funding disparity by removing extra state funding from the local school district's bottom line, forcing local property taxpayers to do their work for them.

So, for every student who began their Columbus City Schools career in 2005-2006, they have received $10,548 fewer in state revenue, with another $1,142 set to be lost this, their senior year (charter enrollment is so volatile, this figure could change substantially during the year). To give you a sense of scale, that amount equals about the amount of state funding these Columbus students received their first three years of school -- in many ways the most important years.

So because of Ohio's charter school funding system, kids in Columbus essentially are fully locally funded for about 3 of their 12 years in Columbus City Schools. The state only gives them their state funding for about 75 percent of their academic careers. All so schools like the nation's largest dropout factory -- the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (which has received the most money from Columbus of any charter for several years) -- can keep collecting their money and failing to graduate even 4 out of 10 students.

Yes, there are high performing charter schools in Columbus (and elsewhere). I visited one on Monday -- United Preparatory Academy - State. And they are doing great work for many kids. But at what cost to the 90 percent of Ohio's kids who aren't attending charters?

Let me say this is not UPA's problem. It's a state leadership and legislative problem.

But is it worth the relatively small successes statewide in a handful of charter schools so every kid (let me repeat, every kid) in Columbus loses 1/4 of their state revenue over the course of their academic careers?

And what's the impact on local taxpayers?

Local Columbus taxpayers have had to subsidize charter schools to the tune of $556 million during our hypothetical student's career. In other words, more than 1 out of every 10 dollars raised locally during that time frame have gone to fill in the lost state revenue to Ohio charter schools, increasing the district's reliance on property taxes to pay for schools, which is the exact opposite of what the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to do four different times.

The chart on the left shows you how many local property taxes were raised in Columbus since the 2005-2006 school year (from the Ohio Department of Taxation), and how many were left after the state funding lost to charters was taken out.

These results are repeated throughout Ohio. Urban. Suburban, Small Town, Rural districts. No type of district is immune from these charter funding problems.

Statewide, the average Ohio student who started first grade in the 2005-2006 school year has lost $2,332 in state funding during their academic careers to the charter school deduction, with another $242 expected to leave in this, their senior years. And local taxpayers have been forced to use roughly 4 percent of their property tax levies to make up for that loss -- money no voter ever approved for such a purpose (except, it could be argued, for a 15-mill levy in Cleveland that partially goes to charters).

The system has been broken since the beginning. Ohio needs to develop a funding system that accurately calculates the cost of education in charter schools and doesn't fundamentally hurt kids whose parents choose to keep them in local public schools. Lawmakers need to put their money where their mouths are and fund charters fairly using their own, committed state resources, not exacerbate an already unconstitutionally funded school system that's increasingly reliant upon local property taxes.

Our kids desperately need this system to change so it can work for all of them. For it currently works for none of them.

Monday, November 6, 2017

ECOT Enrollment Down 20 Percent. Charter Enrollment Down for 4th Consecutive School Year.

It appears that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the state's first and (maybe) largest online school and nation's largest dropout factory -- has adjusted its enrollment figures to adapt to the Ohio Department of Education's newfound interest in verifying their students.

ECOT was found to have overinflated its student counts by 60 percent in the 2015-2016 school year and 20 percent last school year. The state now says ECOT owes taxpayers more than $80 million in back payments for those two school years.

However, it does appear that this year's enrollment drop, which came after after ECOT's annual October headcount performed by the Ohio Department of Education, matches up with what ODE determined was last year's enrollment inflation at ECOT.

Prior to October's count, ECOT was being funded for 14,209 students. After the October count, that number dropped to 11,382. ODE has not posted the detailed, grade-level October headcounts yet for this year.

These detailed data have increased importance this school year for ECOT because they have a preliminary "Dropout Recovery and Prevention" status, which grants them much easier accountability standards, allowing them and their sponsor -- the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West -- to keep operating and collecting large sums of taxpayer funding with little consequence for the school's putrid performance.

However, the school has to show that more than half of their students are older than 16 and enrolled in a dropout prevention or recovery program or are in "crisis". Previous years' counts show that ECOT likely would not have met the requirement because it had too many students younger than 16. The October count could clarify whether the school would meet the requirements for the lower academic standards.

The enrollment drop means that ECOT, which was slated to receive $73.6 million after paying back taxpayers for the overbilling issue, will now receive $53.9 million.

In 2015-2016, ECOT received $109 million.

ECOT is suing the state to keep ODE from clawing back the $80 million it took from taxpayers for kids it couldn't prove were actually participating in education programs at ECOT. The school has said that if it is forced to make the payments, it will have to shut down in December.

In a side note, overall charter school enrollment is listed at 110,187, the sector's lowest level since the 2011-2012 school year and what would represent the fourth consecutive year of overall charter school enrollment has dropped from its high of 120,894 students in the 2013-2014 school year.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Charter Schools Do Get Direct Local Funding. Sort of.

OK. This may be a little in the weeds, but I think it's important to point out as we consider charter school funding.

Contrary to the complaints of many, charter schools actually do receive direct local revenue.

Sort of.

Yes, there were eight charter schools that actually received local property tax revenues last year, to the tune of less than $500,000 total. And when charter proponents claim that charters get no local revenue except for a few, this is what they are discussing.

However, until 2012, there was another revenue stream that was considered "local revenue" by the state of Ohio that were not local property or income taxes. These payments (tuition, interest on money, fees, etc.) were considered "local revenue" when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled four different times that Ohio's school funding system was unconstitutional because it relied too much on local sources.

In 2012, in a move I criticized at the time for trying to artificially inflate Ohio's state commitment to education, the state removed these other local revenue streams form the "local funding" calculation and created a new one called "other non-tax". However, because these payments were considered local for the previous 20 years of data, to make state-local, apples-to-apples historic funding comparisons, you have to wrap the "other non-tax" revenue in with the "local revenue" funding stream.

Why am I re-living this intensely nerdy argument? Because this "other non-tax" revenue stream provides a significant chunk of change to Ohio's charter schools, and in a few cases even provides more funding to charters than the schools' state revenue stream.

In fact, last year, 87 percent of Ohio's charter schools received at least some "other non-tax" revenue streams, which until 5 years ago were considered "local revenue." The total was just short of $44 million spread across 328 charter schools. The average per pupil amount for the schools that got this funding was $435. That's not insignificant.

The iLead Spring Meadows and Global Ambassadors Language Academy charter schools both received more of this "other non-tax" revenue, which at one time was considered "local revenue", than they received state revenue. And 38 charters get more than $1,000 per pupil from "other non-tax" revenue sources. The major chunk of these payments come from fundraising or grants the schools receive.

So in addition to receiving far more per pupil state funding and more per pupil federal funding than the Ohio school districts with which charters compete, they also receive significant sums from what until 5 years ago was considered "local revenue".

So what does this mean? It means that charters do get locally raised money, though not from (for the most part) the largest pot of that locally raised money -- property taxes. But it's not entirely accurate to say charter schools don't get local revenue.

Because but for a name change made by bureaucrats five years ago, they actually do.

Sort of.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Ohio charter schools public schools? They sure don't act like it.

A recent story in the Columbus Dispatch revealed just how averse to public scrutiny the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is. While I can't say I was shocked, this did strike me as odd, given how much public heat ECOT has been receiving lately. Surely they are savvy enough to be as open and forthright with the public and the media as possible during their time of great duress.

But no.

Instead, they held an ostensibly "public" meeting that it appears the security guard didn't even know was going on. They initially wouldn't allow a member of the media into the board's committee meeting. Then they went into an executive session during their full meeting -- an executive session I'm willing to bet didn't comply with the notice requirements (24-hour posting and inform the media) under Ohio's Open Meetings Law.

And when the meeting was over, the school's top official wasn't able to give the reporter a copy of the documents produced for the ostensibly "public" meeting. I remind you this is a virtual school. They probably have email.

Oh, but the school's "posh" headquarters (the Dispatch's description) had plenty of pictures of politicians up in the hallways, including Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell, who is currently hearing a case against ECOT.

I often hear from Ohio charter school defenders that charter schools are "public schools". If so, why don't they act like it? Perhaps this is why the National Labor Relations Board -- the entity that works out labor disputes in the private sector has asserted jurisdiction over labor disputes in Ohio charter schools.

But lest you think this secrecy is restricted to ECOT, in 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal called 294 charter schools and asked them the following questions:

  • 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?
Want to guess how many refused to give all the information? If you guessed 3 out of 4 charter schools, then you win a cookie.

That's right. Only 80 of 294 charter schools willingly gave all the requested information to the Beacon Journal. This information is pretty basic and minimal.

Again, this is not how public agencies are supposed to operate. 

I ask you another question: If any group of public entities -- schools, cities, townships, villages, counties -- were this poorly responsive to you, the taxpayers that pay their bills and salaries, would you stand for it? 

And would you let them get away with calling themselves "public"?

I don't think so.

Monday, October 23, 2017

American Enterprise Institute Sells Poor Kids Short

I've noticed recently that many have started the "let's get off the four-year degree obsession" and instead encourage kids to go for two-year certificates or Associate's degrees. The American Enterprise Institute is the latest pushing this theme. I agree that two-year degrees and certificates are better than nothing and are a sound decision for many kids, but I have a tough time just resigning our country to the premise that we should just accept fewer kids getting four-year degrees because of this chart from the U.S. Census Bureau:

An Associate's degree will get you a 33 percent higher unemployment rate and 30 percent less income. Not completing a degree hurts more, while stopping at college doubles the unemployment rate and almost cuts income in half.

Are there two-year degrees where recipients can earn more? Sure. Are there Bachelor's degrees where graduates earn less? Sure.

But the nature of public policy is to ensure the greatest opportunity for the most people. And making four-year degrees the expectation for as many kids as possible grants kids, literally, a $1 million opportunity over their lifetime.

But what really gets me is this: None of these studies are offering solutions to increase access to the four-year degree; it's simply lowering the bar and trying to rationalize why we should focus more on the two-year track.

A major reason kids go for two-year degrees over four-year degrees is cost. It's too hard for kids, especially those without a ton of means, to afford college. Especially if they don't have 4.0 GPAs. But kids with Bs and Cs in high school can succeed in a four-year program.

I see it every day when I teach freshman composition at the University of Akron.

Yet the scholarship opportunities for these students just aren't there. So we force them to go into massive debt, work several jobs, or lower their expectations and go for a two-year degree. Then we have places like the American Enterprise Institute try to make that sound like not just a good outcome, but one that represents good, sound policy.

But all we're doing is resigning less wealthy students to lesser opportunity when we should be affording them more opportunity by reducing the financial barriers to the four-year degree. Because as much as we want to argue that two-year degrees are just fine for families and kids who don't have the means to access a four-year degree, I'm looking at the chart to the left and find a strong correlation between a state's median household income and its educational attainment. And, in fact, the correlation coefficient of those two columns is 0.83 -- a strong correlation, though not perfect. This means the greater the percentage of Bachelor's degrees, the greater the income.

In short, getting more people into the middle class necessarily means a greater public policy commitment to increase access to the four-year degree. While two-year degrees and vocational training can help, I'm even concerned about the long-term viability of some vocational skills, given the rapid development of robotic alternatives. We should, though, stop merely talking about the importance of a four-year degree and instead actually fund those opportunities so every kid can access this million dollar dream.

For example, in 1975, Ohio spent more than 15.7 percent of its state budget on higher education. Today, it's about 1/3 the percentage. Ohio is not alone in its de-commitment to the four-year degree. But investing in our state's and nation's youth is as sound an economic development investment as there is.

Why we don't do it more than we do is beyond me.

Friday, October 20, 2017

I Strike a Nerve and Fordham Attacks

I guess I should have figured this was coming, but apparently my recent posts about how poorly charter schools do on performance index, college graduation, and closing achievement gaps relative to local school districts finally sent was too much for my friends at Fordham over the edge.

In what can best be described as a exasperated, indignant scream wide-ranging, personal attack, Fordham's Jamie Davies O'Leary -- with whom I've enjoyed a respectful dialogue in the past and hope to continue to do so -- finally lets loose and doesn't assail what I said really, or even deal with the fact that charters do perform worse than districts; she lashes out at attacks me for daring to compare charters with districts in the first place.

(Earlier posts included language that I thought accurately reported the tone of Jamie's piece. After thinking on it for the weekend, I agree with her that my choice of words could be seen to have carried with them an unfortunate gender stereotype. That was not my intent. However, out of respect for Jamie and all women, I have changed the language to be more neutral and am sorry for the unintended overtones.)

I have explained why this is a perfectly fair comparison many times, but given Jamie's diatribe, I suppose I have to re-cap this for everyone.

Again.

In Ohio, when a charter school receives a new student, the state sends the school $6,000 (plus more for categoricals, but that's a long story) from the pot of money the state was going to send to the district the student came from.

The problem is what if the student would have received only $3,000 from the state if she had remained in the district?

What happens is that the $3,000 in state revenue the state would have sent to the district for that child is shipped off to the charter, but, so is $3,000 meant for EVERY OTHER KID IN THE DISTRICT.

It doesn't take long for that disparity to add up to real dollars -- dollars that local taxpayers (many of whom do NOT have kids in the schools) have to fill in to keep pace.

This is not some hare-brained, left wing fantasy. This is what both the Republican Chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee and the Republican Chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee say.

Because this is what the state data say.

According to the final state payment made to school districts from June, there were 1.7 million students in Ohio set to receive $7.95 billion in total state aid. That's works out to $4,657 (I'm rounding here) for every student in local public school districts.

Then come charter schools.

According to the report, $898 million left school districts last year for charters (a district-by-district breakdown I received from the Ohio Department of Education puts that tally at $935 million, so there's that). Leaving with that funding were 113,613 students.

So, after losing the funding and students to charter schools, the remaining 1.59 million children in Ohio school districts were set to receive $7.05 billion in state revenue, or $4,425 each.

That means that the charter deduction costs every kid in Ohio school districts, on average, $231.51.

This is why I compare charter school performance with school district performance. Because charter schools affect every kid in a school district. Profoundly. How profoundly? Let's look at Columbus.

Prior to the charter school deduction, every kid in Columbus City Schools is set to receive $4,559 in state funding. However, once the $145.65 million and 18,541 students are transferred to charter schools, the remaining 53,532 students who attend Columbus City School buildings receive $3,418 per pupil. That is a difference of $1,141.62. So charter schools cost students who are in Columbus City Schools about 1/4 of their state revenue. That's every student in Columbus, regardless of wealth, race, or disability, Jamie.

Every.

Single.

Student.

So if this profound a change in state funding is going to happen for the 75 percent of children who remain in Columbus City Schools, or the 93 percent of children who remain in Ohio's local public school districts, we'd better be damn sure it's worth it. Is it worth removing $1,141.62 from kids in the best performing school in Columbus so thousands of kids can go to ECOT, for example (ECOT is the largest recipient of charter school transfer funding from Columbus)?

I would say that's a big, "No."

Now my friends at Fordham often complain that charters don't get local revenue. And while that's true, I fail to see how that justifies removing millions of state dollars from kids in local school districts. If the legislature believes in school choice so strongly, then set aside $260 million or so to make up for the lack of local revenue.

Stop taking it from the 1.59 million kids who aren't in charters.

Anyway, this funding problem is the primary reason why I use charter-district comparisons.

But there are many others, such as how charters are considered Local Education Agencies, just like districts. Or how they are required to have treasurers and superintendents, just like districts. Or how they are funded just like districts. Or how they are slated to be opened in a community based on how the district performs on the performance index score. That's how every building in the district performs, not just the worst ones.

I could go on. But suffice it to say if you're funded like a district. If you're considered a district for federal grant making purposes. If your funding comes from every student in every building in a district. If kids in 608 of 613 districts lose state funding to charters. Then, dammit, you don't get to have your performance judged only with the worst performing buildings in the worst performing districts.

Sorry.

Nor do you get to only count certain report card measures, especially when you were the greatest champion for an A-F report card that Fordham claimed would help parents "discern quality". Unless, apparently, those grades are bad in most measures and those schools are charters.

I also take serious issue with O'Leary's main premise -- that I'm somehow standing up for districts while she is standing up for kids. It's in the title of her piece "Schools were meant for kids, not the other way around". This is a common argument made by pro-charter school advocates: those who dare question charter efficacy clearly are just trying to protect bureaucrats while charter school advocates are White Knights charging to children's defense.

This saccharine, sanctimonious appeal is so much hogwash that it would sweep the hogs upstream.

In Ohio, 93 percent of children attend school districts. The state's charter school funding system means $231.51 fewer state dollars, on average, for that 93 percent of students. How is standing up for the rights of the 93 percent of kids in Ohio's school districts to not have their funding cut by school choice programs anti-student or anti-parent again?

Seems to me that standing up for the rights of 7 percent of the kids and parents to the detriment of 93 percent of kids and parents is far more anti-student and anti-parent. Especially when the performance of those buildings to which the 7 percent move is, for the most part, so comparatively dreadful.

As I've said a million times before (though it appears some just won't listen), I am not anti-school choice. But if we are going to have school choice, we must create a regime that encourages quality school options for students while funding it in a way that doesn't hurt the 93 percent of students who are not in charters.

Until this state wakes up and addresses these two fundamental flaws, I will oppose what we're doing. And, yes, Jamie, I will compare charter school performance with school districts'.

I wish my friends at Fordham would take the same pledge, but their dogmatic adherence to the sanctity of parental choice has blinded them. Not all school choice advocates are so blinded, though. Some have looked at the last 20 years of results and said ,"I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state."

My friends are Fordham are simply trying to hail a cab that is blocks away, headed in the wrong direction. And that's a shame.