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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Imagine Schools to Teachers: "Let Them Eat Cake"

I'm rarely surprised anymore. That's one of age's few gifts. But today, I was just stunned by what the for-profit charter school operator Imagine Schools told one of their school boards yesterday. The board told Imagine that they would rather pay their teachers more money than the exorbitantly high rent they're paying Imagine for their building. The Imagine Schools spokesman said the board should think of other ways to "celebrate" the teachers "such as having cake for them at the next board meeting."

I'm sure the school's teachers will appreciate their sheet cake. The $26,929 those school's teachers make a year, by the way, is about $1,000 under the poverty line for a family of 5, and would qualify these teachers for welfare benefits in many cases. So I'm sure they will love their cake because it will help them pay the rent.

Or not.

Imagine Schools needs to brush up on French History. Telling people to eat cake rather than pay them hasn't worked out so well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Defense of Transparency

I certainly expected Ohio charter school advocates to say bad things about I've been in the middle of these Ohio education wars for too long not to expect the attacks. It didn't surprise me to hear advocates claim that the thing was put out by a teacher's union. So of course it's an attack on charters! Right?

Well, not really. What it is is transparency. And transparency is not all together kind to Ohio's charter schools. There are 26 comparative measures on How many are on the only similar site to it -- The Cleveland Transformation Alliance? That's right. Three. Three vs. 26. Yet to see the Cleveland Plain Dealer's news story about Know Your Charter, you would think the level of transparency was comparable. I've included the list of comparisons for you. Be the judge. Are these site's transparency even comparable?

Know Your Charter
Cleveland Transformation Alliance
Attendance Rate
Student Growth
FT Teachers
Graduation Rate
Student/Teacher Ratio
Avg. Teacher Experience
Teachers with Masters Degrees
Students in Poverty
Special Needs Students
Gifted Students
White Students
Non-White Students
% of Students at school less than 3 years
% of Expenditures spent in Classroom
% of Expenditures spent on Administration
State Funding Per Student
Performance Index Score
Performance Index Score Grade
Performance Indicators Met Grade
Overall Value Added Grade
Gifted Value Added Grade
Disabled Value Added Grade
Lowest 20% Value Added Grade
AMO Grade
3rd Grade Reading Guarantee Pass rate
# of Kids eligible for 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

# of Kids who scored above the threshold

I told the PD reporter that Know Your Charter is very complementary with the Alliance's site. The more transparency, the merrier. But there is zero, and I mean zero competition between Know Your Charter and the Transformation Alliance. We weren't trying to undermine them at all. We were trying to add onto the work they've done in Cleveland so that parents can make more informed decisions about their children's educations, and the public can look behind the curtain.

Did we post every single data point on Know Your Charter? No. We did not. We didn't, for example, post graduation rates, even though that series would make charter schools look even more horrendous. Nor did we include the total expenditures in each sector, which would show that the average brick-and-mortar charter school actually spends more per pupil than the average Ohio school district. We didn't include building-level data, which would show how buildings in even the Big 8 urban districts outperform their charter counterparts, despite having significantly higher rates of poverty. And at some point, we will add additional data points.

But c'mon. There are 26 data points! How many more do you need to tell you there are serious issues in Ohio's charter school sector? 5? 50? 1,876,546,756? Because I've got news for you: None make Ohio charters look great. None. Some make them look not quite as bad. But let's face it, they're still really bad in the vast majority of cases. 

Look, I'm sorry that transparency makes charter schools look bad. I'm sorry for the taxpayers who have forked over $8 billion to these things since 1999. I'm sorry for the kids who aren't in charters and lose upwards of $1,000 a year in state funding because the state sees fit to fund these things at such a bloated level. But most of all, I'm sorry for the parents and children in charter schools who were sold a bill of goods that has, in the overwhelming majority of cases, turned out to be no more than snake oil.

Our state's leaders and the responsible members of the charter advocacy community need to admit there are major problems in Ohio's charter schools. Not every state's system is so messed up. We can learn from others. And we can also teach others how to do this better. And to their credit, some in the charter community have spoken up.

Charter schools are an important option for many parents. They are not the panacea for the struggles of public education, nor are they the death knell of public education. They can work. But in Ohio, they don't. And until those who believe strongest in charter schools' efficacy actually stand up and demand better, rather than slamming people who are trying to shine light on the problem because it scatters too many roaches, then I fear our taxpayers, parents, and most importantly, our kids will continue to drink snake oil, hoping for miracles.

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 (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 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 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?