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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Charter Day in Columbus

Today is one of those news days I loved as a reporter -- lots of news, and really important news at that.

First off, Bellwether Education Partners released a study funded by the Fordham Foundation, which to their great credit has funded two high-quality reports that have called out Ohio charter schools. The report gave 10 policy recommendations for fixing Ohio's broken charter school sector. Lots of good recommendations in there -- coming down hard on failing schools, operators and sponsors, focusing on quality rather than quantity of choices.

My only real beef with it was the suggestion that we need to put local money into charters too so that the "inequity" issue can be resolved, as well as some of the transportation and building funding issues. Including charter schools as part of the Ohio School Facilities Commission funding scheme has issues, like what's the local match? School districts have to come up with local money to fund part of the project. Would charters get their whole project paid for? The fairness of that, when districts (for whom the fund was originally developed during the DeRolph school funding case) had to match it seems a quagmire.

I understand the need to provide some building assistance, though, because without that, charter schools are forced to get in bed with big-time operators that are focused on profits, not kids.

I also struggle with the transportation issue. Charter school kids are transported by school districts at no cost to the charter. Some districts transport a lot of kids to charters. There may be a few charters that take kids from outside a district, so I can understand the need to maybe provide some transportation to them. But again, it's fraught with issues. What do you do, for instance, with open enrollment kids going between school districts whose parents do the driving? Again, there are equity issues galore.

Ultimately, it's awfully difficult to understand why we need to put more money into a sector that already gets almost $1 billion to educate 130,000 kids when folks on both sides of the issue now agree the sector doesn't work.

I would prefer to see the direct state funding of charters, coupled with rigorous quality controls and differentiated funding for excellence could be a way to fix this funding issue. Funding charters is a tough thing to do. But it can be done. And better than it is today. Especially with the state's expected budget surplus this next year.

I don't even mind the transportation or building recommendations nearly as much if I was assured as a taxpayer that it would actually go to successful charter schools, not schools that graduate 2 of 155 kids, as one Ohio charter school currently does.

About an hour later, we at www.KnowYourCharter.com put out a report that showed that 511 of Ohio's 613 school districts got less state funding per pupil last year than the minimum charter deduction required under state law. This means that local revenues have to subsidize these charter school payments.

And when you consider that brick and mortar charter schools spend more per pupil than school districts -- all revenues considered -- you start to see the issue with funding charters. Keystone Local Schools Superintendent Jay Arbaugh and Lorain County ESC Superintendent Greg Ring joined me at the news conference today.

They relayed the tale of how shocked their constituents are when they find out how charter school funding works in this state, and its adverse impact on the 90% of kids not in charter schools.

What we've seen the last week or so are reports that are pointing Ohio leaders in a direction to reform charter schools. I was encouraged to see state Rep. Andrew Brenner and state Sen. Peggy Lehner -- both Republicans -- remark after Bellwether's presentation that they will fight for these recommendations in the legislature.

But overcoming the millions of dollars contributed to Ohio politicians by adults that run poorer performing charter schools will be a monumental task.

For the first time in years, though, I'm optimistic it can happen.

Charter schools can work. They are neither the panacea nor devil's work folks claim. They're not working in Ohio. They can. But it will take education and leadership to overcome three decades of Ohio political habit on this issue.

So let's kick the habit.

Together.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

UPDATED Stanford CREDO Director: Free Market Doesn't Work in Education

This post has been updated to include Dr. Raymond's complete comment on the effect of markets in education. The quote was taken from the City Club's podcast, which hadn't been posted when this post was first written.

I was all prepared to summarize what Dr. Margaret Raymond had to say about Stanford's latest study from its Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), which Raymond heads, at today's City Club of Cleveland event.

How only in Cleveland does it appear that Ohio's charter school sector is providing meaningful, positive benefits to kids. Or how CREDO's methodology works (averaging kids in traditional public school buildings and comparing these "virtual" kids' performance with real charter kids). Or how Ohio's charter school sector has been making very minimal improvements over the years. Or that the state's charter reform initiatives over the last few years haven't had much impact on charter school performance. Or that Cleveland charters are doing a good job educating poor, minority kids. Or that 93% of Ohio charter schools' proficiency scores are below the 50th percentile in the state. Or that 44% of charter school kids are seeing low growth and performance.

But then, in response to a question from the audience nearly at the end of the event, Dr. Raymond dropped this on the crowd: She said she's a "free market kinda girl", but after decades of looking at the nation's charter school sector, she has come to the conclusion that the "market mechanism just doesn't work" in education. Here;s the podcast from the City Club. Her market comments start at 50:18. Here is the remarkable commentary:

I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed… The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.

Considering that the pro-market reform Thomas B. Fordham Foundation paid for this study and Raymond works at the Hoover Institution at Stanford -- a free market bastion, I was frankly floored, as were most of the folks at my table.

For years, we've been told that the free market will help education improve. As long as parents can choose to send their kids to different schools, like cars or any other commodity, the best schools will draw kids and the worst will go away. The experience in Ohio is the opposite. The worst charter schools in Ohio are growing by leaps and bounds, while the small number of successful charter schools in Ohio have stayed, well, a small number of successful charter schools.

Raymond made the point too that parents are not informed enough to be true market consumers on education. Websites like Know Your Charter can help with that educational aspect of the parental choice, better arming parents with the necessary information to make a more informed decision. But to hear free market believers say that 20 years into the charter school experiment its foundational philosophy -- that the free market's invisible hand will drive educational improvement -- is not working? Well, I was stunned to hear that.

Raymond also made the point that the states that are seeing the best charter school performance are states whose charter school authorizers are focused on quality and have robust accountability measures -- in other words, well-regulated. Yesterday, when the CREDO report was released, it was discovered that if online and for-profit charter schools are taken out of the equation, Ohio charters don't perform all that bad. Problem is that more than 57% of Ohio charter school kids are in those schools. In fact, at Know Your Charter, we found that less than 10% of Ohio's charter school kids are in schools that score above the state average on the Performance Index Score or have an A or B in overall value added.

The point is that there are a few very high-performing charters in this state, like the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland, or the Toledo School of the Arts, or Columbus Preparatory Academy. While these schools represent a smattering of Ohio's 400 plus charter schools, the state's failing charter schools are legion.

Here's another sort of bombshell from me, to counteract the free market one: I'm not convinced that the free market can't work for education.

But it can only do so if the public is fully informed, parents are armed with good information and make well-informed, thoughtful decisions while the state and its authorizing groups focus like a laser on quality, not quantity, of choice. The way Ohio's charter school laws are currently drafted does not allow that to happen. Sites like Know Your Charter can help, but the state needs to have a better mechanism in place to ensure that parents and kids can make truly informed and good decisions for their future.

It's not like buying a car where if you buy a lemon, you can just go try another one. It's a pain, but not the end of the world.

If parents choose a lemon of a charter school, their children may never recover.

That isn't a pain.

It's a tragedy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ohio CREDO study: Charters' Generally Negative Impact

The quadrennial CREDO study from Stanford has become a sort of gold standard for charter-public school comparisons. They use sophisticated statistical techniques to draw helpful comparisons between the two education sectors. And while they are only looking at reading and math test scores (which brings inherent limitations), the analysis is as clear-eyed as you'll get on this contentious issue.

Well, the Fordham Institute paid to have CREDO look at Ohio's charter school sector. And in its report released today, CREDO says about Ohio's charter sector what it's generally said during its quadrennial look -- it ain't good. Kudos must be given to Fordham for paying to have CREDO come into town. While we have differed on policy over the years, I do find Fordham to be among the more credible and sane voices on this issue in Ohio from the pro-charter side. They know there's a problem and want to fix it. And for that, they deserve credit.

Back to the study. Overall, kids in charters lose 36 days of math and 14 days of reading to their traditional public school counterparts. Of the 68 statistically significant differences CREDO found between charters and public schools, 56 showed a negative charter school impact, and 12 showed a positive one. 

There appeared to be a few positive impacts in middle schools and a couple other places. But, overall, the results were really not good.

Here are a few quotes: 

  • "... the better the student at the start of the year, the worse they are served in charter schools compared to what they would have learned" in a traditional public school.
  • "... recent efforts across Ohio to improve the quality of charter school performance are only dimly discernible in the analysis. Overall performance trends are marginally positive, but the gains that Ohio charter school students receive even in the most recent periods studied still lag the progress of their (Traditional Public School) peers. More work is needed to ensure that charter schools are serving their students well."
  • "Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state. If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time. The long-term prospects for their students dim with every year they remain in these schools."

Over the next several days and weeks, many will parse out these results and focus on the few areas where Ohio charters seem to be doing particularly well or poorly (students in small towns lose almost an entire academic year of learning in a charter, for example). But I want everyone to remember that more than $900 million went to Ohio charters last school year. And about 1/2 of kids in charters do not come from Ohio's urban core. And that the average Ohio student loses more than $300 a year because the state removes so much to pay for charters.

And I want you to ask yourselves a simple question: Is this level of commitment worth it? For taxpayers and, most importantly, our kids both in charters and traditional public schools? 

It is time to fix this behemoth before it continues to harm both the students in Ohio's schools as well as the well-meaning dreams of education reformers.

How Common Core Can Work

As I've said in these pages before, I've got a serious love-hate relationship with Common Core. I like the standards, and see them as an improvement on previous ones. I like the tests because they try to test critical thinking and other learning that traditionally has not been tested.

But I hate that more and more time is devoted to testing each year because of these standards.

Yet here is the bottom line for me. This weekend, my family and I went out to get a Christmas Tree. We saw our own down (though I have graduated to a chain saw from a bow saw. It's an electric one, though, so I feel only slightly more manly). During the time we were prepping for the tree's extraction and arrival, my wife asked my fourth grader a bunch of obscure math questions -- non-even division, multiplication, etc. And my son ticked off the answers quickly and off the top of his head.

These weren't 2+2 questions. They were 52 divided by 6 types of questions. In other words, I would have been lost at his age because I didn't memorize those things. But the Common Core standards have him think about these problems in terms of places (10s, 100s, etc.), so he's able to do complex math in his head because he understands what's going on with the problem. It's not just there on a flash card or something.

A few weeks ago, our local school district held a forum about Common Core math. To be honest, I think the people there got really frustrated because they didn't understand why their kids were learning something in such a different way than they did. Hey, they're doing OK, right?

Well, now I know why. It's so my son isn't afraid of complex math in later grades, the way I was. Who knows. Maybe if I had a better understanding of math, I wouldn't have been intimidated by it my whole life?

But I want everyone to understand that if the Common Core standards have my son able to do complex math in his head at age 9, then they can't be all bad.

Whether every state should have the same standards, or we should test more an more frequently, or whether we should develop some more complex standards dealing with creativity, innovation and practicality are whole different policy discussions that we must have as a nation, state and community. But for what Common Core does cover, at least in my son's N=1 sample, seems to be doing him some good.

And for that, I'm proud to have voted for the thing when I did.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ohio Senate President Faber Lays Groundwork for Flat Education Funding Next Year

Last week, Sen. Keith Faber, R-Celina, the Ohio Senate President, said that he wanted to deregulate education, especially for high-performing schools. Here's what he said, according to the Gongwer report on his talk:

"Next year we're going to be looking at ways to set those high-performing school districts free of unnecessary bureaucratic regulation from Columbus, and it is going to be a challenge. But it is a challenge that I am confident we'll be successful on," Sen. Faber said.
While deregulation might be appropriate for the top third of Ohio's school districts, "we still have to remember the other two-thirds," he said. "And we have ideas there as well," he added.
Faber's play may have some merit from a policy perspective. Politically, it's a tell for next year: Get ready for flat funding or cuts. But in exchange for not raising a stink about the state's failure to live up to its constitutional obligations, we'll get rid of some unfunded mandates. How's that for a political trade off?

Let me deal first with the policy. During the House Bill 1 deliberations from 2009, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction (and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education) Deb Delisle put forward a similar idea to Faber's.

As a refresher, the Evidence Based Model of school funding was based on several lines of research that indicated that the model's elements would positively impact student growth and achievement. While I eliminated any requirement that school districts follow the elements until they were fully funded (kind of the opposite of an unfunded mandate), Delisle came up with the idea that when the model was fully funded, districts and schools that demonstrated excellence would be given more latitude to comply with the model's elements. But if they were struggling, then the model would be more closely adhered to because the research upon which it was based suggested that these elements could actually help districts and schools find a way to improve student success across demographics.

What Faber's talking about is similar, but very different in one incredibly important way: the state currently doesn't have a formula that has any evidence behind it suggesting it could improve student achievement. The base funding amount is based on a calculation made in 2007 for a formula that no longer exists in law. So the deregulation he's talking about isn't about allowing successful schools a more diverse array of options to meet the state's regulatory scheme. It's about eliminating the scheme all together.

This is dangerous. And while Faber is fond of calling the current scheme "Soviet style" because the state sets policy (as the Ohio Constitution calls for because it's a good idea to have some uniformity of education across communities and regions, but that's another story), the fact is Ohio is a strong local control state. Each district negotiates its contracts with teachers and other educators. Each district determines its curriculum. Each district makes its own calls about field trips, grade and building-wide themes, projects, etc. So, in fact, in Ohio, local districts have a pretty wide array of options -- especially if they have money. And that's the problem here. Districts that have money have options. Ones that don't, well ... don't.

And thanks to Faber and friends, fewer districts have options because the state has cut money to school districts by $515 million over the last couple budgets. In addition, money lost to charters and vouchers have gone way up. So districts have significantly fewer options simply because Faber's colleagues won't fund education the way it needs to be funded.

Which is a nice segway into the real reason for Faber's newly found concern with deregulating education -- politics. For the last several years, the main complaints of the state's superintendents has focused on unfunded mandates and the fact that districts aren't on the same regulatory footing as charter schools. This argument is especially prevalent in wealthy, suburban schools that don't receive that much state aid anyway.

What Faber is counting on is the elimination of some unfunded mandates will buy silence from the Ohio education community when the General Assembly flat funds or cuts school funding (despite a budget surplus), barely does anything with charter schools, lets vouchers expand, or does anything else that could significantly hurt children in our state's public school districts.

What that silence will do, though, is hurt schools that depend more heavily on state aid -- namely poor districts. It won't matter that districts don't have to meet some regulation if they don't have enough money to buy books, go on field trips, or do much beyond keep on the lights and pay teachers $30,000 a year.

In addition, my guess is the top third performing districts, as Faber mentions in Gongwer, will be determined by Performance Index Score, which is how the state determines whether charter schools should open in districts to compete with these lower performing districts. The problem with that is Performance Index Score is nearly perfectly correlated with wealth. So without controlling for demographic variables that we know impact these proficiency scores, we'll essentially be letting wealthy school districts off the accountability hook and hammering districts who were unlucky enough to be serving our most at-need youth -- districts, it could be argued, that actually should be free to experiment more, not less.

What else we'll find is that some high-performing school districts may be underperforming their demographics, while low performers outperform them. Shouldn't we reward districts that are exceeding expectations, even if those expectations aren't as high as, say, Beachwood or Orange? And why should districts that have every demographic advantage be rewarded if they are failing to live up to the necessary standards? Maybe an urban district's 85 performance index score is more impressive than a suburban district's 103? Yet I doubt that Faber's idea will incorporate this level of nuance into the discussion.

We also know that children have many different kinds of intelligence and skill, yet we only test analytical right now -- the area in which poor kids struggle the most. Maybe some districts have kids that struggle on analytics, but they're off the charts on creativity and innovation. Shouldn't they be freed up to continue that work?

There is some merit to using the regulatory structure to encourage innovation and ideas in learning. And if Faber's talking about doing something like Delisle -- letting districts that perform well more options to meet regulatory requirements, then it's less problematic. However, simply eliminating that structure for the state's wealthiest school districts so you can justify the continued state failure to live up to its constitutional obligation to all of our children. Well, that is extremely cynical.

We're better than that, even if our political leaders sometimes stray. I hope our state's education leaders don't take this devil's bargain. Our kids need them to stay strong.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Vote: Last Night's Real Loser

Everyone around the Internet and blogosphere is doing the requisite naval gazing, election post mortum. But I have a different take. I wish to give the eulogy to the vote. Because that's really who lost last night. It wasn't a candidate. It wasn't an issue. It wasn't common core. It wasn't teachers unions. It wasn't Republicans. It wasn't Democrats. It was all of us. Because so few of us actually voted.

And when people don't vote, Republicans win. When lots of people vote, Democrats win. It's not really rocket science.

Yes, Republicans now dominate state government in Ohio to a degree never seen. But when only 40% of Ohioans vote in districts that are so gerrymandered that this result could have been easily predicted in 2011, does it really mean Ohioans love them some Republican? If I'm a Republican, sure I'm happy. But I'm also wary. Because I only won with 25% of the people who are eligible to vote.

So if I go too far with a "mandate", look out in 2016. Because far more people will be voting in a presidential year, which will favor Democrats. Remember in Barack Obama's two elections, 5.8 million Ohioans voted for him. In John Kasich's two elections, 3.8 million did.

If I'm a Democrat (after I'm done licking wounds), I look in the mirror. How can an operation that produced record turnout during two presidential cycles only get 40% -- a record low -- in this cycle? Sure, the top of the ticket didn't help. But let's face it, Ohioans just a couple years ago were ready to vote for a ham sandwich over Gov. John Kasich. And until Ed Fitzgerald's driver's license fracas, even Fitzgerald was leading in some polls.

Democrats, though, let the narrative become whether their candidate had a driver's license, not whether their candidate would cut $515 million from schools, create shadowy economic development groups with public money or act like a total jerk, calling police officers "idiots." John Kasich was hardly invincible, but hey, at least he had a driver's license, right? Ultimately, though, it was the failure to drive turnout that cost Democrats. Forty percent ain't gonna cut it. Not for a party that needs a diverse electorate to be successful.

It's days like this when I start wondering, "What if everyone voted?" Wouldn't the fringe elements be driven from both parties? Wouldn't it mean that both parties would have to work together? Wouldn't it mean that crazy bad ideas would never have the oxygen to breathe? Wouldn't it mean that the voice of the people, rather than the voices of less that a quarter of the people, would be heard?

I don't know. Seems to me like having everyone vote would result in better policy, better government, better politics, and a better, more unified country.

Until that happens, though, I think I'll just stick to hunting unicorns. Seems like I'll have a better chance of seeing one of those than a real exercise of the voting franchise.

And for that, I'm really sad.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Federal Board Rules OH Charter School Private Sector Employer

Some of you may be aware that the American Federation of Teachers is trying to organize teachers in Cleveland. The organizers are claiming the ICAN school it is trying to organize (University of Cleveland Preparatory School) pursued unfair labor practices. And on Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the union when it filed a complaint against ICAN and set a Jan. 20, 2015 hearing on the matter.

But perhaps even more groundbreaking than even that complaint filing was this: In the 17-page complaint, the NLRB claimed that the charter schools run by ICAN were "employers" for the purposes of their jurisdiction. What's that mean? It means they are private employers, not public ones. Here is the definition of an employer under the National Labor Relations Act:
"The term "employer" includes any person acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly, but shall not include the United States or any wholly owned Government corporation, or any Federal Reserve Bank, or any State or political subdivision thereof, or any person subject to the Railway Labor Act [45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.], as amended from time to time, or any labor organization (other than when acting as an employer), or anyone acting in the capacity of officer or agent of such labor organization."
So this means that Ohio charter schools are not considered public schools for labor relations purposes. This is a big deal because throughout the Ohio Revised Code, charter schools are called "public." And, in fact, Ohio law places them under the jurisdiction of the State Employee Relations Board, which handles disputes for public employees. But what the NLRB has done (as it did in Chicago) is determine that how the school operates should determine how it is classified, not what it's called in code. In legal parlance, they are de facto private schools, if not de jure private schools.

This raises all kinds of questions for Ohio's charter schools. If they're not public schools for labor relations purposes, what does that mean for the 14th Amendment, which applies to state actors? Does it mean they can escape from even more public scrutiny? And does it mean that they are not public schools, even though they repeatedly call themselves public (their lobbying groups, after all, are called the Ohio (and National) Alliance for Public Charter Schools)?

It's not immediately clear, but it is certain that these are real questions that now need answers. And to be fair, the schools may make incredible arguments in January and the NLRB may reverse its decision and kick the case down to SERB. But I wouldn't want to have to make that argument.

What I do know is this: the way Ohio's charter schools operate leads federal labor experts to view them as private, not public schools. This complaint filing should give charter school reformers guidance as to how to change charter school law in this state. Make charter school operations more like public schools in fact because it doesn't matter what you call it. What matters is how it actually operates.

After all, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it's a duck.