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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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dispatch's Unfortunate Defense of Failure

In today's Columbus Dispatch, its editorial writers stood up for failing charter schools, choosing instead to nitpick a website that has proven an invaluable resource to parents, policymakers and media alike.

Let me dispatch their claims summarily here:

  1. KnowYourCharter.com only compares school districts with charter schools, rather than school buildings with charter schools. Charter schools are considered school districts by the state for funding purposes -- at the insistence of charter schools. They are considered districts by the federal government for grant purposes. Some are many times larger than many of Ohio's school districts. They are funded by state money intended for school districts, not buildings. And we at KnowYourCharter.com have said that at some point we may add building-level data. But to act like comparing districts to charters is somehow indefensible is a joke. And the claim that KnowYourCharter.com is trying to hide poor performance in urban districts? On the KnowYourCharter.com site, 53% of urban district grades are Fs. Meanwhile, 44% of charter school grades are Fs. What are we hiding exactly? Oh yeah, it also shows that just under half of all kids in charters don't come from the urban districts. So maybe it's not fair to judge charter schools only against urban districts anymore?
  2. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge that some charters have tough populations of children to educate. Yes it does. You just have to read and make a single mouse click. It displays what percentage of students are economically disadvantaged. It displays the demographic background of the students. It displays how long students are in the school. For dropout recovery schools, it does not display any grades because they are on a different accountability system and don't get report card grades, though prior to the new system they typically scored far worse than other schools. At some point, KnowYourCharter.com will probably show that the state thinks graduating 7.2% of kids in four years at these schools is perfectly acceptable. To say KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge the difficult populations is profoundly inaccurate.
  3. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't mention that Ohio's schools get local money. Every taxpayer in the state knows local districts get money. What the Dispatch fails to understand is that because the state gives more money to a child in a charter than that child would have received in the district, kids not in charters get substantially less state revenue than the state says they need to succeed -- a data point that had not been prominently displayed until KnowYourCharter.com came around (though we at Innovation Ohio had done several policy reports about this). But what bothers the Dispatch is not that kids in Columbus, even in the city's highest performing buildings, get $1,063 fewer state dollars every year because that district's charter deduction is so huge. What bothers them is we didn't mention that districts get local money too. Never mind that the local money has to be even greater than it needs to be because the district loses so much money to charters. 
  4. Performance Index means nothing. What matters is student growth. Okay. Let's say this again. First of all, the student growth data is exactly one mouse click away and is on the website. I know, some chore to get to, right? Second, the Performance Index Score is what determines whether a charter school can open in your district. If you're in the bottom 5% of the PI, a charter can open in your district. Yet the Dispatch says it's unreasonable to use PI to compare charter performance. And finally, the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools uses the PI to determine its Charter School of the Year. But the Dispatch thinks it's unreasonable to use PI to grade charter schools. Why is the PI all right to use for high-performing charters, but not the low performers? 
What disturbs me most about the Dispatch editorial is that it ignored the biggest issue of all: the data. What matters is how we displayed it, not that it demonstrates how poor Ohio's charter school performance is. We displayed 26 different data points for comparison. How many more does the Dispatch need? Give me a break.

I can only conclude that the Dispatch did all these backflips to ignore the data that indicate kids in both charters and districts are being hurt by the current system because they don't like who did a website that, by their own admission, is "marvelously easy" and "couldn't be much more user-friendly."

Wow. Just. Wow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mass. Teaches Ohio How to Hold Charters Accountable

I was sent an interesting story from Massachusetts today that highlighted one of the major issues with how Ohio administers its charter school program. In the story, it is revealed that within 4 years of opening, Massachusetts' Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School has been put on probation for failing to meet state standards and not providing meaningful experiences for special education or English language learners. And it appears they were warned after three years to get their act together.

Seems that Massachusetts is following what the Stanford CREDO study found on charter school performance -- namely "WYSIWYG" -- what you see is what you get. Charters tend not to improve much when they're in place, and the best way to improve charter school performance, again according to CREDO, is eliminate as many poor performers as quickly as possible.

Why does this matter for Ohio? First of all, Greenfield is run by the infamous K-12, Inc., which runs the second-largest for-profit school in the country, the Ohio Virtual Academy (eclipsed in size by Ohio's own Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow). K-12, Inc. also opened up a new online school last year called the Insight School of Ohio.

See, here's the issue: Ohio's K-12 operation has had the exact same issues as its Massachusetts affiliate, yet has operated since the 2002-2003 school year unimpeded with little fear of closure any time soon. Oh, and did I mention that the NCAA won't accept OHVA diplomas? There's that too. At least the Massachusetts school didn't make that list.

OHVA received Fs on the last report card for the measures that determine whether the school is meeting state standards, student growth among special education students and whether achievement gaps exist between English language learners -- the very subjects that caused Massachusetts' concerns.

Ohio doesn't issue specific grades for how well schools serve the needs of English language learners. The only measure that includes performance gaps among English language learners is something called AMO, which measures performance gaps between demographics groups, English language learners, and special education kids, among others. On that, OHVA got an F.

So on all the measures that Massachusetts was concerned enough about to put the school on probation after 4 years, Ohio's operation gets to operate for three times that long without any similar concern.

Here's why: Contrary to the CREDO findings, Ohio gives way too many chances for charter schools to fail. First of all, schools in their first two years of operation don't have their report cards count for closure purposes. So that's two years of mulligans. Then they can fail for 2 out of 3 years, if they're serving grades lower than high school, and 3 out of 4 if they're serving high school kids. So that means they can stay open another 3-4 years. Then once they've been told they're closing, they can operate for one final year before being shut down. So that means they can operate (depending on which grade levels they serve) for as many as 7 years before actually closing. And don't talk to me about how loose the standards are for the state's worst performing charter schools -- dropout recovery schools.

I urge everyone to go to www.KnowYourCharter.com and check out OHVA's performance. Then realize that since the school opened in the 2002-2003 school year (including this school year), it will have collected $572.3 million from state taxpayers -- money that was meant to be spent in school districts. And OHVA received more state funding per pupil (without buildings, buses, lunch ladies, janitors, etc.) in the 2012-2013 school year than 563 of Ohio's 612 school districts.

Ohio needs to wake up.

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 www.KnowYourCharter.com. 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 www.KnowYourCharter.com. 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
Students
Achievement
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.