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Monday, May 15, 2017

ECOT Circling the Drain

When the usually very charter school friendly Columbus Dispatch editorial page says your charter school is fleecing Ohio taxpayers, you're in trouble.

That's exactly what happened this morning to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the nation's largest K-12 school that fails to graduate more students than any high school in the country.

Here's a sampling of the Dispatch's language used to describe ECOT's plan: "attempted plundering of the treasury ... for sheer audacity there is no precedent ... raiding the state treasury ..."

Shall I go on?

At issue is whether the online behemoth is, actually, a behemoth after all. See, the state cannot verify that the school has all 15,000 or so students it claims to have. In fact, the school has about 40 percent of that number, as far as the Ohio Department of Education can tell. And a hearing officer agreed last week, ordering ECOT to repay $64 million of the more than $100 million it received from Ohio taxpayers last year because it didn't have as many kids.

ECOT supporters have long said that the way the state calculates attendance at online schools is unfair to ECOT. Yet, somehow, no other online schools (which are not the best performing in the state, by a long shot) are doing this to this degree.

Obviously, ECOT officials will try their bullying tactics to keep, as the Dispatch called it, "raiding the treasury." They held a modest rally at the statehouse last week, which was notable for two things -- competing mascots, and the fact that no major politicians showed up, a stark contrast to several years ago when Gov. John Kasich spoke at ECOT's graduation and spoke effusively of the school.

As ECOT's power wanes, it appears that not even the school's once strong advocates, who were willing to take millions of founder Bill Lager's money to fund their campaigns will stop by to say, "Hi." Quite a turn of events.

And quite a step forward for Ohio's quality-based school choice movement.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The GREAT Scholarship -- A first for Ohio cities

I haven't posted much on here about my second (or, technically THIRD) life as a City Councilman in Green. Typically, my life as an Education Policy guy and City Council don't really cross paths. One job fixes road, bridges and sewers. And the other deals with education.

Bad Catskills jokes aside, there aren't many times when Education Policy meets Municipal Policy, especially in a city like Green that isn't huge and whose mayor doesn't actually run the schools.

Well, I changed that this week when I introduced an ordinance that would create the Green Reaches Educational Attainment Together Scholarship. Yes, its acronym is GREAT.

The idea is to provide $2,500 annual scholarships to first-generation students from Green as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA in Green High School and in college (either two-year or four-year).

For years, Ohio (and other states) have cut their commitment to its higher education system, forcing families and students to go deeply into debt to pay for the college education more and more of our young people need to thrive in this 21st Century economy.

We've known for a long time that first-generation students tend to be the most at-risk for not attending college, not finishing college and having to pick up the most outside employment to pay for it.

And that doesn't even touch the fantastic economic development tool this would provide to our communities. For example (this is according to the same studies cited previously):

  • Lifetime taxes are, conservatively, $273,000 (215 percent) greater in present discounted value. 
  • Lifetime government expenditures are about $81,000 (39 percent) lower in present value. 
  • The lifetime total fiscal effect is roughly $355,000 in present value. 
  • Crime is significantly lower. 
  • Volunteering is 2.3 times more likely. 
  • The estimated value of volunteer labor is 4.1 times ($1,300 annually) greater. 
  • Employment in the nonprofit sector is twice as likely. 
  • Annual cash donations to charities are $900 (3.4 times) higher.
  • Total philanthropic contributions are $3,600 (4.7 times) higher.
  • Voting and political involvement are significantly higher. 
  • Participation in school, community, service, civic and religious organizations is substantially (1.9 times) higher. 
  • Leadership in these organizations is particularly (3.2 times) greater. 
  • Attendance at community meetings is 2.6 times greater. 
  • Neighborhood interactions and trust are significantly higher. 
I'm proud that my friends at the Fordham Institute (with whom I have quarreled over the years) have shown support for this, as are my local school folks. If you feel this is something cities should do for economic development and other reasons, please contact my city's mayor and city council members.

I am more than willing to change or tweak areas that need fixed. That's the legislative process.

Here are their email addresses:

James Ahlstrom

Chris Humphrey

Ken Knodel

Justin Speight

Skip Summerville

Bob Young

Mayor Gerard Neugebauer

Monday, May 8, 2017

Real Choice Ohio

It's been a couple years now, but nearly 100 Ohio school districts have sent the Ohio Department of Education invoices for all the money the state has diverted from kids in public school districts to charter schools.

Out of that group grew an organization that calls itself Real Choice Ohio -- a grassroots organization that is meant to help districts re-capture their students from Ohio's mostly failing charter schools.

They are holding a conference on Friday from 9-3 at the Ohio School Boards Association. I'll be presenting at 1 about charter performance. Here's the full agenda:

I would urge any school leaders interested in figuring out how to rescue their students from Ohio's mostly failing charter schools to attend the conference. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a more effective, practical response to Ohio's charter school challenge -- give parents the information they need to make the best possible decision for their kids and their future.

What's a Baseline: Why Most Reporting on School Funding Falls Short

Since the Ohio House of Representatives passed its unbalanced budget about two weeks ago (an issue I'll take up in another post), I've been watching the reporting on its school funding provisions. No surprise. The focus has been on how the House version provides (slightly) more funding than Gov. John Kasich's budget.

Kasich's budget was compared with what districts received in the previous year.

Look, both of those stories tell us something. But they miss the point. And this is no knock on the reporters. They are doing what they've always done -- compare the current budget with the one immediately proceeding it.

This approach, though, misses the mark. Here's how. In 2007-2008, we went through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. That resulted in huge revenue shortfalls for the state and its communities -- a shortfall that wasn't just an Ohio problem. It was a United States problem. However, the federal government stepped in to shore up those shortfalls, with the thought that once the economy snapped back, states would use the new revenue in place of the federal assistance.

But that's not what happened in Ohio and other states. Instead, they used the lack of federal funding as an excuse to cut funding to education and other services. Oh, and to cut taxes for primarily rich people. And in Ohio, the new Governor also eliminated nearly $1 billion in additional state resources that had been promised to schools after the state eliminated a tax upon which many districts had come to depend. And this doesn't include the explosion in the diversion of school district dollars to privately run charter schools and private school vouchers.

To me, the baseline has always been the Great Recession budget. For if you aren't providing more funding for kids than you did in the toughest economic time in 80 years, then your funding scheme probably doesn't meet the "thorough and efficient" clause of the Ohio Constitution.

What does it matter if this version of the budget provides slightly more funding than the one immediately proceeding it, if that version was demonstrably inadequate?

This is why when I and Innovation Ohio compare school funding numbers, we will always use the Great Recession as a baseline, adjusted for inflation. Because I and we believe that if Ohio can't provide kids more than what the state did during the Great Recession, the system is wholly inadequate.

So even with the "boost" from the House, this budget provides $828.6 million fewer to Ohio school districts over this biennium than during the Great Recession budget. In the last year of this budget, about 400 of 613 school districts will receive fewer dollars than they did during the last year of the Great Recession budget.

This is including all revenue headed to districts, which answers the ultimate question at the end of the day: What do kids in public schools get when everything's included?

So whenever you see my budget data, or Innovation Ohio's, it will generally be compared with what children received during the Great Recession. And it will likely result in children receiving fewer resources than they did during that awful economic period.

Until it doesn't.

Given our state's recent history, you'll be excused if you decide not to hold your breath until that happens. But until it does, we will hold our elected officials to that, I think, minimal standard.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ohio House Takes My Advice and Moves Ball Forward on Charter Accountability

State Rep. Robert Cupp, R-Lima
It's not often that I can say that one of my ideas was adopted by the Ohio House of Representatives. I tend to be the wrong party for such occurrences. So when it does happen, I have to point it out with some pride and gratitude.

In the House version of the biennial budget (House Bill 49), House Republicans inserted a subtle, but important provision in the state's new charter school sponsor evaluation system that will result in, I believe, more accurate assessments of how sponsors do their jobs.

(For those of you who don't know, sponsors are typically non-profits, schools or other entities that oversee charter schools' operations. It has traditionally been sponsors who have fallen asleep at the switch as Ohio's charter schools became a national laughingstock for performance and accountability.)

The current evaluation system says that sponsors will be graded based on three elements: how their schools perform academically, how well they adhere to state operational guidelines and how well they adhere to national standards, as developed by the charter industry. They receive a rating of "exemplary", "effective", "ineffective" or "poor". If they are at the high end of the spectrum, they have more freedom to open new charters. If they're at the low end, they could be shut down.

he problem has been that sponsors that performed really poorly on academics could still receive relatively high ratings as long as they dotted their i's and crossed their t's on the more bureaucratic measures. Likewise, sponsors with really high academic ratings were classified as ineffective because they didn't dot i's and cross t's as effectively.

My thought, as I've said in multiple forums since the sponsor evaluation system was adopted several years ago, was we should weight academics more than the other two sections. And if the sponsor fails to do well on the bureaucratic measures, it shouldn't knock them all the way down the scale if they're doing stellar academic work.

Under the House version, which was put forward by House Finance Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairman Robert Cupp, R-Lima, (who is chair of the same subcommittee I chaired in 2009) charter sponsors will no longer automatically receive bad ratings if they don't dot i's or cross t's. And the sponsors' schools' academic performance will now count 60 percent more than the other two sections.

What does this mean? It means the sponsors that currently have A grades for academics (all of these are school districts and one Educational Service Center, by the way) will no longer be deemed "ineffective" because they don't dot their i's effectively. They'll be considered "effective" or "exemplary" because the students over whom they have authority are doing well.

Likewise, sponsors that are currently deemed effective because they dot i's really well but receive Ds on their academic ratings will be less highly rated.

This will encourage sponsors to take more care with their schools' academic performance -- the heart of their mission -- because it will matter a lot more to their rating. So in that way, the House budget moves the ball forward on charter school accountability, even by a little bit. And for that, I, and the parents and students of Ohio, am and are grateful.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Education Chairman Andrew Brenner Stands Up for Failing E-School Giant

House Education Committee Chairman Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, is at it again. This time, he's proposing a change to Ohio's charter school evaluation system that would primarily benefit the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the nation's largest K-12 school and among the nation's worst performing.

He's doing this by proposing to lessen the impact the number of students at a charter school plays on the academic performance rating of a charter school sponsor. Sponsors are supposed to oversee Ohio's privately run, publicly funded charter schools.

Under the state's sponsor evaluation system, sponsors are rated either Exemplary, Effective, Ineffective or Poor based on three criteria: How their schools perform, how well the sponsor adheres to state regulations and how well they adhere to industry-created operating standards.

Under the academic rating, schools' performance is weighted by how many kids are in the school. So if a sponsor is responsible for 20 schools, but 90 percent of the students are in one of them, that one school's academic rating counts more than the other 19. Brenner's change would mean all 20 are counted the same, even if 90 percent of the students are in 1 school.

ECOT's current sponsor is the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West, which has an F in academic performance, driven in large part by ECOT's horrific academic performance. Lake Erie West risks its ability to sponsor future charters, or even its current portfolio, if it continues with these poor ratings. Which means it has an incentive to dump ECOT, even though the sponsor receives more than $3 million a year just from state mandated fees it receives from ECOT.

But Brenner's proposal would soften ECOT's impact on Lake Erie West and likely keep the sponsor from potentially dropping ECOT.

This is the kind of stuff that made Ohio the national laughingstock it has been for years on charter school oversight. Add to this provision the revelation late last week that Ohio will have to cough up $22 million of the nation's highest $71 million it received to promote charter schools in the state because there are only 5 of 65 sponsors that perform well enough to qualify, and you start seeing why we still have so far to go.

I agree that the sponsor evaluation system needs tweaked. There are 8 Ohio charter school sponsors with As in academics. None rate above ineffective on the overall rating. Why? Because the state took liberties with the law governing the rating system. Under Ohio Revised Code Section 3314.016(B)(6), "[t]he department annually shall rate all entities that sponsor community schools as either "exemplary," "effective," "ineffective," or "poor," based on the components prescribed by division (B) of this section, where each component is weighted equally . A separate rating shall be given by the department for each component of the evaluation system."

However, weighting each grade equally means if you get an A and two Fs, you get a B, or effective, rating. The Ohio Department of Education wrote a rule stating that if a sponsor received an F in any category, they couldn't be rated above ineffective, which weighs one are more than another in violation of the law. Not saying what ODE did wasn't admirable, but it was, likely, illegal.

I would like to see the academic portion counted more heavily than the bureaucratic provisions. Parents don't care if sponsors dot i's and cross t's; they care if they actually make sure their children are being educated.

But the last thing we need is stuff like Brenner's provision to once again carve out Ohio's worst-performing schools for special protections. That's what makes Ohio's charter school experience so ridiculed nationally.

Our state's kids and parents deserve better.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Politics Explains why Ohio Budget Director has Job Security Despite Disastrous Revenue Projections.

From Left to Right: Ohio Budget Director Tim Keen, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, Gov. John Kasich, and Senate President Larry Obhof announced Ohio Budget projections are off by $400 million a year during a stable economic period

I don't mean to pile on here, but where is the outrage over Gov. John Kasich's budget director being off by $400 million a year on his revenue projections when there isn't a recession going on?

I was in the legislature the last time revenue projections were this off. And that was during the Great Recession, when you could explain missing the mark because our economy was in free fall. But that didn't stop legislative Republicans from calling for then-Gov. Strickland (a Democrat) to fire his budget director Pari Sabety for her inability to provide "reliable projections due to inaccurate estimates."

Contrast that with the silence from legislative leadership (which is Republican) from making similar calls of Tim Keen (whose boss is a Republican). In fact, as the above picture shows, the House Speaker and Senate President stood with the budget director who couldn't project revenue accurately during a relatively stable economic time.

I'm not saying that Tim Keen needs to lose his job. But I'm just amazed that being as bad at projecting revenue as he was during a steady economic period hasn't been met with more concern by Ohio's legislative budget hawks than Sabety's inability to project revenue during an historically bad and unpredictable economic time.

Now the question becomes what to do with this budget loss? Do legislative leaders decide to go ahead with the $3.1 billion income tax cut? Do they hold off on some of that? Do they hit the rainy day fund?

The real question is whether Ohio's legislative leaders will do what's right or will they continue their obeisance to the Laffer Curve, which just screwed them. We'll see.

One thing I do know: Any hope of increased education funding seems to be all but gone. And that sucks for Ohio's kids.