Thursday, September 13, 2018

ECOT gets an A in Achievement because kids weren't chronically absent. Huh?

The new state report cards just came out with overall grades being issued for the first time. And outside of telling us what every report card has told us over the years -- namely that Ohio's school districts and buildings perform far better overall on state report card measures than charter schools -- there's an interesting outcome for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).

ECOT has never done well on the state report card. Of the 53 possible grades it could have received through the 2016-2017 report card, it got 46 Fs. It was especially bad in the components that make up the overall achievement component. The overall grade is determined by merging the six categorical grades (Achievement, Growth, Graduation, Cap Closing, Improving at-risk K-3 Readers, and Prepared for Success).

This year, ECOT got an A in the Achievement Component.

How can this be when ECOT has historically been the worst performing school in the state? The answer lies in the fact that ECOT closed half way through the year. So the school did not get graded on several components that it traditionally bombed. The only Achievement category indicator it was graded on was meeting state indicators -- raw test score information. Schools can be graded on up to 26 different indicators, depending on how many students the schools tested that are in each category. For example, if a school doesn't have high school students, it won't be graded on the performance of high school students.

Last year, ECOT met 0 of the 23 indicators it was measured on. This year it met one indicator. And it was only measured based on one indicator. What was that indicator?

I kid you not. It was chronic absenteeism.

Last year, 13.5% of ECOT's kids were listed as chronically absent. This year, it was 7.5%, which met the indicator and qualified as an A.

That's right. The school that ripped off taxpayers by at least $200 million because it charged for kids who were never there, or were absent for whole months and seasons of time got an A from the Ohio Department of Education because kids weren't chronically absent.

Absolutely incredible.

So when you see that ECOT got an A in Achievement on the state report card, let's perhaps take that with a grain of salt.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

DeWine-Husted Education Plan: We'll Fix our Failures. Trust Us.

Mike DeWine and Jon Husted have had a heavy hand in determining the Ohio's current state of public education policy.

DeWine was on the conference committee that determined what the final version of the No Child Left Behind Act would look like in 2001. That law ended up creating the high-stakes testing structure we have in place and has received a lot of recent pushback from nearly everyone in the education community as incentivizing test taking over critical thinking.

Likewise, in 2001, then state Rep. Jon Husted served as the Vice Chairman of the Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee -- the most important committee of any sort at that time. In 2003, he became chairman of that subcommittee -- a position I would hold 6 years later.

When Husted was Vice Chair, the P&S subcommittee was the most important committee of any type in the legislature because it was the committee handling school funding. At the time, the Ohio Supreme Court had ruled twice that the way the state funded schools was unconstitutional because it didn't equitably or adequately provide a thorough and efficient education for our children. After Husted's attempts to fix the system during the 2001 biennial budget, the Court ruled not one, but two more times that the way Husted's system provided funding for students was unconstitutional.

So it was kind of surprising to me to read DeWine and Husted's education plan, which was just released today as part of their gubernatorial campaign. In it, DeWine and Husted said they want to reduce testing and find an equitable funding system.

Here's what it said about testing: "Standardized tests are limiting educator’s creativity and forcing them to a teach to a test."

Here's what it said about Ohio's school funding system: They "will create a more equitable funding system that directs state resources toward supportive services for children most in need."

So, the architects of the nation's high-stakes testing regime and Ohio's unconstitutional funding systems want to fix their previous failures.

I swear.

That's what they're saying.

Not only that, but there is almost zero detail about how they plan on doing this. On the testing, the Ohio Department of Education and State Board of Education have presented a promising change in Ohio's report card system that would de-emphasize testing. Are DeWine and Husted saying they want to do that? Will they get rid of certain tests? Will they eliminate the test-dependent accountability system?

Who knows?

On funding, it looks like they will be putting more money into support services for economically disadvantaged students. But will that be additional revenue? Or will it be taking money from somewhere else to fulfill that obligation? Will this be additional money for wraparound services? Or will it mean more teachers and smaller classes? Will it mean a dedicated element of the school funding formula dedicated to psychologists or other support staff?

Again, who knows?

But I find it awfully interesting that one of the key architects of the law that created our high-stakes testing system now wants to de-emphasize tests (as opponents of NCLB have said for years). And the architect of our unconstitutional funding system now wants more equity in the funding system (using the same language I and others have used for years).

I'm glad that these two men are now acknowledging that the last 17 years in which they have led Ohio and America down their education policy paths has essentially failed. But it sure seems like they're saying, "I know we tried this before and screwed it up, but trust us, we won't screw it up again."

Fool me once...

Friday, August 17, 2018

Feds Say Ohio Has No Plan to Improve Educationally Challenged Student Performance in Charter Schools

Today, I was looking at the Ohio Department of Education's (ODE) website and out of curiosity decided to check in on the state's implementation of that much-ballyhooed $71 million grant -- the nation's largest -- it received to grow high-performing charter schools here.

Later, it was discovered that David Hansen -- the husband of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Chief of Staff -- who oversaw Ohio's charter school program rigged the application by hiding the performance of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow from the federal government, breaking state law.

That got Hansen resigned (fired), and was probably the moment that swung the pendulum against ECOT among Ohio's ruling political elite for the first time. That school year was when ODE started asking ECOT whether it actually had the kids it was charging taxpayers to educate.

But it also got Ohio in a pickle and twisting through about 2 years of haranguing with the U.S. Department of Education over the state's notoriously poor oversight of charter schools. Finally, last year, the state gave out a staggeringly low $1 million of that $71 million to just three of Ohio's about 400 charter schools.

Then the state just gave back $22 million of the $71 million, saying it just didn't have enough good oversight agencies running charter schools. A fine admission. But that was the case in 2015 when Hansen lied to the feds and said the state actually did have good oversight.

Well not much has happened since April 2017 in the media about this, so I decided to check up on the grant's progress. And it's not good. At all.

In its assessment of ODE done for the federal Department of Education last October, WestEd -- a consulting firm -- wrote this staggering paragraph:
"During interviews with the site visit team, ODE did not articulate a plan for the OCS (Ohio's Office of Community Schools) to disseminate best practices for recruiting, enrolling, serving, or retaining educationally-disadvantaged students."
What? This wasn't ODE forgetting to fill out a form. ODE officials sat down with evaluators and failed to articulate how educationally challenged kids would be helped by the federal grant. I mean, WTF? Isn't that the whole point of charter schools? I mean, that's the one I hear all the time.

Oh, but that's not all.
"At the time of the site visit, the grantee’s draft monitoring protocol did not include plans to ensure compliance with Federal and State laws related to educational equity, nondiscrimination, and access to public schools for educationally-disadvantaged students."
Seriously, WTF?

Is it too much to ask that Ohio have a plan to ensure that charter schools follow state and federal anti-discrimination laws? Or that they have a plan to make sure disadvantaged students get what they need in charter schools? 

One more:
"The draft RFA does not include plans for awarding subgrants based on innovativeness. Applicants are asked to explain the effectiveness of their proposed educational program, but not the program’s innovativeness. 
There are. No words.

Nor does there seem to be much independent oversight of this program now. The state had created an advisory committee made up of several experts meant to help the state navigate the program. According to the ODE website, "The Committee shall meet on at least semi-annual basis with the first meeting occurring thirty days prior to the department publishing its first request for application for the CSP Grant.  Thereafter the Committee shall meet in June and December of each year."

Yet, the only meeting minutes (which are quite scant, by the way. But I digress.) posted on the website are from March and April 2017. The last line of the April minutes says they were slated to meet in July 2017. No minutes from July, though. And no indication this group has met since April 2017.

Yet the state apparently took applications for grants for this coming school year. No word about whether they've been granted.

So after three years and constant communication with the feds, the $71 million charter grant Ohio got in 2015 amid much fanfare has been sent to 3 of Ohio's nearly 400 charter schools for $350,000 each.

And ODE still has no plan to ensure charters better serve at-risk kids or implement innovative learning, which was the whole point of the grant in the first place.

Look, I know federal grants are a pain. I know that David Hansen's lies to benefit Bill Lager's now disgraced ECOT put Ohio behind the 8 ball. But good Lord this is awful. And it speaks once again to just how far behind we are as a state on this issue and why the country still considers us the Wild, Wild West of charter schools.

We must do better. And we must demand better. This is embarrassing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Ohio Supreme Court: ECOT can't get money for kids it doesn't educate. Really.

Well, like all courts before it, the Ohio Supreme Court came to the pretty common sense conclusion that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow should have to prove it's actually educating kids before taxpayers pay them to educate kids.

Really. It took an Ohio Supreme Court ruling to establish the pretty common sense idea that eschools should have to prove they are educating kids before taxpayers pay them in Ohio.


Here is the core of the Court's ruling that was handed down this morning. I remind my friends outside of Ohio that the fact the state's highest court had to write this sentence indicates just how far we need to come on eschool policy.
"We determine that R.C. 3314.08 is unambiguous and authorizes ODE to require an e-school to provide data of the duration of a student’s participation to substantiate that school’s funding."
What's more amazing is this: Two of the court's 7 Justices ... disagreed!

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell speaking at ECOT's
2013 graduation ceremony. He was 1 of 2 Justices who ruled today
that ECOT should be paid to educate kids it couldn't prove it
was educating
Two Ohio Supreme Court Justices said it's fine for taxpayers to pay ECOT to educate kids it can't prove it educated. But we are living in Ohio. Oh, and does it surprise anyone that one of those two was Justice Terrence O'Donnell who spoke at ECOT's 2013 graduation -- in his Justice's robes no less -- and bragged about how ECOT founder and massive campaign contributor Bill Lager had a direct line to his office?

I digress.

But there are very interesting tidbits in the dissent. For example, it explains over and over again that when the Ohio General Assembly established the state's charter school system, it never intended for the Ohio Department of Education to figure out whether kids going to these schools were actually being educated in them. I swear. That's what the dissent said.
"It is telling that the legislature addressed many of the concerns motivating this litigation—i.e., that e-schools should have to maintain records documenting student participation—without expressly linking state education funding to the duration of online participation."
The dissenters are correct here: It is telling that the Ohio GA wouldn't tie any of this to funding at e-schools. In fact, it's pretty clear that the reason ECOT was ever held to account wasn't because of the Ohio General Assembly, or the Ohio Auditor of State, or the Ohio Attorney General. It was because the Ohio Department of Education asked ECOT a very simple question: Prove you're educating these kids.

When they couldn't, ODE asked for taxpayer money back.

Did ODE have statutory authority to do that? The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that it did. But don't misconstrue this. The reason the court let ODE do this was because of common sense. As Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said during oral arguments when ECOT claimed that the school should be paid even if kids enrolled there do no work: "How is that not absurd?"

But the dissent makes a good point, and lays bare one of the core issues with Ohio's highly political eschool policy: The politicians who have taken money from ECOT founder Bill Lager and OHDELA founder David Brennan for more than 20 years created a system where those two guys could be paid billions of dollars and never have to educate a single kid.

Absurd as it may be, that is exactly the system Ohio's politicians set up for their contributors.

And it is a system that finally may be changing as its absurdity is revealed and those enablers begin to be held to account.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Did State Policymakers Create Fund that ECOT Used to Pay Students to take Tests and Attend Graduation?

There's been plenty of justifiable outrage over the news that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow used taxpayer money to pay $25 to $50 for students to take state-mandated tests and attend its much ballyhooed graduation ceremonies, which often had powerful state politicians speaking.

However, missing in the reporting has been this little nugget: In the 2015 budget, for the first time ever, Ohio e-schools like ECOT were granted $25 a student for "facilities funding" -- funding e-schools still get, by the way. You might wonder what a school whose hallmark is that it's not in a building gets money for buildings like schools that are actually housed in buildings.

And you'd be right to wonder.

Here's what the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools -- who in 2015 was the largest charter school advocacy group -- said about this change in 2015:
"Also provides a first time supplement for E-schools in each fiscal year of $25 per-pupil to aid with testing and counseling centers"
So the money was to be used to assist with finding testing and counseling centers.

That $25 sure matches with ECOT's policy to pay students $25 to take tests, doesn't it? So perhaps ECOT was simply taking the path the state legislature, who relied on campaign funds from ECOT founder Bill Lager, cleared for them with this crazy facilities funding.

Since it was passed, ECOT collected $873,281 in facilities funding. How much of that do you want to bet ended up paying for kids to take tests or attend graduation?

It was stunning, frankly to see in NBC 4's report that Ron Packard -- who has a history of funding some pretty smarmy stuff -- now says he's offended ECOT made these payments. But let's not kid each other here: the state legislature who was so dependent upon Lager's political largess did him a solid by kicking him $25 a kid for "testing facilities", which it looks like ECOT simply turned into money for students to take tests all kids in Ohio are required to take.

Imagine if a local public school district had done this. Imagine the frog marches for that district's public officials. Amazing.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The ECOT Myth that Won't Die: Money Following the Child

In the devastating aftermath of the criminal ECOT scandal, many charter proponents are saying it's not quite as simple as saying that $591 million left school districts for ECOT. That's because (as the myth goes), the district didn't have to educate those kids, so wasn't that a savings?

In a word, "No it is not." I guess that's four words. But whatever.

See, here's the thing. Generally, if kids leave a district for ECOT, the district still has the same fixed costs. They run the same number of buses to the same areas. They operate the same number of buildings. They still have the same number of teachers. They still need the same number of lunch ladies and secretaries. The costs for the district simply do not disappear because ECOT took a kid from the district.

However, they will, on average, have $7,288 fewer in state money to educate the kids who remain.

Where this may get complicated is in districts that lose a lot of students to ECOT. But even in these districts (like Columbus, for example), those students are spread across 12 grades. So Columbus may lose, perhaps, 10-12 teachers across the district to accommodate the 1,500 lost students (because those kids aren't all in one class or something). However, the other fixed costs remain the same. Same lunch ladies, buses, etc. So ECOT takes about $10 million a year from Columbus. Columbus does not realize a $10 million savings from that deduction. Maybe $1 million of that is reduced teaching staff. But the remaining costs are exactly the same. Period.

As Columbus School Board Member Dominic Paretti put it: if ECOT hadn't taken all that money from Columbus, the district would not have needed to go for its last two new money levies.

In the overwhelming majority of districts that lost money to ECOT, there were zero staffing impacts. So you have the same number of teachers, lunch ladies, buses, etc. with far less state money to do it.

The bottom line is this: Even if the "savings" were actually there, which they're NOT, but let's assume they are, it's not beneficial for districts. Because ECOT got about $3,000 more per pupil from the state (on average) than the district would have received for the same student, local districts have to use substantially more local revenue to cover those fixed costs that remain, even if the ECOT student doesn't. That means the districts become more reliant on local property taxes to pay for schools. This is unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that way four times.

Claiming that districts somehow benefit financially from having to go for more frequent and sizable property tax levies is simply not true. So don't let anyone claim it is.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

ECOT: The Scandal of All Time

I've been off for about a week. And what a week it's been. ECOT has officially become a criminal investigation. Formerly supportive Republican legislators can't give back their ECOT money fast enough, yet some remain stubbornly reluctant to do so.

In the meantime, the media have correctly identified ECOT and its more than $1 billion boondoggle as a crippling political albatross firmly wrapped around the Ohio GOP's neck.

Added to this is the outrage of the ostentatious auction of former ECOT personal property (including an outrageously opulent chair for founder Bill Lager to sit upon like a throne).

But there is one bit of misinformation floating around out there that I want to address and (hopefully) squash right away. And that is the idea that because Ohio Democrats were in charge of the Governor's mansion and House of Representatives in 2009 and ECOT continued to operate that somehow Ohio Democrats aren't clean on this scandal.

Since I was actually there during the 2009 budget process and was intimately involved, I thought I should clear up some things about what happened about 10 years ago.

It's very simple. Gov. Strickland's budget that year called for a 70 percent cut for Ohio eSchools. That's right. If Gov. Strickland's budget had passed unamended, ECOT funding would have been cut by 70 percent, effectively ending the school 10 years before it actually shut down, which would have saved Ohio taxpayers about $700 million that went to the school since then. Not to mention the lives of thousands of students ECOT failed to graduate.

By the way, of the 3,794 students who actually did graduate ECOT the first year of the 2009 budget, only 109 have college degrees today. Just by way of reference.

However, Ohio Republicans still controlled the Senate during the 2009 budget. I was in those budget negotiations and I can tell you that we were told in no uncertain terms that if the 70 percent cuts stayed in the budget, there would be no budget for the 2009 session -- severely crippling Ohio's potential economic recovery from the Great Recession.

Don't believe me? Here's what he Ohio Association for Public Charter schools said at the time about the ultimate budget package (which did pass with ECOT funding restored, in exchange for our economic recovery and the implementation of the Evidence Based Model of school funding that put us on the path to a constitutional school funding system for the first time in our state's history):
“The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools is deeply grateful to policy-makers – particularly the Senate Majority leadership team – for preserving charter school funding.”
The next year, 2010, I was up for re-election. A shadowy group spent about $500,000 to defeat me. It was funded by eSchools like ECOT, who funded my opponent that year, Todd McKenney. Their tactics were so outrageous (harassing my family and 5-year-old son at his Trick or Treat trail, for example), the New York Times profiled them.  If we went so easy on eSchools, why was I targeted when, ostensibly, I restored their funding?

Because ECOT and other eSchools knew that I and others like me were onto their scam -- a scam that was allowed to grow exponentially under Gov. John Kasich (who spoke at ECOT's graduation in 2011) until the Ohio Department of Education started asking very basic questions about ECOT's enrollment in 2016 and 2017.

So please, pile on all you want. But do not for a second believe that we didn't try to fix the ECOT problem 10 years ago. Because we did. And Senate Republicans were willing to jeopardize our state's economic recovery, not to mention the funding for the 90 percent of Ohio students not in charter schools, to save this horrible school.

Wonder if they regret that stance today, given the scandal's mushrooming scale?