Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wonder Why There's a Charter School War in Ohio? Look Here.

If you have ever wondered why the Charter School issue in Ohio is so fraught with discord, look no further than what the Charter School lobby was able to pull off on the so-called Cleveland Plan.

Part of the Plan included a private-public partnership called the Transformation Alliance. Originally, it was going to have a say on who could start Charter Schools in Cleveland and who couldn't. It was going to allow a community's voice to have a say on which Charter Schools should be operating in the city. After all, Ohio does call Charter Schools "Community Schools."

It was met with some wariness by Charter School advocates like Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. But to his credit, he publicly stated this:
"Fordham—which expects to authorize one school in Cleveland in 2012-13—would willingly be the first to go through a vetting process led by the Transformation Alliance. We would see this as an opportunity to partner with the mayor and the Cleveland school district in working to create more and better school options for children and families who badly need them. Maybe together we can help Cleveland reverse its decline, while giving children and families better school choices."

So while Fordham was concerned about the Alliance, they were willing to work together with the Cleveland community to make sure it worked. Sounds like a reasonable approach, right? Well, that's not how David Brennan's people felt. Instead, they held up the vote on the Cleveland Plan so long, it's now delayed until next week, placing the possibility of a levy passing to fund the Plan in jeopardy.

And what did their lobbying produce? A substitute bill that effectively renders the Alliance powerless to do anything about bad Charter Schools.

There are currently 9 Charter School sponsors operating in Cleveland, which is a bad thing, according to national Charter School experts quoted in the Plain Dealer.
"Cleveland is unusual in having nine different agencies approving charters in one city," said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "Too many authorizers is not a good thing."
Yet the only sponsors that will ever be examined by the Alliance under this new language authored by the pro-Brennan forces are sponsors whose sponsorship agreements are approved or renewed in the next five years. Why do I focus on five years? Because the new language sunsets the Alliance after five years of the effective date of the legislation not from the date of the Alliance's formation. Period.

As an aside, many charter sponsorship agreements have 5-year terms.

Look for a mad rush of sponsorship renewals and applications in Cleveland between the passage of the bill and the effective date of its implementation (90 days, unless it's passed as an emergency measure, which there aren't the votes to do). If every sponsor does that and makes agreement's term run for five years, the Alliance's Charter School oversight function will be rendered moot.

In addition, the Alliance's sign off authority has been reduced to simply a recommendation that is made to the Ohio Department of Education, which may choose to heed it or not. For now it has the sign off authority the Cleveland community so clearly wanted. So ends the effort to establish more local and community control over Charter Schools in Ohio. I guess "Community School" is a misnomer.

In addition, no Charter School sponsor will have to go through the Alliance process more than once.


So if the Charter School sponsor is approved one year and opens 40 Charter Schools, and all of those are failing, the sponsor can keep opening schools in Cleveland and the Alliance will have nothing to say about it.

And the Alliance won't have any oversight of e-Schools, one of which enrolls more kids than any other Charter School in Cleveland.

Finally, the pro-Brennan Charter Advocates were able to get the Cleveland folks to agree to this arrangement: the standards upon which the Alliance will judge whether sponsors can open new Charter Schools will be developed by the Alliance, the Ohio Department of Education (generally more friendly to Charters) and a "statewide nonprofit organization whose membership is comprised solely of entities that sponsor community schools and whose members sponsor the majority of start up community schools in the state".

That means that the Alliance's voice, and therefore the Cleveland community's voice, will be out-voted 2-1 by folks outside the community when it comes to the development of these standards.

While these will be "based on" national standards developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (they don't have to be the actual national standards), the standards for determining Charter School efficacy will not necessarily be those accepted nationally, only "where possible" and they will only apply to a specific school's "model, mission and student populations."

And the coup de grace is this: Charter Schools in Cleveland will be able to receive local revenue, both operating and capital revenue, as they have been able to do in every iteration of the Cleveland Plan. And they will be able to do this with no impact on their state aid payments.

So while school districts like Cleveland lose state aid because of their ability to raise local revenue (which is called a "charge off"), that rule will not apply to Charters that receive local revenue.

By way of example, if CMSD needs $5,000 a kid to educate its children, but it can raise $2,500 locally on property taxes, the state will provide CMSD $2,500. Charters get the full $5,000 -- the argument being that since they can't raise local revenue, they shouldn't get the local revenue deduction. Of course this ignores that the per pupil amount is how much it costs to educate the kid in the district, not at the Charter School, which has far fewer and smaller expenses. But that's another story.

However, under the Cleveland Plan, even if Charters can now receive $2,500 in local revenue, the state will continue paying them the full $5,000. So a Charter will now get $7,500 per kid, while CMSD will only get $5,000.

Again, Cleveland kids lose about $3 million a year in per pupil state aid simply because Charter School state aid payments are so much larger than state aid payments to Cleveland. Yet Cleveland Charter Schools will receive these larger payments ($7,344 per pupil rather than the $7,084 per pupil the same kid receives in CMSD after Charters get their money) and local revenue to boot.

If this doesn't serve as the gateway for Charters to receive local revenue statewide in next year's school funding formula, I will be stunned. This effectively opens the door to an additional $8.5 billion that Charters will be able to tap potentially starting next year. And they won't have ANY of their state aid payments reduced, like school districts do, if Cleveland is the model.

All in all, under this new iteration of the Cleveland Plan, Charter Schools will receive now all the benefits (more revenue) with very little (if any) meaningful additional accountability.

If you want to to know why Ohio's Charter School Wars continue, I give you Exhibit A. It simply doesn't happen like this anywhere else.

And it makes life very difficult for the increasingly more vocal Charter School folks who really want to develop great, creative ideas that can really help kids and be upscaled throughout the system. I think there is such potential for the idea of Charter Schools as small incubators of creativity that can help develop system wide change for the good. But only if it doesn't hurt the kids who remain in the traditional public schools, and only if the incubators are actually working and working collaboratively.

In Ohio, every kid in the public schools receives, on average, about 6.5% less state money per year because of how Charters are funded by this state -- substantially cutting into their educational experience. And only 23 of the 300+ Charters in the state would rate in the top 1/2 of all school districts on the Performance Index Score. Ohio's public school kids generally perform better than kids who go to private voucher schools as well, even in Cleveland. Meanwhile, some of the worst Charters in the state (which serve the state's neediest kids) can remain open indefinitely for no apparent reason.

This, my friends, is why Charter Schools are met with such resistance in this state. It may seem odd to folks from outside Ohio who are used to more collaborative and cooperative models. But Ohio's way of doing things is wholly unique.

Until the political sway of the Brennan-backed Charter School Lobby is abated, I fear the Charter School movement will remain a force for discord and division in this state, not the cooperative and helpful force for real reform that it could (and should) be.