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Thursday, June 28, 2012

School Funding Hearings Begin

I admit. I was wrong.

The Ohio House will begin what is promised to be a series of special hearings on education funding today. I will attend and report back what I see.

When the House announced earlier this year that they would be tackling this issue a few months before everyone in the House was up for election, I was exceedingly skeptical. It takes courage to go around the state talking about education funding after making massive cuts to education in the last budget. So I though these would never happen. While surprised, I'm thrilled they are happening. Chairman Ron Amstutz should be commended for following through on these initial hearings. I always worked well with him in the House (he gave my farewell speech), and I know he's sincere about wanting to fix this problem. So I'm glad his sincerity won out over crass political cynicism. At least for the moment.

Now, I don't know what the hearings will be like. Will they be substantive? Will they allow anyone who wishes to speak? Will they be hijacked by one interest group or another? Will they serve an agenda (like justifying giving everyone $6,000 and telling them they can attend any school they want), or support the Founding Fathers' vision (including Thomas Jefferson) of public education being the heart of every Ohio community, which Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America thusly: "the originality of American civilization was most clearly apparent in the provisions made for public education"?

What I hope they become is a serious inquiry into how to properly fund our schools (including traditionals, charters and eschools), using the best, peer-reviewed research available. Since Gov. Kasich eliminated the Evidence-Based Model in the last budget (as well as about $2 billion in funding), Ohio remains the only state in the country without a funding model. That cannot continue for another two years.

The new model should help kids succeed, not simply spend the same pot of money differently. I would hope some property tax relief could result, for continuing to rely more and more on property taxes to fund schools is untenable. Finally, I hope the new system has even more evidence that it will improve student success than the EBM did.

That's what our kids deserve.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Study: Previous School Funding System gets an A

In the Dispatch this morning, it was reported that the Education Law Center at Rutgers gave Ohio's school funding system a pretty good grade. Unfortunately, the highest grades it received were while the Evidence Based Model of school funding was in place. The current administration eliminated that model this year, so now Ohio has no distribution formula.

The study looked at 2009 -- the year the EBM was put in place.

The report classifies Ohio's system then this way:
"Only 17 states have progressive funding systems, providing greater funding to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty districts. This is a small increase over the 14 progressive states in 2008. The most progressive funding systems are in Utah, New Jersey and Ohio."
As the Ohio House, to their credit, starts examining what a new system should look like, one thing they should do is look at the components of previous systems that did work, and incorporate them into the new system. The EBM was not perfect. But it did earn Ohio accolades for being innovative, creative and fair.

Finally, it would have been fair for the Dispatch to have mentioned the EBM in today's story. I'm not surprised it didn't, but the implication the story gave that Ohio's current system, which has no distribution formula, would receive a similar A grade for distributive fairness misinforms the public on the eve of one of the more important landmarks in Ohio's long, sordid school funding history.

And that's unfortunate.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

More Ohio Charter War Collateral Damage

Today's Columbus Dispatch held a story about a situation that frankly never should have come up in the first place.

A Charter School in Cincinnati wanted to buy an old building that was owned by CPS. However, a deed restriction CPS put in there didn't allow the district to sell to a Charter School.

Yet the operators of Theodore Roosevelt Public Community School bought it for $30,000 and started to run the school out of it. CPS sued in 2009 to block the sale, based on the deed restriction. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the Charter's right to buy the building based on a state law giving Charters first crack at old school buildings.

This situation epitomizes why the Charter School Wars are harmful. First of all, it makes perfect sense for Charters to buy old school buildings that districts no longer need. One of the major issues in other states (like New York) is the lack of space Charters have.

However, this seemingly common sense marriage makes zero sense when the existence of Charter Schools put the local district in financial jeopardy. In Ohio, the way Charter Schools are funded means that every kid not in a Charter receives about 6.5% less state revenue than they otherwise would.

In the Theodore Roosevelt situation, according to the April 27 state payment forms, it receives $1,765,386.74 for the 218.13 kids it educates. That means the state pays Theodore Roosevelt $8,093.28 per pupil. After Charters like Theodore Roosevelt receive their state money, CPS is left with $2,445 per pupil from the state.

When you add the financial issues to the fact that Theodore Roosevelt is in Academic Emergency (an F) on the state report card, has a Performance Index Score of 57.2 (which rates worse than all but about 45 of Ohio's 3,625 school buildings) and has neither met Adequate Yearly Progress nor its Value Added benchmarks, you begin to understand CPS' reluctance to have Theodore Roosevelt taking its kids.

The person who started Theodore Roosevelt, Roger Connors, came from Riverside Academy, which is one of the Charters that is operated by White Hat Management -- the outfit started by Ohio's Charter School Godfather David Brennan.

Let me ask one question: would the Ohio Supreme Court be hearing this case after a three-year court battle if the Charter School funding scheme in Ohio wasn't so off kilter? Or the state had higher standards for Charter School performance? Or the goal of Charter Schools was to help, not compete with local school districts? Or the creation of Charter Schools hadn't been born out of hyper-partisan rhetoric and action?

Think about it: A school district has a building it won't use anymore. A Charter School wants to come in and operate a school there. It should be a foregone conclusion, if there was a true sense of cooperation between the two systems, that this would happen.

Instead, districts try to keep out Charters and Charters try to figure out how to wiggle their way into districts.

The outcome of the Cincinnati case isn't what really concerns me. What troubles me to no end is that 13 years into the Charter School experiment in Ohio we're having three-year court battles over whether a Charter School can operate in a school building a district no longer wants.

There have been some fences mended on this issue over the last few years, but the Cincinnati case proves one thing to me: thanks to the way Columbus politicians have hamfisted this issue for years, there is a long, long, long, long way to go before Charters and Traditional Public Schools can trust one another or work together collaboratively.

And that is truly unfortunate for the children of this state.

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.

Ever.

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.