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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

White Hat Associate Now Ohio House Ed Policy Aide

Last week, when I attended a House hearing on education funding, I picked up information that Colleen Grady, who was a State Rep for about 2 months in 2008, was now the Education Policy Aide for House Republicans who was setting up all these hearings.

I didn't think much of this, until I re-read the story the Columbus Dispatch wrote last year detailing how cozy House Republicans are with David Brennan, the notorious owner of White Hat Management and the single largest donor to Ohio Republicans over the last decade. The head of White Hat is Thomas Needles, who was Gov. George Voinovich's Education Czar who turned his work creating Charter Schools under Voinovich into a lucrative career serving as Mr. Brennan's right hand man within days of leaving Voinovich's administration in 1998.

House staff members ran a number of charter-school-related amendments by Brennan's lobbyists. On April 19, nine days before the initial House budget changes were unveiled, lobbyist (and Needles associate) Colleen Grady sent Lisa Valentine, the top education policy adviser for the House Republicans, her opinion of 11 different amendments. Among the responses:

"Definitely no. Operators would object vigorously. Looks like more breakthrough schools stuff," she wrote, referring to a group of Cleveland-area charter schools. (Note: The Breakthrough Schools are among the finest Charter Schools the state has, by the way.)

"This one is good."

"Thank you. This is great."

"Might be nice to delete the Senate amendment starting at line 307. We could fix what they messed up."

So Brennan has been able to put one of his own as a top policy person in the Ohio House, less than one year after his cozy relationship with the Ohio House caused such a furor that even Charter School advocates blushed. Here's what Terry Ryan of the Fordham Institute said of Brennan's changes to Charter School oversight in last year's budget:
"What (the House) is proposing isn't a charter school. It's a corporate, private school, and the state simply funds it," Ryan said.

Then, I looked at Grady's LinkedIn profile and discovered she has been on staff with the Ohio Republican House Caucus since April, confirming the information I was told last week.

Grady has done work around Columbus since her 2008 defeat by Matt Patten for various education policy shops, including Fordham and even on her own, penning a report with the Ohio Association for Gifted Children (a group that gave me their service award in 2009) last year. That report basically said that excellence was too easy for schools to achieve in Ohio because how could a school be excellent if it wasn't serving every child?

I think that's a good question, actually.

However, the report did not mention that despite this supposedly "easy" school rating system, nearly half of all Charter Schools rate D or F on the report card. The Grady-OAGC report, I think, gave the Ohio Department of Education and others who have been complaining about how well public schools rate the ammunition to develop House Bill 555, whose most recent simulation indicates that as many as 85% of school districts were overrated by the prior system.

After the Grady Report, no one would bat an eyelash at that result, depsite its highly dubious outcome. However, if more schools are poorly rated, more districts would be opened up for Charters and Vouchers, further draining money from local school districts, who then must pass more levies to make up the difference.

Remember that every child in Ohio who does not attend a Charter School receives 6.5% less state revenue because of how Charter Schools are funded in this state.

The development is troubling because Grady, judging from the earlier Dispatch story, is hostile toward Breakthrough Schools, but is supportive of David Brennan's schools. Again, the Breakthrough Schools are among the finest Charters (or any schools, for that matter) in the state. Their excellent track record is, in many ways, what gave comfort to some people about allowing local revenue to go to the Cleveland Charters because Breakthrough would be getting the money, not the shadier Charter outfits. If Brennan's schools are able to get local revenue in next year's budget (which I'm sure will be attempted), he can actually thank Breakthrough for setting the precedent.

Ohio's trouble is not Breakthrough; it's that not enough Charters here resemble Breakthrough. Too many resemble Brennan's Life Skills centers -- a dropout recovery school operation which graduates 11% of its kids on average. The average of the state's other Charter dropout recovery schools is more than four times that.The dropout recovery standards currently in House Bill 555 (about 7 years after they were first ordered by the General Assembly) would allow dropout recovery schools to remain open as long as they improve by 10% per year (for at least 2 consecutive years) their graduation rates and percentage of kids who pass all high school testing before they are 22 years old. In Life Skills' case, that would entail about a 1% increase in graduation rates. So Life Skills would have about 20 years or so to catch up to the average Charter School dropout recovery program, assuming the law remains in place that long.

If the House's top education policy person is as hostile to some of the best Charter Schools in this state as her previous work indicates, it throws a wet blanket on the positive statements made last week by Students First about how Charters and Traditional Public Schools should be held to the same standards.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Amstutz Delivers

I have to admit something. When Ohio House Finance Chairman Ron Amstutz announced earlier this year that he would be heading up a committee that would hear testimony about how to develop a new school funding formula, I was extremely skeptical. I know Amstutz a little bit. He gave my farewell speech from his side of the aisle when I left the House (much to his enjoyment, I imagine).

I've always known him to be a good, trustworthy guy. But I figured his leadership team wouldn't let him hold the hearings, especially close to an election, allowing people all over the state to remind everyone about the $1.8 billion in education cuts Amstutz passed through the General Assembly last year.

But I was wrong. Amstutz has held hearings. They have been more scripted than ones I held during the House Bill 1 debate in 2009. But that's a matter of style, not necessarily substance. I like letting people talk and speak their mind, even if it means I have to stick around for hours and hours. Amstutz, being, shall we say, wiser, prefers succinct expedience.

From one former journalist to another, I have to say that Amstutz has delivered a substantive series of hearings. Yes, they have been overwhelmingly dominated by one side of the argument. There has been no real counterpoint to the Eric Hanusheks, Rick Hesses, and other conservative education reformers, which would have really given the hearings much needed balance. During the House bill 1 debates, the conservatives would not testify before my committee, except for Terry Ryan from Fordham Institute, even though I invited them to do so. Paul Hill, from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, met with me in my office and spent about an hour eviscerated my work on the EBM. But ultimately, Mr. Hill, like the others, chose instead to testify publicly only in the Senate.

Yes, there have been several extremely misleading pieces of testimony during Amstutz's hearings, especially from former Ohio Department of Education official Paolo DeMaria about how Charter School funding works. But you know what? It's been done in public and Amstutz has not been afraid to stick his neck out there.

As the only one in this state who can really relate to Amstutz's current responsibility of overhauling a school funding system, I applaud his willingness to face the scrutiny like an adult. I really respect him for it, though I strongly disagree with much of what's been put forward at these hearings.

I think Amstutz really wants to get this right. I think he is a grownup in the room, especially about being sensitive to the number of property tax levies state budget cuts have caused. However, I also know his leadership team and their feelings toward public education. I hope Chairman Amstutz's methodical, thoughtful approach wins out next year as the new funding system is shaped.

Again, I find myself extremely skeptical.

However, Ron Amstutz has surprised me before.

Perhaps he will again.