Thursday, April 17, 2014

Brenner Strikes Again

Remember state Rep. Andrew Brenner, who last month claimed that public education was socialism? Well, he's back at it -- pimping and making excuses for statewide eSchools (which are among the worst performing schools in the state) while saying those same excuses are not allowed for traditional public schools.

Here's the Gongwer Report where he does this (subscription required). The opening sentence is perfect irony when he excuses poor performance of eSchools because they "can be tied to the challenging population they serve." Couldn't that be said of major urban districts too?

Oh no. Not to Brenner, who happens to be the vice chairman of the House Education Committee. He claimed that the urbans hadn't made the "management decisions" other districts have made.

For the record, the Big 8 Urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) spent 14% of their money on administrative, non-instructional costs last year. The major statewide eSchools (the Alternative Education Academy, Buckeye Online School for Success, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio Connections Academy, Ohio Virtual Academy, Treca Digital Academy and the Virtual Community School of Ohio)? Try 23%. Perhaps eSchools should be making the "management decisions" the Big 8 have made.

And why should we be even comparing the statewide eSchools in performance or cost with the Big 8 anyway? About 80% of all statewide eSchool students come from non-Big 8 districts. So shouldn't the "apples-to-apples" comparison Brenner requested we make on performance be with non-Big 8 districts?

Anyway, remember that eSchools don't have busing, lunch rooms, buildings or any other fixed cost of a brick-and-mortar operation. Yet the average statewide eSchool still spends more per pupil than a handful of school districts, even though school districts get local revenue too. In fact, the average eSchool spends $7,266 per pupil while the average district spends $9,826 per pupil.

What's the difference?

Try operations support (busing, mostly). The average eSchool spends $78 on this category. The average district spends $1,935 per pupil. If you subtract out the districts' busing costs, the average Ohio eSchool spends more per pupil than 234 school districts, or nearly 4 in 10 districts. And they only get outspent by less than $3,000 per pupil in the Big 8.

And remember that because they're urban districts, the Big 8 are mandated to spend a lot of that money -- they have little choice. So actually, when you account for those spending realities, the average Big 8 district spends $8,490 per pupil -- not far off from the statewide eSchool average of $7,266. And remember that number includes busing. Subtract it and urbans are likely spending less per pupil than eSchools.

So how efficient are these virtual operations, really?

Which brings me to Brenner's most outrageous statement, where he claims that eSchools' performance is achieved spending "$6,000" while some districts are spending $20,000 for similarly bad results. Again, the statewide eSchools (which house nearly all of the eSchool kids) spend about 21% more than Brenner's claim -- $7,266 on average. And, for the record, there are 2. That's right, 2 school districts in Ohio spending $20,000 or more per pupil. One is Orange City Schools -- one of the state's top 5 districts. The other is Cleveland Heights, which, while struggling, is hardly as bad as, say, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- Ohio's oldest, largest eSchool.

That's it. And once you subtract costs for busing, etc. no Ohio district spends more than $20,000 per pupil. Not a one.

Again, Brenner is spinning the apocryphal story that public schools spend money less efficiently and get worse results. The truth, my friends, is the exact opposite. And when you look at Fleeter's analysis, the more discretionary money an Ohio school district has, the better they tend to perform. The highest performing districts in the state, in Fleeter's analysis, have the highest discretionary per pupil spending.

It wasn't that long ago that I discovered that the statewide eSchools received enough state money to pay for 15:1 student-teacher ratios and a $2,000 laptop every year for every student and still clear nearly 40% profit. I'm not the only one who's questioned why Ohio taxpayers should be forking over nearly double the per pupil amount for eSchools as they do for traditional public schools. The average online eSchool gets about $6,800 per pupil from the state (the rest of the $7,266 is mostly federal and private money). The average district gets a bit more than $3,500.

So, when kids go to eSchools, they typically remove more state money from the district than the state would have received if the kid had stayed in the district, which leaves kids not in eSchools (who are in mostly higher performing districts) with less state revenue.

It would be one thing if eSchools were rocking the socks off traditional districts on performance. But they aren't -- a fact Brenner, to his credit, acknowledged, before he made his excuses. In fact, ECOT graduates barely 1/3 of its kids. Yet they were able to pull Gov. John Kasich to speak at their 2011 graduation ceremony. Would Kasich go to to a traditional public school graduation where even 70% of the kids graduated? No way. Even though that's twice the rate of ECOT.

My biggest disappointment with Brenner is this: Our kids need guys like Brenner -- people who are strong choice proponents -- to be the fiercest proponents for excellence in choice. Brenner had an opportunity to stand before eSchools and demand they do better. The rest of the state has to do more with less. So should they. "The days of 35% graduation rates for double the state money are over," he could have said.

But he didn't.

Instead, he did that which folks in the choice movement have derided public school advocates for years: make excuses.

That constitutes a failure of leadership. And it's extremely disappointing. But I can't say it's unexpected. After all, the operator of ECOT -- William Lager -- did spend $180,000 on Republican lawmakers just in the last few weeks of the last budget. So perhaps Brenner is angling for some of that.

There's an old saying that goes something like this (PG rated version): "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, take their money, then vote against them the next day, you shouldn't be in politics." Brenner is in a great position to make much needed changes in Ohio's eSchool landscape. Instead, he excused their miserable failings by using misleading arguments.

Our kids deserve better.