Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ohio: Charters' 7.2% Grad Rate "Meets Standards". Really????

In the lame duck 2005-2006 legislative session, Ohio's legislature and historically unpopular Gov. Bob Taft exempted Ohio's Dropout Recovery Charter Schools from having to adhere to any new closure standards. In exchange, the State Board of Education had to develop operating standards for these schools by December 2007.

However, those standards were never adopted. Instead, Dropout Recovery Charter Schools operated without fear of closure, which made their operators -- including notorious political donor David Brennan's Life Skills Centers -- lots of money.

The state finally adopted Dropout Recovery standards a couple years ago. In exchange, these Charter Schools (now 90 strong) receive their own, much more lenient report card. This year was the first for Dropout Recovery Schools to have measurable data. And wow do these data raise serious questions about whether the state has any meaningful operating standards for these schools.

According to the Dropout Recovery report card, a 7.2% four-year graduation rate is designated "meets standards" (in which case, the Charter wouldn't close) while a 30% rate exceeds them. Wow. Really? 7.2%? 30%?

Sheesh but that's awful. Now, I understand that dropout recovery schools have a very challenging population of kids. I get it. But are we really going to say that spending $117.3 million on these 90 schools is a good use of taxpayer money? Dropout recovery is among the most important functions of our educational institutions. These are our most at-risk kids.

Yet the state says that if only 8 out of 111 eligible graduates graduate -- as is the case at Life Skills Center of Columbus North -- then the school has met the state's "rigorous" standards? Wow. Just. Wow.

The average graduation rate (dropout recovery schools are tracked for 4, 5, 6, and 7 years) is about 20-25% (take Life Skills out of the equation, and the rate jumps almost 5%). Shouldn't that be meeting standards? The highest 4-year graduation rate is 88.9% at Franklin Local Community School. I would think any rate over 50% would exceed standards, right? Wrong. It's 30%.

Life Skills Centers -- the largest single group of Dropout Recovery Charters -- are especially horrendous at graduating children, which I thought was the whole point of dropout recovery. They single handedly drag down the overall Dropout Recovery graduation rate by about 5% and represent 6 of the 11 Dropout Recovery schools that "Does Not Meet Standards" for four-year graduation rates in Ohio's eyes. But given that their operator, White Hat Management, is run by David Brennan, who has given $4 million to Ohio politicians, does it surprise you that these standards are so low?

And to add insult to injury, even the Life Skills Centers (whose diplomas at one time weren't accepted by the military) that graduate 2 out of 155 kids (yes, Life Skills of Northeast Ohio owns this shameful graduation rate) and fail to meet even these ridiculously low standards can stay open in perpetuity. How? By simply improving their graduation rate (and test scores) 10% a year for two consecutive years, thanks to Mr. Brennan's friends in the legislature and Governor's mansion.

So, let's do some math. The 2 out of 155 kids that graduate from Life Skills of Northeast Ohio is a 1.3% graduation rate. Improving by 10% a year for two years would put that rate at 1.573%. How many more kids is that? .43. That's right. If Life Skills of Northeast Ohio graduates the equivalent of .43 of a student more over the next not one, but two years, the school gets to stay open. That's right. He doesn't have to graduate even 1 more kid. They don't even have to improve to 7.2% and graduate 9 more kids to "Meet Standards." They just have to graduate a fraction of one more.

I wish I was joking.

Now, that, is a loophole. And that, my friends is what $4 million will buy you -- the right to run horrible schools and collect billions. Brennan has collected more than $1 billion in state revenue since Charters started in 1999 without ever testifying before the Ohio General Assembly. In fact, about 15 cents of every dollar spent on Ohio charters since 1999 ($7.4 billion total) has gone to Mr. Brennan. Let's see: turning $4 million into $1 billion.

Anyone want that return on investment? Tough to beat 25,000%.

Perhaps that's how Mr. Brennan can afford a $10 million Naples, Fla. home and guest home (the most expensive multi-million dollar property on Naples' ritzy Nelsons Walk, according to the Collier County Auditor's property appraisal office).

David Brennan's $10 million Naples property
Source: Collier County, Fla. Auditor

Don't forget that Gov. John Kasich's most recent budget gave the biggest per pupil increases to (wait for it) Life Skills Centers. Funny how that works, isn't it?

For our state's most at-risk kids, that's not funny. It's awful.

Dropout Recovery Charter Schools in Ohio are a mess. We know how to best prevent dropouts. Among those strategies -- early childhood education, family engagement teams (which Ohio paid for in the Evidence Based Model, but not anymore), and tutoring (also paid for in the Evidence-Based Model, but not anymore). Let's do what we know works.

Let's stop giving David Brennan $17.5 million, or more than $8,400 per pupil (a greater per pupil sum than the state gives to all but 3 public school districts, and more than double what the state spends -- $3,920 -- on average in all districts) to graduate 113 of the 1,496 kids in his care last year at all Life Skills Centers. Two of his schools aren't rated yet by the state, so the graduation rate is probably even worse than that.

By the way, that's a mighty lofty 7.6% graduation rate for Life Skills. That would "meet standards" in Ohio's eyes. I know. Horrific, right?

You, dear reader, know that I'm not one for eliminating Charters. I want great educational experiences for all kids, regardless of school type. But these Dropout Recovery "standards" are an embarrassment. All they do is hurt our most vulnerable children and let profiteers live lavishly.

What a travesty.