Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kasich Charter School Reforms Ignore Charter Schools

Ohio has has a major charter school problem for years now. Recently, many have said change is needed, including Gov. John Kasich. He made the statement two months ago that "we are going to fix the lack of regulation of charter schools."

Then he introduced a plan that goes after charter school sponsors, which are not, in fact, schools. That's helpful, but it's still relying on charter school sponsors that have done a lousy job regulating their charters for more than 15 years now. I'm not entirely certain that relying on sponsors some more will change things. I'm more concerned about the buildings in which kids are learning, or too frequently in this state, not learning.

I hesitate to write anything about Kasich's plan because the last time he introduced some school ideas, the written legislation differed vastly from the rhetoric. But let's look at what he's proposing and see how it's going to address the two major issues with Ohio's charter school law -- too many bad ones keep operating for too long, and the funding system leaves the 90% of kids not in charters with significantly less state revenue, forcing local taxpayers to subsidize the state payments to what are in the vast majority of cases poorer performing charter schools. 

I have taken these provisions from the Plain Dealer story about them from earlier this week. Again, strong caveat: The bill language may differ greatly from these outlined provisions.
  • Sponsors can be shut down if they score “poor” – a subsection of the current “ineffective” category. 
    • This could be fine, but it remains to be seen how many sponsors this will actually roll up. It could just snip off a sliver of the smaller, weaker sponsors that don't have that many schools anyway. The more schools you have, the more protection you'd have. And it's the big sponsors that have caused many of the issues here.
  • Sponsors rated as "ineffective" have a year to improve, or their sponsorships will be shut down. 
    • This would help strengthen the previous section. But it still gives the huge bad apples one year to drop their bad schools so they can stay open. Without a provision addressing sponsor hopping, those bad charters can then be picked up elsewhere. So it's difficult to say how effective this will be.
  • Charter schools sponsored by an "exemplary" sponsor can seek a property tax levy from voters to pay for operations, which has to be put on by the local school district. 
    • Wow does this open up a can of worms. Why politicians who support charter schools and choice in general won't create new funds to pay for them is beyond me. I can't envision a school board allowing any charter to seek a levy, the relationship has been so politically poisoned from nearly 20 years of distrust. 
    • And, again, this is based on a sponsor's rating, not the charter seeking the levy. So we could have a charter that gets a bunch of Fs on the report card getting local levy money because they're in with a big sponsor whose rating isn't as impacted by their failings.
    • And as I've written earlier, how would this work? It would allow groups of charters to go for local levy money too. How would that work? Would, for example, Akron property taxpayers fund charters in Xenia (Summit Academy runs schools in both places)? And will charters have the local money "charged off" against their state money, like districts do? A lot of work needs to be done on this to figure it out.
  • The state creates a $25 million fund to help charter schools purchase or renovate facilities, but only if the charter is sponsored by an "exemplary" agency. Not to online schools. ODE and the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission develop guidelines for the fund.
    • Again, this focuses on the sponsor, not the charter. So you could, theoretically, have poorer performing charters getting a big boost in funding because they're in with a huge sponsor whose rating isn't as harmed by their presence.
    • The idea of capital money for charters has merit because many end up with ne'er-do-well operators because the operators have money for their buildings. I like the idea of a separate fund for this purpose, rather than creating more headaches going through the Ohio School Facilities Commission.
  • Every sponsor must be approved by ODE and go through the state review and rating process. This would apply even to school districts that sponsor charter schools within their districts. If a district doesn't meet sponsorship standards, the state won't let it create a charter. This new rule would eliminate the exemption for original sponsors. 
    • This is probably the strongest reform among the lot. Granting ODE more regulatory authority over sponsors is a big step. No question. Will the review be rigorous? Will the hammer be big enough to shut down the big sponsors that have turned blind eyes to charter failures for 15 years? That remains to be seen. But giving ODE -- a public entity -- more regulatory authority over the mostly private entities running charter schools is a good step toward accountability and transparency over the $900 million plus in taxpayer money going to charters. And having it apply to the formerly grandfathered charter sponsors is a huge step. Kudos for that.
  • Sponsors cannot sell goods or services to schools they sponsor. 
    • This is a no-brainer. Which makes the fact it's taken 15 years to have it written into law so infuriating. 
  • Charter schools would to have their own fiscal agent or treasurer who is independent of a sponsor or the management company running the school.
    • Again, a no-brainer. Again infuriated it took 15 years to do this.
  • Eliminate the charter operator's ability to appeal their firing by a school. 
    • Kind of another no-brainer. The school should have latitude in deciding who operates the school. Ohio has been notorious for operators deciding who's going to be on the charter school board. This should help break that cycle.
  • ODE has tougher rules for sponsorship.
    • For years, ODE has had very little authority to deny sponsors or charters from running. Granting them better regulatory oversight is essential in any reform package. Just how strong the authority will be -- will it be Massachusetts strong? At least? -- is another story.
To me, meaningful charter school reform needs two primary elements: failing charters currently running will stop operating quickly, and the funding for charters will cause minimal damage to the funding for the 90% of Ohio's kids not in charter schools. Right now, the state spends more than 14% of its state formula money to fund the 6-7% of kids in charter schools. That leaves the kids not in charters with far fewer state resources, forcing a greater reliance on local property taxes to pay for the state funding shortfall, which is, of course, unconstitutional.

Here are my key points to any meaningful charter school reform, in no particular order:

  • Fund charters based on what it costs the charter to educate the child, not the district.
    • Most of the funding problem stems from the fact that charters get paid based on the much higher cost structure of a public school district.
  • Direct fund charters from the state, not have it come out of the district's aid.
    • This is an idea that all sides have agreed to before. We should do this now.
  • Allow high performing charters access to a new state fund that would essentially constitute a local funding amount.
    • As we will see during the next several weeks, letting charters go for levies is fraught with issues. The cleanest way to make up a charter's lack of local funding is create a fund at the state level that would provide essentially the same amount as a local levy, but only to charters that are doing a good job, not unlike what Kasich's proposing on capital funding. I'm sad to say this wouldn't cost a lot because there aren't a ton of high performers here.
  • Examine a potential cap on the state money going to a charter to something closer to what the district would receive from the state for the child.
    • Charters don't get local revenue, so that has to be taken into account. But districts that get $800 a kid from the state shouldn't lose $5,800 from the state if that kid goes to a charter. There's a middle ground that can be struck.
  • Allow high performing charter schools to collect capital funding.
    • One of the real problems in Ohio is charters have to go to ne'er do well operators to fund their buildings. This would help that problem. The major difference between this idea and Kasich's proposal is it would focus on the quality of the school, not the sponsor.
  • Close any charter that hasn't scored in the bottom 5% of school districts on the Performance Index Score. Now.
    • This may sound arbitrary, but it has some logic to it. If districts score in the bottom 5% of the Performance Index Score, charters can open up in those districts. Why, then, should charters be allowed to score below that number, if it's such a bad indicator for a district that the state says they need competition and kids need other options? 
  • Close charters after 3-4 years of failing, not 6-7.
    • We've known for a while now that charters are going to be what they are after three years. Let's not let them linger.
  • Adopt the national standards for charter school sponsors.
    • Codify most of the national charter school authorizer language, then require all sponsors to meet those requirements in the 2016-2017 school year
  • Require all sponsors, schools and operators to adhere to the same open records and meetings laws as any public school and district, including having all their financial records and contracts open for inspection.
    • If charters want to be considered public schools, they need to be as open for public inspection as any other public entity.
  • Require anyone overseeing, operating or running a charter to file reports with the Ohio Ethics Commission so we can see any potential conflicts of interest.
    • Again. No-brainer.
There are other provisions I would like to see, but these are the big ones for me. Will any of them pass this General Assembly? I don't know. But I am grateful that folks on all sides of the aisle are talking about these issues in earnest. We have an opportunity this year to create the country's greatest, strongest, and most publicly accountable charter school system in the country. 

So I implore our leaders to show the nation how we can lead on this, our most contentious issue.

What a great opportunity we have before us. Let's not waste it.