Wednesday, March 18, 2015

HB 2 Amendments One More Positive Step. Heavy Lift Remains.

The House Education Committee yesterday adopted an omnibus amendment to its charter reform legislation (House Bill 2). Most of the amendments were the charter reform provisions introduced in the Budget Bill (House Bill 64), but there were some meaningful and significant tweaks. I will talk more in depth in a separate post about the omnibus' "high performing charter" definition -- the first we've seen in this recent spate of charter reforms.

For now, though, let's start with the better stuff:

  1. Operator Oversight
    1. The amendments include one that will post all school-operator contracts at the Ohio Department of Education website. This is a huge step forward. When I was chairman of the Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee of the House Finance Committee, I was stunned that ODE didn't have these contracts because the law didn't require them to have the contracts, even though some operators get as much as 97% of the state revenue to educate kids at charters. This is so basic, yet so important for strong oversight and accountability. 
    2. The amendments include one that would have operator report cards listed in the charter school annual report, which is a good tweak of the HB 2 original language. Now we'll know how all three charter entities -- sponsors, schools and operators -- perform. Great for transparency.
    3. The amendments require that the schools have independent counsel to negotiate the contracts they sign with operators and sponsors -- a very positive step to safeguard taxpayer dollars. However, the charter legal world is a very tight knit group. Will this essentially serve as the Jamie Callendar Permanent Employment Act? Or will it allow some independence from his dominance in this area? We'll see.
    4. Financial and enrollment reports have to be sent to the operator too, not just sponsor and school. I am still perplexed why they wouldn't be sent to ODE since it's public money we're talking about here. 
  2. Transparency
    1. In addition to the posting of operator contracts, the amendments say that all charter governing board members shall be listed on school websites, with their addresses and contact information sent to ODE and sponsors. This is another step forward. Again, though, for 16 years they haven't been required to do this. Amazing.
    2. ODE approves financial plans for schools and has contracts with all sponsors, even previously grandfathered entities. Again, keeping all this information in the public's warehouse is a nice step forward.
    3. The amendments require annual training for all charter employees and sponsors on public records requirements. This should avoid the embarrassment of charters not telling reporters basic information, like who's on the board and when they meet, like they did last year.
  3. Accountability
    1. Adds more requirements for the sponsor contracts with schools, which would help bring more sunshine in on that.
    2. Allows the state Board of Education to establish additional requirements for new sponsors and allows the Cleveland Transformation Alliance more of a voice on new Cleveland charters. While this isn't meeting the original intent of the Alliance --namely having local communities control which schools can open in them -- it does give them a little more say on which charters can open in Cleveland. And that's a good step. Giving the mostly elected board some additional oversight authority is also a nice step.
    3. Requires that the sponsor, not its agent, has to work with the Auditor of State on audits and other procedures. This is a response to Auditor David Yost's recommendations and is a nice step.
    4. Has ODE approve all financial plans of charters. Again, solid provision.
As you can see, the vast majority of the provisions are improvements. Do they go as far as they need to? No. But we're definitely on a solid reform path that will help the public be better informed about the sector. And that's important. However, there remains a major blind spot in this bill: the schools themselves.

Sponsors have been the overseers now for more than a decade, and our state's charter sector is a national joke. Yes, we need to be tougher on sponsors. However, all this stuff pertains mostly to charter sponsors and operators. Very little pertains to the schools themselves, which is where the kids are actually failing to learn what they need. I'm wary of doubling down on this trickle-down edu-nomics approach. Especially when we have the ability to more profoundly help kids in charters without waiting for the historically laissez-faire sponsors to do their jobs more effectively.

How can we do this? Well, Ohio charters get two years before they receive a report card grade. Once they're deemed to be failing kids, then they get to stay open for a year before they have to shut down. Get rid of that two-year grace period and the so-called "zombie year," and charters would have 3-4 years to get their act together. According to studies out of Stanford, we pretty much know what we have with a charter after 3 years. Eliminating those three unaccountable years gets us closer to the research-based standard. 

As it stands right now, after the amendments, HB 2 still doesn't address how we allow failing charters to stick around for 6-7 years before we shut them down, allowing them to collect taxpayer money for more than twice as long as we should in some cases. It does a nice job making sponsors and operators more accountable, and the charter sector more transparent, but it does little to ensure failing charters shut down quicker, which is what will most profoundly help the state's charter sector.

In addition, there remain the following concerns:

  1. Monthly financial and enrollment reports still not filed with ODE
    1. As mentioned earlier, the monthly reports make sense and are good government requirements, but leaving ODE out of the required reporting is curious. All it would mean these days is adding one more CC on an email. Still trying to figure out this omission.
  2. Allowing schools to waive the independent fiscal officer provision
    1. This seems antithetical to even the original version of the bill, which was supposed to ensure that the fiscal officer's fiduciary duty remained with the school rather than corporate masters. But this opens to door to that happening again. Auditor Yost expressed concern over this provision -- a concern I share. 

Overall, considering that four years ago this was the legislative chamber that literally let David Brennan's company write charter school law, these reforms are impressive. They don't go nearly as far as they need to go, especially on closing failing charter schools more quickly. But on sponsor and especially operator transparency and accountability, these reforms are -- so far -- mostly hitting the mark.

But I remind everyone not to get too giddy just yet. It's early. Big charter school campaign contributions won't easily be overcome. And in a lot of ways, this reminds me of a labor contract negotiation: We're coming together on a lot of the non-economic issues, but the big economic issues remain untouched.

However, considering where Ohio's been for the last nearly 20 years on this issue, making the names of charter school board members more public is a huge step. It's sad that such an obvious good governance issue is seen as progress, but progress it is.

Now, about that funding system ....