Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ohio Charter School Sheriff All White Hat, No Cattle

Well, that was quick. Less than a week after telling the State School Board that he had broken the law when he didn't count Fs for online charter schools run by big Republican campaign donors, David Hansen -- the husband of Gov. John Kasich's new presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen -- has resigned as Ohio's top school choice official.

This also comes just about a month after the Fordham Institute wrote a very hopeful blog post praising the Ohio Department of Education's recent crack down on a few low-performing charter schools -- the culmination of what had been about a year of hopeful signs from the department, including Fordham's specific praising of Hansen's "more aggressive" crackdown approach. If I'm Fordham today, I'm feeling more than a little bit deceived. And pissed.

I was less enthusiastic than my friends at Fordham, but agreed with them that there were encouraging signs. I had noticed the department had started calling school choice "quality school choice" and had issued a few directives to charter school sponsors warning them to do a better job of monitoring their schools.

My enthusiasm was always tempered by the fact that Hansen and ODE were ignoring the big fish. And that was, unfortunately, Hansen's undoing. None of these crackdowns were against schools run by big Republican donors -- David Brennan of White Hat Management or Bill Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- whose schools rate among the worst in the state and who educate about 20% of all Ohio charter school students.

Those two men have given more than $6 million to mostly Republican Ohio politicians since the program began and have collected more than $1.7 billion in state funds -- about 1 in every 4 charter dollars ever spent.

Instead, Hansen rigged the system -- apparently illegally -- to make their schools' poor scores not count against the sponsors that oversee them.

That also meant that sponsors wouldn't be motivated to improve these schools, even under a new charter reform bill, whose focus is on forcing sponsors to do a better job overseeing charters rather than directly closing the poor performers.

It is no accident that White Hat Management -- about the same time we found out the state wasn't counting certain schools' poor grades -- announced it was selling off its "highest" performing schools, whose still poor scores would be counted, and keeping its E-School and dropout recovery schools, whose worse scores wouldn't be counted.

As an aside, it will be interesting indeed if Hansen ends up working for White Hat, just like former Voinovich education czar Thomas Needles did.

This incident also points out another issue: Even if the new charter legislation passes eventually (a dubious proposition that this point), the fact that it grants so much discretion to ODE is quite problematic. It is now apparent that the gubernatorial takeover of the department -- a process started under Gov. George Voinovoich when school board members started being appointed rather than exclusively elected -- is now complete. The current state superintendent, Richard Ross, was Kasich's education czar, then moved on over to the department. Hansen had obvious close connections with the Kasich administration.

ODE is supposed to be an independent voice for Ohio's kids -- not a gubernatorial, or legislative  rubber stamp. It's time for the state school board to exercise its constitutional authority and start bringing at least some independence back to the agency so these kinds of politically motivated shenanigans don't happen again.

There are 123,000 charter school kids in Ohio who are, in the vast majority of cases, being poorly served by these schools -- even compared with the worst-performing local public schools.

The state needs a real watchdog for these kids, not a sheriff that's all white hat and no cattle.