Monday, December 7, 2015

Ohio's Record with Federal Charter Grants Not So Great

When I last left you, I was cheering about the passage of House Bill 2 -- Ohio's most important charter school reform bill since the program began in the late 1990s. It was quite a heady day.

Since then, there continues to be controversy over the $71 million federal grant Ohio received from the US Department of Education to expand high-performing charters here. In fact, the feds have held up payment until the Ohio Department of Education explains its actions and apparently false statements it made in its grant application. And there remain concerns that the bulk of the funding will go to boost charters in Youngstown -- an area of the state that has a particularly poor performing charter sector.

I have consistently said that while I have grave concerns about the veracity of several statements in the grant application, I also believe that Ohio should take this opportunity to build upon HB 2's success and use the funding to grow our rather paltry high-performing charter school sector. I have also said that I'm really concerned about whether the Ohio Department of Education -- as currently constituted -- has the ability to properly administer this windfall.

After all, the guy who wrote the application and misled the feds on it is gone, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is set to retire shortly. Given that ODE has recently dropped the ball on charter accountability, I'm not overly confident they can do this, especially now when an influx of federal money could help bolster the state's new reforms.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute looked at a previous iteration of the federal grant ODE received and found some encouraging things. The charters that got the grants tended to be higher performing and closed at smaller rates than charters overall. However, nearly 1 in 4 recipients still closed up shop after getting their grant. So it's still not a great outcome, just better than Ohio's nationally ridiculed charter sector overall.

However, there's a major caveat with what Fordham wrote -- the data stem from a 2007 grant that ended in 2013. This is 2015. The department that received the 2007 grant is nothing like the 2015 version. That grant Fordham examined essentially was administered during the Strickland Administration, whose ODE enjoyed relative staff stability, not to mention the State Superintendent tenure of Deb Delisle, who was later chosen to head up the US Department of Education's Primary and Secondary Education division -- the folks who administer the charter grants ODE got this year. 

This is a very, very different ODE. The department is now going to be seeing its 5th leader since Gov. John Kasich took office four short years ago -- and the second leader to leave under a cloud of controversy. This department needs help, a policy leader rather than a political appointee and more than anything, stability.

But beyond the simple fact that the ODE that oversaw the implementation of its 2007 grant isn't the same one that will be overseeing this one, there remain more concerns about Ohio's ability to handle this grant.

These federal charter school grants have been given since 1995. Over those 20 years and more than $3.3 billion granted, only California and Florida have received more federal money to expand high-quality charters than Ohio, which received funding in 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2015. And the next highest -- New York -- would have received less even without Ohio's recent $71 million grant. Yet despite a more than $270 million investment, Ohio's charter sector has become a national joke. Meanwhile, Massachusetts -- the state whose citizens are suing because there aren't enough charter schools because they're such a great option there -- only received $50 million over the 20 years.

States that have received at least $100 million in federal grant money
meant to expand high-performing charter schools in their states
The graphic at the left tells the story of the amount Ohio's received to expand high-quality charters here. Yet, despite this investment, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that 40% of our state's charters are in "urgent need of improvement."

We should be doing better than having a couple great charters in Dayton, a dozen or so in Cleveland, a couple in Columbus and a couple in Toledo.

That's not to say there hasn't been improvement in the charter sector since 2004, though, just not enough to put the sector on par with local public schools. And who knows whether the federal grants had anything to do with the improvement.

Be that as it may, the year prior to the state receiving its 2004 grant saw charters receive an average Performance Index score (Performance Index is the state's single proficiency calculation) of 62.01 (120 is the highest, 30 is the lowest). Ten years (and two federal grants) later in 2013-2014, the average charter school Performance Index score was 78.89.

In the 2003-2004 school year, the top 5% of charter school Performance Index scores was 94.78. Last year, the top 5% was 105.41. So it appears that the higher performers are getting better by about 11%. However, the bottom 5% also saw marked improvement from an average 32.8 in 2003-2004 to an average 52.95 last school year -- a more than 62% improvement.

There were far fewer charters 10 years ago, so the top 5% of schools were actually 5 schools, but there have been improvements. However, before you get too excited, even with that improvement, only 7 Ohio school districts received lower Performance Index scores than the average charter school in the 2013-2014 school year. Remember that Ohio charters took kids and funding from every district in the state last year.

And the top 5% of school districts' Performance Index scores in 2013-2014 was an average 109.89 -- higher than even the highest performing charter schools.

So while there have been improvements since 2004, there remains a crying need for ODE to get its act together and properly administer this $71 million grant. 

The past may be prologue, but it is not necessarily the future.  ODE has to fulfill its obligations and keep an eagle eye on the $71 million to ensures it goes to charters that deserve the investment, not to those schools that have brought our state national scorn.