Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ohio Gov Makes 1/50th the Commitment to Community Engagement as Predecessor. Gets Ovation.

I haven't spoken much on this blog about the Evidence-Based Model of school funding. When elections are lost, the victors have the right to change that which they see fit to change. And when Gov. John Kasich and his legislative allies took power in 2011, the first thing they changed was the Evidence-Based Model -- perhaps the signature accomplishment of his predecessor, Ted Strickland.

I have to admit it kind of hurt. After all, I missed the last two months of my wife's last pregnancy and the first month of my new son's life to improve the EBM to the point that it received the Frank Newman Award from the Education Commission of the States, which is given every year to the state who produces the most bold, innovative and non-partisan education reform of the year.

For those of you who don't care about funding formulas, essentially the EBM stood for the premise that the state should figure out what kids need to succeed, then commit to funding it. It was based on a peer-reviewed formula published in an MIT journal. It also had evidence for each of the elements it sought to fund. It didn't help that the thing was passed at the height of the Great Recession, but it did. So we had to fund it over 10 years. It was far from perfect, but it was a vast improvement over the previous system, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court on four separate occasions.

But Kasich and his allies made destroying the EBM one of their top priorities, killing it within weeks of taking power. After two years of study, Kasich proposed his own school funding plan, which was so rife with issues (see this space from last spring) that the legislature run by his own party essentially killed that model too, proving just how hard it is to properly fund schools.

Which brings me to last night's State of the State address. In it, Kasich announced a new, $10 million commitment to engage the community and families in education across this state for what he called a dropout initiative. When he asked for support from everyone in the room, the room stood up and applauded. Jim Siegel -- the standout Columbus Dispatch reporter -- called it a "bipartisan standing ovation" in his live blog of the event:

I'm not begrudging the Governor for taking on dropouts by trying to engage communities in education. That makes perfect sense and is in line with the evidence. But here is something everyone in Ohio should remember: The EBM provided not $10 million for community engagement, but $508 million for community engagement -- enough for one family and community liaison for every 75 children living in poverty in a district. In fact, that's how these folks were funded.

Here's the exact funding line from the state's finance report from FY11:

Resources for Additional Student Services:                                                                                  
   Family and Community Liaisons        508,286,437.45           292,744,169.45

During the EBM debate in 2009, I distinctly remember my friends on the other side of the aisle pooh-poohing this family and community liaison provision as being unnecessary (or worse). They didn't buy the strong evidence showing that better connections between schools, families and communities has a profound impact on student success. But that idea is kind of a given in education policy land.

Now, many of those same people are giving a standing ovation for a program that commits more than 50 times less. By way of scale, Kasich's commitment equates to just over $5 a child statewide. EBM's worked out to about $250 per child.

Even though the EBM was being phased in due to the horrible economy (the only reason it never was phased in is because the EBM was eliminated in 2011) , the state still provided $292.7 million for family and community liaisons in the 2010-2011 school year, which districts were not mandated to provide yet because the element hadn't been fully funded. That's still nearly 30 times more than Kasich's modest attempt to address this profound problem in our state's schools.

Sorry to drift into EBM land for a bit, but I thought a history check was necessary for everyone as we move forward with this proposal in the coming weeks and months.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blizzard Bags Prove High-Stakes Testing Impact

Both of my sons had another day off from school today. Now that we've hit our so-called "Calamity Day" limit (meaning that starting today, all snow days must be made up), the schools sent home a thing they call a "Blizzard Bag." No, it doesn't mean everyone gets some DQ. It means every kid gets a big amount of homework.

I was actually curious, from a policy perspective, what my two sons' bags would look like. My third grader is just getting ready to take the state proficiency tests in a couple months. My preschooler is not. What I saw was something very interesting: Guess which bag you would prefer to do? That's right. The preschool bag.

The third-grade bag required little more than practicing for the Ohio proficiency tests.

Meanwhile, my 4-year-old's preschool bag involved exploring his world -- counting how many toys he has (way too many thanks to generous family), how fast it takes to melt snow, drawing pictures of what snow looks like before, during and after it melts. 

The preschool bag looks a lot more like the learning experiences I had as a kid that I loved to do. The third-grade bag looks a lot more like the admissions testing experiences I had that I hated. 

What's the difference? 


In third grade, Ohio starts the march toward testing. In preschool, kids aren't tested. Yes, there is a kindergarten readiness assessment, but it doesn't count toward a school district's Report Card rating. So it's not nearly the high-stakes test that my third grader's test will be in a few months.

As many of you know, I am not one of these "all tests must go away" types. I think testing has its place as an assessment tool for teachers to more carefully craft individualized learning for students and get a general idea of district and building performance. 

When tests become everything, though, learning begins to resemble my third grader's Blizzard Bag. And, by the way, I don't blame teachers or school officials at all for this. Theirs is the responsible response to a test, test, test public policy instituted at the state level.

And, frankly, I get it. If teachers can free up class time for real learning by having kids practice their proficiency tests at home, I would do that too.

But my fear is that as we delve even deeper into higher and higher stakes tests, more and more school days will resemble what my son's learning day -- taking a bunch of tests, painfully counting how many more questions were left, and hating every second. This is not the learning experience our kids need. But it is the one our adult policymakers have thrust upon them.

And as someone who was one of those policymakers for a few years, I would like to apologize for anything I did to further our course down this high-stakes path.

Do not confuse my concern over testing with my full-throated support for standards. I love the fact that my third grader is learning pre-algebraic concepts and thinks the way I solve complex math problems is "old-fashioned." I think Common Core holds a lot more promise to provide meaningful learning than our current regime. Even the Common Core tests try to get at higher levels of thought by having kids think critically and show work.

But a test is a test. I don't know many, if any, kids that like tests. But I know many, including my own, who would love to do the Blizzard Bag my preschool son brought home. We need a lot more of that kind of stuff going on in our schools, and a lot less of the standardized test prep that teaches kids not so much how their world works, but how tests work -- a valuable skill no doubt, but one that does not an education make.

As long as our policymakers put so much stock in tests, though, schools must teach these test taking skills for their own survival. 

But it's so much cooler to watch snow melt.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ohio Auditor investigates Charter sponsors for first time ever

Whenever I have discussions with people about Ohio and its challenges, I always point out that no Ohio State Auditor has ever investigated charter school sponsors.

That's why I'm stunned and relieved that Auditor Dave Yost is looking into a couple of sponsors, as reported in the Columbus Dispatch here: http://cdn.localwireless.com/wap/news/text.jsp?sid=1003&nid=3596372406&cid=20843. Now this isn't going after an operator like David Brennan, but this is a huge first step to changing the dialogue in Ohio to one of quality education for all kids.

This is an important day for Ohio's kids.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chrome Says OH ECOT Reports in Norwegian???

I've been doing some work on Charter School funding lately, focusing on the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. While I was doing this, something funny happened. As can be seen in the screenshot below, Google Chrome asked me if I wanted to translate the state payment report for ECOT from Norwegian into English.

Now, I agree that state education funding forms can be dense and tough to understand, not to mention very difficult to analyze because of formatting issues.

But Norwegian???

This is because of all the EduSpeak terms used throughout the form. Terms like "KG-12 CAT#" or "EC DIS FTE". Do I think this says something nefarious about ECOT or something? No. It's a funny quirk of Chrome.

What do I think it means?

I think it means that ECOT gets a lot of money from a lot of districts and the way the state delineates where it comes from uses a lot of difficult-to-understand EduSpeak terminology. This has nothing to do with ECOT, really. It's a function of education funding's Byzantine structure.

Which brings me to what I think is the big point is with Google Chrome thinking any Ohio education finance form is written in Norwegian, be it ECOT or any other district or school: Perhaps we should make the forms easier for everyone to understand?

Taxpayers should be able to read a form and not need a graduate-level seminar to understand what it means. This district gets x dollars to fund its third-graders in reading, for example. Or this district gets x dollars so it can effectively educate its autistic students.

It's fair to say that if the geniuses at Google think your forms are written in Norwegian, it's time to make those forms a little more accessible to the taxpayers whose money these forms are meant to track.

Monday, February 10, 2014

ECOT State Windfall

I just posted about Casino money distributions and it got me thinking: Not only did ECOT get the largest dollar increase ($4.4 million) of any Charter School in this last budget (that's regardless of any pupil increase), but the school received another $3 million in Straight A money (again, not tied to how many additional kids it was gaining). Add another $744,000 in Casino money and we're looking at about $8.1 million in additional state funding for this school just since July.

That means that, according to the initial Charter School projections from the 2013 budget cycle, ECOT was to receive $6,471 per pupil prior to this budget. Add the budget's increase, as well as the Straight A money, and the additional $54 per pupil the $744,000 casino revenue means (based on $744,000 divided by ECOT's current student population of 14,100), and ECOT is set to receive nearly $600 more per pupil today than they were last year. And remember, this has nothing to do with whether they have more kids. This is based on changes in state law alone.

I and others have written extensively about ECOT's real problems educating children -- a lower performance index score than any school district and a 4-year graduation rate that's a little less than 1/2 the rate of Cleveland. Equally well documented has been the fact they have zero problems contributing to politicians. 

So I'll leave it up to their chief spokesman, Nick Wilson, to explain why this school that doesn't have transportation or building costs receives more state money per pupil than all but a handful of traditional public school districts:
"We spend less than half (of what urban districts spend in state and local money combined) and achieve average to above average results,' (Wilson) said. 'That’s how I would view it.'"
Is this the best we can do?

I think online education holds enormous potential to individualize education to a level only dreamed of prior to its advent. I want online education to work. I believe it can under the right circumstances because I've seen it.

However, any school that accepts average to above average results given this enormous state investment is something that should outrage Ohio taxpayers. I don't care what school you are.

Should Ohio Charter Schools Get Big Casino Pay Day?

I have to admit it when I'm surprised. And today, I got a big surprise when I saw how much casino revenue is going to Ohio Charter Schools -- a testament to just how substantial that sector of Ohio's Public Education landscape has become.

Under the Ohio Constitution, there is no mention of the money being distributed to Charter Schools. In fact, the Constitutional provision specifically says the revenue is to be distributed to "public school districts", using that phrase 4 times in the pertinent section.

Yet 6.6% of the revenue distributed this school year went to Charter Schools. This is apparently because it's distributed on a per pupil basis to school districts, and now that "money follows the child," so it follows the child outside of the Constitutionally required "public school district."

And some Charters get lots of that money. Take the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. According to the Ohio Department of Taxation, for the semiannual payments schools received in August and January, ECOT received $744,083 -- more money from casino revenues than Canton, Dayton and Lorain. And while much of this can be explained by the fact that ECOT now has more than 14,000 students, Dayton has about 8,000 more than ECOT, so it's not just because ECOT's big.

What ECOT's $744,000 pay day is the result of is, yes, its large student population, but also a large mixture of that population coming from districts that receive a large share of the Casino money.

But regardless of how ECOT gets the money, the fact is, only 10 public school districts in the state get more casino revenue than ECOT. And the state's big online Charter Schools (ECOT, Ohio Virtual Academy, OHDELA, Buckeye Online School of Success, Ohio Connections Academy, Treca Digital Academy, and Virtual Community School) receive $1.88 million from casinos. That's more than any district not named Cleveland or Columbus, in whose jurisdictions two of the state's four casinos reside.

But that $1.88 million is still more than Cincinnati and Toledo, whose districts also contain casinos. And that represents 30% of the $6.4 million in casino revenues that go to Charter Schools statewide.

I'm just curious about a few things:

1) Did anyone who voted for the casino issue know that so much money would be going to Charter Schools?

2) Does this distribution to Charter Schools conform with the Constitutional provision that refers only to "public school districts"?

3) Does the fact another approximately $4 million went to Join Vocational Districts have a similar Constitutional issue?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but they certainly need to be asked. Because while $92 million was distributed to "public school districts" this year, between Charter Schools and other educational entities (joint vocational districts), "public school districts" -- in the strictest sense -- got 89% of that.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that Charter Schools shouldn't get Casino money, in theory. I get the argument that if casino money were slated to go to a child in Columbus, but that child is in a Charter School or a JVS program, the money should follow that child to the Charter School or JVS.

Regardless of the merits of that argument, though, I wonder whether Ohio's Constitution permits it.

And, oh, by the way, before anyone thinks casino money is a panacea for Ohio School Funding (which I've heard for years), the median amount received by an Ohio "public school district" was $87,100 -- not much help when facing a $515 million biennial budget cut. Or as one school superintendent said recently about his district's casino payment:
"Lisbon School Superintendent Don Thompson said any additional income is welcome, but the nearly $20,000 they are scheduled to receive is not enough to offset state funding cuts the district has undergone in recent years."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Making it up

For those of you outside Ohio, you may not be aware that the weather here has been downright awful. My sons had four straight days called off school, and those were Friday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I've been watching the developing story line at the statehouse about the mad clamor to grant school districts another 4 so-called "calamity" days, meaning districts don't have to make them up.

I've always been concerned about this rush to shorten the school year due to Acts of God. On the one hand, I get it. What difference would tacking a few days on to the end of school have in the grand scheme, right? I mean why delay summer recess by a few days?

However, I'm also keenly aware of this fact: American kids attend school less frequently than other children in the industrialized world. This post from Education Next sums up the issues nicely -- about how there appears to be a growing body of evidence suggesting that more time in school improves student achievement.

While I wouldn't say that test score improvement should be all we care about, improvements there do indicate, at least somewhat, that increased time equals increased learning.

The first politician I ever worked for in 1994 went around the state of Massachusetts advocating for a year-round school calendar. Three months on, one month off. That has some appeal to me, especially given how our long summer vacation tends to leave kids behind when they start up the school year.

But my basic issue is this: why should my kids have less instruction because of bad weather? I know it's inconvenient for me as a parent to have our children in school a few more days (not to mention out of school during our Antarctic weather!), but should that inconvenience outweigh my son's right to a full year of 3rd Grade instruction?

Perhaps the best thing the state could do would be to delay the state's proficiency tests by a week or so so that students can be best prepared for these increasingly high-stakes tests.

But telling parents that their children really don't need two weeks of instruction (as the additional 4 calamity days would essentially do) really makes me wonder where we draw the line? If two weeks aren't necessary, why not three? Four perhaps?

I know this is fairly arbitrary, but I believe my sons need at least 180 days of instruction, no matter how inconvenienced I may be.

But I could be wrong.

Monday, February 3, 2014

State of the State Location's SOS

Gov. John Kasich will be travelling to Medina County (the home of current House Speaker Bill Batchelder) this month for his State of the State Address. And, while he should be commended for taking these events outside Columbus, there is perhaps no place in the state that better epitomizes the current Governor's commitment to public education than Medina County.

Just a few highlights:

  • Children in Medina County schools will have $13.7 million fewer for their educations since Gov. Kasich took office
  • Children in Medina City Schools have $4.4 million less
  • Meanwhile, payments to Charter Schools have increased by about one-third ($3.4 million to $4.3 million). And in the 2011-2012 school, every dollar that went to a Charter School from a Medina County district went to a poorer performing Charter School.
  • And even more alarming, payments to private schools through Vouchers has gone from zero dollars the year before Kasich took office to $937,000 this school year.
  • All that money going to Charters and Vouchers means that children who continue attending Medina County schools have 5.2% less state revenue than the state's funding formula says they need.
  • Is it any surprise, then, that Medina County schools have been to the ballot requesting more than $70 million in local property and income taxes to replace the cuts since May 2011?
The children of Medina County have significantly fewer educational opportunities now. In their world, the State of the State is not that great. Perhaps Gov. Kasich (or Speaker Batchelder) has an explanation for all this. If he does, I'm sure the children in Medina would love to hear it.