Monday, March 31, 2014

White Hat Exemplifies Ohio Charter Issues

The Akron Beacon Journal is really just blowing the lid off the whole Ohio Charter School scheme, as it was envisioned by those who created it 16 years ago. In its latest installment, the paper speaks with board members at schools run by the infamous White Hat Management.

White Hat Management is run by David Brennan. Since 1998, schools operated by the for-profit White Hat Management have collected $1.07 billion in state revenue. That represents about 15% of all the $7.3 billion that has been sent to Ohio Charter Schools since their inception. White Hat has collected about one out of every seven dollars sent to Ohio Charter Schools. Meanwhile, White Hat Management (mainly through David and Ann Brennan) has sent more than $2.7 million to Republican politicians and campaigns since 1998.

To all my readers outside Ohio, this arrangement is exactly why Ohio's Charter School operations have ended up being a cynical ploy in far too many instances. The core of the issue is this: the for-profit management companies (like White Hat) get 97% of the taxpayer money that's sent to the "non-profit" Charter School, yet neither the State Auditor, nor the Ohio Department of Education can find out how White Hat spends that money.

A recent court case in Columbus ruled that Ohio Charter School Boards can find out how the money was spent, but the public (whose money it is, after all) still cannot. And, oh, by the way, if the for-profit company doesn't like the board nosing through their operations, as the Beacon Journal put it: "state law allows private companies to throw out nonprofit boards that challenge them."

Can folks outside Ohio finally recognize that this is a horrible arrangement in which to try educating kids? Does anyone think, "Yeah, you know I think it's a great idea to have one person collect one out of every 7 taxpayer dollars we spend on this without any way of finding out how that money was ultimately spent, and if folks do get interested, the company can just replace them. Yeah, that'll give kids better educational experiences."

Perhaps this is why White Hat schools are among the very worst performing schools in the state. Life Skills Academies -- White Hat's dropout recovery arm -- graduates an average of about 6.6% of its kids. The average non-Life Skills dropout recovery Charter graduates 27.3% of its kids. The average non-Life Skills Dropout Recovery Charter School has a 53.6% proficiency rate. The average Life Skills? 35.4%. But don't worry, White Hat will be able to keep running their "schools" just fine.

That's because in the state's new Dropout Recovery "standards", a huge exception was granted for Dropout Recovery Schools. If their graduation and proficiency rates improve by 10% a year for two years, they get to remain open. So Life Skills just needs to improve their graduation rate to 8% and their proficiency rate to about 42%, they can stay open. Want some real outrage? Look at Life Skills Columbus North. Their proficiency rate is 8% and their graduation rate is 6%. So if they improve to about a 10% proficiency rate and a little more than 7% graduation rate, they be considered to "meet standards" by the state.

Does anyone think that a school that graduates 7% of its kids, barely 10% of whom are proficient, is really educating anyone?

Do you see now, dear non-Ohio reader, why Ohio Charter Schools are generally such a disaster?

It is frankly a miracle that any Charters in Ohio are successful. But there are a few that do actually provide excellent educational experiences for children. However, far, far, far fewer taxpayer dollars find their way into these schools' coffers. Meanwhile, Mr. Brennan has received one third as much taxpayer money as Delaware spends statewide in a year.

And the taxpayers whose money it is cannot even find out how that money has been spent.

Because the state made it that way.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Ohio Charter Schools are Different

Whenever I talk about Charter Schools with people outside Ohio, they always ask me why I'm so "anti-charter." The truth is, I'm not. I just think that the way many of Ohio's Charter Schools operate is so cynical that Ohio's Charter School laws must be changed. Now.

The Akron Beacon Journal today published the first of what promises to be a significant series of reports detailing just how outside the frame the vast majority of these schools operate. Remember that nearly $900 million in taxpayer money is going to these Charter Schools. That's our money. Yours. Mine. The same money that would otherwise have gone to our local public schools.

Now it is true that sometimes it's tough to get information out of traditional public schools. As a former reporter, I remember many rounds I'd go with districts about whether I could get information. But I never remember failing to receive this kind of information:

  • Who runs the building?
  • Who is that person's supervisor?
  • Who is the management company in charge?
  • How does one contact the school board?
  • When does the board meet?
Only 1 in 4 Ohio Charter Schools answered these five basic questions. That's right. Only 1 in 4 Charters told members of the public, who pay $900 million a year for these schools, when the school board meets. And these schools are called "public schools" throughout the Ohio Revised Code. Perhaps this is why courts around the country are finding that Charter Schools aren't actually public schools? Because they act like private schools? 

Look, Ohio taxpayers fork over $900 million a year for Charter Schools. They deserve to know how that money is being spent. Because they would be able to find the answers to these five questions on every single traditional public school website. You wouldn't have to set up phone banks to find out the answers to these basic five questions, the way the Akron Beacon Journal did for Charters.

Can you imagine if the Beacon called Akron Public Schools and they refused to tell them who the Superintendent was, or when the board met, or how to contact the board? I mean, that is just beyond imagination, right? But Charters, we are told, are just as public a school as APS. So why do they operate under such a shadow?

Ohio's Charter School system is a disaster. It needs serious overhaul. 

Ohio's Charter Schools take far more kids from school districts that outperform the Charter than the other way round. They spend nearly 3 times as much on administration than the average school district. They spend more per pupil  overall than traditional school districts. And because the state pays about twice as much per pupil for the typical Charter School kid than the typical traditional public school kid, kids not in Charters get several hundred dollars less in state revenue than the state says they need. So what's the bottom line for Ohio's Charter Schools in comparison with traditional public schools, overall?
  1. They perform far worse academically
  2. They cost the state far more
  3. They spend more per pupil
  4. They spend far more on administration
  5. They are far less transparent
Can Charter Schools work in Ohio? I simply don't know. That's because Ohio's Charter School law has been cynically put together over the years, not designed to really improve educational opportunities for kids. There are a few examples of Ohio Charter Schools that perform the way we were told they would -- as incubators of innovation that can provide needed opportunities for kids who may not be able to receive those experiences otherwise. 

But the fact that only a couple handfuls of Ohio Charter Schools fit this description, while the remaining 350 or so Charter Schools do not, proves to me that the system was never designed to grow these high-performing Charter Schools. 

All I can conclude is it was designed to allow the poor performers to thrive. 


Because they do. 

And they do so largely in the dark.

I hope people around the country take note of Ohio's issues. They are unique, deeply entrenched and will be very difficult to change. 

But I'm hopeful they will because I know there are folks around Ohio's education community, regardless of school type or political stripe, who recognize how desperate is Ohio's need for reform. Perhaps what Ohio needs is a "Network" moment about Charter Schools.

So who will be Ohio's Howard Beale?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

RtT Report: Ohio's 3rd Grade Unfunded Mandate a Significant Challenge

Ever since Ohio won its $400 million Race to the Top (RttT) grant in 2010 -- about a year before the current regime took office -- the federal government has generated annual progress reports. This year's just came out today.

Nothing in Ohio's progress report was particularly noteworthy as excellent, unlike other states' (only Ohio's inability to get district buy-in on equitable distribution of teachers caught EdWeek's eye). However, I noticed something interesting on page 4 of the report. Here's how it reads under the overall "Challenges" section:
Legislative changes throughout Year 3, including changes to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and modifications to State requirements for the student growth component of educator evaluation ratings, posed significant communication and implementation challenges for the State.
 As you, dear reader, know, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee in Ohio has been one of the hallmarks of Gov. John Kasich's plan for education reform. And it sounds good, right? I mean, who doesn't think that all kids should be reading by the end of Third Grade?

Well, instead of investing about $1 billion in the initiative during the preliminary phase, as Florida did when it instituted the guarantee in 2002 (during a recession, I might add), which put reading coaches in every K-3 classroom in the state, Ohio put $13 million into it during the first year. That amount, even House Education Chairman Gerald Stebelton agreed, was "inadequate."

In Gov. John Kasich's new school funding formula, there is about $100 million a year earmarked for early reading. However, because the state now includes several line items in the formula that used to be on top of the formula amount, that $100 million is, in effect, much less.

There is little doubt, though -- even assuming the full amount set aside is spent on early reading -- that the investment in ensuring student success is much less in Ohio than it was in Florida, which still has kids repeating Third Grade, by the way. However, that number has been cut in about half since the initiative began.

By the way, there remain serious questions about whether retaining kids will actually hurt them in the long run, leading to higher dropout rates and other serious consequences.

Irrespective of that, though, what the RttT report demonstrates pretty clearly is that the current leadership's decision to implement one of the most potentially onerous unfunded mandates ever thrust upon school districts (estimates place the number at nearly 20,000 Third Graders being retained ) poses significant challenges to districts that are already struggling with significantly fewer resources than they had two biennia ago, as well as significantly more money going out the door to less successful charter schools and, increasingly, private schools.

So there is more required of schools, and far fewer resources with which to accomplish those very laudable requirements. If even federal program reviewers recognize the enormous challenges these unfunded state mandates pose to Ohio's educational system, I hope that Ohio's leaders recognize the potential issue they have created as well. That way they can actually fund the initiative so it has a reasonable chance of success, or do a phased-in implementation to allow the program to grow slowly into success.

Otherwise, I fear all lawmakers have done is set up schools and, more importantly, children for failure.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ohio School Districts Get By With Same State Aid as They Got 12 Years Ago

One aspect of school funding that has always driven school districts crazy has been the fact that the state tells them they're getting a certain amount of state support, but the amount of state support districts end up getting is often far less.

How can this be so? Simple. School Choice programs. And as these School Choice programs have increased in size and scope, the relative amount of state money going to the school districts for which the money was originally designated (and districts were told to expect) has also dropped. 


In the 1998-1999 school year, when the only real school choice option was open enrollment because Charter Schools and Vouchers were in their infancy, districts received 98.4% of the funding the state said they needed.

In this school year (2013-2014), that number has dipped to 82.7% -- an amount essentially unchanged from last school year. In fact, the percentage has been dropping every year except one -- 2010 when the percentage increased by .4%, and this year's .1% bump.

Today, school districts receive at the end of the day about the same amount of money they received in the 2002-2003 school year. Last year was the lowest amount since the 2001-2002 school year.

And the difference is even more striking when accounting for inflation. The three lowest net foundation payments on record occurred during the last three school years under Gov. John Kasich's two recent state budgets.

If the state had kept pace with inflation since the school year during which the last Ohio Supreme Court school funding ruling was made (2002-2003), there would be $1.5 billion more going to Ohio's school districts. Instead, they are receiving 21.2% less than that inflationary increase.

This is the result for more than $1 billion annually going out the door to Charter Schools and Vouchers, the vast majority of which perform far worse than the public school districts.

It is time to examine the quality of these programs that have left school districts operating with essentially the same revenue they had 12 years ago.

As the state continues to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into "solutions" that have provided no better results and children in traditional schools with far less revenue with which to succeed, it is imperative that state leaders take a hard look at these programs' efficacy. 

For what matters is what works for kids, not what works for the adults. 

Source: Ohio Department of Education SF-3, PASS, Bridge and SFPR Reports. FY2014 Report based on March #1 Payment.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Study: Teaching has one of Worst ROIs of Any College Degree

For some, teachers are paid too much. The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Studies has made its name by publishing teacher salaries for years. Heck, even I have used their salary database from time to time. During the Senate Bill 5 fight in 2011, much of the argument from that bill's proponents consisted of proving that public workers are living high on the hog.

However, there were more than a few of us who looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Ohio and found that the vast majority of its teachers weren't exactly living on Easy Street.

Now comes a study from -- an imprint of IBM. What they found was that teaching has the sixth-worst return on investment of any college degree. Here's what they say:

Ah teaching. One of the noblest professions. And while it stands to reason we'd pay great sums to the chosen few who shape the minds of future generations, it doesn't quite work out that way.
What the study found was that the average elementary and high school teacher in this country will only receive about an 85% return on their college investment, if they attend a public university. If they attended a private college, that return will be as little as 24%.

There are many in the education policy and reform community on all sides of the debate who believe that teachers need significant pay increases. How those different people want to achieve that salary hike diverges, though. There are those who say we should pay only the best teachers like rock stars. However, without any additional revenue, that will mean driving down the pay for the vast majority of teachers.

Teacher pay is an intensely debated issue that needs addressed. I agree with Secretary Arne Duncan that we need to pay teachers like we pay doctors and lawyers. Teachers in other countries receive huge sums of money and entrance into the profession is highly coveted and competitive. Not surprisingly, student performance is among the highest in these countries.

However, moving toward higher teacher salaries requires more investment in education by state, local and federal governments. And right now, I am not seeing a huge push to infuse school coffers to the point that young men and women who choose our country's most important profession will receive a better return on investment than 25-85%.

Until we make teaching a highly regarded and compensated profession, we may continue to struggle to attract the best and brightest of our youth into the profession. So much of what we need to do in the classroom hinges on the quality of the classroom leader. As a parent, I want that leader to be someone who had to fight to be a teacher just as hard as someone who fought to be a doctor.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Latest OH Budget Smallest Ed Commitment in 6 Years

Since last week's State of the State address, many have been claiming that this most recent Ohio budget represents the largest increase to education funding ever. I have dealt with this argument many times, but essentially the only reason you can call this budget a huge increase is because last budget was the biggest cut in state history.

However, there's now a nuanced argument going around that says that education spending has gone up every year under Gov. John Kasich. What they fail to recognize is that all funding has gone up during the last four years because of the economic recovery. They also fail to mention that the funding for education now represents a smaller share of the overall state budget than it has at any point in the last six years, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

What you can see from this table (derived from LSC's Budget in Detail from the last three budgets) is that the education spending level actually dropped in the FY12-FY13 budget, while the amount in FY15 is still less than FY10. Remember that FY10-FY11 was during the depths of the Great Recession. What has increased substantially is the overall budget during the last cycle.

So even though the education spending amount has increased ever so slightly, relative to the rest of the budget, this last biennial budget represents a 2 percent cut in commitment overall from the 10-11 budget -- the one prior to Kasich taking office.

If this budget had the same commitment as the one prior to Kasich taking office, Ohio would have spent $1.3 billion more on education in FY15 than it actually is spending.

It's not enough to say you're spending more; what matters is how much you are spending on education compared  with other budget priorities. And according to LSC, the state is spending 2% less of this budget on education than the one prior to Kasich taking office.