Wednesday, March 18, 2015

State Defines "High Performing" Charters

One of the things most charter school reformers agree about is that whatever Ohio's charter school reform looks like, its few high-performing charters should be allowed to thrive. However, there's been some debate about how a high-performing charter should be designated. While it certainly should be tied to the report card somehow, the question is should the grade be A, B, or C? And in which of the 9 report card grade categories should they be considered?

Well, the Ohio House Education Committee took the first stab at it with yesterday's Omnibus Amendment to House Bill 2. I've commented at length about the changes in an earlier post. But I wanted to spend some time examining this question about what is a high-performing charter school.

The Amendment definition is a charter that receives a C or higher grade in both Performance Index (proficiency) and Value Added (student growth). A school that receives those grades would qualify under the amendment to accept preschool kids. 

Whenever I've done it, I've considered a charter that gets an A or B on growth measures and/or scores above the state average PI score to be high performing. That generated 111 of 348 charters. The Amendment definition captures 57, or about half as many, which means the C in both categories is a tougher standard than mine. 

What's stunning is this: If we considered only As and Bs in both categories, that number would drop to 11 schools. Out of 348. Wow. So, while I would prefer the A or B option, it wouldn't capture enough charters to mean much.

But what you can see is that while the C designation is indeed exclusive for charters, for local public buildings and districts, that standard is rather pedestrian, with 70% of districts qualifying as high-performing under this standard. Remember that all Ohio school districts lose money and children to charters and about 1/2 of all charter kids don't come from the big 8 urban districts.

And there are also some incongruities. For example, Menlo Park -- a gifted charter in the Cleveland area -- has among the highest Performance Index scores in the state, but because their growth is a D, they won't be considered high performing by the state.

One more interesting point is this: Looking at which charter school operators have the greatest percentage of the schools qualify as high performing.

According to state and national data available on, the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland had the highest percentage of its schools qualifying. Meanwhile, White Hat Management -- run by mega-political donor David Brennan -- has the lowest percentage (of those who had any), with the notorious Imagine Schools chain a close second worst. I don't count Summit Academy (none of whose 26 schools would qualify) because they deal exclusively with a special education population and their special ed growth measures are pretty good overall -- only 3 of their 26 schools earned below a C on the last report card.

Another point of interest -- 3 of the 6 operators with the highest percentage of high performing schools are for-profit operations. Those three are Mosaica, Constellation and National Heritage Academies (J.C. Huizenga's controversial operation from Michigan).

Freestanding operations are schools that don't have an operator running them.

Suffice to say that it looks like the C standard will capture a decent amount of charter schools and leave out the worst-performing schools. And that's a good start.

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 ....

I Speak at Historic Place

Monday was one of the highlights of my professional career -- speaking at the City Club of Cleveland, which has hosted every sitting president since Reagan (among other dignitaries). It was quite a remarkable day, with my parents in attendance as well as several other colleagues and friends I have respected for many years.

The City Club has posted the talk on its youtube page here:

Please watch it if you wish. I want to thank the Club as well as all the folks who helped make Monday happen. It's something I won't ever forget.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Kasich says A-F Report Card less clear for Charter Schools

Last week, Gov. John Kasich said in his State of the State Address that 

"just because a charter school is not producing great results in grades, it doesn't mean they're failing." 
Huh? The whole reason we went to an A-F system was to tell us exactly that -- which schools and districts were failing and which weren't. Wasn't it? I'm not saying that I agree with this idea, but that was the point, right?

So I went back to Kasich's signing ceremony for the bill that created the state's A-F system.

When Kasich signed HB 555 two years ago, the placard on his signing desk said "Empowering Teachers and Parents for Student Achievement". You can watch his whole ceremony here: 

Go ahead. Look for the part where he says if schools get Fs, it doesn't mean they're failing. You'll look for a while.

Here's what Kasich said then: 

"We need to speak in clear language that parents can understand... it will let mothers and fathers understand how's it going in reading? How's it going in mathematics? It's going to allow them to see exactly how the school is doing. This is a big deal for our state. Academically."

Now it appears that perhaps that clarity isn't quite as clear for parents of kids in charter schools. Notice he didn't apply that qualification for local school districts, by the way.

Could Kasich's softening on A-F accountability be because Ohio's charter schools do so poorly, especially big campaign donors William Lager (whose Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is the country's largest for-profit operation and gets all Fs and one D), and David Brennan -- who runs equally struggling schools.

I suppose if you're Kasich, you have to start explaining how you've spoken at graduation ceremonies for schools like ECOT that graduate 35% of their kids -- much lower than even the lowest local public school.

We have a chance to fix Ohio's "debacle" of a charter school sector this year -- a sector that's become a national joke. I've been greatly encouraged by what's come out so far from the legislature. But if the Governor is now saying that the "clarity" brought about by an A-F report card system is less clear for charters than public schools, well, I fear the change our kids desperately need may not happen.

And that's frightening.

Turd Polishing 101: ECOT spends $2.7 million on advertising

The Dispatch reported this weekend that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the nation's largest for-profit charter school run by huge political donor William Lager that received all Fs and one D on the latest report card -- spent $2.7 million last year on advertising. That bill equates to $155 per student. That's about 2% of their budget.

Let's have some fun with numbers, shall we?

  • If every district in this state spent 2% of its overall expenditures on advertising, that would be $381 million -- or about the amount that was sent from higher performing districts to lower performing charters in the 2012-2013 school year
  • That $381 million is more than was budgeted in the state funding formula to pay for all the state's poverty aid for this school year
  • If every district in this state spent $155 per pupil on advertising, that would be $246 million
  • That $246 million is more than the state was budgeted to spend in its funding formula for the third-grade reading guarantee, gifted education and career-technical education ... COMBINED
Look, I get that charters have to advertise. They don't have a built-in client base. But ECOT has all Fs and one D on the state report card. Shouldn't they have to say that during all their ads? Kind of like how those pharmaceutical ads have to state all the potentially dangerous side effects of their drugs?

Instead, ECOT gets to have Jack Hanna talk about how great their school is and flood the airwaves about its "tuition free" (taxpayer subsidized) existence. 

Perhaps it is the ads that convinced Gov. John Kasich that he should speak at ECOT's 2011 graduation ceremony -- even though the school only graduates 35% of its kids -- or then-State Superintendent Stan Heffner the following year, or House Speaker William Batchelder last year, rather than the millions Lager has contributed to his and other Republican campaigns over the years.

Maybe Kasich was thinking of all that advertising when he mentioned in last week's state of the state that 
"...just because a charter school is not producing great results in grades, it doesn't mean they're failing."
He, of course, didn't grant local public schools the same leeway. 

State report card grades are supposed to mean everything in this high-stakes accountability era, which is why we devise punishments for districts and schools that score poorly on them. I'm not saying that it's good policy -- not at all. But it is the policy. This is why we changed to an A-F report card, after all, isn't it?

I am making this comment partly in jest. Truth be told, I would prefer Don Draper's influence to the charter school oligarchs that have make this state's charter school sector a national joke.

We must reform this sector. Now.

Monday, March 2, 2015

National Charter School Advocates: Ohio's the Worst

For years now, I've been saying Ohio is unique among the 50 states for its crazy charter school system. And last week, many prominent charter school supporters and advocates agreed.
"Then you have folks at the low end, of which Ohio is a strong case."
"There are operators who are exploiting things."
"Ohio needs a top-to-bottom overhaul of its charter school sector."
These are all quotes from prominent national, pro-charter figures (some of whom have criticized me for being unfair to charters in the past). But the data are what the data are. When your charter sector receives more Fs than As, Bs and Cs combined on your report cards, there's a problem. When that's being done at the expense of state resources for the 90% of kids who aren't in charter schools, it compounds the problem.

Yet there remain folks who cling to the fantasy that Ohio's charter school sector, on the whole, is performing just fine. I really hope this newly revealed national perception shames the legislature into the bold, necessary action our kids need. Ohio's a joke on this issue. You know how we, as Ohioans, have mocked West Virginia over the years as backward? Well, that's exactly what the rest of the country is doing to us on charter schools. And I'm mad. Because it didn't have to be this way.

But because of huge campaign contributions made over the years (Bill Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and David Brennan of White Hat Management have contributed more than $6.5 million to politicians and received about 1 out of every 4 dollars spent on Ohio charters since they started), here we are. Here we are with my two kids losing significant state revenue so that big campaign contributors can collect money. Here we are with nearly one-third of all Ohio dropouts coming from those big contributors. Here we are with a sector whose overall failure is so staggering it borders on unbelievable. Here we are staring at three decades of failure -- an entire generation of our children -- with an unprecedented opportunity to make right what has gone so wrong.

Will our leaders live up to their title? I pray they do.

The time for debate is over. Ohio's charter school sector -- save for a few really great schools in Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and a few other cities -- sucks. Only the deadest of dead-enders can't see it. Our kids in both charter and local public schools deserve better than this now $8.3 billion boondoggle.

We need to shut down the worst schools, ensure all financial records of all schools, sponsors and operators that pertain to these schools are open for public inspection and stop pitting parent against parent with our crazy funding system.

Let's do this. Now.

West Virginia would.