Monday, June 29, 2015

One More Way Campaign Cash Keeps Protecting Bad Ohio Charters

I know we're perhaps 24 hours away from a meaningful piece of Ohio Charter School reform. However, reminders keep popping up about just how limited these reform measures are. That's because Ohio's for-profit operators, who have given millions to politicians over the years are legislative and administrative ninjas.

The latest example? Apparently, E-Schools don't have their poor test scores counted for the first year a student attends the school -- traditionally the worst testing year for these students.

Need I remind you that the two largest individual campaign contributors since the charter program started are William Lager, who runs the nation's largest for-profit school The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, and David Brennan, who runs OHDELA, another E-School? Lager's school got all Fs and 1 D on the state report card, while Brennan's school has the worst overall test scores of any statewide Ohio E-School.

Imagine how bad these schools would be if the state actually counted their first year? How did this happen? Like it always has here -- in the tiny legislative details that make human eyes go cross. Here's how the Beacon Journal described it:

"Academic performance is so inexplicably bad for first-year students in online charter schools that the state, when deciding to shut them down, has chosen to ignore thousands of test scores not only for the online schools, but also for all charter schools.Two years ago, Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio legislature approved a law that threw out first-year test scores after it was discovered that student performances plummeted when they switched from a traditional public school to a stay-at-home charter school."
That's right. The students' performance is so "inexplicably bad" that we just won't count it. So that must be the same for local public schools, right? I mean, it's only fair. Except ... it's not. Of course, if the students come back from the E-School, the local district is absolutely accountable for their performance from Day 1. 
To be fair, I guess the returning student's poor performance is explicable -- they just came back from a horrible Ohio E-School.
This is why even with meaningful reform apparently coming down soon, we must remain vigilant. Against ninjas.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ohio Senate Proposes Dictatorship in Youngstown

I'm not given to hyperbole. I'm not one of these guys who tells you that something is the "Death of Democracy", or that education reform efforts are trying to completely privatize the public education system. I really try to be level headed when analyzing various education policies, no matter how out there they may be.

But when I received an amendment to House Bill 70 -- the plan to fix Youngstown City Schools -- I was absolutely stunned. It is, without a doubt, a direct attack on Democracy. Why some feel the best way to fix a school system is to create a dictatorship, I have no idea. Democracy's biggest problem is what has always been Democracy's biggest problem -- we keep electing people who think that the best way to fix a school system is to give absolute power to one person ... and other crazy stuff.

According to the amendment, which I've posted here, Youngstown (and any other district that's in "academic distress," but for the moment only Youngstown) would be taken over by a "Chief Executive Officer" who would have "complete operational, managerial, and instructional control" of the district.

That's right. All those elected officials the people of Youngstown bothered putting into office? Forget them. Because, apparently, the problem with the elected board is they're not making decisions fast enough? I really don't get this.

Anyway, the amendment would allow this CEO to make all decisions. In fact, throughout the amendment, the CEO would be given "sole" authority to reconstitute buildings, put any whackadoodle in charge there, decide which schools get which resources, which schools get turned into charters, etc.

By the way, it bugs the crap out of me when education officials are called CEOs. I get it. You want to run schools like a business. Yet they can never explain which business education should look like. Wal-Mart? Costco? Anne's Donut Shoppe?

And there would be zero input from the public. That's right. He (or she) could just do this because they felt like it. Total dictatorship.

And here's the thing. Only when the district gets an overall C grade on the state report card will the district even start to get out of this academic distress thing. So, essentially, we are creating a city-wide, more or less permanent dictatorship in Youngstown.

Why do I say this is permanent? Because all the grades on the state report card are based on test scores, which are nearly perfectly correlated with a district's poverty rate. So Youngstown, with its nearly 100% poverty rate has almost zero chance of ever getting out from under this dictator's thumb.

We've seen how dreadful this situation has worked in Michigan. Why, in God's name, would we want this to work here?

Look, we know what works to turn schools around. First of all, it's recognizing that test scores are an extremely limited way of looking at schools' missions in our most needy communities. They are a part of the story, absolutely. But urban schools -- especially in places like Youngstown -- serve so many other purposes, like community centers, places of safety and comfort for kids, places where hungry children can eat, etc. that judging their community value based just on test scores is extremely unfair.

The best way to improve schools is to engage the community in a community-based solution. Will some schools need to become charters. Perhaps.

But let's not get nuts with the charter thing because 40% of the money sent to charters from Youngstown go to charters that perform the same or worse on the state report card. Yes. Even in the state's one academically distressed district that is allegedly in such bad shape we need a dictator, charters are still outperformed a significant portion of the time.

I digress.

The point is this: Dictatorship should never, I mean never be the solution for the public sphere. We fought a pretty big war (World War II) over this principle. In fact, the reason we were told we needed to get Saddam Hussein and other guys like that is because they were dictators who ignored and tortured their people.

After fighting dictatorships (and founding our country to get out from under a king's thumb), why do we then say the very thing we have spent the last nearly 240 years fighting against is the solution for our own communities?

If I'm a vet, I'm pissed.

Look, Democracy isn't perfect. Yes, sometimes school boards are obstinate and don't function well. But I have a hard time thinking that the legislative body that has ignored the Ohio Supreme Court for nearly 20 years is in any better position to dictate terms.

I would always side with our communities over removing their power to self-determination. Youngstown is a struggling community. My wife's from that area. A significant portion of my family's from there. I am quite fond of it. Yes, it has its quirks. Yes, there are areas where the wilderness has claimed back what once was an asphalt jungle. But I can tell you that the people there are hard-working, tough, proud, and want exactly what every Ohioan wants -- a better future for them and their kids.

By eliminating their voice in their community's future, you are telling the people of Youngstown this:"You are so messed up that the only way to fix it is for us to bring you the form of government we thought was so awful we spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives fighting."

I doubt even if the CEO ended up being Jim Tressel (a Youngstown God), the community would be happy about their new "benevolent dictator."

This is Youngstown, after all. Of all the cities in Ohio to mess with, Youngstown is the last one on my list.

Good luck, General Assembly.

Good luck, Gov. John Kasich.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Plain Dealer Shows Faith in Authorizers Misplaced, and David Brennan's Power

An absolutely amazing story from the Cleveland Plain Dealer came out yesterday the demonstrated emphatically why all this charter reform talk focusing on sponsors (authorizers in every other state) is so flawed.

In it, the PD explained that the worst-performing general education schools in the state -- E-Schools -- are not being counted by the state when they calculate the performance of sponsors. SO, for example, even though the Ohio Council of Community Schools sponsors two of the worst-performing schools in the state -- the Ohio Virtual Academy and David Brennan's OHDELA, the astounding number of Fs those schools get on the state report doesn't count for OCCS's rating. So the state says they're academically perfect, even though OCCS gets $1.5 million in taxpayer money to oversee these schools.

The other schools not counted? Dropout Recovery schools. So the schools David Brennan earns his money on aren't counted on sponsor ratings? So that means that no sponsor should fear oversight of a horrible White Hat school, especially now that they'll only be online schools or dropout recovery schools, because they won't count.

Amazing what $4 million will buy you these days, isn't it?

I've said from the beginning that one of the biggest flaws in the current charter reform effort is the almost singular focus on sponsors, whose effectiveness in this state has been feckless, rather than the schools themselves. I would much rather figure out how to close the schools in which children are being "educated", not the sponsors, who don't actually have the kids.

This amazing PD story demonstrates the point clearly to me.

White Hat Sale Proves Ohio Charter Regime Failing


Now we know what White Hat Management is all about. There was always a pretty strong indication that White Hat was about making money, not educating children.

After all, when you get exactly 1 A on a state report card and have 72 opportunities to get an A, you're probably not in the game for the same reasons most educators are.

When you've collected more than $1 billion in taxpayer money without having to make a single appearance before a legislative committee, as White Hat founder David Brennan has been able to do, you're probably not in the game for the same reasons most educators are.

When you contribute more than $4 million to politicians, you're probably not in the game for the same reasons most educators are.

But then we got the news last week that Brennan's White Hat Management was going to sell off their least profitable, "highest performing", and most at-risk for closure schools to a group run by K12, Inc.'s founder Ron Packard. That's right, the same guy who gave us the Ohio Virtual Academy and all its "success."

But White Hat will keep its cash cow online school, OHDELA, which has the worst performance index score of any statewide E-School -- and that's saying something, given how abjectly horrible Ohio's statewide E-Schools perform. Its performance index score actually dropped more than 4% from four years ago, the only statewide E-School to see such a precipitous drop. Again, that's saying something.

It will also keep its other bloated carcass -- Life Skills -- which proudly graduated 2 out of 155 students in one of its locations last year. But don't worry, the state won't ever be able to close these schools because Brennan had the legislature essentially create an exemption for his atrociously performing schools.

So White Hat is now able to sit back and rake in the money from its online operation (the state pays OHDELA enough that the school could provide 15:1 student-teacher ratios, $2,000 laptops to every child every year and still clear 34.5%), while continuously milk Ohio taxpayers through the perpetually operating Life Skills schools, which will never be able to be closed even though no one in their right mind would possibly think that graduating 2 out of 155 children is, in any way, serving our communities' most at-risk children.

Why am I cynical about this sale? Well, look at the reasons White Hat has had schools close. The only ones to ever close because of the state's closure law were the Hope Academies (now called simply the Academies). Five of those schools have closed overall (then re-opened under different names). Only one Life Skills has ever closed, and that was for slipping enrollment, which means the school wasn't hitting their profit margin. This relative instability in the Academies led to this sale, not any other reason.

What's so ironic is the Academies are White Hat's best performing schools. Again, a little perspective is helpful. When your other schools don't get As or Bs on the state report card and graduate as few as 2 out of 155 students, that's not a very high bar. But the 1 A and 5 Bs White Hat schools earned on the state report card last year came out of the Academies. So the company is dumping its "highest performing schools" so it can keep their worst performing schools because they don't really have to worry about closing.

Is there a greater indictment of the state's charter school regime, by the way, then saying it makes business sense to keep your worst schools because at least they'll stay open?

Obviously, the greatest danger to White Hat's bottom line is a strong state school closure law. Even this state's pretty weak one (only 24 of the 571 schools that have opened in Ohio have ever been closed under that statute) has nailed a few White Hat schools.

So this sale will minimize any instability in the White Hat portfolio. They will just sit on their remaining, horrible educational options, collect their millions from us taxpayers, and enjoy their lives.

If only the children they refuse to serve could too.

I know it was automatically generated, but I found meaning in the fact that the link to the Cleveland Plain Dealer story about the White Hat sale ended in "opera" (short for operation) because that's exactly what the Ohio White Hat story has been -- a Wagnerian, tragic, endless tale of cursed gold, hopelessly flawed, even evil gods, and fallen heroes. Only this isn't an opera. It's kids lives -- lives that have been sacrificed so one man's epic quest for gold can continue.

Where is our kids' Brunnhilde? We need her to brave the flames. Now.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Yes. Charter School Funding in Ohio hurts kids not in Charters

There has been a claim floating in the ether that states something like this: Charter school funding in Ohio has a neutral impact on funding for non-charter students. Marianne Lombardo -- an analyst for Democrats for Education Reform -- has made this case pretty emphatically.

I suppose I just have to once and for all demonstrate how the charter funding system hurts kids not in charters. I am inserting a screen shot of a simple spreadsheet for you to examine. All it is doing is taking data from the Ohio Department of Education's own funding spreadsheet (identified in the upper left cell) from the second June payment made last school year. The formulas used to make the calculations are laid out in the sheet for you to see.

In it, you can see that prior to charter schools receiving their funding, children in districts receive more money per pupil than they do after charters take their money and students.

Yes, local revenue can fill the gap. But there is, in fact, a gap. And not every district has enough local revenue to fill the entire hole. And in any case, there remains a hole in the total amount spent in the district, even with local revenue. So in many cases, districts have to cut back to make up the difference.

I don't wish this to be so, but the data don't lie. If kids in local schools have $5,000 in state money (as an example) before charters get paid, and $4,850 in state money after charters get paid. How, exactly, does that not adversely impact children who aren't in charters?

There are ways to ensure this doesn't happen. Direct funding of charter students is one way. Ensuring no charter student receives more per pupil funding from the state than the state would send to the child's district, then having the state make up for the lack of local money with a separate charter fund is another.

The long and short of it is this: We don't have to do it this way. I'm not trying to pit parents against each other. The current system already does a bang up job of that.

I'm trying to explain a funding inequity that harms the 90% of children who aren't in charters. I have been encouraged that some have been equally concerned about this problem on both sides of the issue. But, once and for all, can we stop trying to explain away simple math?

Summit Academy Implodes. Our Most At-Risk Kids Suffer

I'll never forget my first exchange with someone from Summit Academy nearly a decade ago. It was at, of all places, a Town Hall meeting I held in Suffield Township -- one of the little burgs I represented while serving two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives.

I don't remember the name of the gentleman who approached me, but I think he had an Australian accent (No, it wasn't Matthew Dellavedova. Go Cavs!).

His first comment to me was this: "We are not David Brennan."

Last year, Summit Academy ran the largest single branded chain of privately run charter schools in the state with 26. Brennan's White Hat Management still ran more schools -- 31 -- but that's split among his different brands -- an online operation (OHDELA), traditional schools (Academies) and dropout recovery schools (Life Skills).

Anyway, I took the Aussie's invitation and visited Summit Academy. Summit serves almost exclusively special needs children. The presentation they gave to me (and other legislators) was impressive. They were asking to be exempt from state performance measures because their kids simply don't test well. And I get that.

But that first interaction with Summit's representative always stuck with me. Because if you're a charter school operator from Summit County (like Summit is), you always have to distinguish yourself from the area's -- and state's -- most notorious charter school operator.

The Akron Beacon Journal (again) is leading on the coverage of what can simply be called an implosion at Summit Academy -- an implosion that is frankly as Brennan-like as anything I've seen.

First, on Monday, the Beacon reported that 9 employees from Summit Academy were ousted from their positions -- most likely because of massive conflict of interest issues. Then today, they reported that Summit Academy makes a habit of suing teachers who leave their position that pays an amazingly paltry $28,000 a year.

Wonder why teachers would want to leave? Um, that horrendous salary to help educate among the state's toughest-to-educate children would explain it.

They sue teachers for the cost of their replacement. And win.

I'm not making this up.

Brennan doesn't do this stuff. Yes, he does horrible stuff. But he doesn't habitually sue teachers for the cost of replacing them. That's just wrong on so many levels.

And free market reformers wonder why teachers want to be in unions.

I digress.

The Beacon reported today that the guy heading up Summit Academy now makes $200,000 a year -- more than the state superintendent, who oversees all Ohio's children. Now that is Brennan-like.

What breaks my heart is the kids Summit Academy are supposed to be educating. It appears the company is profiting from the additional funding the state provides to educate our state's most at-risk youth. Which means this operation appears to be everything Brennan is and more.

And while their performance is actually not horrible on special education -- only 3 of their schools have below a C on the report card for student growth among special needs children and twice as many have As in that category -- their management performance is every bit as miscreant as Brennan.

As I think back to that initial encounter, I'm wondering if I should have pushed for further explanation.

Because judging from what's happened, instead of saying "We're not David Brennan," a more accurate disclaimer would be, "We're not David Brennan. We're worse."

I Publish at Real Clear Education

Today, I had a column posted at Real Clear Education. In it, I make the argument that assuming the state will see significant charter school reform because of all the talk nationally about charter school reform in Ohio is a mistake, given the political power of the poor performing charter schools.

We are expected to see the emergence of a single vehicle for charter school reform today in the Ohio Senate. We'll see just how comprehensive it ends up being after the political powers that be get their hands on it in conference committee or behind closed doors.

While these legislative measures offer the state's first glimmer of hope for charter reform in years, I know how powerful these guys are. We can take nothing for granted. Nothing.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Let's Not Get Too Excited ... Yet

Yesterday, my respected colleague at the Fordham Institute -- Chad Aldis -- posted a blog that painted quite the rosy picture of Ohio's shift toward charter reform. And while the steps that the Ohio Department of Education is taking seems like a shift, I'm less apt than my friend to get overly excited here.

This isn't an indictment of Chad. He's been a fighter for reform recently, especially about authorizer transparency. But I'm less excited about the department's stance than he.

First of all, the closures ODE initiated only happened because a sponsor shut down and the department took over sponsorship of these schools. So the department is acting like a fairly responsible charter sponsor. And that's nice. Except ODE only sponsors 21 of 400 charters. So there's that.

Again, having the department tell 4 charters they're going to be shut down is nice, but those 4 represent 1% of Ohio charters. When they shut down two schools last year for non-academic issues, that was nice too. And the three sponsors ODE warned against opening any new charters last April? They oversee less than 10% of all charters in Ohio.

Perhaps this speaks to the benefits of a Massachusetts-like charter regime where the only sponsor is the department of education, instead of the scores of sponsors Ohio has. But I digress.

The state's current charter reform legislation -- as I've said many times -- is the most bold and courageous charter reform effort offered in 3 decades by Ohio Republicans. Yet it still does not address the two most pressing issues: funding and tightening closure standards.

I chalk that up to Ohio being a national laggard on these issues than a real legislative shortcoming. But it demonstrates just how far we need to go as a state.

And I've said before that I'm encouraged that ODE has changed language on its website to call it "Quality School Choice", as well as the efforts Chad mentioned in his blog.

My bottom line is this though: the three sponsors whose crackdown Chad touts still oversee schools that educate about 8,600 children. And 2 of the schools Chad mentions as closing were open just a few weeks, while the other 5 accounted for $9.6 million of the nearly $1 billion spent last year on charters. That's barely 1% of all the money spent on charters last year.

As for how long these closed schools were open, the V L T Academy and Cleveland Community School had been open since the 2005-2006 school year. Imagine Cleveland and Imagine on Superior have been open since 2010-2011. Villaview has been open since 2006-2007. Those schools still ended up having 9,450 children go through their doors over the years. And they still may not be closing because the schools can appeal the state's ruling.

Closing down a couple schools here and there is a good step, but hardly the crackdown that's necessary. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found recently that the best way to improve a state's charter sector is close as many poor performers as possible, and quick. More than 1/2 of the money spent on Ohio charters last year came from the same or better performing districts.

Ohio E-Schools are a disaster. Look at this chart showing how E-Schools are dragging down overall charter school performance based on how many report card ratings the charter is better or worse than the district that sent them their kids.

And let's not forget that local taxpayers have to subsidize charters that perform the same or worse to the tune of $180 million because charters get so much more state money than their students would have received in their home districts that those districts have to fill in the gap with local revenue.

These are the big issues. 

When ODE starts going after the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- who took all  $100 million or so it got from districts that performed better, or White Hat schools, which got 1 A, 5 Bs and about 70% Ds and Fs on the state report card, or the E-Schools in general, which educate about 40,000 kids and receive more than 95% of their funding from higher performing districts, or the sponsors that oversee 50-60 schools rather than 4 or 5, then I'll call it a crackdown.

Some perspective. 

Since 2000, 197 charter schools have been shut down -- about 13 per year. Of those 197 charter school closings, 101 were done voluntarily. Only 24 were due to the state's closure law. Sponsors ordered the other 72, but only 8 were explicitly for academic reasons. Primarily, sponsors have closed charters for lack of financial viability or failure to comply with their contract.

So these closings and warnings that ODE has recently announced during its "crackdown" don't even constitute a half-year's worth of charter closings, historically.

I'm not saying what ODE is doing isn't valuable. It is a step in the right direction, though a creakingly small one. 

I am saying that we should pump the breaks on the crackdown talk until ODE is given the authority to actually crack down on the poor performing charters that have drained so many resources while poorly served students for far too long. The current legislation would be a nice step toward doing that.

But until then, I fear it's spitting in the wind.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ohio Charter Schools' Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week (andit's not even over yet)

Talk about a rough week. Take a look at the news stories coming out about charter schools this week.

On Saturday, the Akron Beacon Journal (again) led the way on enterprise reporting on this topic by publishing an analysis of 4,263 audits done last year by the Auditor of State revealed that 
"No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio."

Among the findings:

  • While charters only accounted for 400 of 5,800 audits, they accounted for 70% of the misspent money
  • $25 million in misspent money remains unpaid
  • For every $1 misspent found by private auditors, public auditors found $102
The misspending is probably worse than what the audits turned up because so many charters were next to impossible to audit, according to the Beacon Journal.

Then came a Columbus Dispatch editorial (historically, no friend of the charter critic) that called out charter school sponsors for wanting to hide their expenditures to oversee the sector, except in limited cases -- an argument not much different from one I made about the same time.

Later that same day, the Dispatch revealed that the troubled North Side Imagine charter school might be shut down because its board just up and quit. This is the same school that was found last year to be spending an exorbitant amount of money leasing the property from a subsidiary of Imagine Schools -- a practice that was found to be illegal in Missouri. Imagine Schools, Inc. run schools in 11 states and are no stranger to controversy.

Meanwhile, the same day, the Dayton Daily News reported that three former Dayton-area charter school officials were convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges in connection with their operation of the Arise! Academy. 

They all face at least 15 years in federal prison for steering lucrative contracts to each other. 

Yesterday, the Plain Dealer reported that 3 charters have been put on notice that the state's looking to close them, including another 2 Imagine schools. That's not all.
"All three are failing to manage their budgets properly, ODE also said in the letters, and the Villaview and Cleveland Community School partnership could face ethics charges."
As a follow-up, this morning, WKYC-TV in Cleveland reported that not 3, but 4 charters -- including another Imagine school in Canton -- would be suspended for failing to meet performance requirements.

And finally, yesterday, the Beacon Journal told the tale of how private auditors sent out by the State Auditor's office failed to catch more than $1.3 million that had been outright taken from one area charter school, calling into question whether private auditing firms should even be used as a substitute for public auditors.

What did the private firm miss? Try this:
"It was an abrupt turnabout: A private accounting firm had given the charter school a clean bill of financial health, finding “no material weakness” despite missing information later discovered by the state. Among the state’s discoveries were employee contracts that lacked signatures, a cruise boat company had charged the school for too many attendees for a training session (nothing in the audit suggested training on cruise boats might be inappropriate) and half of the receipts were missing."
These stories all have been told before, though not as rapid-fire and in as quick succession. What they indicate is pretty clear: We desperately need real, substantive charter school reform. Now. The Ohio Senate is currently considering SB 148, which would be a meaningful improvement on the current situation. However, it still doesn't make it easier for the state to shut down poor performing charters, nor does it fix a funding system that far too often forces local property taxpayers to subsidize the state funding losses to woefully underperforming charter schools.

To be clear, there are a few quite exemplary charter schools out there. And I want to see them thrive in more places around this state. So this is in no way directed at the Breakthrough Schools, or DECA or Columbus Prep, or the Toledo School for the Arts. This is about the more than 3 out of 4 charter schools that simply aren't cutting it.

Again, I am not anti-charter school. I am extremely concerned about the state of Ohio's overall charter school health.

So let's at least get this Senate bill done. Judging from this week's worth of news stories, I imagine that Ohio's lawmakers and education advocates will be dealing with charter school issues for many more moons. It is indeed a shame that Ohio's sector is such a mess, both academically and financially. But when you turn over the program to big campaign contributors whose greatest talent is making money, not educating kids, is this result really so surprising?

Let's do what we can to fix this now. Forget politics. This is about saving kids. And we've got tens of thousands who need to be rescued from this system that has -- in the vast majority of cases -- lost its way amid profits and power. 

While some Ohio charter critics may rejoice at this awful spate of stories for the sector, I ache for the kids and parents who this is hurting. They deserve better. And so do the taxpayers who are seeing nearly $1 billion of their state money and hundreds of millions of their local tax money go to pay for and subsidize these operations.

It's a tragedy. An entire generation of kids has now gone through this utterly broken system. 

I shudder to think of the consequences.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Only in Ohio is Charter Authorizer Transparency Controversial

I have been quick to credit the quality-based charter school community for their efforts to bring around needed and substantive reform to the sector. Whether it's been Students First, the Breakthrough schools in Cleveland, or the Fordham Institute, the quality-based charter school community have been real lions in the fight for kids in charters. They have been quite willing to join forces with charter critics on common sense reforms.

The change in tenor on this topic is refreshing and incredibly hopeful.

I was dismayed when I read in the Columbus Dispatch late last week that the association representing charter school sponsors (what Ohio calls an authorizer) doesn't want to have to explain how they spend the taxpayer money they receive to oversee charter schools.

The Ohio Association of Public Charter School Authorizers claimed that only the poorest performing charter school sponsors should have to report that. But how useful will that be if we can't compare how the worse performers spend their money vs. how the best ones do?

That's right. It isn't useful.

Of the 67 sponsors listed in last year's annual report, 25 are prohibited from sponsoring more schools for poor performance or failure to comply with state requirements. Those sponsors oversee 78 schools -- 21 of them by the North Central Ohio ESC and another 11 by Richland Academy. That means that of the 78 schools overseen by the worst sponsors, nearly half are overseen by 2 sponsors. the remaining 23 sponsors oversee a total of 46 schools, or 2 per sponsor.

Meanwhile, 43 sponsors are allowed to keep sponsoring schools, accounting for 317 charter schools -- 231 of which are overseen by 5 sponsors.

This points to my primary concern about focusing on sponsor performance: More than half of all charter schools in Ohio are sponsored by just 5 non-profit organizations. There is little, if any, chance that these big sponsors will ever be shut down. So why can't we taxpayers, who fund these guys, at least see how they are spending money to oversee the largely failing schools they're supposed to be supervising?

To his credit, Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute, pretty well hammered the OAPCSA's position.
“The idea that they can spend their funds on whatever they choose runs directly counter to trying to put as many dollars in the classroom as possible,” he said.
And here's another thing: The idea that one should be able to take our tax dollars and spend it however they see fit without taxpayers like you and me being able to scrutinize that expenditure is nuts. I'm sorry. It is.

This is the kind of argument that has driven me mental for years on this Ohio charter school situation. No-brainer items like having charter school sponsors, who get about $30 million a year to oversee charter schools that are consistently outperformed by local public schools, detail how they spend their money overseeing this largely failing education sector is actually controversial.

It's a sad commentary on our charter school situation. But I find hope in this: once again, the quality-based charter community has stood for kids and taxpayers while fighting for a bill pending in the Ohio General Assembly that would include this no-brainer provision.

And that is indeed an excellent development.

Monday, June 1, 2015

School Funding: Here We Go Again

Every time I think we've perhaps turned a school funding corner as a state, something happens that undoes all that. Or at least expands the length of the block we need to turn.

Take this year's state budget. When Gov. John Kasich introduced his initial plan, it called for about half of school districts to get less money than they did last school year. That is not a good outcome. 

The Ohio House, to their great credit, recognized that the Kasich formula was inadequate, so they did what responsible legislators do when there's not enough money in an inadequate formula -- they created a guarantee that no district would get less than last year and they lowered the upper limit on how much any district could get as an increase over last year. And, most importantly, they set up a school funding commission (I think the 1,287,643rd established since 1991) to look at the issue.

This was a reasonable, rational and responsible way to approach this school funding issue. It's not perfect. And I really didn't like the extra $25 a kid for E-Schools for capital funding. But on the big issue of how to pay for educating our state's 1.8 million kids, the House plan was about as sound as it could be, given the tremendous shortcomings in the current formula.

Then the plan hit Ohio Senate, which is where some of the most important, significant and positive charter school reform legislation is currently being crafted by some of the state's best legislative leaders on the issue. And now it looks like Ohio Senate President Keith Faber has decided to (once again) dictate school funding policy in the state, regardless of what his committee and subcommittee chairs think.

On Friday, Faber told the Columbus Dispatch that he wants to undo the House plan and eliminate any guarantees and artificial caps on increases because he wants everyone to be on the formula. Look, that makes sense ... if you have a funding formula that makes sense. Right now, Ohio does not.

The formula, as currently constituted, is simply an arbitrarily increased version of the Building Blocks formula from the mid-2000s. That formula took into account three items -- instructional, support and operational costs -- to calculate a per pupil funding amount. The total in the formula's last iteration from 2007 was $5,732. The amount has simply been arbitrarily increased to $6,000 in this proposed budget.

To give you an idea of how inadequate that amount is, if you simply did inflationary increases on the Building Blocks from 2007, the per pupil amount would be $6,581.

But the Building Blocks only looked a few of the educational costs schools need. The next formula -- the Evidence Based Model -- looked at about 2 dozen educational costs and found that the per pupil amount should be closer to an average of $6,817 (as high as $8,333 in the K-3 grades).

Again, both formulas (Building Blocks adjusted for inflation) -- one developed by Ohio Republicans and one by Ohio Democrats -- both came up with numbers greater than the current state formula.

I'm not here to say there's a magic per pupil figure. And I think focusing on just the number is a mistake. What I care about is the process of developing a per pupil amount. That is where this current formula is so woeful. It doesn't even pretend to measure what kids need. It simply bumps up per pupil amounts by round figures ($100 a year) with zero regard for actual cost or need.

My issue isn't with the $6,000 per pupil figure (though I can't figure how that would be adequate) so much as it is with the current formula's lack of a rational approach to funding based on, well, reality.

Whenever examining a school funding formula, you have to answer the following three questions: How is the formula calculated? How do we ensure it remains adequate and at the cutting edge? How do we de-politicize school funding?

Answers to these questions are what any school funding fix must have. And, frankly, the House plan does address some of them. But it appears that Faber simply has no interest in dealing with really any of them.

Faber told the Dispatch that there may be districts with huge percentage increases because some districts are growing while others are shrinking. What does this mean? It means wealthy, growing districts will get huge increases because they're the districts with the least state funding, so any increase will be a big percentage. 

But other districts -- likely poorer districts -- will see funding cuts to pay for those increases.

In Kasich's original school funding plan from two years ago (that his own party scrapped), Olentangy -- one of the state's wealthiest districts -- received a more than 300% increase in the as-introduced version.

Granted, 300% increases in Olentangy make up a fraction, in terms of dollar amount, of a 5% increase in Cleveland. But the look was an awful one -- paying for large relative increases in districts best able to provide local support at the expense of districts least able to do so. This was especially true when a week prior to the formula's introduction, Kasich told an assembled throng of superintendents that the exact opposite would happen, leading to some superintendents to claim Kasich outright lied to them.

But it appears that Faber wants this reverse Robin Hooding to happen. Like if a few kids leave your district, that's your fault, so we're cutting your money. 

Look, I get that if you have a district of 4,000 kids and 1,000 have left over the last decade, you probably don't need the buildings you once had, nor do you need the staff, etc. But if you're a district of 4,000 and you lose 50 kids across all grades, your expenses will not go down. Why? Because that's not enough kids to warrant the closing of a building, or even the laying off of a teacher or the reduction of an electric or gas bill. That's losing about a kid per classroom.

Faber wants to double down on a formula that really isn't a formula just because he can. He seems to have little interest in actually trying to figure out how much it costs to educate kids, or what they need to succeed in today's knowledge economy. He just wants to eliminate guarantees, which hurts Ohio's neediest kids, and give massive increases in our wealthiest communities, which help our state's most fortunate children. 

I simply do not understand this approach from a policy perspective. It runs contrary to every goal of every serious education policy thinker I know on every side of the issue. Punishing kids because economies change and we live in an aging state makes zero sense to me. The point of a school funding formula is to provide the necessary resources for kids to succeed in all zip codes, not just a few. And I know well-meaning Senators on both sides of the aisle understand that.

It is indeed unfortunate that the state's most important Senator, though, does not. He should listen to his caucus' policy leaders on this. But, judging from his comments, I fear that instead of turning a corner, we just have to keep walking, hoping that the gap between buildings we see on the horizon is a corner capable of being turned, not just someone's open garage.