Monday, July 20, 2015

Ohio Charter School Sheriff Resigns. Now What?

Lost amid the noise this weekend about David Hansen resigning his post as chief overseer of Ohio charter schools is this fact: Ohio no longer has a chief official looking over its troubled charter schools.

Not only that, but the charter school sponsor ratings -- which Hansen had rigged to benefit big campaign donors -- have been rescinded by the state, with no apparently quick time table to replace them.

That means we have no charter school sponsor ratings, nor do we have anyone with the authority to go after poor performers, even the weak ones Hansen had selectively chosen to hammer.

So at the end of the day, Ohio's nationally mocked charter schools are, for the moment, enjoying less oversight than they've been receiving from the Ohio Department of Education, all while the public knows less about their primary overseers' performance.

This can't stand.

We need a new charter school sheriff that won't bend to political interests. And we need the sponsor evaluations of all sponsors re-done.

And we need them both before the new school year begins.

Otherwise, it's yet another set back for quality and another mile marker on our state's seemingly inevitable trek down the path of more failing charter schools.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ohio Charter School Sheriff All White Hat, No Cattle

Well, that was quick. Less than a week after telling the State School Board that he had broken the law when he didn't count Fs for online charter schools run by big Republican campaign donors, David Hansen -- the husband of Gov. John Kasich's new presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen -- has resigned as Ohio's top school choice official.

This also comes just about a month after the Fordham Institute wrote a very hopeful blog post praising the Ohio Department of Education's recent crack down on a few low-performing charter schools -- the culmination of what had been about a year of hopeful signs from the department, including Fordham's specific praising of Hansen's "more aggressive" crackdown approach. If I'm Fordham today, I'm feeling more than a little bit deceived. And pissed.

I was less enthusiastic than my friends at Fordham, but agreed with them that there were encouraging signs. I had noticed the department had started calling school choice "quality school choice" and had issued a few directives to charter school sponsors warning them to do a better job of monitoring their schools.

My enthusiasm was always tempered by the fact that Hansen and ODE were ignoring the big fish. And that was, unfortunately, Hansen's undoing. None of these crackdowns were against schools run by big Republican donors -- David Brennan of White Hat Management or Bill Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- whose schools rate among the worst in the state and who educate about 20% of all Ohio charter school students.

Those two men have given more than $6 million to mostly Republican Ohio politicians since the program began and have collected more than $1.7 billion in state funds -- about 1 in every 4 charter dollars ever spent.

Instead, Hansen rigged the system -- apparently illegally -- to make their schools' poor scores not count against the sponsors that oversee them.

That also meant that sponsors wouldn't be motivated to improve these schools, even under a new charter reform bill, whose focus is on forcing sponsors to do a better job overseeing charters rather than directly closing the poor performers.

It is no accident that White Hat Management -- about the same time we found out the state wasn't counting certain schools' poor grades -- announced it was selling off its "highest" performing schools, whose still poor scores would be counted, and keeping its E-School and dropout recovery schools, whose worse scores wouldn't be counted.

As an aside, it will be interesting indeed if Hansen ends up working for White Hat, just like former Voinovich education czar Thomas Needles did.

This incident also points out another issue: Even if the new charter legislation passes eventually (a dubious proposition that this point), the fact that it grants so much discretion to ODE is quite problematic. It is now apparent that the gubernatorial takeover of the department -- a process started under Gov. George Voinovoich when school board members started being appointed rather than exclusively elected -- is now complete. The current state superintendent, Richard Ross, was Kasich's education czar, then moved on over to the department. Hansen had obvious close connections with the Kasich administration.

ODE is supposed to be an independent voice for Ohio's kids -- not a gubernatorial, or legislative  rubber stamp. It's time for the state school board to exercise its constitutional authority and start bringing at least some independence back to the agency so these kinds of politically motivated shenanigans don't happen again.

There are 123,000 charter school kids in Ohio who are, in the vast majority of cases, being poorly served by these schools -- even compared with the worst-performing local public schools.

The state needs a real watchdog for these kids, not a sheriff that's all white hat and no cattle.

Friday, July 17, 2015

New Ohio Charter School "Sheriff" Breaking the Law?

In yet another black eye for Ohio's struggling charter school sector, it appears that the man who is supposed to oversee charter schools arbitrarily -- and potentially illegally -- decided not to count the worst scores of the state's embarrassingly poor performing virtual schools when evaluating the state's sponsors (authorizers in all other states).

After the State School Board grilled David J. Hansen (who used to run the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Studies and is the husband of Presidential Candidate John Kasich's chief of staff) this week, the department announced earlier today it was retracting the evaluations.

Is it an accident that Hansen decided to exempt the worst scores of schools run by the state's largest political donors?

And how does this jibe with the reputation Hansen had been trying to burnish as the state's new Charter School Sheriff?

And should Kasich be concerned that someone so close to him might be getting into serious trouble just days before his big announcement?

As I've stated before in this space, Hansen's "crack down" had yet to impress me because it only impacted a few charters that didn't have many kids. When the state's largest charter school and nation's largest for-profit school -- the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- gets all Fs and a D on the state report card, yet Hansen doesn't scold them, but instead decides not to count that abysmal record (which is even worse than Youngstown City Schools -- the district that's in such bad shape that the state had to take them over in a back room, last-minute effort), it speaks louder to me than taking down a few tiny schools.

Hansen always was dealing with the charter sector's weaker sisters -- small sponsors and schools with no political clout -- a far cry from the huge clout carried by the for-profit operators.

This episode also speaks to the importance of public transparency and accountability. A publicly elected (and partially appointed) body demanded answers of public officials, who then had to answer them in public, revealing potentially illegal activity that even Ohio Auditor David Yost said bore an eerie resemblance to the data scrubbing scandal that threw Columbus City Schools into the frying pan a few years ago.

Because a public body did its job and held public officials accountable, this potentially illegal activity was uncovered. Remember that as the Youngstown City Schools are turned over to an unelected board and CEO. Who knows what the public will be able to find out there. I mean, Youngstown is not exactly known for being free of public corruption.

Once again, Ohio's charter school system and the state's woeful oversight of the sector are cause for national ridicule. At what point will Ohio's leaders say, "Enough is enough"? I'm so sick of having to write about this stuff. How many backward steps must we take before we'll take one forward?

It's time to fix this so we can move on to the serious work of making Ohio's public schools work for every child in every community. We need the meaningful charter school reform in House Bill 2, as well as better closure and funding mechanisms.

The first thing we have to do, though, is make sure no foxes guard our hen houses.

First things first.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Federal Data: Ohio Charter Schools Widen Ohio's Already Too Wide Achievement Gap

Recently, the White House put out a report outlining the country's student achievement gap, and the news wasn’t great for Ohio. 

We had the nation’s ninth largest reading gap between our highest and lowest performing schools, the second-largest math achievement gap, and the fourth largest graduation gap. While much of this difference can be explained by the high performance of our highest performing schools, the gap is and should be a serious concern for Ohio’s educators, parents and policy makers.

What the data show, however, is that far from being a solution to the achievement gap issue here, Ohio's charter schools are part of the problem.

I wrote about this issue at Innovation Ohio last night.

Here are what the data tell us:
  • Despite making up 8% of all Ohio school buildings, charters represent 13% of the worst-performing math buildings, 31% of the worst-performing reading buildings, and 78% of the buildings with the worst graduation rates.
  • Ohio’s achievement gap is 6% bigger in math, 8% bigger in reading and a whopping 23% bigger in graduation rates than they would be if the analysis included just local public schools.
  • And while the state’s achievement gap is still too large, in all three cases, eliminating charters from the calculation drops Ohio’s achievement gap ranking. Math drops from second to fourth greatest. Reading falls from ninth to 11th greatest. And the state’s graduation rate gap tumbles from fourth to 14th highest.
  • The achievement gap is greater in charter schools for math than it is in the local public schools
  • The charter school achievement gap is narrower in reading and graduation rates because charters’ highest performers are so low performing overall compared with local public schools. For example, the average graduation rate for the 19 highest-performing charters – defined as those that have greater than 60% graduation rates – is 65%. Those 19 charters represent 17% of eligible charters. The average rate for the highest performing local schools – 96% of which have graduation rates greater than the 60% threshold – is 91%.

There is work that needs done closing Ohio’s achievement gaps in all schools, no question. But what the federal data clearly show is that charter schools don’t provide an overall solution. In fact, they are part of the problem -- especially on graduation rates.

Folks in Youngstown and other places should take note of this federal data: Relying on charter schools to close achievement gaps in Ohio has not worked. In fact, it has led to greater gaps in student achievement overall. So before the new CEO in Youngstown decides to turn all of that city's schools into charters or something, here's hoping he or she looks at the evidence first and carefully considers district options.

As for the gaps themselves, much of Ohio’s gap problem is driven by our highest scoring local public buildings scoring so well. For example, while our lowest-performing math buildings score an average proficiency rate of 26% – the same as West Virginia – our remaining buildings score a 78% – the nation’s seventh-highest rate and far higher than West Virginia’s 47% – the nation’s fourth-worst showing. So while West Virginia’s gap seems to be much narrower, it’s because the state’s schools perform so much worse overall than Ohio’s do.

So, if there’s a silver lining to the achievement gap report it’s that 95% of our schools are doing a pretty good job. However, we must address the 5% that are struggling mightily by utilizing – and paying for – measures that research shows can help improve student achievement.

Here is how each type of school does in Ohio, with the White House figures reported on the top line. The numbers are percentages. In reading and math, it's measuring proficiency. In graduation, it's measuring the graduation rate.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Kasich Education Record: From 5th to 18th

In 2010, Ohio was riding high, from an education policy perspective. The state had just tightened its charter school closure standards and created a new funding formula that promised to make the system constitutional as part of a national award winning education reform overhaul.

And the culmination of this was a national ranking of 5th best education system in the country, as judged by Education Week's national Quality Counts report.

But things started changing when Gov. John Kasich took office. Most of those award-winning changes were wiped out. His own funding formula was trashed and dropped by his own party. Ohio's charter schools are now a national joke. And his efforts at local, urban reform are off to a dubious beginning.

The culmination of Kasich's work? The state is now ranked 18th in the country.

This is not the kind of education record I would want while running for President.

Next Step for Charter Reform: Politics and Money

Today, I wrote in Real Clear Education that it's time for the quality-based charter school community to start raising some money for political campaigns to offset the clear political advantage Ohio's poor-performing, for-profit charter sector has.

What was so frustrating about the outcome of Sub. HB 2 was that every fair-minded education policy advocate in the state, be they pro-free market or pro-local public school, agreed it was a great step forward, regardless of minor (or major) quibbles.

Yet that consensus -- both here and around the country -- couldn't offset the political power that has always dominated our state's charter school discussion.

I hope that this episode acts as a wake up call for well-meaning charter advocates that great ideas don't win over Ohio legislatures and governors on this issue: Money does.

I hate that it's this way. Especially in my home state.

But this is Ohio's education policy Real Politick. And, as I argue this morning, only money can eradicate this noxious weed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Cost of Kasich Veto Substantial

As I have reported, Gov. John Kasich decided to cut education funding with his veto pen a couple days ago. Now we know the district-by-district impact of those cuts, thanks to an Ohio Legislative Service Commission projection. Here's the bottom line:

  • Overall cut is $90.2 million
  • Cleveland is cut the most at more than $13 million
  • There are now 114 out of 612 districts that will receive less money in the 2016-2017 school year than the state sent them last school year
  • A total of 25 school districts will get cut by more than $1 million
  • Mayfield City Schools will see a 40% cut
  • Warrensville Heights -- one of the state's poorest districts -- will see a more than $1 million cut
And it's worse if you look at how schools have fared since the 2010-2011 budget. Now 263 districts will receive less money than they did during that Recession budget. If you adjust for inflation, there is now $187 million less money for schools than there was in the 2010-2011 budget and 334 districts receive less.

As I've said, Kasich's veto was devastating to schools and children. Districts need more than the year Kasich generously gave them to adjust to these cuts.

This is not the last thing I'd want families in my home state to remember as I launch a Presidential bid. But, then again, I'm not. So I could be wrong.

John Kasich's Trouble With Promises

Gov. John Kasich is soon to announce his run for President. Good for him. Not everyone can do that. But before anyone goes too crazy over this, I want to explain a little bit about how Kasich has displayed little regard for long-held promises made to Ohio's school children.

As a backdrop, remember that four times the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state's school funding formula unconstitutional because it relied too much on local property taxes to fund education. It was up to the state to develop a better formula that involved more state dollars.

Whether this matters is up to you. But I wanted to make a record of the many promises that have been kept by Ohio Republicans and Democrats during the last five decades that Kasich has simply undone with seemingly little thought or concern. Then blamed public schools for failing to prepare for.

I'll start with the most recent.

Tangible Personal Property Tax Reimbursement

In 2005, the Republican legislature and Governor, Bob Taft, passed House Bill 66 -- the now infamous budget that started Ohio's slow elimination of the state income tax. I'm not getting into the merits of that policy here, but in that bill, there was also the elimination of the so-called Tangible Personal Property (TPP) Tax. 

For you and me, the TPP was a state-created, locally raised tax on business that allowed local communities and schools to collect tax revenue on inventories held by businesses in their communities. It was especially hard on businesses that had lots of equipment, like car manufacturers. There was a widespread belief that the TPP was an impediment to business, and I am among them. It was a tax that tilted heavily against the very businesses our state needed to grow -- manufacturing. 

The trouble was, the tax raised about $2.3 billion for schools. So what could districts do to replace this lost revenue?

Obviously, public education advocates were concerned about this. And the state made a deal with the schools: Go along with the TPP elimination, and we'll replace it for you with a chunk from the new, broad-based Commercial Activity Tax on business until we find a suitable replacement for your lost, locally raised revenue. They put in a five-year window to come up with a replacement, but they never did. So the reimbursement payments (as this TPP replacement thing came to be called) remained in subsequent state budgets, unchanged.

Until Gov. John Kasich came into office.

In his first budget, he whacked the TPP reimbursements substantially as part of his record-breaking $1.8 billion cut to schools. And he didn't replace it with anything, nor did he ever acknowledge that that was ever a part of any deal, even though it was.

He essentially told districts that it was always meant to go away, and it's districts' fault for not preparing for it.

Two nights ago, Kasich completed his full elimination of the TPP reimbursement by line-item veto, eliminating a budget item that in 2011 was about $920 million -- about as much as the state spends on charter schools today, by the way.

Yes, state aid has increased since 2011, but it has yet to exceed the inflation-adjusted amount that was spent in the 2010-2011 budget -- the one that was developed during the Great Recession.

And don't forget that TPP payments were always on top of state aid payments, not included as part of the state aid calculation.

And whenever the governor and legislative leaders talk about "record" increases in school funding, don't forget it follows record cuts in school funding. The current leadership's baseline is the cut year when it really should be the years prior to the cut year. 

The Evidence Based Model
In 2009, Gov. Ted Strickland developed the Evidence-Based Model, with some help from yours truly. The plan, which replaced the so-called "Building Blocks" formula, called for a 10-year implementation of the model that was slated to infuse an additional $3.2 billion in state money for education. Over three years, the formula was examined, implemented and improved by a bipartisan advisory council.

It even received a national award from the Education Commission of the States for being the country's most "bold, courageous and non-partisan"education reform of the year, earning praise from Race to the Top reviewers as "trend-setting."

Kasich's first move was to blow it up, throwing districts for a loop and essentially ignoring the good, hard work put into it over three years by earnest people on both sides of the aisle. He took an extra year to develop his own funding formula that was eventually so panned that even his own political party ended up dumping it in favor of a kind of altered Building Blocks formula -- the same quasi-formula we have today.

Property Tax Rollback
In the 1970s, when Ohio passed its income tax, part of the deal to get that passed was the state said it would use some of the money to essentially pick up 12.5% of the property tax that was being paid for schools and other local community agencies.

In 2013, Kasich eliminated the rollback for future new money levies that are passed, essentially raising property taxes on all future school levies by 14.3% (a $12.50 increase on every $100 is 14.3% of the $87.50 that taxpayers would have paid). 

In all these instances, Kasich simply undid sometimes decades-long agreements between the state and public schools that kept their finances in order. And it's not like he is replacing the money. He's simply saying, "Deal with it whiners."

But I cannot abide Kasich claiming that the TPP is restoring his formula to its pure form. First of all, the state's funding formula isn't his -- it's the legislature's because they dumped his. Second of all, the TPP reimbursement payments were never a part of any formula. They were supplemental payments to make up for lost local revenue that the state promised to would replace some day.

Until John Kasich came along and reneged on that promise. 

When Strickland took office in 2007, he kept the tax package from his predecessor -- a tax package I know he didn't like, but he recognized that the people of Ohio deserved some policy stability beyond political parties. Yes, it was also for political reasons, but it did bring stability.

Kasich, on the other hand, just didn't care that people gave up their lives for three years developing a funding formula, nor did he care that districts had been promised things by his Republican predecessors, nor did he care that he wasn't replacing any of this revenue he was cutting.

He just did it, then blamed districts for not preparing for the state to go back on its word after sometimes decades of keeping it.

I don't know if the havoc Kasich has wrought on Ohio education finance will ever be repaired. Will districts ever trust what the state tells them again? Will the state ever make any more promises that they can possibly be held to beyond the elected lives of these officials?

Part of the deal when you're an elected leader is to respect, understand and work with the precedents that came before you. Yes, even ones you don't like. The people have to deal with your decisions far beyond your stay in office, just as they have had to deal with decisions made long before you ever took office. It is a solemn and serious charge.

The way Gov. John Kasich has treated past promises makes it seem he thinks the state's history began and will end with him. 

That isn't how leaders think. 

That, my friends, is how my 6-year-old thinks. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ohio School Children's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how Ohio's charter schools had a week that revealed that no entities misspend public tax dollars more than they do, several convictions came down regarding charter school operators and bribery and that several charters were going to be closed by the state for failing academics.

What a difference a week makes. Now it's the 1.6 million kids in Ohio's local public schools who ended up getting the short end of the stick from this state's elected leaders. Let's go through the last week's carnival.

First, a week ago, the Ohio Senate -- out of nowhere -- creates a dictatorship in Youngstown, essentially undoing the will of the people of that great city.

Then, the Ohio General Assembly fails to pass the first meaningful charter school reform bill since the program started, even though a a majority of the Ohio House was willing to pass the much-improved bill that flew through the Ohio Senate unanimously. So the two-year-long, bipartisan effort to reform Ohio's nationally ridiculed charter school system came up short, keeping this state's national joke of a system in place.

And last night, literally in the middle of the night, Gov. John Kasich took a break from his presidential campaign to cut another $78 million from school districts by eliminating tangible personal property (TPP) tax reimbursement payments in the 2016-2017 school year. While it will take some time to do a district-level analysis of this veto's impact, suffice it to say that small districts like Mogadore and urban districts will get the brunt of the cuts, as will some wealthier districts.

But before this governor started wiping out TPP reimbursements in his first budget, the state's urban districts received about $180 million from them, and more than $900 million of the payments were made statewide, with every district (not just the wealthy ones, as Kasich claims) got at least some reimbursement, with 203 getting more than $1 million. Now that none will be made, it means every district will have to find ways to ensure children don't suffer from these cuts.

Yes, the state has about made up for the TPP reimbursement payments by increasing state aid overall since 2011, but districts still are getting less in this budget than they did five years ago, adjusted for inflation. And that budget was developed at the height of the Great Recession.

I wish I could say this outcome has surprised me. But as a legislator and now a policy analyst, it's pretty well par for the course.

All we can do is keep fighting. Hard.

As my mentor once told me: "If they're getting away with it, it's your fault."