Thursday, March 26, 2020

EdChoice vouchers could still grow. Even with a freeze.

Yesterday, Ohio's legislature passed their COVID-19 emergency package. And while there were some much needed and positive things in it (no standardized tests this year, no report cards), the bill also settled the contentious debate over what to do with next year's EdChoice perofrmance-based voucher program.

A bit of background. Next year, due to legislative changes, 1,227 school buildings would have been labeled by the state as "failing".  Families with students in those buildings could therefore receive publicly subsidized private school tuition vouchers to leave these schools. The problem for districts is the way this program is funded, the state removes state revenue meant for the students in the districts and instead provides a private tuition subsidy -- an amount that on average is abot $1,300 more per pupil than the student would have received from the state if he or she had remained in the school district. This forces many districts to use local revenue to make up the difference.

Also, it is obvious that more than 1/3 of Ohio school buildings are not "failing" students, as the current 1,227 building calculation would conclude. And legislators on all sides of the aisle agreed that the state report card that made this determination is fatally flawed.

However, families were gearing up by Feb. 1 to request vouchers for next school year based on the expanded school building list. The legislature put off that deadline to April 1 and included $10 million in state funding to help offset the cost of increased vouchers. They were hoping to hash out a plan to address this issue before that date.

Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed.

The solution included in yesterday's bill was essentially freezing the number of buildings at this year's 500+ buildings, and limiting new vouchers to siblings of current recipients and incoming kindergarten students, as well as any 8th graders who want to take the voucher in high school.

But it's all based on this current school year's building list -- which is still about double the amount of the 2018-2019 school year, but is far fewer than the 1,227 it could have been.

This solution also did not include the $10 million state infusion to help districts cope with the increase in vouchers.

So the immediate question became: Will this "freeze" really be a cost-neutral freeze on the program? Or do we still need an infusion of state cash to offset new vouchers?

Looking at the data, it appears we could be looking at an increase in voucher funding next year, but it could also be cost neutral. It all depends on how the math works out.

According to the latest state funding printouts, there are currently 3,264 kindergarten voucher students. In addition, there are an average of 2,324 voucher students in 12th grade this year.

The kindergarten students cost $4,650 per year. The 2,324 12th graders cost $6,000 a year.

So next year, we will drop off the 2,324 12th graders, but gain that same general figure in new 12th graders. Assuming the same level of kindergarten participation, we will still have 3,264 students taking kindergarten vouchers.

The bill passed yesterday makes provisions to allow students who could have taken a voucher this year but didn't, to take them next school year. Siblings of current voucher recipients are also able to take vouchers if they meet state criteria. We also may vary on different grade-level enrollment, which could affect the overall cost.

But the increase over this year's funding should be limited, if it occurs. Maybe $1 million or so at the higher end. Which sounds like a lot. But when the program costs $148 million, that's not a huge increase, especially considering how we could have been looking at a $100 million or more increase next school year if the school list had expanded to 1,227 buildings.

However, in districts like Cleveland Heights-University Heights, which have been hammered by vouchers, yesterday's "freeze" won't ease their challenge. They will still need a new money levy to handle their state funding losses to state-funded private school tuition subsidies.

So while the $10 million may not be needed statewide, the state does need to see how it can help alleviate the financial struggles many districts are having because of this EdChoice performance-based voucher. Especially since the program is based on a report card so wanting that it can't even be issued if a few standardized tests can't be administered for a couple weeks in April.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

State Budget Shortfall Looms. Time to Prepare.

These are crazy times. And they're only going to get crazier.

However, one thing that I've not really seen reported or discussed is what will certainly become a huge state budget shortfall, probably first manifesting itself in April's revenue receipts put out by the state.

Having gone through the last one of these as a State Rep., I think I can help offer some suggestions about the last budget crisis we felt during the Great Recession.

1) Assume the worst. I can't tell you how many times I thought we had figured out a state school funding plan, only to find out a week later we had $250 million fewer in the state's coffers. Assume the worst for what will soon become a createring of tax revenues. And build from there.

2) Invest wisely. This crisis will be different from previous ones in that most folks who do work will have to do so remotely, and students will have to be schooled from home. Both of these realities require internet access and computers. More than ever we need universal broadband internet access across the state. Use this as an opportunity to deliver what's been needed for two decades now.

3) Set priorities. We need investments in areas of the economy that can help grow it. Building things, educating people, ensuring public safety should all be priorities that are set. Now is not the time for pet projects. It IS the time for lots and lots of pork to keep people working and the economy working.

I do not envy the state legisltors who will have to deal with this. My heart also aches for Reps. Cupp and Patterson who worked so hard on their new school funding plan, which holds real hope for Ohio's kids. But instead of a solid economy to make the change, they're going to face a similar economy to the one I faced in 2009 when we did the Evidence Based Model -- a similarly hopeful change that ran into the harsh economic reality of a major recession and forced a 10-year phase in period.

I hope for our kids' sake that we will keep trying big things on education. But I fear we will lose sight of the forest over the next few weeks and months. It will be our job to keep people focused and right during this really difficult time.

Stay safe. Stay well. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Ohio's Charter School War fails us when we could really use them.

With all this COVID-19 talk, every Ohio Public School District is planning to move to online instruction through the end o fthe year. While that seems like a heavy lift, it really shouldn't be. Why?

Because no state has more students already attending virtual schools than Ohio.

Yet in no instance has the Ohio Department of Education or any shcool district -- despite this emergency crisis -- said, "Hey, we have a lot of online schools already, why don't we ask them for help?"

Why haven't districts sought help? Simple: Ohio's online schools perform so poorly and have garnered such bad faith in the local public school community that I am willing to bet it never crossed school leaders' minds to reach out to, for example, the Ohio Virtual Academy -- whose diplmoas aren't accepted by the NCAA -- to see if the school could help the district transition.

Instead, districts are choosing to reinvent their own wheel.

Maybe if the state had actually spent the last 20 years trying to ensure quality online education was going on, we'd be in a different place. Instead, they've avoided doing much if anything about online schools. If they had held these schools to more account, our local public schools could be smoothly transitioning to online education using our robust online education sector as a model.

Instead these schools, which educate about 35,000 students exclusively in the online realm where all 1.6 million kids will soon be, are not even an afterthought.

After years of failing online schools -- epitomized by the ECOT disaster but replicated in other states -- and constant denials of the online schools' academic and ficnanicial impact on local public schools, the relationship has seriously been poisoned, if it ever really existed.

Perhaps during this crisis, an opportunity to improve online education and develop a positive working relationship between them and local public schools will occur.

But I'm not holding my breath. And that, my friends, is the tragic fallout from Ohio lawmakers' 20-year blind devotion to a failing online school sector.

It didn't have to be this way.

But here we are.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ohio Bill to Ban For-Profit Charter School Operators Bipartisan

Yesterday, a bipartisan bill to address Republican House Speaker Larry Householder's desire to make all charter school operators non-profit shops was introduced.

This has been a long time coming. Only a handful of states allow for-profit companies to run charter schools. Yet more than 57% of all Ohio charter schools are run by a for-profit company -- among the largest percentages in the country.

When I was in the House, we tried to eliminate the profit motive in 2009, but couldn't thanks to a reulctant Republican Senate. It's been an issue I've brought up for years. The profit motive has inspired disgusting levels of charter school campaign contributions and allowed Bill Lager to fleece Ohio taxpayers to the tune of more than $1 billion while his for-profit management company drove ECOT into the ground.

But don't worry, he's living in a $4 million mansion in Key West and has paid back a slight fraction of the more than $100 million his school was paid to educate kids they never had, which in turn was a slight fraction of the number of phantom students the school "educated" over the previous 18 years.

The profit motive allowed former Ohio Charter School Kingpin David Brennan to have two waterfront homes in Naples next door to each other -- one for living and one for entertaining politicians.

Most of the worst performing charter schools in the state are run by for-profit operations.

However, you really don't see the damage a profit motive causes a school until you look at the schools' expenditures. For example, even though the average for-profit charter school spends $11,005 per pupil, which is $1,260 less than the average school district, for-profit charters spend an incredible 44% more on non-instructional administrative costs. Charters run by non-profit outfits spent only 9% more than the average school district.

Remember that charters generally do not receive direct locally raised tax dollars, which tells you just how generous the state is to these schools. I digress.

What does this mean? It means that our tax dollars are paying for nice cars and houses for for-profit bigwigs instead of students. Take a look at this:

The average for-profit charter spends $776 less on instruction than the average school district. Yet it spends $761 more on non-instructional administrative costs -- an almost perfect 1:1 ratio.

These schools could spend what school districts do in the classroom if they weren't so busy pocketing profits.

This bill is a nice counter to the problematic My School, My Choice questionnaire I discussed in detail yesterday. The bill demonstrates where the clear mainstream on school choice is today in Ohio. We want accountability and to remove the profit motive from charter school operations so tax dollars can more efficiently reach the classrooms and students who need those resources.

It's time for us to pay for education, not cars and houses for well-heeled political contributors, don't you think?

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

My School My Choice Lies Again

Well, well, well. My School, My Choice – a dodgy outfit that seeks to protect profits over kids has released a candidate questionnaire filled with lies, mistruths and frankly disturbing answers from many candidates for office. I thought I should go through and show just how dishonest this questionnaire is and why we cannot let these guys return us to the days of national ridicule for our Charter School sector, which is still not awesome, but is certainly in better shape – at least in terms of accountability – than it was when these guys ran things.

Teachers union leaders often claim that public charter schools drain funds from traditional schools.
In fact, union leaders aren’t the only ones who “claim” this. Superintendents, treasurers, non-partisan analysts, Republican Education Committee Chairs and Speakers of the House have all acknowledged this fact. The other pesky thing that gets in the way of this talking point is arithmetic. Take Columbus City Schools. According to Ohio Department of Education finance reports, the state was to send $366.5 million to Columbus to educate its 72,714 students. That’s a per pupil state funding level of $5,089.28. However, when the state then removes $161 million to pay for the 19,958 students who attend charter schools from Columbus, the remaining Columbus students are left with $3,947.51 in state aid -- $1,141.77 less than the state originally intended to go to students in Columbus – money that has to be made up with local revenue or service cuts. And Columbus is not unusual. Statewide, the average per pupil state funding loss because of the charter school deduction is $198.06, which means that statewide, $314.3 million in local revenue has to be used to make up that lost revenue to children in local public schools or services get cut. In fact, there are between 80 to 100 school districts who lose overall funding because of charter schools because they don’t raise enough local revenue to make up for their state funding losses to charters.

In fact, traditional schools have more funding now than ever, while public charter schools continue to receive less funding.
The previously described phenomenon utterly shreds this canard. The average Columbus charter school student receives $8,067.28 in state funding. The average Columbus public school student receives $3,434.85 in state funding once all the charter/voucher/ESC/open enrollment deductions are included. It is precisely because charter school students receive so much more per pupil state aid than they would have received in the local public school that has led to the Cupp Patterson school funding plan to shift to a funding system that directly pays for charter school students rather than deducting the amount from kids in local public schools.

This is especially true since local tax dollars (those collected from local levies and property taxes) don’t follow public charter school students but instead stay with the traditional school district.
This isn’t even true anymore. In Cleveland, several charter schools actually do receive a share of local revenue, which voters approved many years ago. But even setting those school aside, about 1 in 10 charters spend more per equivalent pupil than school districts, even though they do not receive direct local money. More telling is this: The average charter school spends a mere $163.14 less per pupil than districts on instruction costs. However, the average charter school spends $897.12 more per pupil on non-instructional administrative costs than the average school district. Where do school districts spend more per pupil? Staff and pupil support as well as operations (busing/HVAC/etc.). But if charters would spend the same per pupil on administration that districts did, they would be able to spend more in the classroom than the average district and also spend about the same as districts on pupil and staff support. This whole argument is simply an admission that they need more money to make up for their lack of efficiency and inability to move as much money into the classroom as school districts do. The last part of this sentence also admits that charter school funding  increases the reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools – a result the Ohio Supreme Court ruled four times was unconstitutional.

There is no such thing as a for-profit charter school in Ohio as all of our charter schools are PUBLIC schools. ALL public schools (traditional brick and mortar district schools and community schools) are allowed to, and most do, use for-profit companies to provide services like textbooks, transportation, food, curriculum, and management services. Despite this, some traditional opponents of public charter schools have tried to run-around free market principles by not allowing certain services to be provided by “for-profit” companies. In other words, they think that only some companies/organizations should be allowed to provide only some services to only some public schools.
Charter schools are non profit, and while they’re called “public” in statute, federal labor panels that have examined Ohio charter schools have consistently ruled they are actually run like private organizations. However, many hire for-profit companies to run the schools. 
This is also a completely misleading statement and runs afoul of the Republican Speaker of the House Larry Householder’s own statement from last year where he said he wanted to eliminate for-profit operators from running Ohio charter schools. Here’s what he said in late January 2019:
“One thing I believe we need to look at is what many states have done, and that is that charter schools are nonprofit in the state of Ohio,” said House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, addressing a long-standing controversy among Ohio’s school-choice system. “I know they are technically nonprofit, but that second tier, those management entities, I believe should be nonprofit.”
This coming from a politician who famously had to return a significant chunk of money from disgraced for-profit operator Bill Lager of the notorious ECOT online charter school. So he hasn’t hated taking for-profit charter school money. Yet now he sees it as a serious problem. He’s hardly a left wingnut. 
The question is preposterous as well. No one is saying that a school can’t buy books from a for-profit entity. What they’re saying is that for-profit companies should not be deciding how the school is run, who gets hired, who gets fired, how much to pay for leases, etc.

In the past, some have tried to balance state budgets by proposing unfair cuts for public charter school students (like during Governor Strickland’s term, when he was forced to abandon his plans, following a My School My Choice Statehouse Rally, where 4,500 school choice supporters raised their voices against such biased cuts). With difficult budgets always looming, there is concern that state legislators would consider funding public charter school students at a level less than traditional public school students as a way to decrease state spending for primary and secondary education.
This too is a lie. I know because I’m the one who restored the eSchool funding in the 2009 budget. I didn’t do it because of My School, My Choice’s rally. I did it because the Republican Senate made it clear that if they didn’t get their funding restored, the Senate wouldn’t approve a new school funding system that promised $3 billion more for Ohio’s public school students over the next 10 years. Remember this was during the Great Recession, so any potential funding delay could have been economically disastrous. What thanks did My School, My Choice give me for restoring their funding? They stalked my kids at school and my family throughout my community. It was so bad that other for-profit charter operators called and apologized for My School, My Choice’s behavior.

Ohio’s public online schools are being held accountable; the closure of some schools is proof of that. Despite that, traditional opponents of school choice, like teachers unions and some on the far-left, seek to impose new standards on public online schools different from those used to measure other public schools.
This too is a lie. The provision that required new standards for eSchools was first passed in 2003 by a Republican legislature and governor. But those standards were never adopted by the legislature. The current Republican legislature and governor also set up a task force to figure out how to hold eSchools accountable. What these guys at My School, My Choice won’t acknowledge is for-profit operators and eSchools are on the outs … with the charter school community. Why? Because they are such a performance drag on the entire charter school sector. Ohio’s eSchools are notoriously poor performing. The Ohio Virtual Academy, which was initially run by Ron Packard – the same guy who set up My School, My Choice – can’t get their diplomas accepted by the NCAA. Packard’s new school, OHDELA, has historically been the worst performing online school in the state – even worse than the notorious ECOT. The reason conservative Republican legislators want to reign in eSchools is because they have been a blight and embarrassment to the Ohio school choice community. And while left-leaning folks want that increased accountability too, it is a broad, bipartisan belief that eSchools are tremendously failing kids throughout the state. For example, while only 9 percent of Ohio charter school graduates go on to graduate from college within 6 years of high school (compared with 32.5 percent of public high school graduates), only 6 percent of Packard’s students do – a worse percentage than any major urban school district in the state, even though Packard’s students come from all over the state. A mind-shuddering 25 of 400 eligible 2012 graduates from Packard’s online operation have a college degree today. That’s why conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and nearly every other Ohioan wants tighter standards on these guys.

Here’s the thing, though. While every Democrat who answered this questionnaire disagreed with My School, My Choice’s falsehoods, all the Republicans agreed! That means they are utterly denying what their own House Speaker and other folks agree needs to be done on charters and online charters in particular. That’s why this questionnaire is revealing. And while there have been many victories for students and taxpayers on the charter school issue over the last 5-7 years, much work remains needed to keep the guys who want to make money off our kids from ruining all the progress this state has made. It wasn’t that long ago we were considered the Wild, Wild West of charter schools. And while we’re certainly not at the cutting edge, My School, My Choice seems bent on returning us to the days of embarrassing headlines and putrid reputations for this state’s. They must not succeed for our kids’ sake.