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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."

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."