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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dispatch's Unfortunate Defense of Failure

In today's Columbus Dispatch, its editorial writers stood up for failing charter schools, choosing instead to nitpick a website that has proven an invaluable resource to parents, policymakers and media alike.

Let me dispatch their claims summarily here:

  1. KnowYourCharter.com only compares school districts with charter schools, rather than school buildings with charter schools. Charter schools are considered school districts by the state for funding purposes -- at the insistence of charter schools. They are considered districts by the federal government for grant purposes. Some are many times larger than many of Ohio's school districts. They are funded by state money intended for school districts, not buildings. And we at KnowYourCharter.com have said that at some point we may add building-level data. But to act like comparing districts to charters is somehow indefensible is a joke. And the claim that KnowYourCharter.com is trying to hide poor performance in urban districts? On the KnowYourCharter.com site, 53% of urban district grades are Fs. Meanwhile, 44% of charter school grades are Fs. What are we hiding exactly? Oh yeah, it also shows that just under half of all kids in charters don't come from the urban districts. So maybe it's not fair to judge charter schools only against urban districts anymore?
  2. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge that some charters have tough populations of children to educate. Yes it does. You just have to read and make a single mouse click. It displays what percentage of students are economically disadvantaged. It displays the demographic background of the students. It displays how long students are in the school. For dropout recovery schools, it does not display any grades because they are on a different accountability system and don't get report card grades, though prior to the new system they typically scored far worse than other schools. At some point, KnowYourCharter.com will probably show that the state thinks graduating 7.2% of kids in four years at these schools is perfectly acceptable. To say KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge the difficult populations is profoundly inaccurate.
  3. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't mention that Ohio's schools get local money. Every taxpayer in the state knows local districts get money. What the Dispatch fails to understand is that because the state gives more money to a child in a charter than that child would have received in the district, kids not in charters get substantially less state revenue than the state says they need to succeed -- a data point that had not been prominently displayed until KnowYourCharter.com came around (though we at Innovation Ohio had done several policy reports about this). But what bothers the Dispatch is not that kids in Columbus, even in the city's highest performing buildings, get $1,063 fewer state dollars every year because that district's charter deduction is so huge. What bothers them is we didn't mention that districts get local money too. Never mind that the local money has to be even greater than it needs to be because the district loses so much money to charters. 
  4. Performance Index means nothing. What matters is student growth. Okay. Let's say this again. First of all, the student growth data is exactly one mouse click away and is on the website. I know, some chore to get to, right? Second, the Performance Index Score is what determines whether a charter school can open in your district. If you're in the bottom 5% of the PI, a charter can open in your district. Yet the Dispatch says it's unreasonable to use PI to compare charter performance. And finally, the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools uses the PI to determine its Charter School of the Year. But the Dispatch thinks it's unreasonable to use PI to grade charter schools. Why is the PI all right to use for high-performing charters, but not the low performers? 
What disturbs me most about the Dispatch editorial is that it ignored the biggest issue of all: the data. What matters is how we displayed it, not that it demonstrates how poor Ohio's charter school performance is. We displayed 26 different data points for comparison. How many more does the Dispatch need? Give me a break.

I can only conclude that the Dispatch did all these backflips to ignore the data that indicate kids in both charters and districts are being hurt by the current system because they don't like who did a website that, by their own admission, is "marvelously easy" and "couldn't be much more user-friendly."

Wow. Just. Wow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mass. Teaches Ohio How to Hold Charters Accountable

I was sent an interesting story from Massachusetts today that highlighted one of the major issues with how Ohio administers its charter school program. In the story, it is revealed that within 4 years of opening, Massachusetts' Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School has been put on probation for failing to meet state standards and not providing meaningful experiences for special education or English language learners. And it appears they were warned after three years to get their act together.

Seems that Massachusetts is following what the Stanford CREDO study found on charter school performance -- namely "WYSIWYG" -- what you see is what you get. Charters tend not to improve much when they're in place, and the best way to improve charter school performance, again according to CREDO, is eliminate as many poor performers as quickly as possible.

Why does this matter for Ohio? First of all, Greenfield is run by the infamous K-12, Inc., which runs the second-largest for-profit school in the country, the Ohio Virtual Academy (eclipsed in size by Ohio's own Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow). K-12, Inc. also opened up a new online school last year called the Insight School of Ohio.

See, here's the issue: Ohio's K-12 operation has had the exact same issues as its Massachusetts affiliate, yet has operated since the 2002-2003 school year unimpeded with little fear of closure any time soon. Oh, and did I mention that the NCAA won't accept OHVA diplomas? There's that too. At least the Massachusetts school didn't make that list.

OHVA received Fs on the last report card for the measures that determine whether the school is meeting state standards, student growth among special education students and whether achievement gaps exist between English language learners -- the very subjects that caused Massachusetts' concerns.

Ohio doesn't issue specific grades for how well schools serve the needs of English language learners. The only measure that includes performance gaps among English language learners is something called AMO, which measures performance gaps between demographics groups, English language learners, and special education kids, among others. On that, OHVA got an F.

So on all the measures that Massachusetts was concerned enough about to put the school on probation after 4 years, Ohio's operation gets to operate for three times that long without any similar concern.

Here's why: Contrary to the CREDO findings, Ohio gives way too many chances for charter schools to fail. First of all, schools in their first two years of operation don't have their report cards count for closure purposes. So that's two years of mulligans. Then they can fail for 2 out of 3 years, if they're serving grades lower than high school, and 3 out of 4 if they're serving high school kids. So that means they can stay open another 3-4 years. Then once they've been told they're closing, they can operate for one final year before being shut down. So that means they can operate (depending on which grade levels they serve) for as many as 7 years before actually closing. And don't talk to me about how loose the standards are for the state's worst performing charter schools -- dropout recovery schools.

I urge everyone to go to www.KnowYourCharter.com and check out OHVA's performance. Then realize that since the school opened in the 2002-2003 school year (including this school year), it will have collected $572.3 million from state taxpayers -- money that was meant to be spent in school districts. And OHVA received more state funding per pupil (without buildings, buses, lunch ladies, janitors, etc.) in the 2012-2013 school year than 563 of Ohio's 612 school districts.

Ohio needs to wake up.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Imagine Schools to Teachers: "Let Them Eat Cake"

I'm rarely surprised anymore. That's one of age's few gifts. But today, I was just stunned by what the for-profit charter school operator Imagine Schools told one of their school boards yesterday. The board told Imagine that they would rather pay their teachers more money than the exorbitantly high rent they're paying Imagine for their building. The Imagine Schools spokesman said the board should think of other ways to "celebrate" the teachers "such as having cake for them at the next board meeting."

I'm sure the school's teachers will appreciate their sheet cake. The $26,929 those school's teachers make a year, by the way, is about $1,000 under the poverty line for a family of 5, and would qualify these teachers for welfare benefits in many cases. So I'm sure they will love their cake because it will help them pay the rent.

Or not.

Imagine Schools needs to brush up on French History. Telling people to eat cake rather than pay them hasn't worked out so well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Defense of Transparency

I certainly expected Ohio charter school advocates to say bad things about www.KnowYourCharter.com. I've been in the middle of these Ohio education wars for too long not to expect the attacks. It didn't surprise me to hear advocates claim that the thing was put out by a teacher's union. So of course it's an attack on charters! Right?

Well, not really. What it is is transparency. And transparency is not all together kind to Ohio's charter schools. There are 26 comparative measures on www.KnowYourCharter.com. How many are on the only similar site to it -- The Cleveland Transformation Alliance? That's right. Three. Three vs. 26. Yet to see the Cleveland Plain Dealer's news story about Know Your Charter, you would think the level of transparency was comparable. I've included the list of comparisons for you. Be the judge. Are these site's transparency even comparable?

Know Your Charter
Cleveland Transformation Alliance
Students
Achievement
Attendance Rate
Student Growth
FT Teachers
Graduation Rate
Student/Teacher Ratio
Avg. Teacher Experience
Teachers with Masters Degrees
Students in Poverty
Special Needs Students
Gifted Students
White Students
Non-White Students
% of Students at school less than 3 years
% of Expenditures spent in Classroom
% of Expenditures spent on Administration
State Funding Per Student
Performance Index Score
Performance Index Score Grade
Performance Indicators Met Grade
Overall Value Added Grade
Gifted Value Added Grade
Disabled Value Added Grade
Lowest 20% Value Added Grade
AMO Grade
3rd Grade Reading Guarantee Pass rate
# of Kids eligible for 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

# of Kids who scored above the threshold

I told the PD reporter that Know Your Charter is very complementary with the Alliance's site. The more transparency, the merrier. But there is zero, and I mean zero competition between Know Your Charter and the Transformation Alliance. We weren't trying to undermine them at all. We were trying to add onto the work they've done in Cleveland so that parents can make more informed decisions about their children's educations, and the public can look behind the curtain.

Did we post every single data point on Know Your Charter? No. We did not. We didn't, for example, post graduation rates, even though that series would make charter schools look even more horrendous. Nor did we include the total expenditures in each sector, which would show that the average brick-and-mortar charter school actually spends more per pupil than the average Ohio school district. We didn't include building-level data, which would show how buildings in even the Big 8 urban districts outperform their charter counterparts, despite having significantly higher rates of poverty. And at some point, we will add additional data points.

But c'mon. There are 26 data points! How many more do you need to tell you there are serious issues in Ohio's charter school sector? 5? 50? 1,876,546,756? Because I've got news for you: None make Ohio charters look great. None. Some make them look not quite as bad. But let's face it, they're still really bad in the vast majority of cases. 

Look, I'm sorry that transparency makes charter schools look bad. I'm sorry for the taxpayers who have forked over $8 billion to these things since 1999. I'm sorry for the kids who aren't in charters and lose upwards of $1,000 a year in state funding because the state sees fit to fund these things at such a bloated level. But most of all, I'm sorry for the parents and children in charter schools who were sold a bill of goods that has, in the overwhelming majority of cases, turned out to be no more than snake oil.

Our state's leaders and the responsible members of the charter advocacy community need to admit there are major problems in Ohio's charter schools. Not every state's system is so messed up. We can learn from others. And we can also teach others how to do this better. And to their credit, some in the charter community have spoken up.

Charter schools are an important option for many parents. They are not the panacea for the struggles of public education, nor are they the death knell of public education. They can work. But in Ohio, they don't. And until those who believe strongest in charter schools' efficacy actually stand up and demand better, rather than slamming people who are trying to shine light on the problem because it scatters too many roaches, then I fear our taxpayers, parents, and most importantly, our kids will continue to drink snake oil, hoping for miracles.