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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ohio Senate President Faber Lays Groundwork for Flat Education Funding Next Year

Last week, Sen. Keith Faber, R-Celina, the Ohio Senate President, said that he wanted to deregulate education, especially for high-performing schools. Here's what he said, according to the Gongwer report on his talk:

"Next year we're going to be looking at ways to set those high-performing school districts free of unnecessary bureaucratic regulation from Columbus, and it is going to be a challenge. But it is a challenge that I am confident we'll be successful on," Sen. Faber said.
While deregulation might be appropriate for the top third of Ohio's school districts, "we still have to remember the other two-thirds," he said. "And we have ideas there as well," he added.
Faber's play may have some merit from a policy perspective. Politically, it's a tell for next year: Get ready for flat funding or cuts. But in exchange for not raising a stink about the state's failure to live up to its constitutional obligations, we'll get rid of some unfunded mandates. How's that for a political trade off?

Let me deal first with the policy. During the House Bill 1 deliberations from 2009, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction (and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education) Deb Delisle put forward a similar idea to Faber's.

As a refresher, the Evidence Based Model of school funding was based on several lines of research that indicated that the model's elements would positively impact student growth and achievement. While I eliminated any requirement that school districts follow the elements until they were fully funded (kind of the opposite of an unfunded mandate), Delisle came up with the idea that when the model was fully funded, districts and schools that demonstrated excellence would be given more latitude to comply with the model's elements. But if they were struggling, then the model would be more closely adhered to because the research upon which it was based suggested that these elements could actually help districts and schools find a way to improve student success across demographics.

What Faber's talking about is similar, but very different in one incredibly important way: the state currently doesn't have a formula that has any evidence behind it suggesting it could improve student achievement. The base funding amount is based on a calculation made in 2007 for a formula that no longer exists in law. So the deregulation he's talking about isn't about allowing successful schools a more diverse array of options to meet the state's regulatory scheme. It's about eliminating the scheme all together.

This is dangerous. And while Faber is fond of calling the current scheme "Soviet style" because the state sets policy (as the Ohio Constitution calls for because it's a good idea to have some uniformity of education across communities and regions, but that's another story), the fact is Ohio is a strong local control state. Each district negotiates its contracts with teachers and other educators. Each district determines its curriculum. Each district makes its own calls about field trips, grade and building-wide themes, projects, etc. So, in fact, in Ohio, local districts have a pretty wide array of options -- especially if they have money. And that's the problem here. Districts that have money have options. Ones that don't, well ... don't.

And thanks to Faber and friends, fewer districts have options because the state has cut money to school districts by $515 million over the last couple budgets. In addition, money lost to charters and vouchers have gone way up. So districts have significantly fewer options simply because Faber's colleagues won't fund education the way it needs to be funded.

Which is a nice segway into the real reason for Faber's newly found concern with deregulating education -- politics. For the last several years, the main complaints of the state's superintendents has focused on unfunded mandates and the fact that districts aren't on the same regulatory footing as charter schools. This argument is especially prevalent in wealthy, suburban schools that don't receive that much state aid anyway.

What Faber is counting on is the elimination of some unfunded mandates will buy silence from the Ohio education community when the General Assembly flat funds or cuts school funding (despite a budget surplus), barely does anything with charter schools, lets vouchers expand, or does anything else that could significantly hurt children in our state's public school districts.

What that silence will do, though, is hurt schools that depend more heavily on state aid -- namely poor districts. It won't matter that districts don't have to meet some regulation if they don't have enough money to buy books, go on field trips, or do much beyond keep on the lights and pay teachers $30,000 a year.

In addition, my guess is the top third performing districts, as Faber mentions in Gongwer, will be determined by Performance Index Score, which is how the state determines whether charter schools should open in districts to compete with these lower performing districts. The problem with that is Performance Index Score is nearly perfectly correlated with wealth. So without controlling for demographic variables that we know impact these proficiency scores, we'll essentially be letting wealthy school districts off the accountability hook and hammering districts who were unlucky enough to be serving our most at-need youth -- districts, it could be argued, that actually should be free to experiment more, not less.

What else we'll find is that some high-performing school districts may be underperforming their demographics, while low performers outperform them. Shouldn't we reward districts that are exceeding expectations, even if those expectations aren't as high as, say, Beachwood or Orange? And why should districts that have every demographic advantage be rewarded if they are failing to live up to the necessary standards? Maybe an urban district's 85 performance index score is more impressive than a suburban district's 103? Yet I doubt that Faber's idea will incorporate this level of nuance into the discussion.

We also know that children have many different kinds of intelligence and skill, yet we only test analytical right now -- the area in which poor kids struggle the most. Maybe some districts have kids that struggle on analytics, but they're off the charts on creativity and innovation. Shouldn't they be freed up to continue that work?

There is some merit to using the regulatory structure to encourage innovation and ideas in learning. And if Faber's talking about doing something like Delisle -- letting districts that perform well more options to meet regulatory requirements, then it's less problematic. However, simply eliminating that structure for the state's wealthiest school districts so you can justify the continued state failure to live up to its constitutional obligation to all of our children. Well, that is extremely cynical.

We're better than that, even if our political leaders sometimes stray. I hope our state's education leaders don't take this devil's bargain. Our kids need them to stay strong.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Vote: Last Night's Real Loser

Everyone around the Internet and blogosphere is doing the requisite naval gazing, election post mortum. But I have a different take. I wish to give the eulogy to the vote. Because that's really who lost last night. It wasn't a candidate. It wasn't an issue. It wasn't common core. It wasn't teachers unions. It wasn't Republicans. It wasn't Democrats. It was all of us. Because so few of us actually voted.

And when people don't vote, Republicans win. When lots of people vote, Democrats win. It's not really rocket science.

Yes, Republicans now dominate state government in Ohio to a degree never seen. But when only 40% of Ohioans vote in districts that are so gerrymandered that this result could have been easily predicted in 2011, does it really mean Ohioans love them some Republican? If I'm a Republican, sure I'm happy. But I'm also wary. Because I only won with 25% of the people who are eligible to vote.

So if I go too far with a "mandate", look out in 2016. Because far more people will be voting in a presidential year, which will favor Democrats. Remember in Barack Obama's two elections, 5.8 million Ohioans voted for him. In John Kasich's two elections, 3.8 million did.

If I'm a Democrat (after I'm done licking wounds), I look in the mirror. How can an operation that produced record turnout during two presidential cycles only get 40% -- a record low -- in this cycle? Sure, the top of the ticket didn't help. But let's face it, Ohioans just a couple years ago were ready to vote for a ham sandwich over Gov. John Kasich. And until Ed Fitzgerald's driver's license fracas, even Fitzgerald was leading in some polls.

Democrats, though, let the narrative become whether their candidate had a driver's license, not whether their candidate would cut $515 million from schools, create shadowy economic development groups with public money or act like a total jerk, calling police officers "idiots." John Kasich was hardly invincible, but hey, at least he had a driver's license, right? Ultimately, though, it was the failure to drive turnout that cost Democrats. Forty percent ain't gonna cut it. Not for a party that needs a diverse electorate to be successful.

It's days like this when I start wondering, "What if everyone voted?" Wouldn't the fringe elements be driven from both parties? Wouldn't it mean that both parties would have to work together? Wouldn't it mean that crazy bad ideas would never have the oxygen to breathe? Wouldn't it mean that the voice of the people, rather than the voices of less that a quarter of the people, would be heard?

I don't know. Seems to me like having everyone vote would result in better policy, better government, better politics, and a better, more unified country.

Until that happens, though, I think I'll just stick to hunting unicorns. Seems like I'll have a better chance of seeing one of those than a real exercise of the voting franchise.

And for that, I'm really sad.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Federal Board Rules OH Charter School Private Sector Employer

Some of you may be aware that the American Federation of Teachers is trying to organize teachers in Cleveland. The organizers are claiming the ICAN school it is trying to organize (University of Cleveland Preparatory School) pursued unfair labor practices. And on Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the union when it filed a complaint against ICAN and set a Jan. 20, 2015 hearing on the matter.

But perhaps even more groundbreaking than even that complaint filing was this: In the 17-page complaint, the NLRB claimed that the charter schools run by ICAN were "employers" for the purposes of their jurisdiction. What's that mean? It means they are private employers, not public ones. Here is the definition of an employer under the National Labor Relations Act:
"The term "employer" includes any person acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly, but shall not include the United States or any wholly owned Government corporation, or any Federal Reserve Bank, or any State or political subdivision thereof, or any person subject to the Railway Labor Act [45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.], as amended from time to time, or any labor organization (other than when acting as an employer), or anyone acting in the capacity of officer or agent of such labor organization."
So this means that Ohio charter schools are not considered public schools for labor relations purposes. This is a big deal because throughout the Ohio Revised Code, charter schools are called "public." And, in fact, Ohio law places them under the jurisdiction of the State Employee Relations Board, which handles disputes for public employees. But what the NLRB has done (as it did in Chicago) is determine that how the school operates should determine how it is classified, not what it's called in code. In legal parlance, they are de facto private schools, if not de jure private schools.

This raises all kinds of questions for Ohio's charter schools. If they're not public schools for labor relations purposes, what does that mean for the 14th Amendment, which applies to state actors? Does it mean they can escape from even more public scrutiny? And does it mean that they are not public schools, even though they repeatedly call themselves public (their lobbying groups, after all, are called the Ohio (and National) Alliance for Public Charter Schools)?

It's not immediately clear, but it is certain that these are real questions that now need answers. And to be fair, the schools may make incredible arguments in January and the NLRB may reverse its decision and kick the case down to SERB. But I wouldn't want to have to make that argument.

What I do know is this: the way Ohio's charter schools operate leads federal labor experts to view them as private, not public schools. This complaint filing should give charter school reformers guidance as to how to change charter school law in this state. Make charter school operations more like public schools in fact because it doesn't matter what you call it. What matters is how it actually operates.

After all, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it's a duck.