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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

New Proper Perspective: Whither $71 million?

The Proper Perspective: An honest exchange about Ohio’s Charter School Program grant

Ohio won a $71 million federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant last fall, but after backlash about the original grant application (which described Ohio as a beacon of charter oversight and overstated the performance of the charter sector), the U.S. Department of Education put a hold on the money. Ohio’s latest response to the feds was on January 29. Jamie and Steve have both been writing on the topic recently and had an exchange about the fate of the grant.


 Jamie: Ohio has lots of high-performing charter schools that can benefit from CSP, and I take issue with you suggesting that the feds take back the money and dole it out elsewhere.

Steve: I’m in no way suggesting the feds take back the money. All I’m saying is I understand if they do because the Ohio Department of Education so misled them on the initial grant application. And if they do take it back, we have only the adults at ODE to blame. Surely you’re not suggesting that it was an honest assessment of the Ohio charter school sector for the department to claim that zero charters were poor performing in 2012–13 and only six were in 2013–14?

Jamie: That's good, because you did seem to suggest it—as well as suggesting that there weren't enough high-performing charter schools in Ohio to expand their footprint (you and I both know better). Students shouldn't have to bear the responsibility for errors committed by the department. To your question: No, I don't think that was a fair assessment. The original application used a "federal" definition of failure based on three years of data, and it's unclear to me how or why the department determined to use that. I do find it interesting that according to the updated definitions, charter schools look slightly better than Ohio’s Big 8 urban schools.

Steve: I think it's pretty clear why the department used the feeble federal definition -- it made them look like they had more high-quality and fewer poor quality charter schools than they actually have. So it increased their chances of receiving the $71 million. Perhaps I'm too cynical after watching this state's charter school history for nearly twenty years, but it's pretty obvious the adults at ODE tried to make our state's charter experience look like a fantasy. Again, I really hope we can hold onto the money. But I don't know if the state receives the grant if it had been totally truthful with USDOE. So I would say it was David Hansen and Richard Ross who put our children in this quandary. If the feds decide to take back the money, it is their fault, and it is they who should apologize to Ohio's kids. As for the new definition, I'm still trying to figure out this whole high quality/low quality dichotomy, since it's really an ODE concoction rather than a legislated report card definition. As for the Big 8 comparison, only about one-half of charter kids come from there anymore. Charters accepted kids from every district last yearand a significant portion of kids attend brick-and-mortar charter schools outside the Big 8 urban districts, so it's not just an e-school thing. It seems to me unfair to accept money and kids from every district, yet insist that performance comparisons be made only with the most struggling districts.

Jamie: The new definition for "high quality" is in the Ohio Revised Code, and sets the eligibility parameters for Ohio's new facilities grant for charter schools (a Value-Added grade of B or better and a Performance Index grade of C or higher, or a Value-Added grade of B or better and a Performance Index increase for the last three years). So I think it makes sense to use this definition again here. Arguably it should have been used from the beginning. I hear what you're saying about cynicism over the last twenty years. However, the purpose of CSP is to expand high-quality charter schools—not necessarily to reward states with the highest-performing sectors. In fact, Ohio's cannot becoming high-performing until we replicate and expand the best networks while simultaneously shutting down low-performers. HB 2 will help ensure that poor performers close, rather than hopping to new sponsors; the rigor of the sponsor performance review will ensure that sponsors aren't opening poorly vetted schools anymore. All of this is to say that we're on the right track. But we need start-up funds to get us the rest of the way there. Only one-half of charter kids come from the Big 8? I'd like to see more data on that. I think the gist is that charter schools serve similar percentages of kids in poverty and students of color as the Big 8 urban districts. And that's what makes it a fair comparison.

Steve: I'll give you the “high quality” definition, but poor quality was not similarly defined in statute hence my high quality/low quality dichotomy issue. We simply don't classify charters like that here. I suppose you could assume that the automatic closure law standard would hold when determining low quality? But the department used a D or F grade standard in their letter rather than the simple F standard of the automatic closure law (which of course is on hold until at least 2017–2018, but that's another story). I'm encouraged that the department considers Ds to not be good grades. Will its “poor performing” definition have a material impact on the application? I don't know. But it's certainly concerning. And the fact that, once again, three low-performing e-schools (ECOT, OHDELA, and the Virtual Community School of Ohio) qualified for but weren't included in the poor performing definition raises the David Hansen data rigging specter. I know those schools won't get a dime (it's hoped, but we did give ECOT, which got all Fs and a D on the last report card, a Straight A Fund grant), but the USDOE wants to know the state of Ohio's entire charter school sector, not just the sliver in which they will be investing. I get that the department doesn't want to advertise that including those three e-schools means that more than 30 percent of Ohio's kids are in poor performing charter schools. But doesn't that strengthen the need to bring in more money for high-quality ones? I would think arguing that we need the money to drive down that percentage would be a pretty good argument. It doesn't help that ECOT and OHDELA are run by big political contributors. Not including them is a bad look. As a side note, I'll be curious to see whether the legislature will revisit the automatic closure law to include Ds and Fs rather than just Fs, in light of the department's apparent determination that Fs AND Ds are poor performing. 

Jamie: I believe that the new low-performing state definition (D or F in Value Added and D or F in performance index) aligns with the definition for low-performers as spelled out in HB 2 (for purposes of prohibiting schools from sponsor hopping). I think it's important to reiterate a point you made: Ohio's e-schools aren't in line for CSP funding; at least—it would be incredibly unlikely (and I don’t believe any have one past CSP grants). So I hope that the quality issues they're experiencing don't interfere with Ohio's ability to secure the funds for high-quality brick-and-mortar charters. Because they occupy such a significant percentage of our sector, as you correctly note, their scores really drag down the scores of the charter sector as a whole. And because they are so fundamentally different from brick-and-mortar charter schools (in student demographics, where they can enroll from, etc.), some might question whether they should be considered charter schools at all. But that's a conversation for another day.

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