Ohio’s “Dropout Recovery” Charters Increase State’s Dropout Rate, Swallow Tax Dollars

Doug Livingston, the education writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio’s top education journalist, recently reported on the financial scam at Ohio’s so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools. These are the on-line charters that say they are serving Ohio’s most vulnerable adolescents while in reality they are, according to Livingston, making enormous profits while driving up Ohio’s dropout rate at the same time other states are significantly increasing the rate of high school completion.

It is, of course, true that these schools cater to students in danger of dropping out, but because of the way the state reimburses such schools, there is massive profit to be made. In  the first of his new series of articles Livingston explains that two-thirds of Ohio’s dropouts are from charter schools, the vast majority on-line academies that require students to sit in a cubicle with a computer for four hours a day.

In a table that accompanies his recent investigation, Livingston lists a dozen dropout-recovery charter schools with a graduation rate below 4 percent, two of them posting a 4-year graduation rate of zero percent. Seven of these schools are part of the Life Skills Academy network owned by politically connected David Brennan as part of his White Hat chain.  In a second piece, Livingston reports: “For 15 years, White Hat and its programs for high school dropouts have cornered an education market saturated with struggling students who often bounce from school to school. White Hat’s model—what founder and owner David Brennan held up as the alternative to government schools’ failing ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach—has spread to every major city in Ohio.”

“Absenteeism tops the reasons why students drop out; charter schools continue to collect tax dollars for more than a month while they are gone.” “Administrators call it churning’ or ‘school hopping’—when student drop out, disappear for months and then return.” “The state counts a dropout as an event, not as a person. If one student drops out three times in one year, that is three dropouts. It happens, a lot.” The state requires that students who are absent or truant for more than 23 days be taken off school rolls, but during that 23 days, the state reimburses the school. Livingston explains: “There were more than 11,000 removals for truancy last year, meaning taxpayers paid for perhaps 253,000 days of no student instruction, or the equivalent of 1,400 empty desks for an entire school year.”

Besides Brennan’s White Hat charter chain, there are two other primary players in Ohio’s cyber charter sector: The Ohio Virtual Academy, a K12 affiliate, and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) operated by William Lager, who has made a profit of over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services to ECOT. The Ohio Virtual Academy and ECOT do not market themselves exclusively as dropout recovery schools.

Livingston reports: “In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 5,300 dropouts—a quarter of all Ohio dropouts that year—attended one of two online charter schools: the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or Ohio Virtual Academy. Collectively, these two charter schools have a dropout rate 45 times higher than traditional public schools, and 10 times higher than the state’s eight largest city school districts. Another 6,829 students—about a third of all Ohio dropouts—attended charter schools designed specifically for dropouts…. Last year, these dropout charter schools enrolled one percent of Ohio’s public school students but accounted for roughly the same number of dropout events as did public district schools, which enrolled 91 percent of Ohio’s students.”

Two Ways of Thinking about Teaching

The July 29, New Yorker magazine promotes Atal Gawande’s moving article, Slow Ideas, with the tag “Annals of Medicine.”  I would argue that, although Gawande is a physician and medical researcher, his piece this week is not so much about medicine as it is about teaching.  For me, a former teacher, it speaks to the essence of what I know school teachers do.

Gawande is a surgeon and director of a joint center for health-system innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health.  He is also a wonderful writer.  His topic this week is how to ensure that important health innovations can be spread widely in the non-industrialized world, where equipment including electricity may be lacking in health clinics, but where simple procedures for cleanliness and hydration can prevent the death of children in childbirth and even prevent death during epidemics of cholera.  In example after example, Gawande demonstrates that medical innovation cannot be taught effectively through technology or flashy posters or videos or incentives or punishments.  People learn, according to Gawande’s research through “concerted, person-by-person effort” to change norms.  Gawande’s group is changing the culture in birth centers in poor villages in India by assigning personal mentors to work with midwives and nurses.

Another article this morning is the perfect foil for Gawande’s piece.  This is John Merrow’s  opinion piece today about Michelle Rhee and her tenure as chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools.  Merrow was once a fan of Michelle Rhee, whom he covered extensively for the PBS Newshour.  Subsequently a cheating scandal is said to have happened during Rhee’s tenure in Washington, DC, although the allegation has never been fully investigated despite Merrow’s efforts to demand an investigation.  And it is becoming clearer, as Rhee’s strategies continue to be practiced in the DC Schools, that the “Rhee miracle” was really an illusion: test score continue to fall; the dropout rate is the highest in the nation; and a test score gap by income level continues to widen as the city gentrifies.

Michelle Rhee brought flash-in-the-pan, technocratic school reform to our nation’s capital.  She motivated teachers and principals with incentives: staff got bonuses in schools where test scores rose rapidly, but in schools where scores remained low, teachers and principals were fired outright.

Gawande’s wonderful article portrays teaching embedded in human relationship, in caring, and in friendship.  People can be helped to grow when others work with them as guides and mentors.  Gawande suggests that employing people to work with and support others is an important kind of career.  This message should thrill our own society’s over 3 million school teachers whose job is just what Dr. Gawande prescribes.  Sadly instead,  today our society’s tendency is to blame the teachers who struggle with overwhelming odds rather than figuring out how to support them so that they can create stable, supportive relationships with the children they serve.