Ohio Has Dabbled in Charter School Oversight but Huge Problems Remain

Buried in all the election news this past week was a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the closure of the OAK Leadership Institute charter school by its sponsor, now under pressure after the Ohio legislature began last winter to require the authorizors of these schools to close chronically under-performing charters.

Tucked  into the very end of that story are a couple of paragraphs about another aspect of the state’s recent efforts to regulate charter schools.  Patrick O’Donnell, whose story focuses on the auctioning off of the school’s equipment, explains: “Most of the proceeds should eventually go to the Cleveland school district. House Bill 2 changed state law to make sure that charter school supplies bought with state tax dollars are returned to schools.  Most of whatever is left after all school expenses are covered will go to the local school district.”

Ensuring that equipment purchased with tax dollars benefits the public when a charter school is closed is one of the biggest reforms accomplished with our state’s pitifully minimal new regulations. It used to be that the charter management organization got to keep the equipment (or money from sale of the equipment) that the public purchased for the now-out-of-business charter school.

Strengthened oversight is definitely not the whole story of Ohio’s relationship with its charter school sector.  The state’s failure to regulate fraud and abuse is typified by the long-running story of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online academy that continues to operate thanks to the political power and political contributions of its operator, William Lager.

Now that the election is over and we move toward a lame duck legislative session when increased oversight of online charter schools’ attendance records is once again supposed to be considered, here is the most recent outcry from the editors of the Columbus Dispatch: “Imagine the public outrage if a state agency was caught forking over more than $100 million a year in taxpayer dollars to a wealthy business that submitted invoices for phony work. Oh, and the victims of this scam were children. Sadly, no imagination is necessary. A Dispatch review of login information for 699 students in the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow found that scores of kids covered by state subsidies were absent for 30 days or more.  As many as 7 in 10 missed so many days last school year that they could be declared truant under state law…. Ohio taxpayers have been shelling out millions of dollars for a substandard product. And it reflects badly on the Ohio Department of Education, which for 16 years looked the other way; only recently did it begin demanding student login data to verify charter-school attendance, upon which the state subsidies are based.”  The Dispatch reminds us that ECOT  “demands to be paid for making learning opportunities available, regardless of whether students participate; hence, its lackadaisical approach to truants.”

Bill Bush, the Dispatch reporter whose story motivated the newest editorial, explains: “In Ohio, students can miss no more than 15 days of school in a year before they risk being designated a ‘chronic truant,’ the most serious classification, requiring charges against the student and the student’s parents in juvenile court. Nearly two-thirds of ECOT students miss enough school to be chronic truants….”  When this matter was discussed in court earlier this fall, ECOT’s representative Neil Clark argued that one-fifth of ECOT’s students are older than 18, “so truancy laws don’t apply to them.”  And ECOT’s truancy officer, Patrick Tingler, explained that ECOT does not have tracking software to run reports to document a student’s chronic truancy.  Tingler explained in his court deposition that he had asked ECOT Superintendent Rick Teeters for better tracking software: “‘He took it under advisement,’ Tingler said, but never provided it.”  Apparently ECOT’s truancy software does throw up a red flag if a student misses 30 consecutive days: “After students log in, Tingler testified, he doesn’t track whether they do any classwork.  So long as a student logs in once every 30 days—even if they do no work—it resets his or her clock for another 30 days for both funding and truancy.”

When the legislature returns for this year’s final session now that the election is over, there is still a remote chance that lawmakers could consider the bill, proposed in the spring by the Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni to ensure that the state stops wasting tax dollars on the phantom students that ECOT and other online schools pretend they are educating, but the Akron Beacon Journal‘s editorial board is very skeptical that the legislature will take up Schiavoni’s proposed bill.  That newspaper’s editorial board notes that ECOT has received over $100 every year in tax dollars, that a recent state audit “found that the school overstated its enrollment by 143 percent, raising the possibility of the state seeking repayment of as much as $60 million,” that one of every six Ohio high school dropouts is from ECOT, and that William Lager has donated generously to legislative campaign funds with, “virtually the entire sum… landed in Republican coffers. The donation disparity does not surprise. Republicans have the power. From 2011, when Republicans regained total control of state government, to 2015, Lager routed their way more than $1 million in political money.” “These and other discouraging numbers explain why Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown Democrat and the Senate minority leader, has proposed legislation that would require online schools to document precisely student participation. The bill should receive high priority. Instead, it has been pushed aside by the Republican leadership.”

NY Times Publishes Major Expose of Detroit’s Charter School Catastrophe

Kate Zernike’s extraordinary expose in yesterday’s NY Times about K-12 education in Detroit, Michigan is a must-read.  The headline describes the reality today in Detroit: For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This post will summarize Zernike’s critique, but you’ll need to read her piece to learn how Detroit’s school-choice realities are being felt by the city’s poorest parents—who must spend hours delivering their children to schools spread across the 140 square mile school district where public transportation is inadequate and many charters do not provide any busing.  You’ll also learn how unregulated, awful schools are truncating the futures of the children Zernike profiles.

Zernike narrates the history of Detroit’s school marketplace.  In 1993, John Engler, Michigan’s “free-market-inclined governor,” “embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run….” “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools.  It got competition, and chaos. Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States. While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

Lack of regulation was a cornerstone of school choice in Detroit from the very beginning. School districts, community colleges and public universities can authorize and supposedly oversee charter schools, and they get an incentive of 3 percent of the state dollars paid to each charter school they sponsor.  “And only they—not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education—could shut down failing schools.”  Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies: “The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors. Sometimes they were one and the same, as with J.C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies.  Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos—she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor—established the Great Lakes Educational Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative…  Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew.  The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.” Huizenga even managed to get a law passed by the state legislature that permits for-profit charter companies not to pay taxes on any properties they lease to schools.

It is a free-for-all that has failed the children but has at the same time been profitable for the charter management companies and their sponsors: “With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant  the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away—as far from Detroit as Portland, ME., is from New York City.”

Zernike profiles families whose children have changed schools multiple times after parents, drawn by incentives and promises of quality education, discover they have been sold a myth: “With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs.  The competition to get students to school on count day—the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school—can resemble a political campaign.  Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals.  They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”

Finally this year, as the legislature set out to develop a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from years’ of deficit spending by a succession of state-appointed emergency managers, it seemed as though there would be a way incorporate some charter oversight as part of the plan, but it didn’t work out.  Mayor Mike Duggan, “proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate… Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from Western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission.  Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal… But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters…. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission.”

Please read For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This blog has covered the problems in the Detroit Public Schools here.

Notorious Online Ohio Charter School Tries to Protect Reimbursement for Phantom Students

Last fall the Ohio legislature managed to pass a law that minimally regulates charter schools despite huge pressure from Ohio’s online charter profiteers to block the measure. But already the lobbyists for the same profitable online schools are asking the legislature to water down the regulations.

Two weeks ago Brent Larkin, now a columnist and the former editorial director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, penned one of the most scathing condemnations of politicians I’ve ever read.  His subject—for-profit charter czars’ efforts to purchase lax regulation of Ohio’s charters with political donations to Ohio’s legislators and Governor John Kasich: “Few human beings are more worthless than morally bankrupt politicians who consciously game the system in ways that make learning even more difficult for struggling young students… For years, one of the worst-kept secrets in the nation’s public education community was that Ohio’s legislators would gladly sell out children in return for sizable campaign contributions from charter schools run by for-profit management firms.  That began to change last year, when reporting by newspapers throughout the state… exposed this state as the poster child for corruption and failure in its half-hearted attempts to require that the for-profit charter schools actually educate children.” But now, continues Larkin, “Just weeks after long-overdue charter school reforms took effect, Rosenberger (Cliff Rosenberger, Ohio’s House speaker) and his sneaky band of legislative colleagues want to gut them.”

In mid-February Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky reported for the Columbus Dispatch that lobbyists for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest charter school and its most notorious online academy, have been pressing legislators to delay “for at least a year new attendance-tracking requirements for e-schools, and change the basis for e-schools’ funding to whether at least 900 hours of instruction are simply offered to each student who enrolls and receives a computer, rather than requiring that students actually participate in all 900 hours.”  Candisky and Siegel remind us: “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”

Candisky and Siegel updated their story earlier this week, noting that, “The privately operated, publicly funded schools get about $6,000 per student each year.”  Candisky and Siegel’s new report focuses on new attendance reviews of online schools that the Ohio Department of Education has begun conducting this year: “Aaron Rausch, director of budget and school funding for the Ohio Department of Education, said records for 104 charter schools will be examined this year, including the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state’s largest online charter school.  Enrollment is used to calculate state funding; ECOT has about 18,000 students.”  ECOT was to have been reviewed in February, but the school rescheduled the review for March.  Siegel and Candisky again explain that: “School officials from ECOT reportedly crafted a softened attendance-tracking amendment—floated recently in the Ohio House—which would require online schools only to offer the statewide minimum 920 hours of instruction per school year but not require students to actually participate in these hours.”

In other words Lager—who reaps all of ECOT’s profits—and his lobbyists are angling to get ECOT’s attendance review delayed until they can get the legislature to change the law so that ECOT can continue collecting $6,000-per-student for all 18,000 young people it says are enrolled.  The Ohio Department of Education’s enrollment review would, of course, expose the number of students who ECOT pretends study full time, the students who don’t really spend enough hours engaging at their computers with the school’s online curriculum to qualify as real students.

And, according to Candisky and Siegel at the Dispatch, there is reason to be skeptical, based on reviews already conducted of some of the state’s smaller online schools: “Provost Academy, a Columbus-based online charter school, agreed to return about $800,000 of the $1 million it received in state aid during the 2014-2015 school year.  A review by the Education Department gave the school credit for only 32 full-time students, not the 155 the school reported.  Another online charter, Lakewood Digital Academy in Hebron, will pay about $150,000 back to the state after officials found it had only 16 full-time students, not the 57 it claimed…  State officials found Provost counted students who logged in for 60 minutes a day as attending a full day.  State rules require them to attend at least five hours.”  Several other online charter schools are projecting significant enrollment declines next year, presumably because they won’t be able to count as many students as fully enrolled as they have claimed in the past.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s editorialized on this issue earlier this week:  “The revelation that one of Ohio’s online charter schools was vastly overpaid by the state based on undocumentable enrollment statistics, and the fact that the school will have to repay that money, should send a message to all online schools that they need to adequately document enrollment or they will face the same unpleasant accounting… It’s natural to wonder if similar problems exist at other online charter schools.  Because if they did, the amount of money wasted could be jaw-dropping. These e-schools are projected to be paid $275 million this year for educating 39,000 students. If all had problems documenting their attendance to the degree at Provost Academy, that would mean that $220 million was paid unjustifiably.” About ECOT’s proposal that online charters would be required by the legislature merely to offer 920 hours of instruction but would not be held responsible for ensuring that students actually spent time studying the material online, the Dispatch editorial board is astounded: “Obviously, these provisions would make it possible for online charters to collect millions of dollars of taxpayer money with no guarantee that online students actually are receiving an education.”

The Dispatch reporters remind readers of what is now ancient history: ECOT’s submission of inflated enrollment figures back in 2000-2001, its first year of operation. “ECOT was required to repay the state $1.6 million in 2002 for enrollment problems during its first year, 2000-2001.  ECOT said it enrolled 2,270 students, but records showed that only seven logged into the school’s computer system during that time.”

The Walton Family Foundation, a long supporter of school choice and charter schools, has announced it will be reevaluating its policy of making grants to online charter schools. Marc Sternberg, director of education philanthropy at the Walton Family Foundation, and Marc Holley, the Walton Foundation’s evaluation-unit director, recently published a commentary in Education Week to announce that, based on research the Walton Foundation has funded, the Foundation will be reevaluating its grant making for on-line education.  Citing studies underwritten by the Walton Foundation and published last fall by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Stanford CREDO) the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research, Sternberg and Holley write: “The results are, in a word, sobering.  The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.  This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst–performing.”

Maybe the Walton Foundation should underwrite a study to explore one basic variable. Is it possible that a major issue at online charter schools is that students, many of them unsupervised while at home during the school day, may not actually be “attending” school even though the schools are being reimbursed by state governments with millions of tax dollars based on dishonest or shoddy or difficult-to-verify reports submitted by the schools?

Ohio Charter Regulation Goes On Life Support, Will Likely Die

Benjamin Barber is a political philosopher, and his observations are usually pretty abstract, which is why is it so fascinating to observe what his words mean in the real life drama of everyday politics—a drama that turned to tragedy this week in the Ohio legislature as the bill to regulate charter schools and their sponsor-authorizers collapsed and went on life support, though it hasn’t quite died.

Consider Barber’s reflection on the way privatization undermines the common good: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Here is what happened earlier this week as Ohio’s public governing body left on break before reigning in the for-profit, privatized charter management sector, according to Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter: “The Ohio House will head off on summer break without voting on the new accountability and financial reporting rules for Ohio’s $1 billion charter school industry that have been in the works for months.  House leaders skipped a vote on the package late last week and have left it off the schedule for Tuesday, the last session before leaving for recess.  Brittany Warner, spokesperson for Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, confirmed today that there will be no vote before break… Warner said that leaders want more time to study some of the changes and that differences between the House and Senate versions should be sorted out in a conference between leaders of both houses.” O’Donnell concludes: “Republican leaders say the delay is to clear up some issues with the just-revised bill.  Others call it an attempt to buy time to water down the bill to please charter school operators who donate to Republican candidates.”

Here is the meaning of the delay, according to an e-mail on Monday afternoon from Stephen Dyer, former member of the Ohio House and former reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal:  “It looks like the Ohio House won’t take up the charter reform package that cleared the Ohio Senate last week before the end of business tomorrow (Tuesday).  So now, it’s being slow walked, which means at best we wait until mid-July…. We know that the powerful Ohio poor performing charter operator lobby would love for both chambers to bog this bill down so nothing changes.”

The Plain Dealer’s report quotes the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. Teresa Fedor, who is more blunt: “They never will call a vote, which means the tax dollars will continue on the ripoff train.”

Charter schools have always been conceptualized, to use Benjamin Barber’s language, around “the lure of private liberty and particular interest.”  They were designed to be free of the regulations (described as the constraints of bureaucracy) that, some believe, limit innovation in the traditional public schools that are held to particular standards and required to provide sufficient and appropriate services for all kinds of children.  The idea was to free up charters, and Ohio did just that, so much so that even charter advocacy organizations have condemned the academic malpractice and financial malfeasance that have been documented again and again.

Last December the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study of the academic effectiveness of Ohio’s charters (as measured by standardized test scores). CREDO has been a charter supporter, but its Ohio report is scathing: “First, recent efforts across Ohio to improve the quality of charter school performance are only dimly discernible in the analysis.  Overall performance trends are marginally positive, but the gains that Ohio charter school students receive even in the most recent periods studied still lag the progress of their traditional public school peers… Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state.  If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time.”  “Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school, the analysis shows on average that the students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”

Margaret Raymond, director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), followed up by coming to speak  at the Cleveland City Club, where she announced that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The legislation that the Ohio House declined to vote on this week was already so watered down that it would have addressed only a few of the most serious academic and financial problems across Ohio’s charter sector.  Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch explains that last week the Senate did add provisions to strengthen transparency and oversight: “Key Senate additions… include giving the Department of Education more effective authority to oversee charter school sponsors, more transparency of operator spending, and a stronger provision aimed at preventing sponsor hopping, where a poor-performing school quickly seeks to re-open under a new sponsor to avoid being closed… The bill also seeks to improve the way the state evaluates charter sponsors, nix the potential conflicts of interest that exist between schools and sponsors, and provide more assurance that sponsors are actually spending state money on their school oversight role.  New additions also would require online e-schools to keep more accurate attendance records, implement annual sponsor ratings with consequences for low scores, and establish stronger contracts between the state and the sponsors.”

Here, however, is some of what Ohio’s legislature entirely neglected to address—even in the proposed legislation that has now been hopelessly delayed.  Doug Livingston, in the Akron Beacon Journal, reported last week that the state, “has removed all test scores for online and computer-based dropout recovery high schools when grading sponsors.  These are the lowest-performing types of charter schools… Though there are only 24 online schools among the more than 380 charter schools in Ohio, they receive nearly one in three state dollars set aside for charter schools, or $267 million… The two largest—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and Ohio Virtual Academy—received $185 million in state funding… Two are run by influential for-profit companies: White Hat Management, which operates Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan; and Altair Learning, which operates ECOT and is owned by Bill Lager.  Brennan and Lager have given more than $1.4 million in political contributions to state lawmakers since 2009…. In addition to his online school, Brennan’s Life Skills dropout recovery schools also are not included—at least this year—in sponsor ratings.”

It is worth noting that Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder—when he was term-limited out in January of this year and revolved directly into a lobbying job—took on a very powerful and influential client: William Lager and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Ohio is the exemplar of Benjamin Barber’s critique: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….”