Colleen Grady Questions Evolution, Is New Policy Adviser in Ohio Education Department

According to the website ballotpedia.org, 24 states have all Republican government, with governor, senate and house all dominated by Republican majorities.  Seven states are dominated by the Democratic Party.  In the recent November 3 election, Kentucky moved closer to all-Republican status, with the election of a Republican governor, but its Democrat-dominated state assembly prevents it’s falling into what ballotpedia calls a Republican trifecta state.  These numbers demonstrate that across state governments, more than half the states have lost the checks and balances provided when both political parties are viable.  Ballotpedia adds, “In addition to having a trifecta, it is also worth exploring which states have supermajorities. The supermajority allows a party in power to further exert its influence over the minority party.” Ohio is one of the states with a Republican legislative supermajority.

In Ohio, education policy is one of the areas where the impact of one-party, supermajority political domination is apparent.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the problems that have arisen in the leadership of state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dick Ross, who has resigned as of the end of 2015 now that a series of problems have been so relentlessly exposed in the press that his leadership has become an embarrassment.  Ross was hired, as state superintendents in Ohio are, by a state board of education that is also dominated by politics: “The 19-member Ohio school board is nominally Ross’ boss, but it’s long been virtually invisible in state education policy.  Further, the governor (John Kasich) can usually call the shots at the board, since he or she gets to appoint eight members (the other 11 are elected)… Kasich holds most cards in the search to replace Ross.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors summarize some of what has happened under Ross and Kasich’s tenure: “Observers… were stunned to learn that David Hansen, then the director of school choice for the Ohio Department of Education, had illegally omitted the F grades of online charter schools in evaluating charter school school sponsors—who, in Ohio, include some deep-pocketed donors to the GOP and Gov. John Kasich… But the even more curious part of this episode was that Ross claimed to have known nothing about Hansen’s actions.  At the very least, that raises questions about Ross’ attention to detail… In the wake of the charter school grading scandal, the U.S. Department of Education rightly raised questions about the quality of Ohio’s charter-school oversight, potentially putting in jeopardy $71 million in federal grants intended to underwrite the creation of more high quality charter schools in Ohio. In another disturbing recent case, Ross clearly had a hand in the secret state takeover of the Youngstown schools without the knowledge of either the state school board or most of the community—a legislative move that could affect other struggling school districts.”

The Plain Dealer‘s recent editorial declares that with Ross’s recent resignation, Ohio has, “an opportunity to find a superintendent who can do what Ross failed to do: be an independent, transparent and unbiased leader.”  But one recent action by the State Board of Education portends education leadership from the Kasich administration that is neither independent nor less biased.  The State Board, very likely with the approval of Governor John Kasich, just hired controversial former state board member Colleen Grady as its senior policy adviser.

Patrick O’Donnell, a rising star at the Plain Dealer as its education reporter, penned an article that also appeared in Sunday’s paper to describe Colleen Grady and report on her resume: “Grady left her $80,000-per-year post as senior policy adviser of the House Republican Caucus on Friday to take the same position at ODE (Ohio Department of Education) on Monday.  In her new position, she will report directly to the superintendent.”

O’Donnell continues: “Grady has been a major figure in education issues for several years.  Once a member of the Strongsville school board, she served on the state school board representing much of Northeast Ohio from 2005-2008… She has… taken strong positions on several controversial issues involving education…. She is a former lobbyist for the White Hat charter school network and took the lead in pointing out issues with the Senate’s version of House Bill 2, the state’s recently passed charter school reform bill.”  In other words, in her position as senior policy adviser to the House, she likely advised House leaders to try to weaken the senate bill which, thanks to massive press coverage of Ohio’s egregiously weak oversight of charter schools, the legislature was embarrassed into passing. The House did not prevail, and Grady can’t be pleased with the new bill to regulate charters, despite that it focuses on only the most outrageous problems with previously unregulated charters.  For example, the new bill does prevent a charter school from hopping to a new sponsor if the current authorizer tries to put the school out of business due to academic failure or fraud. The new law makes it illegal for a charter management company to suggest board members for a new charter school—board members who will then be responsible for hiring a management company—a practice that White Hat has been known to practice and that is replete with conflicts of interest.  And the new law makes illegal the kind of contract that White Hat had with several charters that eventually closed, a contract that left all the furniture and computers to the management company rather than returning assets of the closed schools to the public whose tax dollars had purchased them.

O’Donnell adds another detail about Grady: “As a member of the state board in 2006, she backed two attempts to have science teachers encourage debate about evolution, instead of teaching it as a fact.”

While I am delighted to see the editors of the Plain Dealer editorialize for a superintendent of public instruction in Ohio who will be “an independent, transparent and unbiased leader,” I don’t imagine we are going to get this kind of education leadership in our Republican dominated, one-party, supermajority state.

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Ohio Blogger Contrasts College Teacher Credentialing with TFA

Plunderbund, Eric Vessels’ Columbus, Ohio blog, tracks political corruption. Vessels named his blog after a word he discovered on a word-of-the-day calendar.  According to Vessels, “plunderbund – [U.S. colloq.] A corrupt alliance of political, commercial, and financial interests engaged in exploiting the public.”  Vessels is among Ohio’s best known on-line muckrakers.

His chosen current topic is the arrival of Teach for America in Ohio.  In How Ohio’s Teaching Standards Are Lowered By Teach For America, Vessels compares and contrasts the credentialing process for candidates seeking teaching certificates in BA and graduate level programs at Ohio’s colleges and universities to the five-week summer program that readies Teach for America recruits to step into the classroom in September.

According to Vessels, an Ohio law passed quietly in 2011 “requires the Ohio Department of Education to grant a 4-year Resident Educator License (new teacher license) to Teach for America, Inc. participants.”

Here is Vessels’ description from the Ohio State University of requirements for its M.Ed. teachers: “M.Ed. students are placed for field experiences (observation, participation, internship) in schools in fall and spring semesters for increasingly richer experiences. These placements collectively provide 700 clock hours in the schools spread over 150 days (of the typical 180-day school calendar). The placements are in schools in Franklin County with each student experiencing urban and suburban school classrooms.”

Requirements for four-year undergraduate certification programs include “a minimum of twelve weeks of full-time student teaching and a minimum of one-hundred clock hours of field experiences prior to student teaching.”  “While Teach For America, Inc. only requires 50 hours of cooperative teaching during a summer school program, Ohio state law requires that prospective teachers complete a minimum of 460 hours of field experience, including 12 weeks of student teaching, with typically 6 of those weeks being full days of independent instruction, under the supervision of a university professor(s).”

Vessels wonders why the less-prepared Teach for America candidates are serving in Ohio’s urban areas, the poorest school districts where the need for quality teachers is greatest.  Here Vessels explains that the Cleveland Municipal School District is paying Teach for America an additional $9,000 finders fee for each candidate TFA brings to Cleveland with a five-week training credential.

Universal Access and Public Ownership: Charter Schools Don’t Meet These Criteria

This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look.  You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”

Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students.  There are quality charter schools.

But I also know that public school policy must be systemic.  Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time.  Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school.  There is a problem of scale for one thing.  Public schools in America educate 50 million children.  The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle.  Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.

Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access.  Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students.  Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic.  No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child.  Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set.  But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.

Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated.  But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate.  In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.

As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent.  Yet in too many places public oversight is missing.  While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools.  Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters.  My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools.  Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:

“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October.  (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.)  All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed.  Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year.  The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.”  The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.

For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did  this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state?  Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.

The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools.  One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”  Earlier this fall  Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent.  Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools.  According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”

Flipping Schools, The Story of Ohio Charter Schools

Doug Livingston, the education reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, describes an old, old practice permitted by Ohio charter school law:  Failing Charter Schools Often Close, Reopen with Little Change.

“Analysis of Ohio Department of Education records for years prior to 2013 show(s) seven charter schools operated by for-profit management companies were closed for academic performance and were reopened under that same company, with only one exception,”  writes Livingston.

Members of the public are rarely aware of the shady practices of Ohio’s big charter managers, because the privately held companies control information and the Ohio legislature, beholden to large contributors who manage charter schools, has made it impossible for the Ohio Department of Education or anyone else to regulate such scams.

Livingston reports: “The process of flipping a failing school is an easy one. The original idea behind charter schools was that a group of citizens interested in experimenting with new education concepts would create a nonprofit organization, form a school board and work with the Ohio Department of Education to launch a school.  In practice, however, many for-profit management companies do all the work.  And when they see a forced shutdown on the horizon, they create a new nonprofit, establish a new school board—or keep the same one—and in essence control the entire process.”  Notice that the management company is creating the school board when it ought to be the community, non-profit school board deciding whether to run the school or bring in a management company.

Livingston quotes John Charlton, an official with the Ohio Department of Education: “We have no authority to make a judgment about the worthiness of a [prospective] school.”  “If we suspect that there may be recycling of a school closed for poor academic performance—same management company, same building—we ask the sponsor to verify that a different program is going into the building; that the majority of staff at the building are different; that there’s a different governing authority.  We ask for this verification, and we have gotten assurances that it is not the same old, same old, but we have no explicit legal authority to prevent this from happening.”

One of the turnaround strategies being prescribed nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education when a public school persistently struggles to raise standardized test scores is that the school may be turned over to a Charter Management Organization or an Education Management Organization.  However, regulation of such privatization is left to the discretion of state legislatures.  While the U.S. Department of Education conditions qualification for federal grants under programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers on states’ adopting its prescribed turnaround models, the federal government has no legal authority to regulate the charter schools it is encouraging states and school districts to create.  The regulation itself is controlled by the politics of the states qualifying for the federal grants.

Nor do the federal grants that “incentivize” privatization pay the full cost.  In Ohio, as in other states, when charters and e-schools are created, state funds follow the child away from the public school district.  In some states local tax money is diverted as well.

In their applications for these competitive federal funding streams, states promise to create quality alternatives.  In Ohio, at least, legislative politics have ensured that the state has no way to prevent mismanagement of the funds  charter schools suck out of public school coffers.  Neither can Ohio ensure that children will be provided a quality academic experience.

Money Follows Child in Ohio Budget—Cleveland Public Schools Learn They Lose Millions

All spring through the 2014-2015 biennial Ohio budget debate in Columbus, the legislature was provided printouts of the implications of the budget for the state’s 631 school districts.  The only catch is that the printouts counted charter schools as part of their public school districts for budgeting purposes.  Nobody—no legislator, no school superintendent, no school board member, no citizen—could tell how much money the public schools in any school district would receive once money followed some children to charter schools.

Critics questioned whether there might not be school districts that appeared in the printouts to benefit from additional state aid or at least stay even but would actually lose state funding when the money for the charters was broken out.  Computer runs that would reveal the truth did not appear before the budget was passed by the legislature and signed in to law by Ohio’s Governor John Kasich on June 30.

Months later and a couple of weeks into this school year, the Ohio Legislative Services Commission released the data.  The September 6 Plain Dealer shared the news:  “Estimates for how much the state would deduct from districts for students attending charter schools were not available when the budget passed June 29….  The most dramatic case those estimates reveal is the Cleveland school district, which has no aid increase from the 2012-2013 school year to the current school year under the budget, but much higher deductions for charter students.  Depending on how you calculate it, the district will end up with $3 million to $4.5 million less for its students, after the state deducts a greater share for charter schools.”  In other words Cleveland, one of the nation’s poorest big city school districts, had been told its state aid would stay even in the upcoming budget cycle, only to learn this week that it will lose millions of dollars it had counted on.  And this after Cleveland voters passed a 15 mill levy last November to replace the millions cut by the state in the 2012-2013 budget.

There are ample reasons to be concerned about the emergence and growth of Ohio charter schools.  A recent report by the Columbus Dispatch describes Charter Schools’ Failed Promise. Our state is reputed to be among the weakest in its regulatory oversight of charters, with many earning state-issued grades of D or F on the report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education.  To his credit, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson tried to create a Cleveland Transformation Alliance with the power to authorize only quality charters and to put the rest out of business, but it turned out that the legislative fine print denies the Transformation Alliance any real power to regulate Cleveland’s charters.

Of additional concern, however, is the allegation made by reporter Stephanie Simon in a Reuters investigative report last February, Class Struggle–How Charter Schools Get Students They Want, that one of Cleveland’s top-rated charters is controlling its test scores by selecting its students.  According to Simon,  a boy at the top of the waiting list for the Intergenerational Charter School was required to take a two-hour entrance examination.  The principal  then told the mother the child “wasn’t academically or developmentally ready for third-grade–even though he was enrolled in the third grade at his local public school, where he remains.”  Simon continues: “A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said charter schools are obligated to admit students into the grade they would attend at their neighborhood school, regardless of skill.”  Simon continues: “The community authorizer that supervises Intergenerational Charter said that it is confident the school’s admissions policy is legal but that it will review the policy.”

Simon’s article describes the many ways charter schools across the United States cream-skim the most promising students and those whose parents bring the most savvy to the application process; she alleges that the sometimes subtle ways charters select students leave behind students with special needs, English language learners, and homeless and other children living in extreme poverty.  These students are the most expensive to educate  In Cleveland this year we see the state budget punishing the public school district which is required to serve all children.

In a fascinating analogy, former middle school life sciences teacher Anthony Cody blogged last winter that charter schools exist as organisms in a symbiotic arrangement.  He warns that parasitism, in which one set of organisms are “helped at the expense of the other,” cannot survive if the parasites kill off their hosts.