Lacking Checks and Balances, Government Brings Us a Tragicomic Mess

Today’s post is a lesson in basic civics.

When one party reigns supreme, as it does these days in the majority of  states and the federal government—when one party dominates the executive branch and the legislative branch—government leaders do pretty much whatever they want. They pass dangerous legislation and they pass outrageously trivial and sometimes noxious legislation. Even if you disagree and use all the avenues citizens are given to participate in our supposedly participatory democracy, your opinions may be completely ignored.

There are some lessons here—about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority—about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate—and about the need for the press to make sure the public is aware of the implications of the actions taken and to make sure everybody votes in the next election.

Ohio is a one party, super-majority Republican state.  I’ll demonstrate the importance of the three lessons with examples from Ohio just in this past week, but remember that the lessons very probably apply in your state and certainly to what is happening at the federal level.

Let’s begin with the lesson on the need for the press (and even bloggers) to make sure the public is informed about the implications of the actions taken. In a Valentine for school teachers, Ohio Governor John Kasich included in his state budget a requirement that to renew their teaching licenses, teachers will have to complete an externship with a business or local chamber of commerce. Here is Jackie Borchardt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer explaining the reasoning behind Kasich’s proposal: “The idea is the latest in Kasich’s push to better connect schools with their local business communities.  Requiring externships for license renewal was one of several recommendations made late last year by Kasich’s Executive Workforce Board.”

The response of teachers’ organizations to this ridiculous proposal has been muted. After all, teachers cannot afford to make themselves seem to want to be disconnected from their communities, and they cannot want to make themselves appear lazy either, especially in these times when teachers are routinely blamed and castigated. Fortunately, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog has exposed some of the serious issues in Kasich’s externships—such as the amount of bureaucracy that would be required merely to manage it. Plunderbund also raises some other concerns. These externships might take teachers’ attention away from children and the panoply of other accountability rules legislators have recently passed: “attention away from their full-time, salaried job of delivering the state-mandated academic content to our test-taking children across the state as also mandated by numerous state laws… (W)e believe this provision is beyond absurd. Beyond the usual absurd level of Kasich’s education reform proposals that he likes to dump in his budget bill…. Kasich, who famously compared teaching children to making pizzas, does not believe that teaching is a ‘real job.’ Educators who work tirelessly to educate children with all of their diverse needs on a daily basis? Apparently none of that… counts as ‘on-site work experience with a local business.'”

As a blogger, I’ll add that the belief-system underlying this new budget provision worries me. I guess our governor believes education’s purpose is merely job training. And I guess he believes all real jobs are in business. I’d suggest the governor and members of the legislature have mandatory externships in our public schools, and I don’t mean merely ceremonial celebrations like Principal-for-a-Day. Our state leaders ought to sit with high school English teachers as they grade the 150 essays from their five classes of 30 students, for example, along with preparing for class discussions about Hamlet or A Lesson Before Dying.  They ought to help teachers put together the portfolios of lesson plans and data that are now required for submission to the Ohio Department of Education as the way our state evaluates teachers. They ought to have to shadow special education teachers working with disabled children. They ought to spend whole days at school watching elementary school teachers shape the flow of the day with 25 tired children.

The second lesson is about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate.  Last fall the Ohio Department of Education held large, facilitated meetings across the state when the federal government required public input into the development of states’ plans—to be submitted for approval by the U.S. Department of Education—to hold schools accountable.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act turns some of the power for developing criteria for accountability to the states. At our greater-Cleveland Ohio meeting, two priorities emerged through consensus. At my table, we all agreed that the state should reduce the amount of required standardized testing, but even more vociferously we insisted that the state stop labeling schools and school districts with A-F letter grades. We stopped our facilitator as she took notes, and we demanded that she use our words to insist on eliminating the letter-grade labels.  We told her that because the standardized test scores by which schools and school districts are graded tend to correlate in the aggregate with families’ economic level, the letter grades being assigned by the state to schools and school districts are branding as failures all the school districts that serve the poorest children.  The A-F school grading system is incentivizing economic and racial segregation by encouraging any families who can afford it to move to richer outer suburbs with fewer poor children. At the state’s greater-Cleveland meeting, when all the tables reported out, it became clear that our priorities were the priorities that dominated the entire regional meeting. Early in 2017, however, the state released its draft plan, and lo, neither of our greater-Cleveland priorities was mentioned.

I concluded what I presume was the lesson drawn by many of the participants: that in one-party Ohio, public participation is a sham. But earlier this week a group of school superintendents released a white paper on the very subjects our public hearing prioritized. Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer: “The state should stop grading schools and school districts with A though F grades, while also cutting the amount of state tests and making sure the tests help teachers teach students better, a group of local superintendents says. In a ‘white paper’ released Monday to state officials, superintendents from Lorain and western Cuyahoga County outlined several changes they say they wish the state had made—but didn’t—in its proposed testing and accountability plan under the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA)… Because the state did not respond to the public’s concerns, superintendents from Amherst, Avon, Clearview, Columbia Station, Elyria, Keystone, North Olmsted, Oberlin, Olmsted Falls and the Lorain County Educational Service Center offered their own proposed changes.”  My gratitude to these school district leaders has nothing to do with believing that the Ohio Department of Education will entertain their ideas. Their white paper is important, however, for informing  parents and their communities that they listened, even if our one-party state leaders are deaf to such concerns. And they are encouraging parents and other community members not to give up.

Finally there is the third lesson about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority.  You’ll remember that Ohio has a huge attendance problem at its unregulated online academies. The state legislature—beholden to political contributions from William Lager, who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the two privately held, for-profit companies that manage ECOT—has refused to crack down even though the Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT ought to return $60 million of the more than $100 million it collected in tax dollars last year. The state paid ECOT for thousands of phantom students who were not logging in to participate actively in the kind of schooling ECOT provides.  In March of 2016, the Ohio Senate Minority Leader, Joe Schiavoni, introduced a bill for regulation of attendance at the e-schools.  When Peggy Lehner, chair of the state senate’s education committee, showed some interest in the bill, the senate’s president, Keith Faber, undercut her by shunting the bill to the finance committee, and the bill died at the end of the legislative session without seeing the light of day.

Patrick O’Donnell reports that Schiavoni, a dogged minority leader, just re-introduced his bill: “The Democratic leader of the state Senate has put online charter schools in his crosshairs again this year….  Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, of Boardman, reintroduced this week a bill from last year that would require e-schools to track and report student participation in online classes not just ‘offer’ them online and not make sure students learn anything. ‘It’s no longer acceptable for e-schools to simply place classes online and expect funding from the state,’ Schiavoni said.” O’Donnell explains that “Schiavoni’s bill would not affect previous years, but would make the law more clear for the future.”

The specificity of enforcement procedures in Schiavoni’s bill exposes just how outrageous has been the public rip-off by ECOT and other online schools.  O’Donnell explains that if the new bill passed, e-schools would have to “track student activity daily and report it to the Ohio Department of Education each month, not just make that information available to the state auditor if requested. Notify the state, the local school district and parents if a student fails to log in for 10 days. Broadcast all meetings of their school boards on the internet, so parents that live far away can watch… Count state test scores of students that spend 90 or more days at an e-school toward that school’s state report card, even if they leave.” Schiavoni provides that when the state auditor finds violations at an e-school, any money that was lost to the e-school from the local school district be returned to that school district.

Larry Obhof is the new Ohio Senate Majority Leader. It won’t be surprising, considering our state’s lack of checks and balances, if, like his predecessor, Obhof blocks any serious consideration of Senator Schiavoni’s bill.  But thanks to Senator Schiavoni, Ohioans have a clear explanation of the public ripoff by William Lager and ECOT.  

And thanks to Ohio Senator Joe Schiavoni, people all across the states can examine clear evidence that due to single-party dominance, power politics, and out-of-control political spending, it is virtually impossible to regulate the charter school sector in the public interest.

Ohio Regulator Favors Politically Connected Charter School Sponsors, Resigns When Exposed

Things unraveled pretty quickly last week for David Hansen, the director of school choice at the Ohio Department of Education.  On Tuesday, the State Board of Education, dominated by appointees of Republican Governor John Kasich, met and discussed why, as Ohio began to evaluate the sponsor-authorizers of Ohio’s charter schools, the test scores of students at on-line charters were quietly omitted—a violation of state law as Republican chair of the state senate’s education committee, Peggy Lehner, and Republican state auditor, Dave Yost, have both confirmed.  When underlings of Hansen could not adequately answer the questions of Senator Peggy Lehner, who had come to the meeting of the State Board to ask questions, she demanded their boss come downstairs to the meeting room to address her concerns.

On Saturday, David Hansen resigned from his post overseeing charter schools for the Ohio Department of Education.

This is all a huge embarrassment for Governor John Kasich.  David Hansen’s wife, Beth, has been Kasich’s chief of staff for some time, but she recently resigned that position to chair his campaign staff, as he plans to announce soon as a Republican candidate for President.

Before he came to the Ohio Department of Education in 2013, David Hansen led the extremely conservative Buckeye Policy Institute, which is part of the far-right State Policy Network.  (You can learn about the State Policy Network that coordinates the work of far-right think tanks across the states here.)

The Plain Dealer noted in its editorial yesterday: “A 2012 state law on evaluating charter schools clearly mandated ODE (Ohio Department of Education) to include the grades of all online charter schools when grading their sponsors—agencies with oversight over the charter schools.  Lawmakers hoped the pressure on sponsors would force them to provide better oversight of their schools… However, Plain Dealer education reporter Patrick O’Donnell recently revealed that ODE quietly ignored that law, a revelation that shocked the state Board of Education among others.”  Because Hansen excluded the performance of online schools from his rating of sponsors, one sponsor, “the Ohio Council of Community Schools… earned the highest grade—exemplary—even though its online schools including OHDELA, which is run by the politically connected White Hat Management, earned the lowest–Fs.”

In his story yesterday, O’Donnell reported: “The evaluations of charter school sponsors, also called authorizers—the agencies that help create and oversee charter schools—are the cornerstone of Gov. John Kasich and the state’s roundabout plan to improve Ohio’s charter schools… The key beneficiary of the exclusion—so far—was the Ohio Council of Community Schools, a non-profit agency which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from the more than 14,000 students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by White Hat Management.”  David Brennan, owner of White Hat Management, and William Lager, the founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the private company that provides services for ECOT, Altair Management, are known to be among the state’s largest contributors to the campaigns of Ohio’s Republican elected officials.  It is well known that Ohio Virtual Academy (Ohio’s K12 affiliate), OHDELA, and ECOT have among the state’s highest dropout rates and notoriously low student achievement.

Last Friday, in follow up reporting to the story that had broken earlier in the week, O’Donnell noted that when asked about whether he would count ECOT’s persistently low scores in an upcoming evaluation of ECOT’s sponsor, “State Superintendent Richard Ross is refusing to say whether he will count the F grades for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school and one run by a major Republican contributor, in a key charter school evaluation coming soon… (T)hough an evaluation involving ECOT is imminent, he declined to answer direct questions from The Plain Dealer about how ODE will handle failing state report card grades for the online school that receives close to $100 million in state tax dollars for its 14,600 students.”

On Friday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio’s state auditor, Dave Yost, “is examining how the Ohio Department of Education excluded poor student-performanc data from online charter schools when it rated the schools’ sponsors last spring.” “‘You don’t get to pick and choose the laws you obey,’e Yost said.  After meeting with his staff on Thursday morning, Yost said he already had ‘folks that are out there talking’ to Education Department officials about what happened.  They are ‘collecting information,’ not conducting an official investigation, Yost said.”

State Senator Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat, has demanded the resignation of Richard Ross, Ohio’s state superintendent.  The Plain Dealer’s editors do not spare Ross in yesterday’s editorial: “(I)f Richard Ross, state superintendent of schools, hopes to regain his credibility and make true inroads in reforming Ohio’s broken charter school system, he must explain why he allowed this to happen.  An Ohio law requires state evaluations of all online schools and requires those evaluations to be part of overall sponsor evaluations—that means honest evaluations, not cooked grades… Ross must correct course immediately.”

What few have said directly is that the mess is also an enormous embarrassment to Governor John Kasich.  Hansen’s quick resignation is clearly part of an attempt to contain the damage.