Ohio Governor and Legislature Threaten to Quash Democracy in Education Governance and Oversight

Ohio’s Governor John Kasich likes to have full control. And he views education pretty much as a tool for his highest priority: workforce development. Ohio’s economy persists in lagging, and Kasich seems to believe that if he can seize more control of education, that might be the answer. (The essential question of whether education has other purposes besides workforce development—preparing thoughtful citizens—developing critical thinking and imagination—nurturing appreciation for literature and the arts—will have to wait for a future blog post.)  Governor Kasich and his close partners in the legislature are pushing House Bill 512 to consolidate several departments that have education in their portfolios and remove power from Ohio’s 19 member State Board of Education, which Kasich already partially controls through the 8 members appointed by him. The other 11 are elected from districts across the state. The plan would also eliminate the State Board-appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction.

There is some mystery about the Governor’s intense advocacy for HB 512, because term limits ensure that he will no longer be the governor after voters elect a new governor in November.  Even if Kasich can consolidate power for all of the state’s educational functions into one super cabinet-level department in Columbus, he won’t any longer be the governor, and he won’t have any power over his new agency.

Here is how the editorial board of the Akron Beacon Journal describes the merger at the heart of HB 512 along with some questions and concerns: “The bill would merge the departments of higher education and education, plus the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation…  The governor did not consult widely or effectively.  For one, Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent and a logical source for input, was not asked for his thoughts by those putting together the proposal…  The governor already controls two of the three offices that would be merged. The potential exists for having considerable clout with the third, the Department of Education, along with (the) state school board… Yet though the department plays a big and obvious role in the work mission, the governor did not put the state superintendent on the workforce transformation board.  Neither has the governor filled seats on the state Board of Regents overseeing higher education. The nine-member board currently has just two members.”

A political fight over HB 512 has been taking place in packed hearing rooms in Columbus, as Kasich allies argue for more efficiency, and opponents protest another theft of democracy, following an earlier education efficiency plan rammed through the legislature in the middle of a summer night in 2015—the Youngstown (and now Lorain) school takeover.  The Youngstown Plan designed and delivered by Kasich and his allies puts an appointed “academic distress commission” (ADC) in charge of running Ohio’s poorest and lowest scoring school districts and an appointed CEO responsible to the ADC and the state. The elected local school board continues to exist, but only in an advisory role.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes the arguments being made by both sides around the governor’s 2018, HB 512 plan to consolidate the Ohio Department of Education, the Higher Education Board of Regents, and Workforce Transformation: “A bill to create that merger, which would also wipe out about 80 percent of the power of the state school board and give it to the governor, has drawn some support but also a backlash from educators and the public… Backers of the plan say combining the three will give students a smoother path to learning skills they need for jobs and a promising future. By eliminating the ‘silos’ of the three departments, they say, the state can lessen an ongoing problem of graduates lacking the right skills for available jobs and employers struggling to find people with those changing skills… But a wave of opponents say that placing the combined departments under the control of the governor, who would appoint the head of the new department, would take away the voice of voters to guide education policy… Though the (state school) board would remain in place, as mandated by the state constitution, it would lose policy-making power, the ability to hold hearings on changes and the right to make department officials answer questions publicly about their work.”

Ohio’s state board of education would continue to exist, but would lose all power apart from overseeing teacher licensure and investigating educator misconduct. One of its most prominent roles currently is its power to appoint the state superintendent of public instruction.  For the record, on Tuesday, members of the state board of education voted 11-4 to oppose HB 512.

As the raucous and packed hearings in Columbus continue, there is growing suspicion that the fight is really about politics, not policy—about political payback.  Kasich didn’t oppose the state board of education after it affirmed his own choice, Dick Ross, several years ago for state superintendent. Ross was forced to resign in November 2015, after it was discovered that an official in his Department of Education had lied on a federal Charter Schools Program application—claiming that Ohio had cracked down on charter school sponsors and charters that were academically failing or financially unsound.  In fact no such law had been passed, although at the time the legislature was considering improving the oversight of charter schools.  After Ross’s resignation, members of the state board of education voted unanimously to appoint State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, who has operated more independently and who has seemed to listen to complaints from the public about over-testing and the state report cards.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s, Catherine Candisky reports that Governor Kasich and State Superintendent DeMaria have not been on speaking terms. While both men, through their spokespersons, claim they have a cordial working relationship, Candisky adds that Kasich neither asks for guidance on K-12 education from DeMaria nor has Kasich appointed DeMaria to the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board, though DeMaria “has sought to be more involved ” and has requested such an appointment.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and his Ohio Department of Education were also involved in the investigation that eventually closed the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.  Superintendent DeMaria refused to stop the investigation, despite pressure from legislators who had received huge campaign contributions from ECOT’s founder, William Lager.  At the end, the Ohio Department of Education participated actively in cracking down on the huge online school that overcharged the state during two recent school years (2015-16 and 2016-17), according to Ohio Department of Education calculations, by $80 million for phantom students.

Innovation Ohio’s Stephen Dyer believes HB 512 is really driven by retribution: “As Kasich recently told a forum last month: ‘What I really want… I want to be able to run the Department of Education… I don’t think we should have this elected board.’   Whatever the backroom dealings, it’s clear that Kasich is pushing HB 512 to punish the department for something, or some things.  One is clearly the board and superintendent’s role in closing down the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow…. But it appears that Kasich’s indifference to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction may have additional roots in DeMaria’s unanimous selection as Superintendent by the State Board.”

HB 512 is not the only symptom of problems with Kasich’s autocratic theory of school management. Big problems are emerging with the state-driven Youngstown takeover, Kasich’s pet 2015 project.  Three members of the school district’s  five-member, appointed Academic Distress Commission have resigned in the past two weeks. And the appointed CEO, Krish Mohip, has been openly seeking a job as school superintendent in Boulder, Colorado. Mohip has publicly explained that, after instances of vandalism at his house, he believes he cannot bring his family to live in Youngstown.  The Ohio Department of Education, given overall responsibility of the state’s Youngstown takeover district, has now appointed John Richard, the state’s deputy state superintendent, to Youngstown’s Academic Distress Commission.

It should not be surprising that citizens of Youngstown remain unhappy about the state takeover of their public schools. Mohip’s lack of sensitivity as an appointed outside overseer is a symptom of what can go wrong when efficient management rather than democracy is the priority.  Not only did Mohip insult the community by declaring it unfit for his family, but speaking about the 2015 takeover that made the locally elected school board a mere advisory body, he recently told Youngstown: “I am disappointed the board (of education) and community members haven’t gotten over that House Bill 70 (the state takeover) is here… It’s about building sustainability and a sustainable future for this district, and I feel we have a solid system in place.”

I wonder if Mohip has taken the trouble to build consensus within the community for the “solid system” Mohip says is now in place?

Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.

Powerful ECOT Blocks Crackdown on Inflated Attendance Reports from Several Ohio Online Schools

For years and years, Ohio has negligently failed to demand that online charter schools submit accurate attendance records. In the meantime the state has kept on paying the schools for the students they claim to serve. While the state has continued to say it would crack down, oversight has been blocked by power and money.

More specifically, in 2016, the Ohio Department of Education began asking for attendance records, but the largest of the schools, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), said it hadn’t been collecting the information because the state had never asked the school to document that students were spending time online at the e-schools. The state, it said, had required the school to provide 920 hours of curriculum for its students every year, but not to prove the students were actually sitting at their computers using the materials. It seems clear that political contributions to Ohio’s legislators from William Lager, ECOT’s founder and for-profit operator, ensured that the legislature avoided consideration of any kind of law to demand the submission of an accurate student count.

A year ago, the legislature changed the rules and asked the Ohio Department of Education to begin collecting the data.  And the Department conducted a preliminary analysis that showed that ECOT, which collected $109 million for educating the 15,300 students it says it serves, must return $64 million for the 2015-2016 school year alone. ECOT went to court, and after a judge ruled that ECOT must pay back the money and start submitting accurate numbers, ECOT appealed the decision. This blog has been tracking the ECOT scandal.

Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer that, “ECOT lost its first challenge in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and is now appealing its case to the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals. That court had its hearing on the case earlier this month and a ruling could come in the next couple of months. A dispute over one of the judges on the three-judge panel comparing ECOT founder William Lager, a major donor to Ohio Republicans, to a Russian oligarch could delay that ruling.”

O’Donnell explains that other online schools in the state have also been found inflating their students’ numbers, but as ECOT’s lawsuit drags on, the state education department has been unable to crack down on the smaller virtual academies: “Ohio’s attempts to recover about $20 million in state tax funding from eight online charter schools has stalled for more than six months while a much larger battle over more than $60 million from e-school giant ECOT lingers in appeals court.  The year-long fight between the Ohio Department of Education and ECOT… has also delayed the state legislature from sorting out how to avoid e-school funding controversies in the future.  Eight months after Ohio Auditor Dave Yost called on legislators to find a better way to measure how well online schools educate students and a better way for Ohio to fund the schools, legislators have not acted.  Despite many agreeing that Ohio needs to overhaul its funding of online schools, no one has suggested a single bill, held a single hearing or publicly called for any research.”

Actually Andrew Brenner, the chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, has now proposed a change in the e-school evaluation process.  But it is a change that would relax state oversight instead of strengthening it.  Today, in the way Ohio oversees the many nonprofit organizations that are permitted to sponsor charter schools, there is a requirement, “that the academic performance of the multiple charter schools in each overseer’s portfolio of schools be weighted by the number of students in each school… As the evaluation ratings stand now, the state report card grades for a 10,000-student online school count 50 times as much as grades for a small, 200-student neighborhood charter school.  If the big school has great state grades under current rules, the (sponsor’s) entire portfolio  of schools looks good when results are averaged together. But if the bigger schools have poor grades, as some large online schools do, the entire collection of schools looks bad.” In fact the huge online academies are notorious for their dismal ratings.  O’Donnell quotes Stephen Dyer, a former legislator and journalist describing Andrew Brenner: “He’s doing the ECOT fix. Wonderful.” O’Donnell confirms Dyer’s suspicion: “ECOT and its supporters backed a similar proposal two years ago, but failed to gain legislative support.”

Joe Schiavoni, the minority leader of the Ohio Senate, who has repeatedly proposed a bill to crack down on lax attendance reporting by the e-schools, believes the proposed change is aimed at relaxing standards for the all-powerful virtual academies: “This would be a break for them. The cynic in me says they are looking for a break.”  The bill Schiavoni has introduced in at least two different legislative sessions to regulate collection of attendance records at the e-schools has never made it out of committee in Ohio’s all-Republican dominated legislature.

Despite that many people across the country seem to believe it is possible to regulate charter schools to stamp out fraud and corruption, watching Ohio’s ECOT scandal has convinced me that money and power will render significant oversight impossible. However, in the past week there has been one small bright spot.  Paolo Demaria, Ohio’s relatively new Superintendent of Public Instruction, just turned back $22 million in federal Charter Schools Program funds to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal Charter Schools Program invests in new charter school startups, and to his credit, Demaria says Ohio can’t use all the money because there are not enough quality applicants.

Here is the back story, in case you have forgotten. In the summer of 2015, a huge public outcry arose over $71 million granted to Ohio from the federal Charter Schools Program. David Hansen, the man who wrote the federal grant proposal, was fired because his proposal was based on the false promise that our legislature had cracked down on sponsors of charter schools. But the U.S. Department of Education made the grant anyway. Ohio’s Congressional delegation and especially Senator Sherrod Brown demanded that the U.S. Department of Education provide extra oversight of Ohio’s grant because our state’s regulations have been notoriously weak.

Now Superintendent Demaria explains that Ohio has cracked down—at least somewhat—and due to stronger oversight, the state does not have enough strong applicants to use all the grant money. Again, here is Patrick O’Donnell: “In a letter sent last week, Demaria said the state will use $49 (million) of the $71 million over five years, not the full amount. He said the lower amount ‘more accurately reflects our eligible pool of prospective community school grantees based on our shared priorities’ of only giving money to strong schools.”  Big problems remain with state oversight of the sponsors.  O’Donnell reminds us: “Only five of the more than 60 sponsors in Ohio earned ‘effective’ ratings and none were rated ‘exemplary’ in the fall. The vast majority were rated as ‘ineffective’ or worse… The state is looking to shut down five charter school sponsor authorizers it rated as ‘poor’… as part of a plan to improve charter schools across the state.”

Superintendent Demaria deserves credit for his integrity.  We shouldn’t hold our collective breath, however, about the capacity of Ohio’s legislators to create regulations that might turn off the flow of political contributions.