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.

Financial Corruption and Academic Failure in Charter Sector Beg for Oversight

Earlier this week, tracking an extraordinary investigative series on charter schools by the Detroit Free Press (still ongoing today) , this blog commented: “Although the federal government has been creating huge incentives for states to expand rapidly the number of charter schools—by making the removal of statutory caps on the authorization of new charters a condition for a state even to submit an application for a Race to the Top grant and by making available additional federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has left the oversight and regulation of charters up to the fifty state legislatures.”  The Free Press series is titled, “How Michigan Spends $1 Billion but Fails to Hold Schools Accountable.”

Yesterday Jeff Bryant, in his weekly column at the Education Opportunity Network, raised the same concern: Will Anyone Stop Charter School Corruption?  Bryant examines the Free Press‘s expose on Michigan’s charter schools and also looks at theft of tax money by unscrupulous charter operators in three additional states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. He notes that, “The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed controversial legislation to expand federal funds for more charter schools without placing any substantial new regulations on those schools.” “And in Washington, DC, that House legislation that would expand federal funding to these sorts of schools has been joined by a Senate version that is now steaming toward bipartisan consideration.”

In Ohio, Bryant examines Akron Beacon-Journal coverage of David Brennan’s for-profit White Hat Management Company, whose charter schools have “enjoyed such carte blanche operation that Ohio lawmakers approved additional funding for about 77 of those schools and exempted them from ‘full accountability until at least 2017.'”

In Pennsylvania, Bryant describes a quirk in state law that pays charter schools for providing special education for students who qualify but does not require the charter schools actually to provide the special education services for which the state reimburses them.  Charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to Bryant, “collected $350,562,878 last year for special education funding and spent $156,003,034 for special education.”  Describing Philadelphia, a school district mired in a dismal financial crisis that involves local money being siphoned by charter schools, Bryant quotes the Philadelphia School Notebook: “Philadelphia charter schools received more than $175 million last year to educate special education students, but spent only about $77 million for that purpose….”

In Florida, Bryant  reports on unscrupulous operators collecting funds for charters that are opened and then quickly closed. “Examples… include a man who received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first collapsed.  The schools closed in seven weeks.” Bryant quotes an Orlando Sun Sentinel report:  “With such wild growth, district officials say, many new charters no longer fill a niche or offer innovation. Yet Florida lawmakers repeatedly have declined to tighten charter school regulations.”

In Michigan, Bryant directs readers to the ongoing investigation by the Detroit Free Press, in which Thursday morning’s installment examines not the financial fraud but instead the academic performance of Michigan’s charters, an education sector that, in Michigan, now has an academic record spanning two decades.  “And, reflecting Michigan’s loose oversight of charter schools, a majority of the lowest-performing charters have been around for 10 years or more—despite research that shows the success of a charter school can be determined in the first three years of existence.”  The Free Press calls attention to two for-profit chains that not only run individual schools but have also been hired in Michigan to manage whole school districts. In 2012, the Highland Park School District was turned over to the national Leona Group, “often criticized for poor-performing schools.  The company runs 14 charters in Michigan and 43 in four other states.  Leona’s Michigan schools have an average percentile ranking of 19 (on the state’s school rating formula).”  “That same year, the emergency manager for the Muskegon Heights School District turned its schools over to Mosaica Education, a for-profit company with an average ranking of 16.”  The Muskegon Heights-Mosaica contract was dissolved mutually by the state and the corporation in April 2014, however, when Mosaica was not only unable to manage the district without a deficit: as a for-profit company, it was also unable to turn a profit.

Advocates for charter schools have railed against traditional public schools because, they allege, school district bureaucracy stifles innovation.  Others would value the kind of regulation built into traditional public school districts: public oversight of the tax dollars invested and the protection of the educational rights and the safety of the children enrolled.  I agree with Jeff Bryant who concludes his column this week with a plea for increased regulation of what has become a colossal charter school rip-off across many states: “Certainly, faced with such a growing calamity, it’s not being ‘negative’ or ‘oppositional’ or a ‘status-quo defender’ to stand in the pathway and yell ‘Stop!'”