As Ohio Budget Negotiations Drag On, Conference Committee Should Leave State School Takeovers Out of the Budget

This morning, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Ohio. Yesterday was the deadline for passage of a new budget to pay for the functions of state government for the next biennium—fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  But instead over the weekend, members of the Legislature passed a 17 day budget extension to keep the state operating while members of the Senate/House conference committee wrangle.

One of the biggest conflicts between House and Senate is over the misguided state school district takeovers established in the 2015, House Bill 70, a bill which was fast tracked through the Legislature without open hearings.

HB 70 has proven a catastrophe.  You may remember that just two months ago, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers.  Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular, bipartisan fashion by a margin of 83/12. The House also included the repeal of HB 70 in HB 166, the House version of the FY 20-21 biennial budget.

The Ohio Senate has also been considering state school district takeovers. Distrusting teachers, school administrators, and locally elected school boards in Ohio’s poorest school districts where test scores lag, members of the Ohio Senate removed from the budget bill the House language to repeal the state school takeovers.  Senator Peggy Lehner and the Senate Education Committee she chairs convened a working group to create a complicated amendment to replace the current HB 70 state takeovers with another form of state control called the Ohio School Transformation Plan. Lehner’s committee is dominated by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Lobbyists from the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute and the business lobby, Ohio Excels, have also been pressing for the Senate’s School Transformation Plan.

As of this morning, we do not know whether the Senate will succeed in getting Lehner’s amendment for the Ohio School Transformation Plan inserted into the final Ohio budget.  Advocating that the Legislature eliminate state takeovers, the editorial board of the Toledo Blade reported on Friday that House Speaker Larry Householder “wants the conference committee to put a moratorium on school takeovers in the pending budget bill and later work out a resolution.”

Because the elimination of HB 70 state school takeovers is so urgently important, today’s blog post will review what this blog has—over the past two months—explained are alarming problems with the Ohio School Transformation amendment Lehner and her committee have tried to include in the Senate Budget.

Here is a bit of history.  In June of 2015, House Bill 70 was rushed through the Legislature to prescribe that, based on aggregate standardized test scores, the state would take over any school district with three years of “F” ratings on the state report card.  The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed Chief Executive Officers for four years.  East Cleveland is currently undergoing state takeover.  Academic Distress Commission-appointed CEOs In Youngstown and Lorain have proven autocratic in their disdain for the locally elected school boards who, under HB 70, continue to be elected but have no remaining power.  Both CEOs have refused to live in or educate their own children in communities where they oversee the public schools.  David Hardy, Lorain’s CEO, has managed to make enemies of the mayor, the city council, the locally elected school board, the teachers, the students at the high school, and even several members of the Academic Distress Commission who appointed him.

In addition to the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland, other Ohio school districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of poverty.  Many of these communities are majority black and brown.

The School Transformation Plan—which the Ohio Senate hopes to include in the now-stalled state budget—pretends to leave the power for running the school district in local hands.  It pretends not to be a state takeover.  But in fact under the plan, while local people are still in place, their decisions will now be overseen by a new state agency.  Local school administrators will now also operate under the “guidance” of an outside consultant approved by the state agency.  Here are the details of the Senate’s plan:

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three consecutive years would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.”
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent; the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here the plan copies the school turnaround options in the now-discredited federal No Child Left Behind Act—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”

The Senate’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s rests on several mistaken assumptions. The plan assumes: first, that test scores are a pure and accurate measure of what a school district is accomplishing, and second, that school governance is the problem. The assumption is that a state approved School Improvement Director with support from consultants will know how to raise test scores quickly. Years of state takeovers in other states have failed to confirm that aggregate test scores can be rapidly raised. And nobody I know can tell me where there are consultants who actually know how to transform a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores in a year or two. There is also evidence that such an obsession with raising test scores narrows the curriculum and distorts schooling.

In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, demonstrates that high-stakes standardized testing is a flawed way to measure the quality of a school.  Standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

“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…. 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down scheme to prescribe governance changes as the cure when a district’s test scores lag. It is a paternalistic plan that assumes school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan assumes that the legislators can snap their fingers and prescribe that school districts will leave no child behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of inserting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan into the 2020-2021 biennial state budget, the Ohio Legislature should consider carefully the needs of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The Ohio Senate needs to pass HB 154 to eliminate the catastrophic HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more nurses, more librarians, more wraparound social and medical services, and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.


Ohio Charter School Regulation: The Flimflam Continues

The Ohio state government’s long history of deception in the evaluation of charter schools drags on.  We are a super-majority Republican state without normal checks and balances.  The legislature, Governor John Kasich, and the state board of education are all in the pocket of the charter lobbies.  There isn’t accountability.  There isn’t even any transparency about which numbers are being used to evaluate charter schools or the ways those numbers are applied and misapplied when some kind of report is demanded.

In response to a request from the U.S. Department of Education, at the end of January, the Ohio Department of Education sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to explain how Ohio regulates its charter schools.  You may remember that in the fall, the U.S. Department of Education delayed giving Ohio the huge $71 million grant that the U.S. Department of Education had already awarded to Ohio in the summer for the purpose of expanding charter schools and taking over and charterizing the school district of Youngstown.

The U.S. Department of Education was shamed into demanding more documentation from Ohio when all of the state’s major newspapers covered and editorialized again and again about David Hansen’s charter rating system that “accidentally” left out the notorious on-line charter sector that includes the politically powerful Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the Ohio Virtual Academy (a K12, Inc. operation), and some of David Brennan’s White Hat Management dropout recovery schools.  The press had exposed that David Hansen (husband of Beth Hansen—then Governor Kasich’s chief of staff and now chair of Kasich’s presidential campaign) was the person who had written the federal grant proposal that won the award of $71 million. He submitted the grant proposal only days before he was, under great pressure from the press, fired for his “flawed” charter rating system.  After all this, the U.S. Department of Education capitulated to pressure from the press in Ohio and demanded that, before Ohio could get the $71 million grant, it must update its federal application to show that Ohio is capable of accurately and fairly evaluating its charter schools and that Ohio has the capacity to administer the federal grant.

Yesterday the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a huge editorial that charged: “At this point, it’s nearly impossible to trust anything the Ohio Department of Education has to say about charter school performance, the subject of so much chicanery last year that in November the federal government froze a giant $71 million charter school expansion grant to Ohio.  And it just gets worse.”  The editorial board continues: “A Jan. 29 letter from ODE to federal regulators sent in an attempt to win back the grant reveals that Ohio has nearly 10 times as many failing charter schools as it first reported to the U.S. Department of Education in its 2015 charter school expansion grant application… The application is supposed to give the feds an honest evaluation of the state’s best-and worst-performing charter schools.  But that has become murky, thanks to ODE’s changing definitions.  The obfuscation—which is not how ODE sees it, by the way—raises even more doubts about the wisdom of the federal government giving Ohio those funds, and about the credibility of ODE, which seems more interested in the best interests of the charter school industry than in those of Ohio students.”

While the state had identified six low performing charter schools in its application last summer, the letter sent at the end of January identifies 57 charter schools in trouble.  And while last summer the state had claimed 93 charter schools as “high-performing,” the new letter puts only 59 of the state’s charter schools in that top category.

Dick Ross, who was Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time the Ohio Department of Education applied for the federal grant, resigned at the end of December. Lonny Rivera is now Ohio’s Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Perhaps Rivera is more honest.  The Associated Press highlights the magnitude of the disparity in reporting: “Superintendent Lonny Rivera’s figures in a Jan. 29 letter reflect that Ohio has 10 times as many failing charter schools and only about half as many high-performing ones as previously stated.”  And Catherine Candisky, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, explains that the new letter doesn’t even include the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and Ohio Virtual Academy: “The performance statistics for the 2013-2014 school year are for 290 ‘site based’ schools and do not include online charters, which generally have been among the poorest performers.”

Candisky reports that Superintendent Rivera explains the discrepancy by claiming that last summer Ohio adopted the “federal definition” of a failed charter school, but now Ohio is adhering to its own “more rigorous” definition: “The 93 ‘high quality’ and six ‘poor performing’ charter schools identified in the state’s grant application were based on ‘the federal definition,’ Rivera wrote.  The revised numbers showing fewer high performing schools and more failing ones, he said, are based on new and tougher state definitions.”

Tom Gunlock, president of the state board of education, commented that it is a good thing if Ohio is now using a “tougher definition of charter-school performance.” The Dispatch‘s Candisky would certainly agree, because, as she explains, in October the Dispatch had reported, “that the (Ohio) Department of Education’s claims about the performance of Ohio’s $1 billion charter-school system were inflated.  In the state’s July 18 grant application, education officials claimed that in the 2012-2013 school year, Ohio had no ‘poor performing’ charters, even though about a third of the schools didn’t meet a single standard on their state report cards that year and 60 percent of them got D or F grades on the ‘performance index,’ a measure of how students perform on state tests.”

Apparently Ohio’s receipt of the $71 million charter school expansion grant remains in question. Candisky reports that the January 29 letter of explanation submitted by Interim Superintendent Rivera, “was the state’s third response to questions from federal regulators since the review was opened in November.”

The bigger question—for those of us who pay taxes in Ohio and who also watch a significant portion of our locally voted school district millage diverted to charter schools when students enter the school choice marketplace—is why nobody has taken any steps to close the charter schools that are failing to serve their students, and the charter schools that are mismanaged, and the charter schools where conflicts of interest and even fraud have been demonstrated.

Extra: Plunderbund Releases More E-mails Confirming Kasich-Ross Role in Youngstown Plan

Ohio’s Plunderbund blog continues to investigate the active involvement of Governor John Kasich and his staff along with the direct involvement of State Superintendent Richard Ross in the nine month negotiations for the state takeover of the Youngstown schools and in the future any district with three years’ of “F”ratings from the state. Plunderbund is examining a long-sought e-mail record to trace the involvement of the state superintendent and the governor, who have claimed for months that Youngstown’s leaders came to them demanding the state’s deeper involvement in running the local schools.  The e-mail record Plunderbund is publishing demonstrates that Kasich and Ross instead came up with the idea and led the planning.

The idea, modeled on what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was to create in Youngstown an “achievement district” and to turn over particular schools or the entire district to a charter management company, thereby seizing the schools from the control of the elected local school board.  Youngstown’s public schools, in the the heart of Ohio’s rust belt, serve a population of extremely poor students.

Beth Hansen, Kasich’s chief of staff at the time, was involved in the planning.  Her husband, David Hansen, later fired from his job overseeing Ohio’s charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education due to his design of a charter school evaluation plan that favored Ohio’s notorious e-schools and “dropout recovery” charters, wrote the federal charter school grant proposal, later funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to underwrite the Youngstown takeover.

Extra: Ohio Governor Kasich and State Supt. Ross Led Planning for Youngstown Takeover

Ah… it is just as we suspected.  Ohio Governor John Kasich, State School Superintendent Dick Ross, and then-Kasich chief of staff Beth Hansen were involved from the start in plotting the Youngstown school takeover—and the takeover in future of any other school districts posting very low state ratings for three years.  Hansen left the Kasich administration this fall to manage his campaign for President.

Ross and Kasich have continued to claim that Youngstown leaders came to them for help, but yesterday afternoon Plunderbund, the Columbus blog, released e-mails that confirm the involvement of Kasich and Ross beginning in September, 2014, nine months before the plan was sprung on the legislature as a 66 page amendment to a bill for expanding collaborative, wraparound schools in Ohio, the kind of schools that have medical clinics and social services housed in the school.  No opponent testimony was permitted on the amendment. The bill was fast-tracked in one afternoon and signed immediately by Governor Kasich.

You may remember that David Hansen, Beth’s husband, who was employed by the Ohio Department of Education as head of its charter school division, was at that time writing a proposal for charter school funding from the U.S. Department of Education.  Buried in David Hansen’s proposal was funding for the very Youngstown takeover his wife had been involved in designing.  David Hansen was fired very soon after writing that proposal when it was exposed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that his proposed rating system for charter school authorizers had left out any mention of the notoriously low performance of Ohio’s huge e-schools.

Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter has been seeking e-mail records through a FOI request to learn whether Kasich, Ross, and Beth Hansen were involved in the secret planning for the Youngstown takeover.  It is fascinating that the records were finally released this weekend just before Christmas when their publication is less likely to be noticed.

Diane Ravitch comments on the release of the e-mails here.

Youngstown Legislators Engage Community to Push Back Against Youngstown Takeover

Senator Joe Schiavoni, Ohio’s Senate Minority Leader, and State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan spent the summer holding community meetings throughout Youngstown, Ohio to develop strategies to amend the Ohio legislature’s autocratically imposed Youngstown school takeover.  Their goal: develop political will in Youngstown to demand that the Youngstown plan be bent to support the needs of Youngstown’s children and families.  I had the privilege of talking with these two community leaders last week.

The new Youngstown takeover, which expands what has for 10 years been state involvement in the Youngstown City Schools, prescribes that the district be managed by an appointed Distress Commission instead of the local school board.  The takeover was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing in late June when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a bill with widespread popular support—to expand Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (“Community Learning Center” is Ohio’s term for what the rest of the country calls full-service, wraparound “Community Schools” that locate health and dental clinics, social service coordination, afterschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, and summer enrichment programs right in school buildings. Cincinnati has been experimenting very successfully with expanding the number of these schools. The Children’s Aid Society in New York City has been developing this model for 20 years now.)  When Senator Lehner introduced to the Community Learning Center bill her amendment  for the Youngstown takeover—along with the state takeover in the future of any school district with three years of “F” school ratings—the amendment had been written and polished for several months by staff in Governor John Kasich’s office and the Ohio Department of Education, working secretly with a handful of carefully selected community “leaders” from Youngstown.

The goal of the takeover was always to turn the district or particular schools over to a charter management organization.  Not coincidentally, the Youngstown takeover was the centerpiece of a charter school expansion grant proposal submitted by the Ohio Department of Education in July to the U.S. Department of Education and subsequently funded. The Youngstown takeover amendment states that an Academic Distress Commission, in consultation with the State Superintendent, may create an entity to act as a “high-quality school accelerator” to promote new charter schools.  The CEO of the Distress Commission may abrogate or renegotiate any contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

State takeovers always happen in very poor, often desperate communities—New Orleans, post Katrina—Detroit—Newark, New Jersey.  In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer traces the story of Tammy Thomas, a proud Youngstown resident who describes what has happened to Youngstown during her lifetime: “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulfur in the air… And everybody in that community was working.  We were a hundred fifty thousand people at that time… One day, the jobs left. September of ’77, the mills stopped working. We lost over fifty thousand jobs within a ten-year time frame.  I was fortunate enough as an adult that I was able to get a job at Packard (Electric). Eleven thousand jobs in its heyday, down to three thousand jobs, and when we all left it had less than six hundred jobs. I just want to let you know that story of Youngstown is the epitome of any older industrial city across the United States.” (p. 412)

In the most recent 2010 data I could locate, 86.68 percent of the students in Youngstown’s public schools qualify for the federal free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a child’s family must have annual earnings under 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,250 in 2015 for a family of four), less than $31,525.  The percentage of Youngstown’s school children qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch, 90.38 percent, is only slightly higher.  The fact that so many children fall into the free-lunch category means that Youngstown’s schools serve a student population living in highly concentrated poverty.  Last week Senator Schiavoni explained that Youngstown already has an open enrollment program that permits children to transfer to surrounding school districts or charter schools and Youngstown’s children qualify for Ohio’s private school vouchers.  He speculates that the Youngstown schools are serving approximately 50 percent of the children who live in Youngstown and that many of the children who have left are those whose parents are able to be most active advocates.  The children enrolled in Youngstown’s public schools are the city’s most vulnerable.

Although many poor children can and do thrive at school, the aggregate test scores in our nation’s poorest cities are primarily a reflection of the concentrated poverty of the residents.  In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)  State takeovers that impose privatized school governance in impoverished communities ignore the correlation of test scores and family poverty and blame the schools and their teachers.

After the legislature’s sudden seizing of the governance of Youngstown’s schools, Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan immediately set up a town hall to hear the community’s response to the state takeover and then scheduled meetings across the city during the remainder of the summer to listen to the needs of parents, students and residents of Youngstown.  Senator Schiavoni reports that, “One of the most common critiques from the stakeholder meetings was the disconnect in communication between parents, the community and the schools.  Parents want to be involved as partners as the plan moves forward.” Schavoni and Lepore-Hagan have introduced a bill (companion bills in the Ohio Senate and Ohio House) to amend and modify the plan.  Their bill demands transparency from the members of the Distress Commission that has just been appointed and from the CEO the Distress Commission will appoint.  Their proposed bill reflects parents’ wishes that promising existing practices not be thrown out as a new experiment is instituted—programs that pair Youngstown State University tutors with second graders, and model afterschool programming and community partnerships with churches, the United Way,  the YMCA, and the university.  Lepore-Hagan explains that the proposed amendment to improve the Youngstown Plan requires that the CEO meet personally each month with an eleven-member School Action Team from each of the city’s schools.

Schiavoni and Lepore-Hagan emphasize one provision of the takeover and the original bill to which it was amended—for wraparound Community Learning Centers.  Their proposed bill insists that at least one Community Learning Center (what the rest of the country calls  a Community School) be established in Youngstown.  “The CEO should implement a CLC model in at least one of the school buildings in the district.” “The CEO should work to expand much-needed mental health, drug treatment, dental, and physician services and other community programs…. The CEO should employ a Resource Coordinator for the District to assist in the development and coordination of programs and services for the District Community Learning Centers.”

The flavor-of-the-day in school reform across so many statehouses is for autocratic takeover and charterization of the poorest school districts.  State takeovers have not succeeded anywhere they have been tried.  Ohio’s Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan are pushing back with a plan that models democratic engagement.

U.S. Dept. of Ed. Acknowledges Flawed Charter School Grant Review Process

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter (Scroll to the end of the news story to see the letter itself.) on Wednesday to Richard Ross, Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, to inform Ross that, despite the Department’s huge grant—$71 million to Ohio (the largest of any of this year’s five-year, federal Charter School Program grants to seven winning states) to expand charter schools and take over and charterize the Youngstown School District, the Department has decided to withhold the money until Ohio does a better job of explaining what journalists have shown to be mistakes and lies in the grant application submitted last summer by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) for federal  dollars.

The letter explains: “(A)t various stages during and after the competition, the Department became aware of various concerns regarding ODE’s Office of Quality School Choice and the circumstances surrounding the resignation of the director of that office… [I]n making the original grant award, the Department conducted an expedited review of information available at that time and made a preliminary determination that these concerns and issues should not disqualify ODE from the FY 2015 CSP SEA competition. The Department took such concerns into consideration when awarding ODE’s grant, however, and placed special conditions on the grant, pending receipt of more information regarding these matters. Since awarding the grant to ODE, the Department has received additional information that raises continuing concerns regarding ODE’s ability to administer its CSP SEA grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability with respect to Ohio’s charter schools.”

So what are the concerns of which the U.S. Department of Education has recently become aware—the concerns missed by the grant reviewers the federal government brought in to read and evaluate the proposals?  Well, David Hansen, head of Ohio’s charter school program for the ODE, was the person who prepared the federal grant proposal along with designing and implementing a plan to evaluate how well Ohio’s charter school authorizers have been overseeing the charter schools for which they are responsible.  After the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell noticed and reported last June that Hansen had protected Ohio’s notorious online charters and “dropout recovery schools” by omitting their low ratings from his plan to evaluate their authorizers, Hansen was fired in July, only days after his federal grant application had been submitted.  And Hansen’s federal application said that Ohio had already implemented a plan for better regulation of its charter schools, while in fact at the time, that plan was on-hold and being hotly debated by a legislature beholden to Ohio’s wealthy charter-czar campaign investors.  A bill to improve oversight of charters was finally passed by Ohio’s legislature in October and signed into law last Sunday, November 1, by Governor John Kasich.

O’Donnell, who continues to track this story for the Plain Dealer, reports this week that the U.S. Department of Education’s new letter warns the Ohio Department of Education that it must provide new information in order to free up the federal money: “ODE must now provide the following materials, among others, before receiving any of the money: An explanation of ‘the extent to which any information in the application (for the grants) is out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.’  A summary of the last seven years of charter school audits by the state, and actions taken by the state in response.  An explanation of all changes to the state’s method of evaluating charter school oversight agencies, known as ‘sponsors’ or ‘authorizers.'”

O’Donnell concludes by reminding us that, “Ohio’s application for the grants in July was inaccurate and incomplete even as it went out the door.”

It is a wonderful thing, and heartening in these times of financial crisis and cutbacks at major newspapers, that the work of O’Donnell—and followup from Doug Livingston at the Akron Beacon Journal and Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel at the Columbus Dispatch—shamed Ohio’s state superintendent into firing David Hansen and have now embarrassed the U.S. Department of Education into admitting that its review of grant applications was, at best, shoddy and superficial.  (This post summarizes some of the important press coverage.)  All of Ohio’s Democratic representatives to Congress—Senator Sherrod Brown, Reps. Marcia Fudge, Marcy Kaptur, and Tim Ryan, along with Ohio’s Republican Auditor of State, Dave Yost—have reinforced the criticism by protesting the U.S. Department of Education’s grant review.

But I am not naive enough to believe that the U.S. Department of Education will hold Ohio to a strict ethical standard.  After all, new charter school oversight has, as of this week, finally been signed into law.  The new law is far from exhaustive, but it does eliminate some of the most egregious practices that have prevailed in our state:

  • the practice of sponsor hopping by which a school whose authorizer tried to close it for fraud or academic failure could merely find a new authorizer to keep it open;
  • a practice by which a big Charter Management Organization like David Brennan’s White Hat Management would suggest the names of individuals who would be well-suited to make up the charter school boards of new schools that sought to open under Brennan’s umbrella (It is the job of a non-profit charter school board to hire any private management company, not the job of the management company to recruit the board that is supposed to oversee the contract with the management company.); and
  • the kind of contract that White Hat Management has been selling to its gullible boards that has ensured that if a school closes, White Hat and not the public retains all the assets (desks and computers and etc.) despite that they were purchased with public tax dollars.

The U.S. Department of Education has saved face by appearing to demand some honesty from the Ohio Department of Education.  Ohio will trumpet its new law as a response.  Problems with the application that helped Ohio beat other states in the grant competition will be forgotten.  Ohio will keep its grant.  Charters will be expanded.  Youngstown Schools will be taken over and charterized.

Having lived in Ohio for forty years, I sometimes worry about the cynicism I’ve developed.  I just assume strings will be pulled, influence peddled, and money invested in the campaigns of legislators by those like Ohio’s online charter czars who depend on the legislature to protect their profits. I’m reassured that others are noticing the questionable process that has produced the huge, 2015 federal grant to expand Ohio’s charter schools and take over Youngstown’s schools. In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss shares my disbelief that the U.S. Department of Education makes enormous grants based on merely “an expedited review of the information available at that time”:

“Federal education officials just sent a letter to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross saying that, in fact, it didn’t quite understand the depth of Ohio’s charter problems, and now is putting new restrictions on the grant money….  Who didn’t know that Ohio’s charter schools had become a national joke—literally.  The Plain Dealer ran a story this year that started like this: “Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you. Ohio’s $1 billion charter school program was the butt of jokes at a conference for reporters on school choice in Denver late last week, as well as the target of sharp criticism of charter school failures across the state.’  Wouldn’t you expect someone in the federal government considering giving millions of dollars to Ohio for charter schools to have read the June 2015 coverage in the Akron Beacon Journal which said, ‘No sector—not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals—misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.’… When the Ohio charter award was announced last month, Republicans and Democrats alike shouted their concerns.”