News

Ohio Fixed Its Scandal-Plagued Charter Schools, Right? Not So Fast

By Matt Barnum | January 4, 2016

The state with one of the most notoriously bad charter school sectors in the country took steps a few months ago to reform abuses but whether that new law will be enough to tame Ohio’s “Wild West” of charter schools remains a big question.
The bipartisan legislation to improve the sector was widely heralded, and some went so far  as to declare the problem “fixed.”  But implementing the law in a way that will improve the quality of Ohio’s charters will hinge on creating a tough new accountability system for the organizations that sponsor charter schools.  That task falls to a state Department of Education that is still recovering from a charter school-related scandal.
Also crucial is whether the powerful charter-school lobby succeeds in efforts to water down the reforms. Large for-profit charter operators have donated significant sums to Ohio politicians, but generally their schools have produced poor academic results for students.
The sector has been mired in mediocre performance, financial scandals, and national ridicule  and a recent study found that Ohio’s online charter schools were particularly bad. (Read The Seventy Four’s investigation into the shoddy performance of some Ohio charter schools and the political maneuvering to protect them.)
Here’s a look at the challenges facing charter school reform in Ohio, as well as reasons for optimism.
First the sponsors, then the schools
The Ohio reform law is built on the idea that charter sponsors — organizations such as school districts, nonprofits, and universities — are in the best position to oversee schools’ performance. A frequent criticism of Ohio charters is that the sponsorship sphere is a free-for-all with so many players that poor-performing charters could shop for a new sponsor if they were threatened with closure and that sponsors themselves had little incentive to cut off bad schools.
The new legislation requires sponsors to be rated on quality; those with low ratings will be prohibited from authorizing additional charters or even face having their sponsorships revoked altogether. Schools whose sponsors fail will have to find a new one or else close.
Although sponsors don’t run schools, they are responsible for holding them accountable.
“[Sponsors] may not be at fault if a school is failing, but they are at fault if they allow the school to continue to stay open,” said Sen. Peggy Lehner, the Republican chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, and a chief advocate of the law.
The idea of the evaluation system is to weed out the low-performers — both sponsors and schools — and push sponsors to get tough on ineffective charter operators.
The legislation requires sponsors to be rated on three factors: students’ academic performance, compliance with laws and regulations, and “adherence to quality practices,” including whether charters are held to performance contracts and how charter renewal decisions are made.
This concerns Stephen Dyer, a former state legislator and education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, a progressive think tank. He worries that the new rules don’t give enough weight to how well students are doing in the classroom, with two of three being more “bureaucratic in nature.”
If I'm a sponsor of bad charter schools, I'm going to become an expert in the national authorizer standards [so I can stay open]," Dyer said.
Sponsors could be rated effective even if they get a ‘D’ on student achievement, under recommendations recently released by a panel convened by the Ohio Department of Education. However, a recommended provision would guarantee that sponsors with the lowest rating in any of the three categories — including student achievement — could not score effective overall.
“The recommendations are a good start, and we're much further along than we were but it's still a testament to how far in the Dark Ages we were that there remain so many steps to go,” Dyer said.
Lehner says she’s optimistic about the evaluation system, but will be vigilant: “I think we’re going to have to wait and see how it plays out. I suspect that if you’re adhering to quality practices and you’re following the state law … it’s not likely that your school is going to be chronically failing.”
Chad Aldis, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank that authorizes charters in Ohio, echoed this sentiment.
“We know that some sponsors were not super compliant with best practices … Making sure that all the rules and laws are followed and that they’re doing the things good sponsors do, I think is a great beginning.” he said.
Everyone agrees that effectively evaluating charter sponsors is critically important to producing stronger charter schools.
“The whole key to the accountability portion is the Department of Ed getting the evaluations right,” Dyer said.
Is Ohio state ed up for the job?
The Department of Education is tasked with enforcing the charter reform law to hold poor-performing sponsors accountable, including administering the evaluation system to do so. But it does not have the best track record on this front.
Its former school choice director, David Hansen, resigned earlier this year after revelations that he had illegally removed the results of low-rated online schools from the evaluations of charter sponsors.
Hansen was tied to Gov. John Kasich, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president and whose campaign manager is Hansen’s wife.
“The legislature is going to be watching this very closely,” Lehner said.
The department is currently fighting a public records request about the scandal. The Cleveland Plain Dealer FOILed for emails, probing to what extent former state superintendent Richard Ross knew about the grade scrubbing. A spokesperson originally told the paper that Ross rarely used email, while department lawyers said it couldn’t comply because the the records request was too “voluminous.”
Education department spokeswoman Kimberly Norris told The Seventy Four this week that the department asked the paper to narrow its "overly broad request," as the law allows. The Plain Dealer did and the department will respond. 
"It's not a battle," she said in an email. 
Meanwhile, the department hired Colleen Grady, a former lobbyist for White Hat schools, a large for-profit charter network with generally low marks on state report cards, as a senior policy advisor.
Dyer said this should raise red flags.
“If you're trying to start turning over a new leaf, hiring a former lobbyist from the worst actor in the entire state — I fail to understand how that would engender confidence,” he said.
Aldis disagreed, saying he’s not at all concerned: “I don’t know that there’s anyone more well-versed in Ohio education law than [Grady].”
This all comes as the department looks for a new superintendent. Recently appointed interim leader Lonny Rivera won’t seek the job permanently. His replacement will set the tone and agenda for the department, as the charter reform law is implemented.
The superintendent is appointed by the Ohio Board of Education, which has 19 members, 11 elected and eight appointed by the governor. Lehner and other legislators are on the search committee and she says the focus should be on choosing someone who won’t look to weaken the law’s accountability measures.
“At the end of the day, the major decisions at the Department of Education are always going to be made by the superintendent,” said Aldis.
Norris said that the charter school reform law and the independent panel recommendations “create a framework for one of the most transparent and comprehensive sponsor evaluation systems in the country — which will lead to more high-quality options for Ohio students.”
Charters want a different student measuring stick
A brouhaha has recently erupted about the way the state tracks student achievement using test score growth.
Some charter advocates have proposed switching how the state judges student test score growth from a traditional value-added measure to something called a similar student measure, which the California Charter Association uses. The charter reform law mandates the Department of Education “conduct a study” to evaluate the usefulness of the California approach.
The difference between the two is that value-added accounts for students’ prior achievement as well as certain demographic factors such as poverty, while the similar student measure controls only for demographics but not prior achievement.
The for-profit charter school lobbyists want to move to this new measure with critics saying that’s because it would likely make charter schools look better.
“Some [charter school operators] are advocating for the introduction of the similar students measure not because of its intricate qualities but because … it shows them performing at a higher level,” Aldis said. “They have not pointed out flaws with the value-added system, except to say they don’t look good on it.”
But is the similar students measure a better gauge of student learning? No, according to a bevy of independent researchers, all of whom said value-added was preferable when interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Even the California charter group generally agrees that using prior achievement paints a more precise picture than the similar student measure.
Norris, of the state education department, said, “We are required to do a study of [the similar students] measure. We believe that our value-added measures are the gold-standard of measuring progress of all students.”
Lehner said, “[The similar students measure] is not an improvement over our current value-added system and absolutely cannot be used to replace that.”
Advocates of the similar student measure are not giving in. The pro-charter Ohio Coalition for Quality Education recently ran a series of radio ads calling for changes in the state report cards.  The group’s president did not respond to a request for comment.
Lehner said that charter operators appear to be spending significant resources on lobbying and advertising.
“If the current system threatens [charter operators’] existence, they’re obviously going to fight it hard … I would prefer to see them using their money to improve the performance of their students rather than trying to second guess the legislature,” she said.
Submit a Letter to the Editor