Opinion

Opinion: Did Ohio Mislead the Feds About Its Troubled Charters?

By Stephen Dyer | October 7, 2015

When I found out that Ohio had recently received the nation's largest award from the U.S. Department of Education for Charter School oversight, I was stunned.
Knocked over, really.
That’s because study after study after report after comment has indicated that Ohio has among the nation's weakest charter school oversight regimes.
One need look no further than Matt Barnum’s investigation at The Seventy Four to see just how problematic Ohio’s charter schools – and my state’s oversight of them – has been. Just Wednesday, in fact, the Ohio Senate and House were compelled to take forceful action, passing a reform bill geared at repairing and improving Ohio's charter sector.
Not that you would get any sense of this crisis from the USDOE evaluation of Ohio’s application for funds: "Ohio has established high and exacting accountability expectations of authorizers (including evaluation against standards) and, inferentially, schools. This is critical to their plan and the priority of high quality authorizing permeates this and other sections of the application … Overall, a very clear and carefully planned strategy."
More amazing still is the reviewers’ claim that there were "no weaknesses noted." I know that’s not true because I read the Bellwether Education Partners report from December that found: "Part of the problem has been Ohio’s incoherent charter-school law — a law that has too often failed to put students’ best interests first. Instead, in too many ways, it has protected powerful vested interests, smothered schools with red tape, starved even the best schools, and tolerated academic mediocrity. But fixing Ohio’s charter law is no easy task. The law itself is roughly 40,000 words and has been amended nineteen times since its enactment in 1997. It contains many peculiar exceptions, loopholes, and restrictions."
And I took note as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recently reiterated that Ohio's authorizer laws make Ohio the "Wild, Wild West" of charter school authorizing?
Then I read this, from the USDOE reviewer comments: "There is insufficient data to determine the extent to which the academic achievement and academic attainment (including high school graduation rates and college and other postsecondary education enrollment rates) of charter school students equal or exceed the academic achievement and academic attainment of similar students in other public schools in the State over the past five years."
Here are the last nine years of state report cards that allow the public to do precisely that — compare charters with local districts and schools.
And now, with www.KnowYourCharter.com, anyone can examine all the information on state report cards, including demographics and teacher data, at one site.
Back to the reviewer comments: "Included in the strategy is demonstrated evidence and willingness to close poor performing schools.” Wrong again. According to the Ohio Department of Education's own school closure data, only 24 charter schools have been closed under the state's closure law, which was passed in 2005. Of those, 17 were closed between FY2009 and FY2011. Only 7 have been closed under the statute since FY2011. The state has ordered that 56 charters close for several other reasons since FY2000. However, only 18 of those happened since FY2011.
So, there have been 209 charters shut down since the program began. It can be argued that the state only had anything to do with 81 of those, or less than 40 percent. And only an average of 4-5 have been closed annually the last 5 years. There are currently about 400 Ohio charters. So this “demonstrated evidence and willingness to close poor performing schools” only applies to about 1% of all the state’s charter schools.
Yet one more problematic assertion revealed in the reviewer comments: "There is an effort to aggressively replicate successful schools and models that serve at-risk students, primarily in the Ohio 8." This claim would be news to the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland. According to emails recently released, the then-head of the charter school division at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), David Hansen, thought Breakthrough – the state's highest performing charter group – was ruining the Ohio charter school potential.
The Ohio 8 are the big urban districts in Ohio – Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown.
I can only assume this is a reference to the so-called Youngstown plan, which will replace the elected school board with a CEO who could then turn all schools into charters. But Youngstown is not the area where the high performing charters reside, as about 40 percent of the money sent to charters from Youngstown go to worse performing charters.
 
These are just some of the myriad problems with the Ohio application to the USDOE.
I'm not saying Ohio shouldn't take the money. I see this as an opportunity to fix some of the myriad wrongs done to kids in and out of charter schools here.
My primary concern, though, is whether Ohio actively misled the USDOE about what's going on here. And the concern isn’t without merit. The guy who put together Ohio’s application – the same David Hansen mentioned earlier – had to resign in disgrace this summer because he illegally manipulated charter school authorizer evaluations to benefit the same politically connected charter school operators that have made our state a national charter school backwater.
The Columbus Dispatch characterized the claims Hansen made in the USDOE application this way: “Draft documents in which the state makes its case for the money include several questionable assertions.”
The USDOE just released the Ohio application. In it, Hansen clearly made it sound as if Ohio had a strong, active charter school authorizer law in place – the first “high stakes” accountability system in the country, he claimed – and it was holding authorizers to account. In reality, two days before sending it in, the State Board of Education had called Hansen’s methodology “illegal”. And two days after sending in the application that was glowing about Ohio’s authorizer accountability, State Superintendent Richard Ross issued a statement that rescinded the evaluations that Hansen had done of 7 of Ohio’s 65 authorizers.
So, in fact, within 48 hours of filing their application, Ohio had no full sponsor evaluations completed, let alone a “high-stakes” accountability system, and they already knew when they sent it that the evaluations had been done illegally.
My second concern is whether ODE, which is now without a charter school oversight head because the old one illegally manipulated data, is going to ensure this funding goes to schools like Breakthrough and not the old, poor performing, politically connected charter operators.
What’s also concerning is the reporting from the Akron Beacon Journal that indicates the USDOE knew that Ohio had rescinded its authorizer evaluations prior to awarding the state this money based on Ohio’s allegedly strong oversight of authorizers. Again, they were rescinded because Hansen illegally excluded F grades that dominate the report cards of politically connected charter school operators.
My concerns don’t end with Ohio’s award. Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, this year told Ohio folks this about their state’s problems: "Be very glad you have Nevada, so you are not the worst."
Guess who also got a federal award this week? Nevada.
So the two worst performing charter states in the country, according to one of the top authorities on charter school performance, who happens to be a full-throated supporter of charter schools, got awards from the USDOE to increase the number of charter schools in those states.
Those of us in Ohio who have fought to bring a quality-based focus to Ohio’s charter system are struggling to understand how such a huge investment in our state’s currently broken system will encourage its reform. All I can do is hope that the Ohio Department of Education will get its act together quickly enough to properly administer this windfall to benefit kids by expanding quality options. But given my state’s recent and long history on this issue, I struggle to see how this will happen.
While I’ll pray for a miracle, at this point I’d settle for competence.
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