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The great charter school rip-off

Last week when former President Bill Clinton meandered onto the topic of charter schools, he mentioned something about an “original bargain” that charters were, according to the reporter for The Huffington Post, “supposed to do a better job of educating students.”

A writer at Salon called the remark “stunning” because it brought to light the fact that the overwhelming majority of charter schools do no better than traditional public schools. Yet, as the Huffington reporter reminded us, charter schools are rarely shuttered for low academic performance.

But what’s most remarkable about what Clinton said is how little his statement resembles the truth about how charters have become a reality in so many American communities.

In a real “bargaining process,” those who bear the consequences of the deal have some say-so on the terms, the deal-makers have to represent themselves honestly (or the deal is off and the negotiating ends), and there are measures in place to ensure everyone involved is held accountable after the deal has been struck.

But that’s not what’s happening in the great charter industry rollout transpiring across the country. Rather than a negotiation over terms, charters are being imposed on communities – either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns. Many charter school operators keep their practices hidden or have been found to be blatantly corrupt. And no one seems to be doing anything to ensure real accountability for these rapidly expanding school operations.

Instead of the “bargain” political leaders may have thought they struck with seemingly well-intentioned charter entrepreneurs, what has transpired instead looks more like a raw deal for millions of students, their families, and their communities. And what political leaders ought to be doing – rather than spouting unfounded platitudes, as Clinton did, about “what works” – is putting the brakes on a deal gone bad, ensuring those most affected by charter school rollouts are brought to the bargaining table, and completely renegotiating the terms for governing these schools.

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The Testing Camera

This video by author/illustrator Peter H. Reynolds is a both current reality and cautionary tale about what testing does or can do to our children.

The fascinating story about the testing camera raises questions about education in general and about testing in particular.

The Trouble with Having Trouble with the Common Core

2015 is the year when the Common Core rubber finally hits the road, and maybe even goes off the rails. 2014-15 is the first full year of the standards, and this spring will see those standards put to the standardized common core test. The results are likely to be ugly. The standards are new, challenging, with little time to prepare, and technology infrastructure is no where near where it needs to be. These are just some of the reasons we'll be hearing a lot about the impact of common core once the tests are wrapped up and results are in.

Couple this with a sizable shift to the right in state legislatures across the country, including Ohio, and we're certain to see more efforts to repeal or otherwise change the common core.

Andy Smarick at Bellwether Education Partners, a right wing corporate reform think tank, believes there are serious challenges ahead for Common Core

Rather than addressing conservatives’ intellectually serious concerns, too many proponents, time and time again, have antagonized the right. Skeptics have been told their opposition is a “circus,” just “political,” and “not about education,” and that they must be “comfortable with mediocrity,” “paranoid,” and/or “resistant to change.”

Just weeks ago, Secretary Duncan caricatured opponents as “politicians who want to dummy down standards…to make themselves look good.” The reliably liberal NPR just ran a laudatory piece on the professor from “an elite liberal arts college in Vermont” who authored Common Core math. The world’s most influential philanthropist called the substance of what we teach our kids “a technocratic issue”—that is, a matter for technical experts wielding political power—akin to standardizing electric outlets.

All of this inflames, not enervates, the conservative opposition.

The problem with having a problem with the common core however, is what to do instead of it? Going back to old standards isn't an option - that's something everyone agrees on. Developing new standards is costly and time consuming (as the CCSS have demonstrated) and k-12 education is a ship that doesn't turn easily, or quickly. This leads opponents offering up all kinds of bizarre solutions, Here's what the Ohio tea party legislators dreamed up last year
Shame on GOP members of the Ohio House Rules and Reference Committee for bowing to partisan pressure and voting out of committee a deeply flawed bill to eliminate Ohio's Common Core educational standards and replace them on an interim basis with old Massachusetts standards. The committee voted 7-2 along party lines Wednesday to approve the controversial plan.
The bill envisions dumping Common Core next year, switching to pre-2011 Massachusetts standards for the next three academic years and then imposing a new standard that Ohio would develop. The nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission estimates the one-time cost of developing the new standards at up to $15.75 million.
Needless to say, it didn't go anywhere. But your first idea often contains the kernels of your best - and if this is the best idea opponents of Common Core have, they are in even deeper trouble than the standards themselves.

Top 4 Education Stories of 2014

There were a lot of big education stories in 2014. The 5of8 fight, school shootings continuing to happen is still unacceptable, big increases in local levies due to budget cuts, disgraceful behavior by State Board of Education members, disgraceful behavior by ODE officials, 3rd grade reading guarantee comes online and Ohio's K-12 technology for implanting a lot of policy didn't. Here's our top 4 stories from 2014.

4Common Core Push Back

2014 was the year when resistance to the Common core State Standards became a mainstream phenomenon. Initially 46 states signed up to the standards, but at least 12 of them have repeal legislation pending in some form. In Ohio, the effort to push back against the CCSS began in late 2013, but bubbled all year, right into November 2014, when the Ohio House passed a bill out of committee.

No one expects repeal efforts to land on the Governor's desk in 2015, but with the Governor likely offering himself as a Presidential nominee requiring tee party votes in a primary (some of the most vocal CCSS critics), an incoming Republican legislative class packed with more extreme ideologues due to gerrymandering, and the standards themselves continuing to be burdened by poor implementation, nobody should be surprised to see this issue continue to burn.

3Corporate Education Reform Stalls Out

We saw signs in 2014 that corporate education policies were either failing, or being received by widespread skepticism. When Teach for America, beloved by the monied class, hits trouble you know there's a big shift going on. Perhaps the biggest shift has been the realization that these policies have birthed an explosion in testing that, if left unchecked, leaves scant time for actually educating students.

In Ohio, even the legislature began to wake up to the testing crisis it had helped create, by offering a bill that would reduce testing. That bill, which was far from perfect, would eventually die in the lame duck. We are almost certain to see new legislation introduced in 2015, especially when the Ohio Department of Education issues its report on the exact number of required exams, along with recommendations to potentially decrease that number. That report is due January 15th. The fact that this report will be published right at the legal deadline is a good indication it is going to cause a stir, and has not been an easy task.

The use of Standardized tests for the purposes of teacher evaluations continued to receive body blows too. At the beginning of the year, the American Statistical Association cast grave doubt on its use, and at the tail end of the year, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Secondary School Principals followed suit. Now past the point of implementation and entering the high stakes phase of these evaluation policies, we're going to see an ever increasing rise in calls for reform of the use of Value-Add, as its unfairness and unintended consequences become more and more apparent.

Nowhere was the pushback again corporate education reform more evident than in the Reynoldsburg, where teachers went on strike for 3 weeks to oppose merit pay proposals and over crowded classrooms. With huge community support behind them, the 350 teachers defeated the boards proposals and were able to return to their classrooms with a contract that would deal with class sizes, and forgo a merit pay system proven to be unsuccessful.

2The Flameout of Ed FitzGerald

Once every 4 years, voters in Ohio have an opportunity to reconsider the direction of the State's education policies when they elect a new Governor. Few could argue that Governor Kasich has done tremendous harm to public schools with his draconian budget cuts, union busting attempts and ill-thought out policies (more unwanted vouchers, more corrupt charters, 3rd grade reading laws, trigger laws no one uses, the failing Cleveland Plan, the Columbus Plan that voters rejected, and on and one). This makes the spectacular flameout of the Democratic candidate, Ed FitzGerald all the more galling.

FitzGerald wasn't defeated because of his policy positions. Voters actually preferred candidates who were pro public education as evidenced by the success of electing so many such candidates to the State Board of Education. Neither was FitzGerald defeated because the voters were enamored by the Governor and his record. It was the lowest turnout election on record, with the governor getting barely as many votes as his did in 2010. No, FitzGerald was simply a terrible candidate who ran an even worse campaign.

We considered making this our #1 story of 2014, but in the end, not even this could top our final choice.

1The Charter School Quality Crisis

2014 saw an explosion in reporting on the Ohio charter school boondoggle. A billion dollar business that continues to fail students and rip off tax payers. Charter schools in 2014 weren't any different than 2013, but the volume of reporting finally brought the desperate situation to the attention of the mainstream. Report, after report after report, throughout the year highlighted the corruption, fraud and failure of these schools. Even pro-charter school boosters got in on the act at the end of the year, producing reports showing that Ohio's charters were failing their students.

The year ended with tough talk from the Governor promising to clean up the mess. The question for 2015 will be whether the Governor can follow through on his tough talk and finally deal with this education disgrace that is harming tens of thousands of students each and every year.

ECOT Is Lucrative For Columbus Politicians

Plunderbund has some interesting ideas, prompted by a Dispatch article, on how to reform ECOT - Ohio's largest charter school network. Here's the heart of the Dispatch piece
ECOT now has more students than Canton, Dayton, Dublin or Westerville schools. It is the state’s 10th-largest district. And growth came for ECOT despite its consistently low state report-card results: It ranks among the worst-performing schools in the state.

“The growth has been huge,” said Aaron Churchill, who is Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. It has offices in Columbus and Dayton and sponsors charters but criticizes weak oversight and poor-quality schools. “There are clearly a lot of questions about the quality of the education they’re putting out. I’d be curious to know why parents are selecting it.”

ECOT’s tax revenue grew in step with its enrollment, to $112.7 million, 90 percent of which is funded by the state. Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but often are privately run.

According to a state financial audit made public last week, ECOT paid $21.4 million last year to the two for-profit companies Lager formed to serve the school — nearly one-fifth of the school’s total revenue.

IQ Innovations, Lager’s software firm, sells the IQity online-learning platform to ECOT as well as to other schools and districts elsewhere in the country. Altair Learning Management is Lager’s school-management firm, and it oversees ECOT’s day-to-day business, including hiring and firing.
ECOTs poor performance is nothing new to those who have been paying attention, but the criticism coming from the Dispatch is.

Plunderbund has some suggestions to reform ECOT

  1. Change The Leadership: It’s evident, based on the long history of underachievement at ECOT, that new leadership is needed. We recommend that the Governor create a commission to replace the existing ECOT school board. In addition to the school board, ECOT’s management company, Altair Learning, which has received over $56 million dollars over the past 14 years, has demonstrated no proven ability to improve the learning environment in order to improve the graduation rate, so should be fired immediately.
  2. Change The Curriculum: Bolstering the case that the school’s contract with Altair Learning should be terminated immediately is the management company’s adoption of IQ Innovations as the sole provider of an online curriculum. In FY14, IQ Innovations was paid $17.3 million for providing the curriculum for the 6th straight year, upping their total compensation to $69,846,154. Spending just shy of $70 million on a curriculum that is resulting in students demonstrating significantly below expected growth (based on Ohio’s value-added measures) is a gross misuse of public dollars and should cease immediately. Six years of low growth, low achievement, and low graduation rates is more than enough to demonstrate that the curriculum is wholly ineffective at obtaining the desired outcomes.
  3. Open The Books: State Auditor Dave Yost should be called on to immediately conduct a multi-year and comprehensive review of ECOT’s financial operations. With Altair Learning and IQ Innovations having the same principal owner (William Lager, also the founder of the school), Ohio’s taxpayers need to be assured that the contracts between ECOT and the two companies followed all appropriate laws surrounding the use of public monies and any and all contracts were bid appropriately. In addition, Yost needs to conduct a multi-year investigation into ECOT’s attendance and grading practices to ensure that all enrollment numbers have been reported with the highest integrity as it is these self-reported figures that dictate the allocation of taxpayer dollars to ECOT (and away from other school districts).
  4. Parent Takeover: ECOT should be immediately subjected to a parent takeover provision in state law and a non-partisan entity, say StudentsFirst, should be empowered to help coordinate the effort. ECOT will be required to notify all parents of the opportunity, with StudentsFirst serving to help organize the interested parties.
  5. Break It Up: In order to best facilitate a parent takeover and manage the district more effectively, ECOT should be broken up from one large, single school, into regional entities or sub-districts, each of would then be eligible for a takeover by parents, who could then bring in their own management company or more effective charter school organization.
There's some pretty good ideas there. But we're skeptical any meaningful change is going to come. Ohio is at a crossroads with charter schools. We can either have a smaller number of higher performing schools ran by non-profit sponsors, or we can continue to have a for-profit low performing wild west. Any sensible person would ick the former, but sensible people aren't plied with hundreds of thousands of dollars to think otherwise.

Back to the dispatch piece again

And ECOT’s founder, Lager, has spent at least $1.13 million on Ohio campaigns in the past five years alone. Lager could not be reached for comment, and his spokesman said he couldn’t reach him, either.

That’s more — on Ohio politics, anyway — than was spent by David Brennan, the well-known Akron charter entrepreneur who lobbies heavily on behalf of his White Hat schools group. During the same time period, Brennan donated about $820,000, according to campaign-donation records kept by the Ohio secretary of state.

For the past three years, Lager has funneled more than $200,000 per year to mostly Republican officeholders, including William G. Batchelder of Medina, the outgoing speaker of the Ohio House. The largest single donations went to the Ohio Republican Party.

Political contributions also were made through Lager’s two privately held companies. Since 2009, IQ Innovations has sent more than $154,000 to Ohio political candidates and groups. Altair’s contributions totaled about $38,000.
The Dispatch understates the largesse of Lager. We took at look at the campaign finance reports, published on the Secretary of States website (which inexplicably only go back to 2009)

Read more: ECOT Is Lucrative For Columbus Politicians

New Teacher Recruitment is Collapsing

According to the latest Federal Title 2 data, enrollment into teacher prep programs has collapsed by 9.12% in Ohio. We're not the first to notice this trend, nor is it isolated to Ohio.

The Washington Post reports that Teacher for America may miss their recruitment goals by as much as 25%. Here's part of the memo sent out by the TFA CEO to partners
Dear Colleagues, With a few months to go in our recruitment season, we’d like to share an update on our work, including the patterns we’re seeing among the college seniors, graduate students, and professionals we’re working to recruit. As always, we’d welcome your advice and collaboration.

At this point, we’re tracking toward an incoming corps that may be smaller than the current one, and because demand for corps members has grown in recent years, we could fall short of our partners’ overall needs by more than 25 percent. We understand that this has very real implications for you and your students, and though we’ve still got nearly half our recruitment season to go, we wanted to keep you in the loop.

Today’s education climate is tough—fewer Americans rate education as a “top 2” national issue today, and teacher satisfaction has dipped precipitously in recent years—down from 62% in 2008 to 39% in 2012. Additionally, an increasingly polarized public conversation around education, coupled with shaky district budgets, is challenging the perception of teaching as a stable, fulfilling profession; in turn, we’re seeing decreased interest in entering the field nationwide. (You can read analysis of this trend here in Education Week.) We’ve felt some of this same polarization around TFA. At the same time, the broader economy is improving and young people have more job options than in recent years. Having experienced the national recession through much of their adolescence, college graduates today are placing a greater premium on what they see as financially sustainable professions. Teaching and public service have receded as primary options.

The same pattern of apathy towards teaching was highlighted by Ed Week in a recent article titled Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment Numbers
Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career. Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to federal estimates from the U.S. Department of Education's postsecondary data collection.
"It is an alarming trend," said Mary Vixie Sandy, the executive director of the California Commission on Teaching Credentials, which enforces the state's teacher-preparation standards. "We are going to see it play out in this year and in the coming year with an increase in demand, and a not very deep pool of teachers to fulfill that demand."
If an uncertain economy is one likely explanation for the drop, analysts also point to other, less tangible causes: lots of press around changes to teachers' evaluations, more rigorous academic-content standards, and the perception in some quarters that teachers are being blamed for schools' problems.
Ed Week produced the graph below to show some of the trends

Corporate education reformers set about creating a climate of "accountability" to drive out "bad teachers" and replace them with "superstars". All they appear to have accomplished is creating a byzantine accountability system that doesn't work, isn't fair and is actively driving away tens of thousands of potential new teachers.
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