Why are we investing more in a failed experiment?

By Maureen Reedy, former teacher of the year and candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives.

History seems to be repeating itself in the Statehouse. Once again, legislators are poised to pass a state budget bill that continues to take billions of our tax dollars out of traditional public schools to fund for-profit charters that have produced dismal results after two decades of experimentation in our state.

“Let the money follow the child,” is a favorite phrase of Gov. John Kasich and his fellow charter-school fans to craft legislation that diverts more and more of our public funds to charter schools each year.

For two decades, the money has been following Ohio’s children out of the doors of our public schoolhouses and through the doors of charter schools. Despite losing over $6 billion to charters during the past 15 years, traditional public schools continue to vastly outperform their charter-school counterparts.

While 77 percent of Ohio’s public schools were successful last year (rated Excellent with Distinction, Achieving or Effective), only 23 percent of Ohio’s charters were successful (rated Effective or Achieving). So 77 percent of Ohio’s public schools are receiving A’s, B’s and C’s while 77 percent of Ohio’s charter schools are receiving D’s and F’s. And the bottom 111 performing schools last year? All were charter schools.

Graduation rates also should give our legislators reason to put the brakes on funneling dollars to charters: 81 percent of Ohio’s students graduate from their public high schools as compared to a 30 percent to 40 percent high-school graduation rate for charter-school students.

“Following the money” also leads us to family-run charter-school operations with hefty salaries and few education credentials, including multimillion-dollar salaries for the CEOs of Ohio’s two largest charter-school chains, David Brennan of White Hat Management Co. and William Lager of Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Our tax dollars also are going to pay for advertising campaigns to recruit students to attend their underperforming charter schools.

Also perplexing are the two sets of rules that seem to exist for public schools and charter schools. Apparently, once public money goes into a charter-school operation, it ceases to be public and belongs to the charter-school corporation.

Brennan of White Hat has refused to open his books to the state auditor for the third consecutive year. We are still waiting to hear exactly what percentage of public tax money is being spent on instructional resources and supports for educating children verses top-level multimillion-dollar administrative salaries, advertising and recruitment efforts in the corporate headquarters of White Hat.

In addition, while Lager of ECOT receives millions of dollars for his annual salary from public funding, his private software company has enjoyed profits of over $10 million in just a single year selling products to his ECOT schools, paid for by our public tax dollars.

Charter schools also are permitted to close their doors and shut down operations when cited for multiple violations, only to re-open the next day under a different sponsor, in a different building under a different name and continue to receive our tax dollars.

As charters close, oftentimes at mid-year, hundreds of children are shuffled back to their public schools without adequate records and a significant loss of instructional time. Just as tragic is the students’ loss of community and social connections, which contributes to academic deficits and delays.

As a parent, taxpayer and 30-year public-school teacher, I have to ask: Why are legislators proposing a budget that does nothing to restore funding for our public schools, but instead increases funding to charter schools? Why are we continuing to invest billions in a failed experiment that weakens our stronger-performing traditional school system and risks the future of Ohio’s children?

Education News for 11-28-2012

State Education News

  • Black grad rate lags in Ohio (Cincinnati Enquirer)
  • Ohio is the sixth worst state in the nation at graduating black students from high school on time, a new federal study says…Read more...

  • Ohio’s grad rates show racial disparity (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Ohio has one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates for black students but one of the better rates for white students. The gap between black and white students’ success is so wide — white students’ rate is 26 percentage points higher…Read more...

  • House tweaking schools legislation (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Majority Republicans in the House say legislation to ramp up the school accountability system and create new report cards for schools and districts could be voted on as early as Thursday…Read more...

  • Ohio ties for 8th in U.S. for high school graduation rates (Dayton Daily News)
  • Twenty two states have better high school graduation rates than Ohio under a new, more uniform method of calculation, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education…Read more...

  • Local HS Introduces Unique Texting Program (WJW)
  • A Lake County high school is now using a unique text messaging program which allows students to anonymously send tips about any potential dangers at their school…Read more...

Local Education News

  • New Albany levy passes; district will build a school (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Voters approved a New Albany schools tax that will pay for a new school building, according to final, official results the Board of Elections certified yesterday…Read more...

  • Vanlue, Kenton agree to share school treasurer (Findlay Courier)
  • Vanlue and Kenton school districts have agreed to share a treasurer, school administrators announced this week…Read more...

  • Mansfield school district rethinking budget situation (Mansfield News Journal)
  • A gamble by the Mansfield City Schools Board of Education backfired at the polls this month, and the district will operate with $4 million less next year…Read more...

  • No comments for proposed 'double dip' (Newark Advocate)
  • No one spoke up at a public hearing Tuesday concerning the proposed retirement and rehiring of the superintendent of the Career and Technology Education Centers of Licking County…Read more...

  • Austintown teens learn work skills (Youngstown Vindicator)
  • Hartford Orchard has hosted many families and events throughout the season, but on Tuesday, those visiting the orchard were put to work…Read more...


  • Plenty of big questions facing Ohio's schools (Chillicothe Gazette)
  • When it comes to the state government in Columbus and big issues involving Ohio’s public schools, there are more big unknowns than knowns at the moment…Read more...

  • Ohio ready to reform tests, data (Warren Tribune Chronicle)
  • At long last, Ohio seems on the brink of simple, common-sense school reforms. One would compare the performance of students to those in other states. Another would eliminate the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo…Read more...

Charter teachers receive "psychic salary"

Ohio's largest professional teachers organization, OEA, at their recent spring representative assembly, overwhelmingly voted to allow for the organization of charter school teachers in Ohio. Unthinkable mere years ago, but after a long hard battle over collective bargaining rights, the teachers and education support professionals enshrined rhetoric into core belief and action. A belief that all employees have the right to representation and bargaining, even those who work in charter schools that OEA has long opposed.

The reaction from the charter school apologists has been predictable, but Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools had the best response

"Of course this is something that has always been possible, but I would say that it's easier said than done," he said in an interview. "Charter schools are smaller entities, they're more personalized, and teachers tend to feel more positively connected to management with defined grievance procedures and participation in the mission and strategic plan of the school.

"There tends to be more resistance or less interest in charter schools for this sort of thing. Charter school teachers often are making less than district teachers but because they tend to be smaller schools, with smaller classrooms, less bureaucracy, they officer[sic] a pay in 'psychic salary' that more often than not makes up the difference."

Psychic pay! Why would charter school teachers want to give up their low salaries and psychic pay for better working conditions, smaller class sizes, better benefits and equitable pay? Let's take a look at this so called "more personalized environment, where teachers tend to feel more positively connected to management", with this first person recount of working for White Hat management

With buildings being shut down and teachers being canned in droves across the state, White Hat seemed to be the only place hiring. I was brought on board as an academic adviser. It seemed like a pretty cool gig at the time; I would be helping students graduate, via phone and e-mail, from a cubicle farm in downtown Akron.

On my first day at OHDELA, I was shown to my cube, given a large gray binder, and ordered to copy my own training manual. One week later, promptly at 8 a.m., a huge pile of messy files and the educational fates of 150 students were handed down to me by four overworked and mentally scattered advisers. It was the beginning of the school year. Enrollment was picking up rapidly. The little online high school was approaching an enrollment of 1,500 kids -- with a staff of only 30 to 40 teachers and advisers to steer their education.
My job at Mr. Brennan's gerbil cage was contacting students and parents every two weeks, telemarketer-style, and attempting to hold kids accountable for their progress. More often than not, there was no progress at all for a variety of excuses -- valid and not -- concocted by students who seemed less interested in their educational well-being than I was. Faced with choosing between the importance of their education and the irresistible allure of the Xbox, the odds weren't good.

So every day at 8 a.m., I strapped into my headset and launched into my 30-plus Cheerleader/Bad Guy phone calls, for 11 bucks an hour with zero benefits.

Nothing says "personalized environment" like a 6 by 6 cubicle. But what of having "less bureaucracy" to make the day go faster and the work more rewarding? Back to our story

White Hat, meanwhile, seemed more preoccupied with charting spreadsheets, calculating endless employee performance measures, appeasing streams of irate mothers, and raking in cold, hard state cash.

Organizationally speaking, it was a nightmare on steroids. The place was built on a lopsided pyramid of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, and more spreadsheets. I was given the daily task of updating huge Excel workbooks with student data and test scores. Copies would circulate throughout the office, so that no two staff members had the same information about one student.

Every morning I arrived to stare eight more hours of drudgery in the face. It was one of those jobs that are traumatic to any creative, intelligent mind. I had to admit to myself that it really was nothing but a poorly run credit factory with killer marketing.

I've never witnessed lower morale at a workplace. Rumors circulated, cliques gossiped, managers took sides, and everyone had a cynical attitude toward the company. Many of the young, inexperienced teachers were hired straight out of college or after long bouts of trying to find "real teaching jobs." They became resigned to their roles as cubicle slaves, with no control over the material they "taught."

It does make you wonder if Bill Sims, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has ever stepped foot in a charter school, or talked to someone who has worked there. But Mr. Simms wasn't the only apologist painting charter schools with the rosy brush. Fordham had an opinion piece titled "Why unionized charters would be a setback for Ohio’s school improvement efforts" that set up their argument against organizing charter schools by first erecting a straw-man

But, would unionized charter schools be good for students?

Successful charters work because they are flexible and constantly seek improvements to how they do things. They deploy funds, teachers, time, materials, and technology in different ways to impact student achievement. High-performing charter schools almost always display strong cultures, astute and driven leaders, dedicated teachers, coherent curricula, shared responsibility, and a sense of common purpose. Successful schools know their students and address their needs. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for charter schools is that they are expected to be different. Collective bargaining agreements put constraints on all these factors that lead to success and impede not only innovation but seek conformity across schools.

Successful charters are a rare breed in Ohio. The bottom 113 ranked schools in Ohio are all charters. Fordham themselves, in a preceding post titled "Accountability and perspective needed for drop-out recovery charters" acknowledge that charter quality is often very low and in desperate need of improvement and accountability.

No one is arguing that a charter school contract has to be identical, or as comprehensive as a traditional school's - in fact they are often quite different and more limited in nature. Opponents and proponents alike ought to read the entire Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) study on this matter.

Price examined nine charter schools unionized either by management design or by teacher vote. For comparison, he examined traditional district contracts and analyzed data from non-unionized charter schools as well. He found that the new contracts can be crafted in ways that respect the unique missions and priorities of charter schools, provide teachers with basic protections, and maintain organizational flexibility. However, while these new contracts innovate in many ways, they could go much further given the opportunity to create contracts from scratch.

That sure sounds a lot better than mystical "psychic pay", doesn't it?

Desperate Times in Cleveland

In our ongoing effort to report on the Cleveland Schools "reform" plan, here is a recent article written by education historian Diane Ravitch

I recently went to Cleveland to speak to the City Club, where civic leaders gather every Friday to hear from people in different fields. I wanted to talk with educators as well, so I spoke to the Cleveland Teachers Union on the evening of Feb. 2, and to district administrators on Feb. 3, before addressing the City Club.

On my drive from the airport with Jan Resseger, the minister for public education for the United Church of Christ, we passed through several neighborhoods. First, Shaker Heights, an elegant suburban enclave with outstanding schools. Then East Cleveland, a very different suburb, marked by blocks of boarded-up apartment houses and sealed homes, as well as empty lots where vacant houses had been demolished. These were once-functional neighborhoods that had died. So devastated was the landscape, I thought I might be in a Third World country. In central Cleveland, many houses had windows covered with plywood, and many retail stores were empty. To put it mildly, this city is economically depressed.

After I spoke to the teachers, one came up and introduced herself as a 4th grade teacher. She said: "Thank you for giving me hope. I wish I could give some to my students. They have no hope for the future." That was the saddest thing I heard on my visit.

Cleveland has a level of urban decay that is alarming. Yet its municipal leaders have decided that their chief problem is bad teachers. Surely, I thought, the teachers didn't cause the flight of employers from the city, the collapse of its manufacturing base, and the massive loss of home mortgages.

But sure enough, Cleveland—and the state of Ohio—plans to attack its economic woes by creating more charter schools and supplying merit pay to teachers able to raise test scores. The leaders want to make it easier to fire teachers and to remove seniority. That's the mayor's plan to reform education in Cleveland. Mayor Frank Jackson, like Governor John Kasich, thinks that school choice is the remedy for the education woes of Cleveland and Ohio. So, of course, they both want more charters.

Cleveland has had mayoral control since 1995, so if mayoral control was the answer to urban woes, it should have happened here. It hasn't. Cleveland is one of the poorest, most racially segregated, and lowest-performing districts in the nation. According to data in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Cleveland's school population is 85 percent black and Hispanic, and 100 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Ohio has made a big bet on charter schools. It has an aggressive and entrepreneurial charter sector. About 100,000 of the state's 1.8 million students are enrolled in charter schools, but charter enrollment is far higher in the state's "Big 8" urban districts. About 25 percent (give or take a point or two) of students attend charters in Dayton, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Toledo.

The average public school teacher in Cleveland is paid about $66,000, while the average charter school teacher in that city receives about $33,000 a year. That's a big cost saving for the city and state. Most charters are non-union, and teachers have no job protections or employment rights. It appears that charters have a business plan in which they keep costs low by teacher turnover, low levels of experience, and low salaries.

As in other states, charters in Ohio get no better academic results on average than regular public schools. There are more charters at the bottom in the state's academic rating ("academic emergency" or "academic watch"), but not much difference in the middle or at the top. A study in 2009 by CREDO of Stanford found that "new charter school students have an initial loss of learning in both reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. In subsequent years, charter school students receive no significant benefit in reading from charter school attendance compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. However, charter school students continue significant losses of learning in math after the first year of attendance."

The biggest charter chain in Ohio is White Hat Management, a for-profit corporation run by Akron businessman David Brennan. Brennan and his family have contributed millions of dollars to Republican candidates over the past decade. White Hat manages 46 charter schools, both online and free-standing, most in Ohio. State law gives the corporation power to hire and fire board members as well as staff members. Board members in 10 White Hat schools sued the management company to find out where the money was going; management has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, and the boards said they didn't know where the money was spent. State law gives the corporation ownership of everything purchased with taxpayer dollars.

Just last week, an Ohio court ruled that White Hat must open its books to individual charter boards, if they request to see them. But at the same time, the company is under no obligation to reveal its spending of public funds to public officials. This really illustrates the essence of privatization. A public entity must open its books to public scrutiny. The legislature could fix this, but it is hard to imagine that it would get tough with one of the state's major Republican contributors.

There's nothing special about the performance of this particular charter chain. According to information compiled by NPR in Ohio, "No Ohio White Hat school earned higher than the equivalent of a "C" on the state report cards. Most are in academic watch or emergency." In the company's view, the state grades are unimportant; all that matters is that parents are making a choice.

Ohio has also been fertile territory for virtual schools, some of which are owned by White Hat. The state has pumped more than $1 billion into them over the past decade, but they have gotten disappointing results. Of 23 e-schools in Ohio, only three were rated "effective" by the state. InnovationOhio, a watchdog group in the state, concluded that the e-schools are "vastly underperforming" and that "children are nearly 10 times more likely to receive an 'effective' education in traditional public school than they are in E- schools." But, quite frankly, sponsors of these schools make huge amounts of money, and where there is money, there are lobbyists and campaign contributions.

Governor Kasich also wants more vouchers for Ohio. Cleveland has had vouchers since 1995. Students who use vouchers to attend private schools in Cleveland perform no better on state tests than students in regular Cleveland public schools. When you consider that Cleveland is one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation on NAEP, this doesn't say much for the power of vouchers as a tool to "rescue" students or to improve achievement or even test scores.

Yet there you have it. The leaders of one of the most economically depressed and racially segregated cities in the nation have decided that the answer to its problems is to fire teachers, close public schools, expand the number of charters, and possibly to expand the voucher program as well.

In the eyes of Ohio's elected officials, evidence about the past performance of charters and vouchers means nothing.

And about those children in the 4th grade in Cleveland who have no hope for the future, who probably live in one of those desolate neighborhoods surrounded by boarded-up homes and empty lots. There is nothing in the mayor or governor's plans to offer them hope. The illusion of hope, perhaps.

But they aren't thinking about those children. They are thinking about how to cut costs. They will keep hiring private firms to run schools. The private firms will fire those expensive teachers who earn a living wage and hire newcomers willing to work long hours for $30,000 a year. Some of the private firms will replace teachers with virtual academies, so those expensive buildings can be shuttered while children sit at a computer, with one teacher monitoring 50-100 or more screens. The "teachers" may not be certified, may be hourly workers with no benefits, may turn over with frequency. All that cuts costs, too.

There's lots in these plans to give hope to political allies of the electeds. But not much to give hope to the children.


Education News for 12-28-2011

Statewide Education News

  • Charter schools get win in White Hat suit – Columbus Dispatch
  • The 19-month fight over whether Ohio’s largest for-profit manager of charter schools must share detailed financial records could be coming to a close.

    Franklin County Common Pleas Judge John F. Bender has decided he can rule on the case, and he reiterated an order he made in August that White Hat Management release records showing how the charter-school operator spends the millions of tax dollars it gets each year. Read More…

  • Six Ohio Education Stories to Watch in 2012 – State Impact Ohio
  • Here’s our take on the six education stories to watch in 2012:

    1. School funding.
    2. College-readiness.
    3. The feds.
    4. “School choice.”
    5. Charter school accountability.
    6. Teachers rising.
    Read More…

Local Issues

  • Energy conservation at schools benefitting taxpayers – Oxford Press
  • Efficient new buildings save Hamilton thousands of dollars. While utility bills for homes have been increasing, many area school districts have seen their bills drop thanks to a variety of energy conservation programs.

    And thanks to those bills dropping, the districts can put money back into their general fund, creating less drain on taxpayer dollars. And in at least one case, that has enabled a district to delay putting a levy on the ballot. Read More…

  • Yardsticks for local students are analyzed – Marietta Times
  • By one measure, Washington County's school districts are ranked in the middle to bottom third in the state.

    But another ranking assembled by a nonprofit education organization dramatically changes some of those positions. Read More…

Editorial & Opinion

  • School reform takes time – Youngstown Vindicator
  • Steubenville Herald-Star: Allocating funds among hundreds of school districts to ensure all provide the “thorough and efficient” education required by the state constitution is easier said than done, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich is learning.

    Soon after taking office less than a year ago, Kasich pledged to overhaul the state formula for funding public schools. By January a plan would be in place, the governor thought.

    He was wrong. His advisers say the January deadline was a self-imposed one that won’t be met. Better to get it right than to get it on time, they add.

    They are right, of course. Public education reform is among the chief concerns of many Buckeye State residents. Read More…

Is Our Students Learning? Yes.

Three mildly heretical thoughts about American education: First, given the impossible assignment we've given them -- an egalitarian mission in a nation rapidly growing more stratified by income and class -- American public schools are probably doing a better job than they ought to be. One big reason is greater professionalism among teachers. A lot has changed since I wrote a Texas Monthly article documenting the awful state of teacher education back in 1979, mostly for the better.

Despite melodramatic pronouncements to the contrary by sundry politicians, tycoons, tycoon/politicians and media-enhanced "reformers" like former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the available evidence shows American students performing steadily better on standardized assessments of educational progress over the past 30 years.

"The only longitudinal measure of student achievement that is available to Bill Gates or anyone else," writes Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, "is the National Assessment of Educational Progress." Scores on the NAEP have trended steadily upward to where the most underprivileged African-American children do better in eighth grade reading and math today than white students did back when the measurements began in 1978. But no, they haven't caught up because white kids' scores have improved too.

This doesn't mean the United States is turning into Finland or South Korea, to mention two small, ethnically homogeneous nations education reformers like to cite as (quite contrary) examples of how to proceed, but it does indicate that much doomsday rhetoric we hear from the likes of Rhee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is predicated upon false assumptions.

Yes, we could be doing better; no, the sky's not falling.

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