Court Deals Blow to Ohio’s Authorizer Autonomy

To have a high-quality charter school sector, a state needs high-quality authorizing. This depends mostly on getting the right policies and practices in place. But a recent ruling by Ohio’s Hamilton County Common Pleas Court demonstrates how the judicial branch can frustrate the efforts of legislators and practitioners.

Cincinnati’s VLT Academy (VLT) serves approximately 650 students in grades K-12, 98 percent of whom are African American and 99 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. In 2013 VLT earned a D on its state report card. While 62 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher on the state’s 2012-2013 reading assessment (compared to 75 percent of district students), just 15 percent did so in math (compared to 65 percent of students in Cincinnati City Schools). Only 46 percent of VLT’s class of 2013 graduated in four years, compared to 74 percent in Cincinnati’s district schools.

Charter school authorizers, or “sponsors” as they’re called in Ohio, are charged with holding schools accountable, and this includes closing schools that persistently fail to live up to expectations. Because of the school’s ongoing academic and financial troubles, VLT’s sponsor, the Education Resource Consultants of Ohio, chose not to renew the school’s contract. VLT sought a new sponsor, which is permitted under Ohio’s charter school law. However, all sponsors to which VLT applied—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—declined.

The authorizing community was sending a message, loud and clear. Nevertheless, VLT appealed ODE’s rejection—again as permitted under Ohio law. Judge Nadine Allen upheld VLT’s appeal, forcing ODE to both sponsor the school and give VLT nearly $300,000 to ensure the school’s teachers and staff continue to be paid. Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals has since issued a stay of Judge Allen’s ruling.

There are more than 60 sponsors in Ohio; the levels of oversight and support they provide vary greatly.  A new sponsor report card will go into effect January 1, 2015 and rank all of Ohio’s sponsors on three metrics: the academic performance of the students enrolled in the schools they authorize; adherence to “quality practices” outlined by ODE; and compliance with applicable laws regarding sponsorship.

Holding sponsors accountable for the performance of the schools they authorize is intended to incentivize the adoption of quality authorizing practices, including a rigorous screening process for the schools they choose to authorize and a willingness to close schools that underperform persistently.

If the VLT ruling is upheld, it may compromise the ability of sponsors to hold their schools accountable for results. Closing any school—even a poorly performing one—is terribly difficult, so authorizers have a tough job even under the best of circumstances. This precedent would make it even tougher.

– Kelly Robson

Challenges in American Indian Education

50,000 American Indian students (approximately 7 percent of all American Indian students) attend 183 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools across the country—about the same size as the Atlanta Public School system. These students scored significantly below American Indian students attending public schools on the 2011 NAEP: fourth graders scored 22 points lower in reading and 14 points lower in math. In comparison to the 18 cities participating in NAEP’s 2011 Trial Urban District Assessment, BIE schools as a whole underperformed all except Detroit.

This data is from the “Blueprint for Reform,” released by the BIE last week. The Blueprint is the product of a Study Group that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formed to identify challenges and make recommendations for improving BIE schools.

Some of the challenges identified in the Blueprint are familiar. For instance, “principals and teachers feel unprepared for implementation of the Common Core State Standards.” We’ve heard that before. Others, as the team at Bellwether has learned through our work on rural education, are common to schools operating in remote regions of the country. Many rural and BIE schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers, and their efforts are often confounded by a lack of adequate housing.

BIE schools also face unique obstacles. The BIE and American Indian communities must overcome a history in which the federal government pursued a policy of assimilation, sending American Indian youth to boarding schools far from their communities. BIE schools are also funded and overseen by a confusing amalgam of agencies: the BIE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Affairs’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management. Each agency has its own hierarchy. See here, here, and here for their respective organizational charts. School principals who met with the Study Group consistently called the bureaucracy “disorganized and inefficient” and complained that they “routinely had to respond to duplicative data calls from different offices.”

One of the Blueprint’s major recommendations is for the BIE to transition “from a direct education provider to an expert service and support provider.” The BIE currently operates 57 of the 183 BIE schools; the remaining schools are operated directly by tribes. The BIE would then focus on supporting schools on things like Common Core implementation and teacher recruitment.

Transitioning away from school operations makes sense—as Andy Smarick and I have argued, big government agencies are more adept at setting long-term goals and creating the policy conditions for change than responding to the dynamic challenges of day-to-day school operations. However, repurposing an agency that Secretary Jewell has called an “embarrassment” into a support provider sounds a bit like a consolation prize for the BIE and a potential barrier between BIE schools and support providers with more promising track records.

While the majority of school reform conversations revolve around urban education, rural and BIE schools also face knotty challenges that deserve our attention and resources. I’ll be watching to see how the Blueprint plays out and hope you will, too.

-Juliet Squire

Wisdom from Nixonland

Per my earlier post about Rick Perlstein’s great book Nixonland, here’s a quote I found particularly striking and relevant to current education reform debates:

“It is a lesson of the sixties: liberals get in the biggest political trouble–whether instituting open housing, civilian complaint review boards, or sex education programs–when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then that they are most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.” –Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Chapter 24, “Purity”

Recommended Reading: Nixonland

This summer I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent book Nixonland. The book is about not just Richard Nixon, but the evolution of American political culture from 1965 to 1972 (which reshaped the political landscape in ways that continue to define American political culture today) as well as the forces, events ,and personalities that contributed that contributed to that evolution. It’s must reading for anyone who wants to understand our current political climate. It’s also an incredibly well-written and engaging read. I particularly recommend it for anyone engaged in education policy and politics today: Perlstein describes how a 1964 “liberal consensus” on civil rights and domestic policy issues rapidly disintegrated in the following years, in large part because liberal reform proponents were too convinced of both their own obvious moral rightness and the inevitable progress of their policy goals to recognize or engage the emotions and interests that might lead their fellow citizens to resist such “progress.” Both the attitudes of 1960s-era liberal reformers and the results of those attitudes offer a sobering cautionary tale to contemporary education reformers who frequently evidence similar tendencies—and have been similarly blindsided by recent backlash against their agenda. Studying the history of this tumultuous period in American political life may help today’s reform advocates—not just in education but a range of policy issues—not only avoid mistakes of their predecessors but also chart a wiser course forward.

Perlstein has a new book, The Invisible Bridge: the Rise of Nixon and the Fall of Ronald Reagan, coming out in August. I’m looking forward to reading it.

–Sara Mead

Learning from D.C.–and What D.C. Can Learn From Other Places?

Richard Whitmire, writing in the Washington Post, hails Washington, D.C. as one of the nation’s “education hotspots.” As someone who’s been deeply engaged in D.C. education for the past five years, my first response is “duh.”

Seriously, though, it’s great to see Whitmire helping a broader audience to understand how improvements in both charter school quality and DCPS over the past seven years are paying off in improved student learning outcomes and options for families in the District (particularly appreciate the shout out to the work of D.C.’s authorizer, the Public Charter School Board, on which I serve). I think that Whitmire may be offering an overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration, though. To be clear, I’d like nothing better than to see the charter sector and DCPS work together more closely and collaboratively to provide a seamless and easily accessible range of quality school options for all D.C. children and their families. Recent developments like the MySchoolDC Common Lottery and joint equity reports on DCPS and charter schools illustrate the progress being made on DCPS-charter collaboration. But there are also real practical challenges and conflicting interests here, as well as some deep tensions around balancing greater coordination with respect for charter autonomy. Ignoring these tensions doesn’t make them go away, and efforts for more robust collaboration must engage them. Whitmire also neglects the potential fragility of D.C.’s progress to date in the face of upcoming political changes. While a great deal has been accomplished, decisions by the next mayor or council leaders could undermine some of that progress. That said, the ideas Whitmire puts forward are intriguing, including a provocative suggestion that current progress could ultimately threaten some of the District’s tony private schools by creating options that appeal to middle class and affluent parents, as well as low-income families.

–Sara Mead

BW Team Blogging This Week

Happy Monday! As Andy mentioned last week, the Bellwether team is going to be taking over Eduwonk for the next three weeks. So be on the look out for post from Bellwether team members Chad Aldeman, Julie Squire, Kelly Robson, Ashley Mitchel, Ellie Craig, Carolyn Chuong, Leslie Kan, Sara Mead, and maybe a few other folks as well. We’re looking forward to sharing some of our analysis and perspectives with you, and think you’ll enjoy getting to know more of the folks on our team. You can learn more about these folks and other Bellwether team members here.

–Sara Mead