Ohio Policy

Detroit Public Schools recently made national headlines for the heartbreaking conditions of its school facilities and a...
Last week, we cautioned that Ohio’s opt-out bill (HB 420) offers a perverse incentive for districts and schools to game the...
“The Proper Perspective” is a discussion between Jamie Davies O’Leary, senior Ohio policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham...
Last May, Achieve released a report showing that most states have created a false impression of student success in math and...
Though charter schools are fiercely debated in Ohio, too rarely are the voices of charter leaders actually heard. This report...
Ohio lawmakers recently proposed a bill (HB 420) that would remove students who opt out of standardized tests from the...
When Governor Kasich signed the state budget last June, myriad education changes became law. One of the most talked-about was the...
Late in 2015, Congress passed a new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—which replaces the outdated No...
It’s often argued that improving education will improve the nation’s economy. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic...
A few years ago, a couple of my Fordham colleagues coined the phrase “public private” schools to describe schools that educate...
Ohio has been included in lots of national rankings and scorecards lately . The latest comes from the National Alliance for...
In recent weeks, two national publications have assigned Ohio grades for its education policies and outcomes. The first, “...
Truancy has long been a problem in schools across the nation. Because of its myriad causes , the economic and educational cost,...
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation—at least when it comes to the 2016 Quality Counts ranking. Called to Account is the twentieth...
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 594,000 children live in poverty throughout the state of Ohio. Assuming a family of...

Fordham Ohio report release: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools

January 27, 2016 - 8:30 am to 9:45 am

Ohio has exemplary charter schools – beacons of quality that are helping students reach their full potential. Who are these high flyers and what can we learn from them? How can Ohio...

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a teacher in the Buckeye State? Wonder no more! In this policy brief, we outline...
The Ohio Coalition for Quality Education (OCQE) has hit the airwaves in an effort to change the state’s accountability policies...
As 2015 comes to a close, the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will likely soon become...
In light of a Hillary Clinton’s charge that charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” as well as the lambasting of...
CREDO’s national study of online charter schools has prompted even ardent supporters to call for “ tough changes ” in how they...

Last May, Achieve released a report showing that most states have created a false impression of student success in math and reading proficiency. Known as the “honesty gap” (or, as Fordham has long described it, The Proficiency Illusion), the discrepancy between reported and actual proficiency is found when state test results are compared with NAEP results.[1] For example, Achieve’s May report showed that over half of states showed discrepancies of more than thirty percentage points with NAEP’s gold standard. Ohio was one of the worst offenders: Our old state test scores (the OAA and OGTs) differed by thirty percentage points or more in each of NAEP’s main test subjects, with a whopping forty-nine-point difference in fourth-grade reading.

Less than one year later, new state test scores and biennial NAEP results have created an opportunity to revisit the honesty gap. In its latest report, Achieve finds that the gap has significantly narrowed in nearly half of states. Ohio is one of twenty-six states that has earned the commendation “Significantly Improved” for closing the honesty gap in either fourth-grade reading or eighth-grade math by at least ten percentage points since 2013. Unfortunately, the Buckeye State still isn’t among those who are “Top Truth Tellers” in 2015 because we still have honesty gaps of more than five percentage points. Considering our recent status at the bottom of the barrel, however, the improvement is worthy of acknowledgement.

Ohio’s improvement is a reflection of the State Board of Education’s recent adoption of performance levels for the 2015–16 English Language Arts (ELA) and math state tests. Anyone who has followed the rollercoaster of testing and accountability changes over the last year will know that the adoption of a higher proficiency threshold wasn’t a certainty. Just this past summer, when the state board adopted cut scores for the PARCC assessment that were below the recommendations of the consortium, the national media reacted with a frenzy of accusations that Ohio was taking a page from Lake Wobegon and engaging in score inflation, since the adopted scores nearly doubled the number of students deemed proficient. Unfazed by the criticism, the board promised to raise cut scores each year until performance levels accurately depicted the achievement and readiness of Ohio students.        

With the new performance levels, it appears the department has kept its word and is worthy of being deemed “Significantly Improved.” The newly adopted cut scores are higher in both ELA and math. The difference is most pronounced in ELA, where the percentage of students projected to be proficient decreased. Consistent with the decrease in proficiency, the percentage of students who are projected to fall into the “limited” performance level (the designation beneath “basic”) has increased. In an interesting twist, the number of kids projected to score “advanced” actually increased in every test except English II.

A few caveats about this data: First, comparing the new performance levels to last year’s isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. For starters, last year’s performance levels were based on PARCC, and this year’s performance levels are based on Ohio’s new state tests (which were developed by AIR and more than one hundred Ohio teachers and content experts).[2] In addition, the projected student performance percentages for last year’s test were based on PARCC’s 2014 field test, while this year’s projections came from student data in states where AIR had already administered ELA and math tests—which doesn’t include Ohio. Finally, as previously noted, the only level where projected student performance is expected to rise instead of fall is at advanced. This could be attributed to one of two things: Either PARCC was too difficult, making it nearly impossible for students to score advanced, or Ohio’s new state tests are less difficult, making it easier for students to score advanced. Either way, it’s important to remember that the real results we’ll get this summer—rather than the projected numbers we have now—will be a far better indication of Ohio student achievement.  

Although it’s not a perfect analysis, comparing the new cut scores to the old is a valuable measure of ODE’s transparency and honesty. The criticism that the department has taken over last year’s low cut scores—and months of controversy in other realms—makes their commitment to raising the bar in state testing welcome news. Higher cut scores are a step in the right direction toward ending the honesty gap, and the state board and ODE deserve credit.

That being said, the percentage of students we deem proficient is still far above what NAEP and other assessments find. That means the department must remain committed to truth telling in the future. When early state test results arrive, and performance levels have to be validated, the department must be careful not to balk if scores are lower than projected numbers indicate. The same is true for next school year, when ODE will need to hold true to their word and raise cut scores again. Other states have set an example for framing low scores, and Achieve’s new report indicates that many more are closing the honesty gap. Ohio should follow suit. Students and their families deserve to know the truth about their performance and readiness long before they’re faced with remediation in college or difficulty in the workplace. In all, while the Buckeye State is moving in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. Ohio is on the path to telling the truth, even if it hurts—and policy makers and the public must be patient through the pain.




[1] There’s good evidence that NAEP’s proficiency levels in reading are predictive of whether students are ready to succeed in college without taking remedial courses.

[2] It’s worth noting that many educators think the new tests are already off to a good start.

 

Last week, we cautioned that Ohio’s opt-out bill (HB 420) offers a perverse incentive for districts and schools to game the accountability system. The bill has since been amended, but it is no closer to addressing the larger issues Ohio faces as it determines how best to maintain accountability in response to the opt-out movement. 

Current law dings schools and districts when a student skips the exam by assigning a zero for that student when calculating the school’s overall score (opting out directly impacts two of ten report card measures). The original version of HB 420 removed those penalties entirely. Instead of earning a zero, absent students would simply not count against the school. Realizing the potential unintended consequences under such a scenario, including the possible counseling out of low-achieving students and larger numbers of opt-outs overall, the drafters of the substitute bill incorporated two changes.

First, the amended version requires the Ohio Department of Education to assign two separate Performance Index (PI) grades for schools and districts for the 2014–15 school year—one reflecting the scores of all students required to take exams (including those who opt out) and another excluding students who didn’t participate. Second, in a clear move to curb school employees from counseling out low-performers, lawmakers created strict penalties—including criminal sanctions—for any staff who so much as thinks about uttering the words “stay home.” Specifically, it prohibits any public school employee from “negligently suggesting” to a student or parent that the student shouldn’t take the assessment. Penalties include a one-year suspension to the employee’s professional license, grounds for termination, and a minor misdemeanor—the same penalties for cheating. But these changes do nothing to address the heart of Ohio’s opt-out problem.

Ohio is eager for a quick fix where none is to be had. Federal law, thanks in part to strong advocacy from national civil rights groups, still expects 95 percent of students (and all subgroups) to participate in state assessments. Moreover, the Department of Education remains committed to enforcing that provision. Any solution that Ohio develops must work in concert with this requirement. Unfortunately, HB 420 does nothing to discourage opting out and simply attempts to stall rather than addressing the deeper problem. Below are four recommendations that Ohio should consider if it’s interested in a long-term cure rather than a short-term band-aid.

  1. Publish only one performance index score, as required under existing law. Legislators need to resist the urge to publish two performance index scores, despite the push by districts that were hit hard by opt-outs. The legislature has already ensured, by extending safe harbor through the 2016–17 school year, that the state will not hold a school’s or district’s test scores against it. But wealthier (and generally higher-achieving) districts with substantial numbers of opt-outs aren’t worried about state interventions; rather, they are worried about the response of their community. By assigning two PI scores, schools and districts will merely point to the higher number as the “real” score. This removes any consequence that the opt-out movement has on a community, like lowered reputation or an impact on long-term property values. The dual PI scores let schools and communities off the hook, making it far less likely that they’ll ever have full student participation. The proposed reporting fix is slated to apply only to the 2014–15 school year. But if Ohio does nothing to actually reduce the number of opt-outs, lawmakers will be under enormous pressure to carry it forward to additional years. If Ohio’s safe harbor measure (initially a one-year reprieve that lawmakers extended to three) is any indication, this won’t be a temporary fix.
  2. Develop a formal process for opting out. Taking a cue from Pennsylvania, Ohio could develop a formal process for parents determined to keep their child home from testing. Parents should be required to have an in-person meeting with a principal or school staff member, review a sample of the standardized test in question, hear directly from the school what the adverse impacts from opting out are likely to be, and sign a form explaining why they are choosing to opt out. This gives the state a method to accurately track opt-outs. (Currently, state testing data only show non-participation rates, and there is no way to distinguish intentional opting out from truancy or other types of absence.) This procedure would also add the benefit of ensuring that students and parents are fully informed about opting out and its very real consequences for schools, the reputation of their community, and on the accountability system as a whole.
  3. Penalize schools for opt-out students, but only partially. Currently opt outers receive a “zero”, and amended HB 420 essentially gives them a free pass. But what about a middle-ground solution? Starting with the previous year’s score as a baseline, students who miss exams could be assigned a scale score that is, say, 15 percent lower (or an amount that psychometricians could settle on); alternatively, we could use a threshold lower than the student scored the prior year (perhaps dropping from advanced to accelerated in the proficiency categories) for purposes of the school’s and district’s aggregate calculations. Thus, schools would have no incentive to counsel low-performing students out, would still have reason to encourage high-performers to take the assessment, and would not see their performance index score tank completely if opt-out numbers soar. Third graders don’t have scores from the previous year, but because state law requires they pass state exams in order to be promoted (under Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee), the number of opt-outs at this grade level should be relatively small. This approach also would protect Ohio from federal scrutiny, as it appears to be aligned with guidance from the Department of Education on how states should factor the 95 percent requirement into their accountability systems. (One suggestion from USDOE is for states to lower proficiency ratings for districts that fail to meet the participation benchmark.)
  4. Treat teachers fairly. We’re the first to argue that school employees should not, under any circumstances or for any reason, counsel students out. This is not an infringement of First Amendments rights. There is no innate “right” to conspire to undermine the state’s accountability system or change performance data. Making students go away so that your school is rated better is immoral and—while likely extremely rare—should be expressly prohibited. Where HB 420 goes wrong is by criminalizing these actions. Penalties for counseling students out should include grounds for termination and a one-year suspension of one’s educator’s license. There’s no need to go further by making it a crime.

Amended HB 420 softens the blow for districts who report high levels of opt-outs, but it does little to curtail the problem. Ohio needs sensible policy changes that encourage full student participation, not a public relations fix. By continuing to post a single PI score—even one that is lower because of opt-outs—parents and schools alike will feel the pressure to achieve higher participation. A formal process for opting out will ensure that parents are fully informed about the ramifications of their decision. Continuing to penalize schools for opt-outs coheres with federal expectations and removes incentives for schools to counsel out low-performers (or any student) while also responding to those districts where opting out has taken a significant toll. Finally, creating consequences (but not criminal penalties) for teachers will dramatically reduce the likelihood that gaming takes place. In short, a sound policy solution recognizes what motivates community members, parents, schools, and teachers—and aligns incentives accordingly.

On November 1, 2015, Governor John Kasich signed landmark legislation to reform charter schools—House Bill 2, which strengthens the governance of Ohio’s charter sector and holds its key actors more accountable for their performance. These reforms lay the foundation for higher-quality charter schools and better outcomes for children. In time, we expect that the tougher accountability measures in Ohio’s revamped charter law will purge this sector of its lowest-performing schools, those that demonstrate no improvement (or worse) over the schools to which they serve as alternatives. However, simply eliminating ineffective schools is not nearly enough to create the opportunities Ohio children need; simultaneously, state policymakers should nurture the growth and replication of excellent schools.

Ohio already has some exemplary charters—a beachhead and benchmark for future sector quality—but the need for more high-quality schools in urban communities remains acute. In Columbus alone, more than 16,000 children attended truly dismal district or charter schools in 2013–14 (defined as a school that received a D or F for student growth and achievement). Equally staggering numbers of students attended low-performing schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland: 15,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. Taken together, roughly 75,000 youngsters in Ohio’s eight major cities (or about 30 percent of their public school students) were enrolled in low-quality schools that year.

As we at Fordham and others have insisted for years, these alarming statistics call for a concerted effort to grow great charters that can replace schools that don’t measure up. Now that Ohio policymakers have toughened accountability for underperforming schools, how can they jump-start the growth of more first-rate ones? What are the barriers to growth in this sector? What resources and supports are the most critical when expanding an existing school or starting one from scratch? What policy measures need to be in place to increase the number of students attending great charters?

To gain a better understanding of the on-the-ground realities of managing a quality charter school, we decided to go directly to the source. In the present study, we surveyed the school-level leaders of Ohio’s top charters. These individuals have experience recruiting and developing teams of effective educators, know how to work with parents and their communities, and understand the strategies needed to deliver results in the face of adversity.

Our survey sample was intentionally selective, as we wanted to hear from those who lead the state’s most successful charters. After all, they are doing the hard work of growing and sustaining quality schools, and their views demand the attention of state policymakers. To qualify for the survey, the respondent’s school must have earned a performance-index letter grade of A, B, or C or a value-added letter grade of A or B in 2012–13 and 2013–14. The school that met these criteria represent just under one-third of the total charters operating in the Buckeye State.[1] In total, we surveyed 109 school leaders and received responses from seventy-six of them—a solid rate of reply.

To conduct the survey, we teamed up once again with Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of the FDR Group. We have worked with them on previous studies, including surveys of Ohio district superintendents in 2011 and 2013. Given their experience talking with and listening to education leaders, we know no one better suited to lead this work, including the survey itself and pre-survey interviews and focus groups in Columbus and Cleveland.

What did we learn from these school leaders about Ohio charters? What insights can be gained about growing great schools in the Buckeye State? As we dug into the survey responses, four themes emerged.

First, quality must be the top priority. When asked whether charters should expand in Ohio, 80 percent of charter leaders responded yes “but only if they are high performing.” Their quality-first mindset is underscored by the fact that 75 percent said that closing “failing charter schools” would be an effective way to improve Ohio’s charter sector (we conducted the survey in Spring 2015, before the recent statutory changes). More than half of these leaders regarded the tightening of oversight to be “necessary” to improve the overall quality of charters. In sum, these leaders are adamant that charters must demonstrate quality and that accountability measures must be taken if they do not, including the closure of schools that persistently perform poorly. The underpinning of their attention to the issue of quality is undoubtedly the damage that failing schools have wrought on the reputation of Ohio charters—leading to consequences that even quality charters have felt. Indeed, nearly six in ten school leaders (57 percent) report that “the negative image of charter schools has made it harder for my school to attract teachers and students.”

Second, talent matters. When asked about the single most important challenge associated with leading a successful school, both of the respondents’ most frequent answers related to talent: “attracting high-quality teachers” and “hiring a principal who is an effective leader.” The leaders also reported that recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers remains a major challenge. One finding was especially telling: There was near consensus (85 percent) that filling teacher vacancies is a struggle, at least in some subject areas. A follow-up question provides a clue as to why: 71 percent of charter leaders said that they’re at a “serious disadvantage” in recruitment because they cannot match district salaries, due to underfunding.

Third, securing suitable facilities is no picnic. Nearly half of the charter leaders reported inadequate space in their buildings (in a focus group, one noted how his school’s meager facility limited the opportunities for science labs and flexible ability grouping). One cost-efficient solution to the charter-facilities problem is the acquisition of unused district schools, yet nearly half of the charter leaders reported that districts are “generally uncooperative” with regard to making such facilities available. Virtually every respondent (92 percent) thought stronger enforcement of the legal requirement for districts to sell or lease mothballed facilities would be an effective way to support charters.

Fourth, resources are critical. Charter leaders made clear the challenges of operating and expanding in a harsh environment. An overwhelming majority of the respondents (87 percent) said that “a lot can go wrong” when expanding a school; more than half said that opening new schools has become “a lot harder” in recent years. What most likely underlies these sentiments is a sense that funding policies are inequitable: When asked how serious a problem lack of funding is for them this school year, 83 percent said it was very or somewhat serious. Above, we noted the salary gap and the difficulties this poses for charters seeking more great teachers. Perhaps not surprisingly, practically every leader surveyed (96 percent) thought that allowing charters to tap into local property taxes would be an effective policy shift.

* * *

The leaders of today’s high-quality charters have managed, through a combination of energy, smarts, and perseverance, to overcome the many obstructions thrown in their way. Their schools are faring better than most charters in the state. But surely that is not enough—not when so many children in need continue to attend substandard schools. The charter leaders describe how these obstacles limit their potential reach and impact—and their frustrations come through. Consider, for example, the difficulties in recruiting and retaining effective teachers, the backbone of any high-quality school: How can they strengthen their current programs when they lose top-notch teachers to districts with deeper pockets? How can they expand to reach more children when they’re scrambling to fill vacancies?

Some of the challenges that charter leaders face are artifacts of policies that have long stunted the growth of high-quality charters in Ohio. Most urgently, policymakers need to improve the state’s bargain-basement funding arrangements for such schools. A 2014 report from the University of Arkansas demonstrated how severely Ohio’s charter schools are underfunded relative to district schools. Taking into account all taxpayer funding (local, state, and federal), charters, on average, receive approximately 75 cents on the dollar compared to districts. This disparity widens substantially in urban areas—to about 60 cents on the dollar. In Cleveland, for example, charters receive about $8,500 per student, while the district receives upwards of $15,500. Much of the disparity can be linked to the fact that charters are denied proceeds from local property taxes (with the exception of a handful of schools in Cleveland).

Making matters worse, Ohio charters receive only modest support for facilities and nothing from local bond issues, forcing them to cannibalize their already-thin operating budgets to make lease payments or fund capital improvements. If charters provide their own transportation, they receive only minimal reimbursement from the state. Unsurprisingly, most charters opt for district busing service (which itself creates myriad complications).

Ohio policymakers need to remove the barriers that obstruct charters so the sector’s high-performing schools can thrive, grow, and reproduce and so the state’s neediest children can gain access to more schools like these. This obstacle removal can take several forms:

Establish equitable operational funding. As discussed in the recent Bellwether/Fordham report on Ohio charter policy, two approaches would accomplish this. One option is to increase the amount of state aid, so that charter students are funded on an equal basis as their district peers (counting state and local revenues). Alternatively, state leaders could insist that local tax dollars follow students to the schools they attend—be they district or charter. As Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution explains in the 2014 Educational Choice and Competition Index, “Funding and management processes [should] favor the growth of popular schools at the expense of unpopular schools, including weighted student-based funding in which a high proportion of a district’s own funds follow students to their schools of choice.”

Both options would face political headwinds, of course, and a sensible first step would be moving toward a direct-funding approach for charters (rather than the current pass-through method, which aggravates the tension between Ohio districts and charters). However, any effort to direct-fund charters should also coincide with policy shifts that rectify the existing inequities. At the end of the day, the education of charter students—many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds—shouldn’t be valued less than the education of their peers in district schools.

Expand facilities support. To their credit, Ohio policymakers have recently improved charter-facilities policy. For instance, charters in FY 2017 will receive $200 per student to help with the cost of facilities, and the state is implementing a $25 million facilities grant program for high-quality charters. Much more is needed, however, and we see four possible paths forward. First, the state could enact a credit-enhancement program to help charters access debt markets. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) calls credit enhancement “one of the most effective and least costly options for facilities financing available” because “these programs significantly reduce tax-payer dollars spent on facility debt service by effectively substituting the state’s generally far superior credit rating for that of the charter school.” Second, Ohio could reboot its revolving loan fund to help schools with renovations and improvements. This loan program was funded during the early 2000s with federal dollars but hasn’t been funded since. Third, state policymakers should heed the advice of charter leaders and find ways to ensure that districts truly make their unused facilities available to high-quality charters, as law prescribes. Finally, lawmakers should raise the per-student facilities funding from $200 to an amount that aligns with the funding levels of other states, such as Minnesota (over $1,000 per student), California ($750), and New Mexico ($700).

Invest in the start-up phase. Launching schools is a difficult and risky endeavor; as 87 percent of charter leaders said, expansion must be done “very carefully—a lot can go wrong.” Fortunately, Ohio recently has won a large federal grant intended to help create new charter schools. If implemented well, this will be a big step in the development of not just more charters but more high-quality charters. (At the time that this report went to press, the dollars were frozen as the state provided additional information to the federal government.) The federal investment may not be enough, however, to guarantee that schools start off strongly. State policymakers could match those dollars for schools with strong track records of student success. Such investment by the state would further nurture Ohio’s newest schools through their infancy, mitigating the risks associated with the start-up phase and boosting their odds of long-term success.

Hold the course on accountability. Increasing the resources available to Ohio’s charters hinges on also upholding strict accountability for results. Taxpayers must be assured that public funds are being effectively used to further the education of children. Charters that perform poorly, as measured by their academic results, must be shuttered, both for the sake of children and in order to rebuild public trust in the charter sector. The reforms in House Bill 2 strengthen the accountability structure of Ohio’s charter system, and policymakers need to ensure that the letter and spirit of the law are followed during its implementation.

Ohio has the perfect opportunity to turn the page on its storied—some would say infamous—charter program. Lawmakers have established a strong framework for results-based accountability through the reforms of House Bill 2. Now it’s time for the Buckeye State to take the next step and put into place policies and practices that help great charter schools replicate and grow. Too many children in desperate need of an excellent education continue to languish in mediocre (or worse) district and charter schools. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that low-income students lag far behind their affluent peers in achievement. National test results indicate that just 20 percent of low-income eighth graders in Ohio reach proficiency on NAEP, compared to 50 percent of their higher-income peers.

Ohio policymakers should clear the roadblocks that the leaders of high-performing charters say constrain their ability to scale and sustain success. If policymakers listen to our current crop of charter leaders, the next generation will be better equipped to compete for the talent, expertise, and physical capital they need to deliver the quality of education that Ohio’s children deserve.




[1] The criteria used in this study to identify top-performing charters do not match exactly the state’s definition of a high-quality charter. Ohio law provides some incentives for high-quality charters, which it defines as schools that meet the criteria of earning an A, B, or C on its performance index and an A or B on value added in the most recent school year. To create a larger sample, we loosened the criteria; using 2013–14 results, the state’s criteria would have yielded just forty-five schools—too few potential respondents to derive meaningful survey results.

 

This progress report from Education Superhighway, a nonprofit aimed at upgrading Internet access for America’s public schools, is worth the acronym dictionary you’ll need to decipher it. Researchers examine data from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program (a federal initiative that defrays the cost of internet in schools) and deliver much good news about connectivity status for the average K–12 classroom. From 2013 to 2015, twenty million more students were connected to high-speed broadband (that which meets the FCC’s minimum Internet access goals), representing 77 percent of all districts. This is up from 30 percent of districts in 2013. Even though 21.3 million students nationwide still miss the FCC’s mark, lacking the connectivity necessary to fully reap the rewards of digital learning, the report declares that “those left behind are not disproportionately rural or poor.” In 2013, the most affluent districts were three times as likely as low-income ones to meet FCC goals; by 2015, “the E-rate program [had] effectively leveled the playing field.” If nothing else, that’s a whopping success.

In Ohio the news is mixed: Three out of four school districts are adequately prepared for digital learning in terms of broadband speed. The report commends Governor Kasich, along with twenty-three other governors, for prioritizing necessary upgrades. Eighty-two percent of Ohio schools now have the highest-capacity broadband technology (fiber)—the only one scalable enough to meet growing bandwidth needs for schools. However, only 59 percent of Ohio school districts have accessed the E-rate program. (A note to the 41 percent of remaining districts: Failing to deftly navigate the program’s reimbursement process can be costly indeed.) The report notes that E-rate pays 70 percent of connectivity costs on average, but points out that districts must prioritize resources within their own budgets to pay for the rest. This suggests that a lack of resources is at least partially to blame for Ohio’s relatively low utilization of E-rate—or a lack of leadership in setting budgetary goals, depending on how you look at it. In addition, Ohio’s “affordability” score ranks among the worst: Only 7 percent of districts meet the Internet access affordability target laid out by Education Superhighway. Nationally, 18 percent of districts met that target. To be fair, districts cannot control the prices related to improving Internet speed and access. However, the report points out that part of the problem is that “school districts have historically had little information about what broadband should cost and how prices should decline as they buy increasing amounts of capacity.” This underscores the urgent need to make such information public and transparent.

The report outlines recommendations for states and provides case examples—especially helpful for the non-techies among us. For example, while researchers found no geographic or income discrepancies between whether districts could meet FCC broadband goals (speed), rural districts do face gaps in access to the best type of technology (specifically fiber). Over the next three years, the FCC has eliminated the cap on subsidies for fiber construction where it is unavailable or unaffordable, a move the report says is a “game changer for rural and small town schools” that should be capitalized upon by governors as quickly as possible.

The report succeeds in creating a critical foundation for understanding how states can improve their K–12 connectivity. The one-page action plan for governors is especially helpful, as is the introduction of a separate Education Superhighway tool, “Compare and Connect K–12.” This interactive site makes district-level data available to help leaders compare their bandwidth levels and prices with other school districts—Ohio superintendents should take note. With so much hinging on high-speed Internet access—computerized testing, expansion of digital and blended learning, etc.—state leaders must do whatever it takes to ensure that all Buckeye classrooms are fully connected. While Ohio and the rest of the nation appear to have made good strides, more work remains.

Source: “2015 State of the States: A report on the state of broadband connectivity in America’s public schools,” Education Superhighway (November 2015)

Detroit Public Schools recently made national headlines for the heartbreaking conditions of its school facilities and a widespread teacher “sick-out.” For Detroit, these are sadly just the latest hurdles to overcome: The public school system has been in dire financial straits for many years, while national testing data indicates that the district’s students are among the lowest-achieving in the nation.

A report from the Lincoln Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on land use and tax policy, provides a fascinating angle on the Detroit situation. It highlights the massive problems that the Motor City encounters when trying to finance public services, including education, through its local property tax system. Consider just a few bleak statistics reported in this paper: 1) The property tax delinquency rate was a staggering 54 percent in 2014; 2) roughly eighty thousand housing units are vacant—23 percent of Detroit’s housing stock; 3) and 36 percent and 22 percent of commercial and industrial property, respectively, sat vacant.

The report also highlights ways that property tax policies exacerbate the school system’s revenue woes. First, property tax abatements—tax breaks aimed at spurring re-investment—have reduced or exempted the tax liabilities of more than ten thousand properties. Whether the benefit of these reductions outweighs the cost to public services is hotly debated, but the fact remains that schools lose potential funding. Second, the report spotlights the significant number of tax-exempt parcels in Detroit (owned by public or nonprofit agencies), an issue that is being further aggravated as foreclosed properties transfer to public ownership. Third, property assessment policy (how a property’s value is determined) has apparently been a disaster. As reported by the media, widespread problems in assessing property values in 2013 led public officials to retract the valuations and start over.

What lessons do we learn from the Detroit debacle? The reliance on property taxes can put schools at risk when local conditions deteriorate. State policy makers need to be careful to ensure that students aren’t lost when the tax base collapses. (Ohio’s fiscal distress commissions are one example of state intervention in troubled districts.) Meanwhile, though not the topic of the Lincoln Institute paper, schools must also do their part when local conditions deteriorate. As difficult as it may be, this means addressing costs, including reductions in force (ideally, dismissing the lowest-performing teachers first) or selling underutilized property. Thankfully, Ohio’s urban school systems aren’t in the deplorable condition of Detroit; yet they should absolutely be on guard and learn how not to go broke.

Source: Gary Sands and Mark Skidmore, Detroit and the Property Tax: Strategies to Improve Equity and Enhance Revenue (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, November 2015). 

Fordham Ohio’s latest report – Quality in Adversity: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools – was released on January 27. You can read the report foreword elsewhere in this issue, and now you can check out the event video by clicking here.

Our principal investigators presented the findings of their survey of the leaders of the top charter schools in the state and moderated a panel of those leaders on topics such as sector quality, accountability, and replication and growth.

The report’s findings and the event garnered attention in media outlets both in the Buckeye State and nationwide. Here’s a snapshot of the coverage:

  • The Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer discussed the findings on the day of release, comparing them to the papers’ previous reportage on charter school issues.
  • Statewide public radio covered the report and the release event, interviewing the researchers, the panelists, and even an audience member. A staffer from Democrats for Ed Reform was also on hand for the event and wove a very personal story into her observations.
  • National notices were brief but important. Ohio’s top charter schools deserve to be heard above all of the rhetoric.

We are hopeful that the insights from these strong leaders will be heard, for the benefit of students across Ohio.

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