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The education mess in Ohio under Gov. John Kasich

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich arrives to a cheering crowd Feb. 9 in Concord, N.H., at his primary night campaign rally. (Jim Cole/AP)

(Adding comment from Ohio Education Department)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is campaigning for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination by touting “successes” in his state, including his education record. But a look at that record offers a somewhat different picture than the one he paints. In fact, some see a real education mess created by the Kasich administration since he took office in 2011.

Six things to know about the Republican presidential hopeful. Rough cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters, Photo: MIKE SEGAR/Reuters)

What does that mess look like? Issues confronting public education in Ohio include:

*a scandal-ridden charter school sector
*budget cuts for traditional public schools at the same time as increased funding for  charter schools and school vouchers
*controversial state takeovers of “failing” schools
*a questionable teacher evaluation system that uses as one factor the standardized test scores of students, against the recommendation of assessment experts
*the botched administration of the Common Core test known as PARCC (which the state later dropped).

Kasich’s campaign website highlights his education record, saying in part:

For American students to be prepared for success in an increasingly competitive global economy, they must receive strong education support from parents and educators, including high expectations — especially in math and English. John Kasich has put this priority to work in Ohio. He has also reinforced that education is a local responsibility, not one to be micromanaged by federal bureaucrats. Additionally, he has expanded school choice, worked to prevent students from dropping out and is helping make college more affordable.

Yet he has alienated many teachers. As an expression of how some Ohio educators feel about Kasich, teacher Mary Hufford was quoted recently by the Cincinnati Enquirer as saying:

“Since Kasich took office, my teaching world has been falling apart. The joy has been sucked out of the classroom, because everything is driven by the (state) test.”

A reflection of the state of public education in Ohio under Kasich can be seen in the trajectory of the state’s ranking Education Weeks annual Quality Counts rankings, which incorporate nearly 40 indicators within three key indices — the Chance-for-Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index and school finance.

Ohio public schools were ranked 23rd in the country for 2015 in Edweek’s  newest rankings, with a grade of C. That’s the same grade given for the national average, but it is much worse than Ohio ranked five years earlier. In 2010, Ohio was fifth among states in the same ranking; in 2014, it was ranked 18th. Edweek says ranking criteria change over the years, so making direct year-to-year comparisons are tricky, but the drop for Ohio is indicative of flat education funding as well as a big achievement gap and the state’s troubled charter sector.

The achievement gap in Ohio — when calculated by the Kasich-approved assessment method of using student standardized test scores in math and reading — is bigger than the national average, according to a July 2015 White House report. It says that Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest- and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.

According to an August 2015 report by the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio, traditional public schools, which educate 90 percent of Ohio’s kids, are receiving $515 million less state funding than before Kasich took office.  Local school levies have been increasing as a result. Yet, Innovation Ohio said, funding for charter schools increased by 27 percent over that same five-year period — and charters wind up receiving more state money per pupil than traditional public schools through a complicated formula — even though Ohio’s charter sector is considered the most troubled in the country.

A June 2015 story by the Akron Beacon Journal said it found that Ohio charter schools appeared to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It said that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation” — and that that amount could be low.

In November 2015, Kasich signed long-awaited legislation designed to provide more oversight to the charter sector, but the bad news keeps on coming. A new wrinkle was just reported by the Columbus Dispatch:

As state education officials seek the release of a $71 million federal charter school grant, they now say Ohio has nearly 10 times as many failing charter schools as previously claimed.  The Department of Education says there are 57 poor-performing charter schools in Ohio, not the six reported in its grant application submitted in July. As for high-performing charter schools, it turns out there are 59, not the 93 originally claimed.

Why the recount?

When the U.S. Department of Education gave out $157 million in charter school grants in October 2015, many in the education world couldn’t understand why the largest award on the list went to Ohio, given its charter record. It turned out that the U.S. Education Department wasn’t paying strong attention and admitted in a letter that they didn’t understand the charter problems in Ohio. Restrictions were placed the multi-year $71 million Ohio and the state was required to answer some detailed questions. That’s why the new accounting was conducted by Ohio.

The not-to-be believed letter sent by U.S. Education Department to Ohio

Kasich also doesn’t talk about the scandal last year involving David Hansen, the Ohio Education Department official responsible for school choice and charter schools. He was forced to resign after admitting that he gave help to charter schools to make them look better in state evaluations.  Hansen’s wife, incidentally, is Beth Hansen, who was Kasich’s chief of staff before she took a top job in his presidential campaign.

Charter schools complain that the state does not provide them the same funding as it does to traditional public schools, but traditional districts say that the state funding formula hurts them. As the Columbus Dispatch just reported:

Charter schools are financed through the state, however their money is deducted from traditional public school allocations and a number of districts argue that local money is already subsidizing the charters. More than 35 districts in recent months have billed the state or passed resolutions calling for a system to directly fund charter schools.

Indeed, these districts are asking the states for a collective millions of dollars in reimbursements. The Board of Education of the Woodridge Local Schools district took the lead in this last fall with a bill sent to the state for more than $5 million that was sent over the previous 15 years to charters instead of traditional public schools. At the time, Superintendent Walter Davis said he didn’t expect to get the money but that the request was being made to underscore the frustration about how the state spends education funds.

One area Kasich likes to trumpet is his expansion of a school voucher program across the state. (Innovation Ohio says Kasich doubled the number of vouchers since taking office.) What he doesn’t mention is that while he calls for “accountability” for public schools, private schools that get public money for student tuition are not held to the same “accountability” rules. He also doesn’t mention that most private voucher schools have lower test scores than the state’s urban districts. As it turns out, families have not exactly embraced the vouchers, with most of the available going unused because of a lack of demand.

The governor frequently talks about the virtues of local school control — and, in fact, says he is for “total local control.” Except when he’s not.

Kasich recently said on Fox News:

“I propose taking 104 federal education programs, putting them into four buckets and sending them to the states. I have been clear from the very beginning that I support high standards and local control. That’s exactly what we do in Ohio. Our state school board approves the standards, and the local school boards are the ones that create the curriculum,” Kasich said, adding, “I am for total local control.”

But consider his administration’s takeover of Youngstown schools. As my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote in this story:

The Kasich administration’s amendment called for an aggressive takeover by a state-appointed chief executive who would have broad authority over the 5,109-student school system. The chief executive would be able to hire and fire, create budgets, set curriculum and professional development for staff and would have the ability to permanently close schools or contract with for-profits or nonprofits to manage them.
The chief executive would not need a background in education; the only requirement is a “high level of management experience” in the public or private sector.
One distinctive aspect of the plan is a cash bonus paid by the state to any charter, private, parochial or suburban school system that accepts a student transferring out of Youngstown City Schools. One participant in the secret meetings was Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, which operates several parochial schools in the city that would be eligible for such bonuses. Murry did not respond to requests for comment.
Proponents of the plan say that financial incentive is a way to put pressure on Youngstown City Schools to improve rapidly. Critics say it’s designed to hollow out the district until it collapses.

As for the Common Core State Standards, Kasich supported them openly until he didn’t. Ohio adopted them more than five years ago — along with most of the other states — but Kasich is reluctant to tout the initiative anymore as opposition to the Core has grown among conservatives.  At an August 2015 education summit hosted by former journalist Campbell Brown, Kasich discussed the issue, according to StateImpact Ohio:

“Let me shift gears, to Common Core,” she said.
“Sure,” Kasich said.
“Do you still support it,” asked Brown
“Look, let me tell you the way I see what that “label” is,” he responded, avoiding a yes or no answer by giving a brief history of the learning expectations before voicing his support.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers union and a Hillary Clinton supporter, once said Kasich was the best in the Republican GOP presidential field. That’s saying something, given that Kasich backed a 2011 law restricting the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public workers.  Ohio voters later that same year voted in a referendum to overturn the law. But Cropper didn’t change her mind until August 2015, when Kasich said something at that education summit that teachers condemned as belittling:

I think a lot of our teachers feel that we don’t understand the challenges they have in the classroom because they are getting kids who have been basically not been loved — that when we evaluate them they think, Oh my God, we’re out to take their jobs. But we’re not out to take their jobs. If you need help we’ll help you. If you are a terrible teacher then you should be doing something else because you are going to find more satisfaction doing something you are good at. … I’ll tell you what the unions do, unfortunately, too much of the time. There’s a constant negative comment to, “They’re going to take your benefits,” “They’re going to take your pay.” And so if I were not president but king in America I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about how “woe is us.”

If there are any teachers who sit around and say that, it is in part because of Kasich’s push for teacher evaluation in part by student standardized test, a method that assessment experts is unreliable and shouldn’t be used. He was hardly alone — most states did the same thing — but in Ohio test scores can account for up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, more than in many other states.

As a result of these factors, some teachers are quitting. In a post in 2015, teacher Scott Ervin wrote that he loved teaching but couldn’t do it any more in Ohio. He wrote in part:

The job is difficult. What makes it even more so is that no matter what my district does to improve, no matter how hard we work, the policies of the Ohio Department of Education and the dramatic cutbacks to public education have changed my job of educating at-risk kids from being “very difficult” to being “impossible.”
I have loved doing a job that has been very difficult. I am not, however, willing to do a job that has become impossible. That is why, although I will continue to serve at-risk kids and their families until the day I die, and although I will miss teaching, I am resigning my position as a third-grade teacher at Fairborn Primary School in the Fairborn City Schools district in Ohio.

Teacher: I’ve loved my ‘very difficult’ job. But now Ohio has made it ‘impossible.’

Here is a comment from the Ohio Education Department:

Ohio remains committed to building a system of strong accountability in our state – one that ensures the community school evaluation system is clear, transparent and consistent with rule and law. Ohio and our children are stronger thanks to new reforms in Ohio’s charter school law (HB 2) which make sure that all schools are held accountable. Ohio’s state superintendent was tough on charters over the past several years and these new reforms give the Department of Education better tools to help ensure students have access to a high-quality education. The state superintendent also commissioned an Independent Advisory Panel to make recommendations for a comprehensive evaluation system for community school sponsors to assist the department in its oversight of sponsors and to improve the quality of sponsor practices. The Panel members made recommendations to the state superintendent in December 2015, which have all been adopted by the department.
As far as the USDOE response letter (with the number of schools changing) Ohio chose to use the newly implemented state definition which is a more rigorous criteria than the federal definition – as we explained in this letter.