Post-SOTS, Legislators Should Consider Private Schools, Too

Gov. Kasich just delivered his State of the State and while the partisans on each side will cheer or boo some of his proposals, I suspect that the most bipartisan support will be in his plans for education. Ohio does have serious problems when it comes to dropouts and vocational education and the efforts to get kids on the right track and staying on the track will pay dividends in the future.

One area that is also in need of reform is the state’s relationship with and requirements of private schools. Private schools are, by nature, unique: If they all looked the same as each other, or the same as public schools, there wouldn’t be so many of them. They are unique in many ways but virtually all of them are based on a mission of what it is that they want to achieve with students, and how they expect to do that. For some, an education that is rooted in a Biblical worldview may be the mission of a school that is supported by its community and its parents. For others, an education that develops a set of skills and knowledge that will give the best chance for achievement in college is what is desired. Other schools may emphasize the individual’s place in the world and develop a curriculum to promote the independence of the individual. Whatever the mission may be, private schools ought to have the freedom to develop those missions and curricula, and determine themselves who is worthy to be called a graduate and receive a diploma.
That’s not exactly how it works in Ohio. Unlike other states, where the determination of the qualifications of a student are made based on the student’s course work and demonstrated achievement of the expected skills set forth by the school, Ohio’s private school students are also expected to pass tests that the state believes help demonstrate “proficiency” before they may receive a diploma from the school. With the new assessments coming in, the standard of proficiency will be raised to “college and career readiness.” Neither standard has anything to do with the judgment of the professionals who operate and teach in private schools; the standards are created and updated by government officials and then contracted out to corporations to generate tests reflecting those standards.
By any measurable standard, OAIS schools, as a group, are the highest achieving group of private schools in the state of Ohio. Our schools are led by heads who have earned the trust of their school’s board of trustees and those trustees hold positions where they bear the responsibility and burden of steering the school into the future. There really aren’t bailouts that are available for OAIS schools; our schools will not be propped up financially by anyone else if they fail. The pressure on the school’s officials to continue a record of success represents the most basic and most effective kind of accountability that is available: accountability to parents and to supporters.
Given these things, it’s difficult to determine what, if anything, the state-mandated tests provide to parents or students in terms of information that they do not already have. Nearly 100% of our graduates go to college, so someone has determined they are college and career ready. The rate of remediation for OAIS students is exponentially lower than the rate of students statewide, so they are not just college and career ready, but ready to achieve as soon as they hit campus. If the college acceptance rate goes down, or the remediation rate goes up, it is certain that these facts will catch up to the school and the school’s health will suffer as a result. Too many of these cases, and the school will cease to be a viable option. All of this will happen even without state-mandated exams.
As legislators begin to deliberate over the important items contained in the State of the State, it is our hope that they also consider the effect of state rules and regulations on the private school sector. Our schools should be able to determine who graduates from without getting approval from the state. Ohio has been an outlier for too long; it is time to catch up with the rest of America.

Charters and Private Schools: Not Birds of a Feather

Through the magic of Twitter, I was recently made aware of an op-ed published by the Charlotte News and Observer in late January by two folks who are officials with Public Schools First NC, which I assume is a group dedicated to promoting public schools. Linda Nelson of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools penned an excellent rebuttal that was published a short time later.

In reading the initial op-ed, it struck me that the authors had lumped charter schools and private schools together as being essentially one in the same. Particularly in discussions regarding vouchers, this is something that happens quite often and certainly more often than it should.
Although much is made of Ohio’s regulatory climate, or lack thereof, for charter schools (here they are referred to in the Revised Code as “community schools”), that discussion is, or at least should be, far different than the discussion to be had regarding vouchers. I don’t think anyone would argue that there are way, way too many charter schools in Ohio that are doing a poor job. Some of them close up after a few months and thousands of tax dollars go by, while it can take entirely too long to shut others down. The accountability for tax dollars going to charter school and how those dollars are spent continues to be a problem. The dismal results of charter schools on state-mandated testing also requires a good explanation by charter school advocates other than the usual excuses. The role of Ohio’s charter schools and their success in filling that role are certainly worthy of continued discussion.
The use of vouchers and tax credit scholarships at private schools is another topic that is worthy of deep discussion by legislators. Since the establishment of the Cleveland Scholarship, we have seen a statewide expansion of vouchers for students served by schools deemed to be failing (EdChoice), autistic students (Autism Scholarship), special needs students (Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship) and now low income kindergartners and first graders (EdChoice expansion). The issues that go along with the vouchers (money coming from districts, measuring accountability, eligibility issues) will need to be refined for years to come.
I raise both of these because I believe it’s clear that they are separate discussions. Fixing charter schools to make them better at educating will have no impact on the effectiveness of the voucher programs, and the resolution of issues in the voucher programs will not mean that charter schools will get better. However, if you read the editorial issued by the folks at Public Schools First, they clearly mean to lump everyone together to make it Public Schools vs. Charters/Private Schools/Home schools/etc. They aren’t the same and lumping them together is disingenuous at best.
Why would someone purposely do that? Putting on my political hat, my guess is that the authors are aware the public generally confuses charter schools and private schools. Heck, many legislators do too. (If I had a dime for every time I was asked if I work for charter schools when I tell someone my employer is the Ohio Association of Independent Schools, I could lower next year’s dues for our member schools substantially!) When you lump charter schools (which as a sector have a mixed reputation) with private schools (which are generally well-thought of), you’re attempting to delegitimize the efforts to get more children to attend private schools.
My challenge to those who engage in this kind of argument would be a simple one: Call the schools out. If you think there’s an independent school that is not performing well, say it. If you think there’s a Catholic or a Christian or a Jewish school that is not educating children, use the name of the school. Put a name to the allegations. Even if the accusations are valid, which in a few cases may be the case, you will find that those mentioned are outliers, the exception rather than the rule. While there’s an argument to be made (at least in Ohio) that an unacceptably high number of charter schools are not performing, I know you will find that the number of private schools that meet that definition is far fewer in number and as a percentage of private schools overall. The uncomfortable truth for those lumping everyone together and subjecting all to so-called government accountability measures is that private schools are open because parents believe in them and the ultimate accountability of the marketplace trumps what the government can or cannot do to ensure quality.
The issues surrounding charter schools and voucher programs are real and need to be solved. An honest discussion is a good place to start.

ISACS Meeting and a Diploma Proposal

I had the opportunity to attend (and present to OAIS heads) at the recent ISACS Heads of School Conference in Chicago last week (I managed to make it out before the snow!) This is my second year attending and found it to be very informative, especially the talks given by NAIS President John Chubb about the role and future of independent schools in our nation.

As those of you who follow along with @ohindepschools on Twitter may have noticed, Ohio did receive special recognition during John’s lunch speech to the attendees. John noted that one of the advantages that independent schools have (with the exception of Ohio) is that independent schools have more freedom to experiment and innovate with a curriculum because they do not have the pressure to conform to testing requirements. Some in attendance laughed while the Ohio attendees just nodded in acknowledgment of our outlier status.
OAIS members are fortunate to be bucking a trend of downward enrollment for private schools (OAIS enrollment has increased the past three years). In fact, two of our schools posted record enrollment numbers this year. There are several reasons why enrollment increases and decreases but it’s safe to say that those schools seeing increases are those that are constantly looking for new ways to inspire and educate students. It’s also safe to say that standardized tests doesn’t assist these schools in inspiring or educating students at all.
I have no doubt there are some schools in Ohio that find some comfort in the standardized testing system Ohio requires (One school featured in the recent Fordham Institute report even advocates for school “report cards”). If they do, that’s fine, they should be allowed to participate. If there are students on state-funded scholarships and the state wants some “accountability” for how those funds are spent, testing should have a role there, too, if the state insists. However, for schools that do not take scholarships and do not find value in the state’s testing system, there still ought to be a way for those schools to issue a diploma. Ohio law currently prohibits the issuing of a diploma by a nonpublic school unless a student passes all of the state-mandated graduation tests. With this prohibition, chartered nonpublic schools are tied to a testing system that no other state or territory mandates on nonpublic schools in this manner.
Louisiana is a good example of how the state can balance the desires of those who have bought into the state accountability system and those who seek to be rid of it. The state offers the ability to either receive a state diploma or a school diploma. Those seeking a state diploma must take all of the graduation tests required for public students and pass all of the required classes. Those seeking a school diploma must achieve the standards set by the school to receive a diploma. Recipients of school diplomas still have all of the rights and privileges of those receiving a state diploma. The key part of this is that there’s a choice. Parents and students can make the best decision of what kind of diploma they prefer and then attend a school that conforms with this belief. It does not require a student attend a school that detests, but must follow, standards geared to meet the needs of public schools set by those for whom private schools are an afterthought.
It is our hope that those who are constantly pushing for accountability will join in the effort to not just increase accountability for tax dollars in cases where it is appropriate, but also to advocate for decreasing mandates when they do little but hamper freedom and innovation.

Some Thoughts on Yesterday’s redefineED Chat

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of following along on the redefineED website as they hosted a chat with Michael Petrilli of The Fordham Institute. A transcript of the chat can be found here:

The chat was a good Q&A that addressed some of the critiques of Fordham’s “Toolkit” and what the overall goal is for more testing and other so-called accountability measures for students on vouchers. Here are a couple of thoughts that I had following the chat:
1. Do Ohio students really need more tests? Since Fordham has an on-the-ground presence in Ohio, I think it bears mentioning what already exists in Ohio. I’m not aware of any student in a chartered nonpublic grade school, whether on a voucher or not, who isn’t taking a nationally-recognized standardized test beginning in grade 3, with the school choosing the assessment. I’m not aware of any school that does not share those results with parents and do not know why they would refrain from doing so. Also, as mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, all chartered nonpublic high school students must pass all five parts the Ohio Graduation Tests in order to receive a diploma, with Ohio being the only state to have such a blanket requirement for students at secular private schools. Those tests will increase in number and difficulty with the adoption of the new end-of-course exam requirements. It’s likely that those new tests will require curriculum changes at private schools in order to accommodate the new tests, although based on the OAIS v. Goff case, it’s questionable if that’s even constitutional.
It’s clear that in comparison with other states, Ohio already goes overboard with testing for nonpublic school students. With these levels of testing already in existence for all students, it’s difficult to understand why there needs to be a change in the testing mandate for students on vouchers that requires certain tests to be administered to certain students or in some cases all students, in addition to the tests already recommended by the school’s professional staff.
2. Vouchers and tuition don’t always reflect the investment of parents into their child’s education.  This was a question raised by Rabbi A.D. Motzen that wasn’t exactly answered. Voucher amounts can vary based on a school’s tuition and, in the case of the Special Needs and Autism programs, based on a student’s degree of differences, with one constant being that the amount of the voucher cannot exceed the amount of tuition charged. However, the amount of the tuition can, and often does, exceed the amount of the voucher for students who do not fall below the poverty levels set in statute. However, the accountability proposals in the Toolkit do nothing to recognize this. For example, if a student receives a $5,000 voucher for a school that charges $5,000 in tuition, that is a clear-cut case of the state wholly subsidizing the child’s tuition. However, what happens in the case of a student receiving a $5,000 voucher for a school or for services that cost $20,000? In these cases, and cases even less extreme than this, the parent is assuming much more of the responsibility for the tuition than the state is, yet the desire of the parents’s views on accountability would appear to be secondary to the state’s demand for testing. This is fundamentally unfair to the parents and the student, all in the name of “apples to apples” comparisons.
3. Reducing needless regulations is just as important as imposing more for the sake of accountability. As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, Ohio is notorious for regulating its independent schools more than any other state. We believe there ought to be just as much discussion of whether or not some of the regulations on the books, such as the mandatory graduation tests and some credit/curriculum requirements, do anything to enhance the quality of education at nonpublic schools, especially when the students are not on a state-funded voucher.
OAIS and others, including Ohio’s newest Council for American Private Education (CAPE) chapter will work to inform decision makers on the current climate of regulation for Ohio’s private schools and why many of the recommendations found in the Toolkit, while good-intentioned, are not a good fit for Ohio.

Testing and Accountability in Ohio’s Private Schools

In the last several days, there has been a great deal of discussion on Twitter and on the blogosphere regarding the use of standardized tests in private schools, both for students on vouchers and the student population at large, depending on the number of students receiving vouchers in the school. The Fordham Institute kicked things off with its Public Accountability and Private-School Choice Toolkit and since then, many have weighed in to agree or disagree, including Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation, Matt Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog and Rick Hess on the Education Week blog, among others.

I feel private schools in Ohio might be a little more sensitive about this topic than most, given our history. In 1995, Ohio became the first, and to this point still the only, state to require all students in chartered nonpublic schools to pass a state-mandated standardized test in order to receive a high school diploma. Initially passed six years earlier, the 9th Grade Proficiency Test was not originally intended for nonpublic students but was extended to them years later in exchange for other considerations requested by nonpublic organizations other than OAIS. For independent schools, this is significant because Ohio is the only state to require secular schools to be directly chartered by the state in order to hold themselves out as schools, leaving no other option for existence. This means that, unlike religious schools that have an objection to state oversight, all secular independent schools must be chartered by the state or they cannot exist.
While Ohio has a strong history of oversight over private schools, it also has a strong history of directing public funds to the operations of private schools. Since the late 1960’s, Ohio has provided pupil transportation to students attending private schools; since the mid 1970’s, Ohio has provided auxiliary funds for the purchase or leasing of secular materials or services for use in private schools; since the 1980’s, private schools have received administrative cost reimbursement for the paperwork and other effort necessary to comply with state mandates; and since the 1990’s, Ohio has had one of the most generous voucher programs of any state.
It is in this context that independent schools in Ohio look at the proposals for so-called accountability through standardized tests with skepticism. Ohio does not have a strong history of rolling back regulation for the benefit of private education; instead, the rules and regulations that independent schools must follow seem only to creep up in numbers. The result of this regulatory creep has been to make some private schools look more and more like public schools, to the point where it seems the only difference between some is the requirement to pay tuition. While some might look at the funding that our schools receive that private schools in other states do not, it is also important to point out that schools cannot opt-out of the regulations if they opt-out of the funding, meaning there is no appreciable relationship (other than with the administrative cost reimbursement) between the regulations and testing we must endure and the funding we receive.
OAIS schools, especially those with high school grades, operate with a simple accountability structure. The schools are accountable to the student, to the parents and to higher education. Students at OAIS schools expect to be well-prepared to receive a college education (and the Ohio Board of Regents information proves they are), their parents also expect them to be well-prepared, and colleges expect them to be well-prepared. The accountability in this situation is pretty basic: If colleges determine the students coming from an OAIS school aren’t typically prepared for college, they will stop admitting the students. Parents will not want to pay tuition for a student to attend a school where they will not be prepared to go to college, and students won’t want to attend a school where they have a difficult time gaining admission to the college of their choice. There is nothing government can do to improve upon the accountability of schools in this case. No PARCC exams or set of graduation requirements can affect the accountability of a school better than parents simply refusing to pay the tuition to send their children to a school that is demonstrably not living up to its end of the deal.
So what accountability does a state-mandate series of exams provide to those who attend and support independent schools? Not much. If parents demand that this kind of testing regimen be implemented for their child, one of two things will happen: the school will do it or the parent will be encouraged to send their child to a school that does use them. If colleges and universities start to demand these tests be used, one of two things will happen: either the schools will administer them or the graduates of schools that don’t use the tests won’t get into the colleges they want to attend.
It is undeniable that the main reason OAIS schools do not participate in voucher programs is because of the amount of regulation (testing) that goes along with that participation (Just ask a head of school and they’ll tell you!). If the concept of accountability it to make sure that schools are holding up their end of the bargain, the market-based accountability described above is going to do more for everyone that a standardized test will.
If voucher and tax credit advocates want these schools to participate, instead of advocating for more testing that is not being demanded by parents or colleges, they should work with schools to find out what can satisfy the state’s need for accountability while not impeding the mission of or wasting the time of school administrators, teachers and parents.

New OAIS Blog

As part of the outreach by OAIS to members of the public, the OAIS website will now feature a blog where I plan to discuss some of the items currently being discussed in the education community and their impact on independent education both in Ohio and nationally. Ohio has long been an outlier (in good ways and bad) when it comes to the relationship between state government and nonpublic schools. It is my hope that the blog can be used to add some perspective to larger discussion from the point of view of independent schools in Ohio so that the community might have a better idea of where our schools are coming from and what can change to benefit our schools, our students and our state.

Welcome and thanks for following along!
Dan Dodd