Saturday, September 5, 2015

OH: State Cheats for Charters

Ohio continues to work hard to stay on the cutting edge of charter school abuse and corruption. But as much as charteristas like to see business handled by the private sector, sometimes, when you really want to make a dark and dirty mess, you have to get some government assistance.

The Columbus Dispatch and some other Ohio papers have been behaving like an actual pack of journalists, pursuing a story that first broke a while ago. You may recall that in the middle of the summer, the Ohio Department of Educations school choice czar David Hansen was forced to resign because he had cooked the books for charter schools, using techniques that might be called "grade-fixing" or "lying" or "cheating" or "misbehavior that gets you sent to jail if you're a teacher in Atlanta." Hansen left out data that would have lowered the scores of select charter schools, making those charters look better than they actually were.

Hansen (who is the husband of John Kasich's former chief of staff and current campaign manager) has never really owned up to his misbehavior, offering observations such as "the law is really bonkers and hella unclear, so how as I  to know? As near as I could see, cherry picking the data in a way that made some schools look better seemed perfectly okee dokee." (I'm paraphrasing).

Thanks to the ever-Ohio-vigilant blog Plunderbund, we know that Hansen has played this game before. In his previous work at the Buckeye Institute, Hansen cooked some charter school books for an influential donor as well.

Well, it turns out that there's more ugliness underneath all that.

In response to a public records information request, the department has released over 100,000 pages of stuff, and reporters have been poring through that mess ever since. What they have found suggests that neither state superintendent Richard Ross nor governor and Presidential aspirant John Kasich knew anything about the cheating, a whole big bunch of other people surely did. Turns out it takes more than just one guy to really corrupt a system.

The Dispatch has found emails and notes that fall into several categories. Some are at least a little encouraging, consisting of staffers asking, "Is there really a good reason or rule for what I'm seeing happening?"

But others make it clear that staff members knew they were up to no good. Here's one of the Dispatch's juicier quotes of a text message from Hansen's assistant to a staff member:

The ratios are on your laptop. Someone needs to calculate the overall authorizer scores and walk them up to Melissa today. They have to be walked up, not emailed, not printed. Just handwritten on paper. Thanks!

This indicates not only an awareness of misbehavior, but-- well, come on. Why would you leave a message trail of your instructions not to leave a message trail? What's worse than being nefarious and sneaky? Being bad at it.

Journalists' findings don't help Hansen's protests of innocence much. Here's another exchange from when Hansen was getting cranky about numbers for three preferred charters not coming out quite right.

“Then we will put them all down as getting 92 and being exemplary in agency commitment and go from there,” Hansen wrote in an email.

Geis responded, “Can we assume you are joking about putting them down as a 92? (Looks of shock from others in the room).”

Ohio officials cling to the belief that Hansen acted alone in altering grade outcomes for charters and it's possible that we're hair-splitting here. It certainly appears that staffers gave him the tools that he asked for, and that they had to know that something hinky was going on with the rigging of data. At a bare minimum, the department had a culture of not challenging the boss when clearly unethical activities were under way. "We were just following orders," provides no comfort here. And as this has unspooled, some Ohio politicians have suggested that Superintendent Ross either A) knew what was happening or B) is a terrible, incompetent, out-of-touch administrator of the department.

Bottom line: Ohio continues to set the standard for lousy, ineffective, and corrupt oversight of charter schools. 

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