Sunday, October 28, 2012

Charter schools don't pass the smell test

About two decades ago, someone came up with a great fix for public education, which everyone assumed was broken.

It was broken because, well, all one had to do was look at Ohio’s large urban school districts, which had lousy graduation rates, forced busing of students and a dysfunctional socio-economic culture that didn’t support learning in the traditional way.

So, the solution, said the politicians, was to give those public schools some competition. Why don’t we, they asked, allow charter schools to compete for the public funding that is attached to each child and follows that child all the way to high school graduation?

Voila! Charter schools were born in Ohio. And now we have about 400 of them, all competing for your tax dollars.

Now you might have noticed that the Ohio Department of Education’s 2011-12 report cards on school districts recently were released. Our public school districts throughout the Tuscarawas Valley did exceptionally well with a few even being awarded the “excellent with distinction” tag.

In other words, we have fine public schools in our midst. We just don’t appreciate them.
Newspapers throughout the state annually report on how their public school districts fared and for that aspect of the story they do a pretty good job. But they don’t tell you, for the most part, how the for-profit charter schools are doing.

A group of Lorain County school district superintendents wants to change that.

In an e-mail distributed to inboxes statewide, the superintendents pointed out that more than $600 million of Ohio taxpayers’ money has been allocated for the promotion of charter schools.

“That’s correct,” stated the memo. “Over $600 million to promote charter schools at the expense of public school districts.

“Since increased accountability on every level is demanded for public schools, it should be incumbent upon the current (Legislature) to demonstrate how that investment paid off.

“The worth of that investment can be debated ad nauseam in the polarized political environment we live in. Rather than debate it, maybe we should just look at the recently released data from this week.”

These are the numbers the Lorain County superintendents want you to have:

“Excellent with Distinction” – Public: 138 or 23 percent; charter: 4 or 1 percent;
“Excellent” – Public: 249 or 41 percent; charter: 26 or 7 percent;
“Effective” – Public: 172 or 28 percent; charter: 54 or 15 percent;
“Continuous Improvement” – Public: 38 or 6 percent; charter: 96 or 27 percent;
“Academic Watch” – Public: 11 or .01 percent; charter: 55 or 16 percent
“Academic Emergency” – Public: 2 or .003 percent; charter: 66 or 19 percent.

If the Lorain County superintendents seem to be a little angry, they have good reason. Every school district in the state is trying to do more with less. And then you have certain state legislators on the campaign trail, touting how they fixed the state’s budget deficit.

Want to know how they fixed it? On the backs of public schools, that’s how, all the while showing their love of charters.

“Why isn’t the media questioning the legislators who approved this investment in charter schools while at the same time siphoning dollars away from public districts?” asked the Lorain educators.

“The data compares apples to apples and it would seem that our communities’ much maligned public districts compare very favorably.  We are proponents of choice when it is in the best interest of students, but shouldn’t the choice be a good one?”

One media organization – StateImpact Ohio – should be exempt from the Lorain County superintendents’ ire.

StateImpact Ohio, according to its website (, is a collaboration among public radio stations WCPN, WKSU and WOSU and National Public Radio. Reporters Molly Bloom and Ida Lieszkovsky monitor the state of education in Ohio and report their findings along with vast amounts of data.
StateImpact Ohio has the report card data, including charter schools, in an easy-to-read format and assigns a letter grade based on the state grading system. And, yes, there are plenty of “F’s” for the charters.

Quaker Digital Academy, which is an online charter school operated by New Philadelphia City Schools, earned a “C” on its report card. Quaker Digital, which in 2011-12 had 490 students, was formed in an effort to recapture dollars attached to students who leave the district’s brick and mortar system.

And if I’m reading the data correctly, there’s profit in those students – maybe about $2,000 or more apiece after the charter subtracts the cost of teachers, computers and other overhead. What a racket.

Interestingly, StateImpact Ohio reports that only about one in 10 online charter school graduates continues his or her education. That compares to four in 10 graduating from the big urban districts – you know – the ones that are really broken. The Ohio Board of Regents tracks such data, said StateImpact Ohio.

Now the politicians are lining up on the side of a “blended” education, which includes online and bricks and mortar environments.

I personally think we’d be far better off if politicians kept their noses out of education.

Read more from Dick Farrell at

Endorse? You've got to be kidding.

One of my loyal readers thinks I ought to use this space to endorse a presidential candidate.

Uh, no.

One of the better things about not being an editor is that I’m no longer bound to write endorsement editorials that (1) I don’t really believe and (2) ultimately prove I’m an idiot.

Allow me to explain No. 1.

Depending on who was the current owner of my newspaper – there were five different owners during my stint – there was a specific protocol for choosing a presidential candidate and sometimes a U.S. Senate or gubernatorial candidate.

It kind of works like this: If you own a newspaper, you get to endorse whomever you want. It’s one of the perks.

And the people who own newspapers, or control the newspapers, generally are of the Republican bent, which I know belies the current “liberal media” thinking. Well, reporters and editors tend to lean more Democratic, or at least did at one time. So, there’s that.

In some presidential election years and depending on the owner, I would get a memo something like this:
“We are giving our editors a choice in the presidential election this year. You can endorse Bob Dole or no one.”

I’m not making this up. 

Because I considered myself a fairly loyal soldier and a halfway decent writer, I opted to write the endorsement editorial as if I were the owner of the newspaper, whether or not I actually felt as strong as the piece I was trying to write.

It is true, however, that oftentimes I would agree with the corporate line, so there was no internal struggle as I typed the editorial “we” as in “We strongly endorse.…”

Bob Dole?

The late Harry Horvitz, who was the first owner I worked under, allowed his top editors and managers (I was not among them) to decide which presidential candidate to endorse based on, among other things, the community the newspaper happened to serve. Horvitz, however, was the exceptional owner.

To their credit, most of the owners didn’t give a darn about the other political endorsements their newspapers would make, giving the local editorial board all the power it needed, which takes us to my No. 2 concern.

Most of the endorsements we made as a newspaper were made after candidate interviews, discussions with reporters and editors and digesting community feedback. There really was thought put behind those endorsements with the question “Who will best serve the community?” hopefully answered.

There were times, however, when our endorsed candidates failed to deliver satisfactorily after the election, causing me and my newspaper great pain and embarrassment.

How could we be so wrong about this guy? Well, it happens.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer can attest to that. Ohio’s largest newspaper endorsed convicted former officeholders Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo repeatedly over the years. I bet the paper would like those editorials back.

Newspapers seem to making fewer endorsements these days, bowing to public sentiment against them, although I found over the years that many voters wanted some kind of ballot direction, including a recap of endorsements just prior to Election Day.

I’m not sure I agree with the no-endorsement trend. It seems to me that daily newspapers are willingly yielding the power they once had to other entities, such as the “Saturday Night Live” troupe or Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

So be it.

Perhaps we’ve come to a realization that a Barack Obama second term or a Mitt Romney presidency is nothing more than a crap shoot anyway. So, why tempt fate with that editorial “we” stuff?

I just hope to heck the winner delivers.

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Goodbye 18th District, hello 7th District

President Barack Obama’s trusted adviser David Axelrod was asked in the wake of the Oct. 3 debate what he thought of his boss’ performances.

Initially, he sounded like the trusted-cheerleader-no-matter-what, telling the TV pundits that his candidate did fine. In the days following, he acknowledged that Mitt Romney might have won.

“He delivered his lines well,” Axelrod said on MSNBC. But then he delivered the spin:

“The problem isn’t with his performance. The problem is with his underlying theories and some fundamental dishonesty that we saw last night. I give him an ‘F’ for being honest with the American people."

Don’t be too tough on Axelrod. His job, as it is with all political party strategists and leaders, is to manipulate the message and push it in the direction that serves the cause.

So it is with my friend Doug Wills, chairman of the Tuscarawas County Republican Party, who also happens to be a long-suffering fan of the Cleveland Browns (he and his wife were once featured in a Browns newspaper advertisement) and is one of the longtime forces behind the annual success of the Tuscarawas County Fair.

When asked by the local daily newspaper about the impact of two congressional districts in Tuscarawas County, Wills said, “It will be of great benefit, because we will have two people watching and caring and lobbying for the county, versus one person.”

Oh, Doug. That’s spin. Major spin.

But I understand why he had to put a positive bent on the redistricting map – which the Republican party drew with its own interests in mind -- because we’re stuck with it until 2022.

It will be 10 years worth of people walking around Tuscarawas County not knowing who their congressman is. Don’t believe me? Next summer, take a random survey of neighbors and friends. I’ll bet many will draw blanks.

That’s because Dover-New Philadelphia and northern Tuscarawas County will be a part of the 7th District while Dennison-Uhrichsville and southern Tuscarawas County will be part of the 6th District.
The “7th District” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Incumbents are Republicans Bill Johnson of Washington County in the 6th District and Bob Gibbs of Holmes County in the 7th District. The old 18th District, which has included Tuscarawas County for nearly forever, will no longer exist.

The 6th District stretches from Mahoning County to the north and hugs the Ohio River southward to Lawrence County. On the other side of the Ohio border are three different states – Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

In addition to northern Tuscarawas County, the 7th District includes all or parts of Cochocton, Knox, Holmes, Stark, Ashland, Richland, Medina, Huron and Lorain. It includes the cities of Canton, Ashland and Avon.

Thank goodness we have Google Maps.

In other words, the 7th District will include Appalachia, Cleveland suburbia and mile upon mile of rural Ohio farmland with one representative to look out for all our interests. That’s not to say that we haven’t been part of a sprawling congressional district before. We have. But we were the big dogs – the reporting county -- the county with the most people.

How often will our congressman visit Dover-New Philadelphia? Well, you can bet he/she won’t be here very often now that Tuscarawas County doesn’t offer the number of votes it once a did. And I’d be surprised if either congressman locates an office in Tuscarawas County. Time will tell whether we get our fair share of federal projects, but to hear every politician talk there won’t be any money anyway.

Chances of a Tuscarawas County resident running and winning the congressional seat as Zack Space did in 2006, are now non-existent.

Gibbs, whose home is at least nearby in Holmes County, faces opposition from Democrat Joyce Healy-Abrams of Canton. Her brother, William Healy II, is mayor of Canton.

In the 6th, Johnson is in a rematch with Democrat Charlie Wilson of St. Clairsville, whom Johnson defeated in 2010.

The polls favor the incumbent Republicans at this point.

Incidentally, the daily newspaper story noted that both Gibbs and Johnson spoke at the GOP’s Lincoln Day banquet this year. So, we have that going for us.

Yes, that’s sarcasm.

Read more from Dick Farrell at

Do you think it's time to replace a 1915 schoolhouse?

Let’s get something straight.

The Dover-New Philadelphia community is just that – one community. And as a citizen of that community, I’ll endorse any new construction or renovation of school facilities in either city when the other option is doing nothing.

Most of our elementary and secondary schools are decrepit, outdated and in need of serious renovation, if not demolition.

The exception might be New Philadelphia High, which was renovated after a fire in the early 1990s. But that’s already been more than 20 years ago and a lot has transpired, technologically speaking.

So, if Dover’s new plan for a renovated high school ends up on the ballot I’ll support it even if it falls short of what we need.

According to the Times-Reporter, that plan includes replacement of the Fifth Street wing, which was built 97 years ago in 1915.

Women weren’t allowed to vote in 1915. Construction of the Lincoln Memorial was just getting under way. And across the pond, war was raging through Europe -- remember the Lusitania!

For goodness sakes, we’re educating the children of the 21st century in a building that’s been around longer than the Lincoln Memorial.

Ideally, I would have liked to see the school district make a trade with the city. Relocate the tennis courts and a couple of ballparks and build a new high school adjacent to the middle school, taking advantage of the $9.4 million the state has offered for such a project.

The city could have assumed control of the high school property, repurposing its use in any number of ways.
If the city’s administration and City Council would have agreed, Dover could have created a campus with an architecturally pleasing facility (replacing all the chain-link fence that fronts N. Wooster Ave.) that would have provided plenty of parking around back and technology inside.

After a meeting last week, it appears nostalgic Dover citizens want to kiss off the state aid in favor of a partial construction-reconstruction project on the old downtown site at a cost of about $26.6 million.

Certainly, if that issue would pass, it’s a lot better than doing nothing. And perhaps that would keep at least some prospective homeowners from heading north to Jackson Township and North Canton rather than to build or buy in Dover. A primary consideration for most homebuyers is the quality of the schools.

New Philadelphia is about due for a similar offer from the state. I’m curious whether that city’s citizens will look at Dover’s failure to build a new school on a new site as a challenge, or will they follow suit and scream,

“What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand?”

We’ll see.

OK, last week I said no more politics after being stung by Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded conversation with supporters at a fundraiser.

How can I not discuss politics with a little more than a month to go in what pundits are calling … well, the most important presidential election since the last one?

(OK, that’s what I’m saying.)

No matter who wins the election, I think we need to make a pledge in this country. We have to quit the hate because in the next four years, we’ve got to get something done in this country.

Memo to Congress: This means you.

This current Congress, which has recessed until after the Nov. 6 election without getting hardly anything accomplished this term, is being called the worst collection of legislators ever.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was quoted in numerous publications as saying members were “leaving town in disgrace.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for non-partisan Public Citizen, said, “I’ve never seen Capitol Hill work so poorly.”

After this election is over, those elected must be made to understand that their job is to solve our problems.

And that means working with the guys across the aisle. Anything short of that is un-American.

Read more from Dick Farrell at

Romney wasn't very 'elegant,' still...

No matter how old one gets, there is always an opportunity to learn.

I learned a couple of things after I wrote last week’s commentary on my thought that Mitt Romney would take Ohio on Nov. 6.

One was that I should learn not to make political predictions until the Monday before Election Day because as soon as I hit the “send” button on the computer containing a political prediction commentary, the politician in question – in this particular case Romney – will be revealed to have done something really, really stupid.

In Romney’s case, it was calling 47 percent of American voters – those who are squarely in President Barack Obama’s corner – entitled “victims.” Then, of course, he further explained that he wasn’t very “elegant” in his execution of that particular thought.

I’ll say.

The second thing I learned is that people, particularly my readers, don’t give much of a hoot about politics. Well, at least they don’t at the current time, and this could be as a result of many things, including but not limited to scores of “robocalls” to their homes and the hundreds of attack ads on TV while they’re trying to concentrate on “Dancing With The Stars.”

Don’t be too critical of people who would rather watch “DWTS,” all you highbrows. It’s an escape from the realities of modern life even if the politicians won’t let Ohioans watch it in peace.

I know that last week’s commentary wasn’t very popular because it didn’t show up among the favorites on the Bargain Hunter’s website, at least not while I paid attention to it over the weekend. This may sound a little narcissistic, but generally my commentaries do show up on the list every week. I’m very proud of that fact.

So, from here on out, I’ll try to keep the political stuff to a minimum, although I do find it interesting and unfortunately necessary to sometimes write about it. And I continue to think that Romney has a chance to win Ohio, but I’m not wagering anything on the rest of the country except Alabama.

I have a lot of relatives in Alabama and they’ve told me in certain terms that Obama is going down big time in their state and, by goodness, I believe them.

* * *
When Romney released his tax returns showing a 14.1 percent tax rate for 2011, I was curious about this family’s tax rate.

When both of us had full-time, bring-home-the-bacon jobs, we were in the 25 percent tax rate bracket, according to that wonderful home software program Turbo Tax.

In the last couple of years, TT says we dropped to the 15 percent tax bracket. That seems to correspond with the period when your favorite newspaper columnist began reinventing himself.

And in my book, 15 percent still is more than 14.1 percent.

OK, no more politics after this.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said she believes the U.S. needs to rethink free speech.

“It is not good enough to say it’s free speech, it should be allowed,” Hina told CNN in an interview.

“I think if this does provoke action against American citizens or Americans anywhere else in the world, then maybe we do need to rethink how much freedom is OK.”

Hina was referring to the rogue American filmmaker, whose movie has angered the Muslim world and has been blamed for a resurgence of anti-American violence throughout the Middle East.

Even idiot filmmakers are protected by our guarantee of free speech. Of course, no one is required to watch idiot films.

Memo to Hina: Our forefathers here in the U.S. worked long and hard on the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and other documents that established our country ultimately as the leader of the free world.

Well, that and the blood of our young men and women.

Maybe Americans need to rethink how much foreign aid we provide to countries such as Pakistan. I know it’s a simplistic way of looking at it, but wouldn’t you just like to tell these pipsqueak countries (OK, Pakistan’s got nukes) to bug off?

In fiscal year 2011, requested U.S. aid to Pakistan totaled roughly $2.25 billion. If we’re going to throw money around, why don’t we throw it at our public schools, or Medicare, or Social Security?

Wonder if anyone will ask that question in the presidential debates?

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