Ex-Ohio education official puzzled data gurus with requests

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Data experts at the Ohio Department of Education were puzzled by some requests from a charter schools director whose decision to omit certain failing grades from sponsor evaluations led to his ouster, according to records released Thursday.

The data managers told School Choice Director David Hansen at times over the months that he lacked the necessary clearances to share his data analyses outside the department, as records made it appear. One manager also warned that a change to state law would be required to make certain adjustments Hansen requested to the numbers, the records show.

Hansen resigned July 18, days after acknowledging to the state school board that he had omitted failing grades of online and dropout-recovery schools from the evaluations of charter school sponsors so poor marks wouldn’t “mask” successes elsewhere. The evaluations, pertaining to five of 64 sponsors, were later retracted.

Major Ohio news outlets including The Associated Press, Democratic lawmakers and others had requested documents detailing Hansen’s actions as well as any communications he may have had with the office of Republican Gov. John Kasich or state Superintendent Richard Ross, who is part of the governor’s Cabinet.

Hansen is married to Kasich’s presidential campaign manager.

The flap comes as Ohio’s charter schools have been under intense scrutiny.

State lawmakers frustrated by attendance, accountability and performance troubles plaguing the schools – pitched as an alternative to traditional public schools – introduced bipartisan legislation in April to tackle the problem. The bill stalled before legislators’ summer recess.

Critics alleged omissions by Hansen were intended to benefit generous GOP donors involved in charter schools by improving the apparent performance of their industry. Some continue to urge an independent investigation. The Education Department has said the changes benefited two charter school sponsors. That could have led to larger state payouts to the schools under their umbrellas unless the rosy reviews had been retracted.

But there were no initial indications in the documents that Ross, Kasich or Kasich’s office directed Hansen’s actions.

Ross told the AP on Thursday that he knew nothing of the omissions until they were reported by the media. Kasich also said he believed Hansen acted alone.

Ross said Inspector General Randall Meyer and state Auditor Dave Yost also received copies of the documents on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, we had a breakdown in our system that undermines that progress we made, and the progress of holding charter schools’ feet to the fire,” Ross said. “The exclusion of e-schools is not anything that would ever have crossed my mind, nor does it align with my general belief system.”

Ross appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise the department on evaluating charter school sponsors, and has also put in place a data quality team that will vet all data before he leaves the department.

During an appearance in Columbus on Thursday, Kasich said he stood behind Ross, who hired Hansen and whom some Democrats have urged to resign.

“We will find out exactly what was involved in what he (Hansen) was doing and why he was doing it,” the governor said. “But we want top-rated, high-profile charter schools. And when we thought that the numbers weren’t right, Dick Ross talked to him and he no longer works for the state.”

In an emailed statement, Hansen said he was charged with implementing a new state law that “was not a model of clarity” and he did his best to create “the most practical design I could come up” to achieve its goal.

“I certainly believed that I was acting in good faith and that the design created a reasonable and workable reporting process which was consistent with the goal of the statute as I understood it,” he said. “Suggestions that my design was somehow ‘illegal’ ignore the ambiguity in the statute and the design’s goal of accurately evaluating Ohio’s charter sector.”

The records’ release made clear that Hansen played with the evaluation data on a regular basis, requesting data runs that included e-schools, then excluded them; threw in special education programs and added new community schools, two categories that one manager noted were to be kept out under law.

Data Administration Manager Karlyn Geis described “a lot of confusion” in an October 2014 email, and “looks of shock from others in the room” when Hansen joked that due to fuzzy evaluation criteria all sponsors should get a 92 and be rated exemplary.

“Can we assume you’re joking about putting them down as a 92?” Geis replied. Hansen said it was a joke.

___

Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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