More Money and Scrutiny Slated for Ohio Charters
Lax Oversight Led to Mismanagement and Poor Academic Results
With Ohio poised to potentially receive more than $70 million in federal cash to expand the number of high-performing charter schools over the next five years, state and federal leaders, along with some advocates, are raising concerns that the state's beleaguered charter sector may not deserve, or be ready for, such a windfall.
Charter schools in Ohio have been generating scandal-ridden headlines for years over financial mismanagement and poor academic outcomes. Charter critics—and increasingly, charter advocates—point to the Ohio charter sector as an example of the dysfunction that can arise from lax oversight.
A bill that would bring more stringent monitoring to the state's publicly funded but independently run schools appears to be on its way to becoming law after passage through both houses of the Ohio legislature last week. But concerns remain that fueling charter growth too fast, too soon could undermine recent attempts to rein in the sector.
'Bad Apples Out'
"I would want to make sure our reforms are in place before we pour any more money into Ohio's charter schools," said state Rep. Kristina Roegner, a Republican from Northeast Ohio and one of the co-sponsors of the bill aimed at making all levels of the sector—authorizers, management organizations, and schools—more accountable financially and academically. "Once the reforms are in place, and we get the bad apples out, then by all means, let's grow it," she said.
The U.S. Department of Education announced at the end of last month that it was giving Ohio $32 million for the first year, with a plan to award the state a total of $71 million over the next five years, through the department's Charter Schools Program. Ohio is slated to receive the largest share of the $249 million the department is promising seven states and the District of Columbia, though it must meet several conditions in order to receive the full amount.
In a twist that highlights the myriad problems that have rocked Ohio's charter sector, the lead official who wrote the state's original grant application for the federal money resigned in July over a grade scrubbing flap.
David Hansen, who was the Ohio department of education's school choice director, admitted to omitting the failing grades of some online, dropout-recovery charters while he was evaluating authorizers as part of a new rating system, inflating the scores of some authorizers.
Called "sponsors" in Ohio, authorizers approve the opening of charter schools. They're also supposed to provide oversight and shut down poorly performing schools, which many aren't doing, said Chad Aldis, the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has been a prominent voice in advocating for charter law reform in the state. Its sister organization, the Fordham Foundation, sponsors some charters in Ohio.
"Sponsors are the linchpin of accountability in most states," said Aldis. "Charter school sponsors in Ohio have, over the years, not done a particularly good job. … [and the state] department of education up until recently has not been a particularly effective overseer of the sponsors. So you have two layers of oversight that are required, and we've up until recently fallen down on both accounts."
In that environment, some charter schools—and charter management organizations—have been allowed to run amok, he said.
Their misdeeds run the gamut from overreporting student enrollment numbers to nepotism and bribery. Just this month, three former school officials at a Dayton charter school, including the board chairman and the superintendent, were sentenced to several years in prison in a federal bribery case.
And in a study by Stanford University's Center on Educational Outcomes that was funded by the Fordham Institute, researchers found that Ohio charter students on average learn less in a year than their peers in regular district schools. However, the CREDO study did find pockets of success: Charters in Cleveland and Columbus showed strong performance among low-income black students.
All the negative attention has made it hard for some Ohio charters to attract students, teachers, and philanthropy dollars.
Backlash for Charters
"It's very difficult to distinguish yourself as a credible school when you have front page coverage all the time of fraudulent operations," said Judy Hennessey, the superintendent of two charter schools in Dayton—Dayton Early College Academy and DECA PREP. The schools serve mostly low-income, minority students in grades K-12.
Hennessey is part of a statewide group of charter leaders who have been pushing lawmakers for tougher oversight. She's worried that if these issues aren't fixed soon, the pendulum on regulation could swing too far the other way.
"When there's fraud, there's always an attempt to regulate, and sometimes the reaction is to overregulate," said Hennessey. "We just hope it's productive."
Among a chorus calling for the state's 18-year-old charter law to be retooled is Gov. John Kasich, a GOP presidential candidate.
The measure that lawmakers approved last week requires in-depth financial and academic reporting from schools and management organizations, stops charter schools from switching sponsors to avoid getting shut down, and prohibits poorly rated sponsors from opening new schools, among other provisions.
Combined with a tough new oversight law on the books, some advocates say the millions of dollars from the federal government is needed to expand high-quality charters with a proven track record. "In other states, you see high performing charter schools expanding, and low performers closing," Aldis said. "In Ohio, the low performers are just about as likely to replicate and expand as the high performers."
But others, including current and former lawmakers, fear the cash will only exacerbate current problems.
"Having the U.S. Department of Education give this kind of grant is just extremely frustrating because it's seemingly awarding our bad work," said Stephen Dyer, the education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, a Columbus-based think tank. The state's auditor, a Republican, has also expressed concerns about the grant money in interviews with local media. So has Tim Ryan, an Ohio congressman, in a letter to the Education Department.
But in a statement, Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said Ohio is required to submit quarterly progress reports, among other conditions. "We will continue to monitor Ohio's performance ... to ensure they are compliant with federal law and serving children well."
Vol. 35, Issue 08, Pages 1, 13Published in Print: October 14, 2015, as More Money, Scrutiny for Ohio Charters