On Sunday, a long article appeared in the print edition of Cleveland Plain Dealer, the launch of an investigation of Ohio’s 393 charter schools. The reporters phoned or faxed each of the state’s charter schools to begin to create a data base. Reporters asked: Who runs the building? Who is that person’s supervisor? Is there a management company and what company is it? Who serves on the school’s school board? How can we contact the school board? When does the board meet? (The full story appears in Sunday’s Akron Beacon Journal, though its printing cannot be traced to the Plain Dealer, because cleveland.com, the newspaper’s on-line edition, does not post all articles that have appeared in print.)
The reporters identified themselves as representing NewsOutlet.org, a journalism collaborative of the University of Akron, Youngstown State University, and Cuyahoga Community College with the Akron Beacon Journal, the Youngstown Vindicator, WYSU-FM Radio (Youngstown State), and Rubber City Radio (Akron). Why did the print-edition of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer pick up the story? Some of the journalists at NewsOutlet.org are studying journalism here in Cleveland at Cuyahoga Community College. And not only did Rubber City Radio and WYSU carry it, but so did WKSU (Kent) and public radio’s State Impact Ohio news service.
The new investigation is clearly a creative strategy of Ohio’s most progressive newspaper on matters that affect public schools. Doug Oplinger and his partner Dennis Willard were the top investigative reporters on Ohio school vouchers and on the DeRolph school funding case all through the 1990s. Oplinger is now the Beacon Journal‘s managing editor. In an interview Monday with WKSU (Kent State), Oplinger said that the data base being created by NewsOutlet.org will be “used by parents, researchers, policy makers and reporters to track the performance of the publicly financed, but privately run, schools statewide.”
Oplinger predicts NewsOutlet.org will be looking at conflicts of interest when the members of school boards supposedly overseeing charter schools are being recruited by officials at the management companies—a violation of federal law. According to WKSU, “Oplinger says the next step in the series will include examining who owns the property in which many charter schools operate.”
The Beacon Journal followed up on Monday with an in-depth report from its excellent education reporter, Doug Livingston, on the recruiting and functioning of school board members at David Brennan’s charter schools, managed by his private White Hat Management Company, a for-profit with 32 Ohio schools. Privately held White Hat collects over 95.5 percent of the funding, leaving a very small percentage of the state’s money under the oversight of the board. Livingston points out that under federal law schools managed by not-for-profits are supposed to be run independently of any management company the board sees fit to hire: “If the board is not independent of the company, the IRS is supposed to throw up a red flag. But (Ohio) state law allows private companies to throw out nonprofit boards that challenge them.” One White Hat school board member reported to Livingston that Nancy Brennan, daughter of David Brennan had “asked him and his wife to serve.” When ten members of the board of one White Hat school tried to change management companies: “Because White Hat had trademarked school names and bought up real estate through affiliate companies, the renegade boards couldn’t force White Hat out of the building.”
Again in this morning’s Beacon Journal, Livingston takes up another problem with the laws that govern Ohio charter schools: transportation. Public school districts are required to transport children to charter schools. Because children in charters are picked up from their homes and delivered to schools all around the city (without the possibility for normal neighborhood bus routes): “State officials have forced traditional public schools to crisscross their cities to pick up and deliver children to privately run charter schools, often while cutting transportation to their own kids… A child attending a traditional pubic school and transported on a district bus cost on average $4.30 per day in 2012. The average cost for a charter-school student: $6.18, or $1.88 more per day.” Livingston continues: “A private contractor on average charged districts $5.45 per child to go to a traditional school and $12 to go to a charter school.”
The NewsOutlet.org investigation itself remains at a very early stage. Student reporters have been making calls and sending faxed requests to the state’s nearly 400 charter schools. While they report that Governor Kasich told the Ohio Newspaper Association, “We’ll work with you any way we can. I’m not going to hide from you,” the student reporters did not encounter a spirit of cooperation from many of the charter schools they contacted. Sixty-nine, 25 percent, provided the information requested by reporters. At other schools students were treated rudely, messages on answering machines never answered, promised materials forgotten. Reporters were frequently referred to websites where the requested information was not posted. At Imagine Akron Academy, “office manager Jeanette Twitty wanted to know, ‘What do you do with this information?’ She put the reporter on hold, and upon returning, said school superintendent Wendy Hubbard ‘would not like to give out any information because that’s something she hasn’t heard of.’ When the reporter asked if he could send a fax with the list of questions, Twitty responded: ‘OK, you can fax it over. If she’s interested, she’ll give you a call back or fax it back. If she’s not interested, you won’t hear anything from her.'”