Scandal of Ohio Charter School Governance Finally Gets Some Attention

Nearly a billion dollars flowing out of the state’s public education budget every year.  Scandals brought to light years after a charter school closes, money not recoverable because it’s been so long, no news coverage in time to make a difference.  Blog postings here and there about outrageous profits for Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow czar, William Lager.  Charter czars and management companies buying the legislature.

Will it ever be possible to get the money back where it belongs in public schools in a state where—even in the richer suburbs—families now have to pay added fees for their sons to play on the football team?  This is Ohio today.

With the coming of spring this year, however, there are some sprouts of hope.

Ohio’s state auditor, William Yost, has begun looking into big and small scandals alike.  Yesterday the Plain Dealer reported that Yost fined two officials of the Elite Academy of the Arts, $45,000 they had misspent on lavish meals and airfare before the school was closed in 2012 for academic failure.  Elite Academy of the Arts was located on East 93rd street in a very poor neighborhood, but according to Yost, “It turns out the ‘Elite’ in their name refers to their personal tastes when spending public money intended for education.”  Yost has taken to naming bluntly the corruption in Ohio’s unregulated charter sector: “theft from children.”

State auditor Yost is to be commended for using the power of his office to investigate the operation and supposed regulation of Ohio’s charter schools.  In February, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Yost is undertaking the investigation of three not-for-profit long-distance sponsors of Ohio charters: the St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center in Marion and Tiffin, and the Warren County Educational Service Center.  Yost began looking into these statewide charter sponsors when, 9 of the 17 new charters opened in 2013 in Columbus closed within  months, “costing taxpayers at least $1.6 million and leaving hundreds of students without schools.”  The Dispatch continues: “The auditor has said he has the authority to investigate sponsors because they receive state money.  Sponsors can keep up to 3 percent of the $780 million in state education aid that flows to charter schools annually.”

Then earlier this week, as this blog reported here, the Akron Beacon Journal launched a creative multi-city journalism project to expose the lack of transparency in the operation and regulation of Ohio’s charter schools.  The Beacon Journal has created, a collaboration of the journalism programs of the University of Akron, Youngstown State University, and Cuyahoga Community College, along with two newspapers, the Beacon Journal and the Youngstown Vindicator and several public radio stations.  Already reporters have exposed the secrecy and conflicts of interest built in to charter school governance in Ohio along with the extraordinary expense that Ohio law imposes on public school districts for busing children to charter schools.

Finally, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding published a five part series (here posted as Governance Part 1,2,3,4,5) by an insider,  a long time school administrator who consulted toward the end of his career with the Ohio Department of Education to implement Ohio’s charter school laws.  “Dennis Smith is a retired school administrator who worked both as a sponsor representative for charter schools as well as a consultant in the state charter school office.”

According to Smith (Part 4), “It’s all about governance.”  “In Ohio, the Revised Code treats a charter school as a school district, with its own treasurer, chief administrative officer, and governing board.  But state law also allows great latitude regarding the operation and governance of the school….  In such loose legal construction, charter schools become the creatures of those who ‘own’ them, rather than the public who pays for them….  This flaw in charter school genetic code will, over time, be its undoing for the American public is showing signs of increasing impatience with institutions….  If they believe the companies ‘own’ these ‘public’ schools, then surely the public will understand that the companies also ‘own’ the boards…  An owned or bought board is not characteristic of our democratic system.”

Smith is particularly concerned about large charter chains under Ohio law that considers charter schools “their own school districts.”  Smith declares: “Public policy should not be so deranged as to allow private, for-profit national charter school chains to ‘own’ school districts.” (Part 5)




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