Ohio’s governor and members of the legislature have begun talking about regulating charter schools in a state that was called by an official at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, “the wild, wild west” of charter schools. But it’s really only just talk, and the real question is whether the legislature will make any serious effort crack down on the charter sector whose tycoons have continued to fill legislators’ political coffers.
There are serious questions, for example, about whether any of the new regulations proposed by Ohio’s governor or House of Representatives would touch the kind of fraud that was recently investigated by the state auditor, who released a report on Ohio’s so-called “dropout recovery” charters that, he discovered, have been collecting state reimbursements for phantom students who are not really attending the schools. This blog covered the auditor’s investigation here.
Patrick O’Donnell, a reporter for the Plain Dealer, has been investigating the recent discussions about regulating Ohio’s charters. In this report O’Donnell summarizes the contents of a proposed bill in the Ohio House that would, if it ever passes, prevent some of the really serious problems with Ohio’s charter schools. And there are some extremely serious problems right now. For example, if a charter school is failing miserably academically or found to be misusing state funds, the school would no longer be able to, ” ‘hop’ from one sponsor to another if a sponsor, the organization responsible for making sure they do a good job, cracks down on them.” The bill, if passed, would also require charter school board members to “disclose if they have any family members or business associates doing business with the school.” And the sponsors would be prohibited “from selling goods or services to the schools they oversee.” Proposed regulations would require charter schools to have their own treasurers who are independent from the sponsors as well as the management companies hired by the charter school boards.
And while the new law, if passed, would not determine whether desks and computers and other equipment purchased with tax money belong to the charter school itself or the private management company hired by a charter school board to run the school, the new law would at least require the school to have established a clear agreement with the sponsor and management company about who owns the equipment. The agreement would need to define “which entity owns… school facilities and property including, but not limited to, equipment, furniture, fixtures, instructional materials and supplies, computers, printers….” Currently ten of Ohio’s charter schools are involved in a long running lawsuit to determine if the schools, whose boards want to change management companies, can take with them the equipment purchased with tax money. For-profit White Hat Management Company, whose management contract all ten schools want to terminate, claims it owns all of the equipment.
Here and here, O’Donnell examines Ohio’s Governor John Kasich’s proposal that the legislature crack down on Ohio’s system of charter school sponsors: “Ohio differs sharply from other states… by allowing many different kinds of agencies to take that sponsor/authorizer role. In some states, only local school districts, universities or a few state charter boards can sponsor schools. But Ohio has nearly 70 sponsors and is one of the few states that allows other nonprofit agencies to be sponsors… Some people… have accused sponsors of using schools as a money grab, just to collect three percent annual fees that are supposed to cover oversight costs or to find other ways to draw money from the schools.” O’Donnell continues, “Asked last week how Ohio can justify having sponsors as a layer of bureaucracy in the process of cracking down on poor charter schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ spokesman Greg Richmond could offer no defense of Ohio’s system. ‘It’s hard to rationalize or justify Ohio’s system,’ he said.”
O’Donnell reports that Kasich will ask the legislature to better regulate sponsors and perhaps eliminate those with low ratings. “The rating system currently has three categories: exemplary, effective and ineffective. Kasich would add a fourth rating as the lowest: ‘poor.’ When an authorizer is rated as poor, the state would withdraw sponsorship rights and take over sponsorship of all of its schools.” Current law puts low-rated sponsors on probation and blocks them from adding new charters to their roster until they improve. Kasich proposes to reward the most successful charters by permitting them go to their local public school board to request that the local board of education place a local property tax levy on the ballot for the charter school in the same way public school districts in Ohio raise local millage. Charters sponsored by “exemplary” agencies could also qualify for help from a $25 million state fund to be created to assist charter schools to purchase or renovate their school facilities. The new rules Governor Kasich suggests the legislature pass would even apply to the “handful of authorizers that the state named as permanent sponsors in Ohio’s first charter school pilot project.” Till now, these sponsors have been grandfathered out of regulations.
Are there reasons to be skeptical? Yes. Does all this sound too complicated to pass in the legislature? Yes. Why focus on the sponsors and ignore the possibility of just regulating particular charters that are known to be wasting or stealing taxpayer dollars and failing to educate children?
One reason for skepticism is that, as O’Donnell reports, past efforts to get the Ohio legislature to regulate charter schools have failed. In 2012, as part of a proposed Cleveland Transformation Plan, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson asked the legislature merely to pass enabling legislation for the formation of a local Cleveland charter school regulatory agency with representatives appointed from the city school board and civic and business leaders. The legislature did permit the creation of what is now called the Cleveland Transformation Alliance but denied the Transformation Alliance the right to shut down any charter schools, even if their academic or financial records are abysmal. The Cleveland Tranformation Alliance serves only in an advisory capacity. The legislature has never even given the Ohio Department of Education the capacity to regulate charter schools or close those whose performance is poor.
Ohio is currently a one party state: Republican governor, Republicans with large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Innovation Ohio recently tracked the political contributions of Ohio’s two biggest charter operators—William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and David Brennan of White Hat Management: “Between the two of them, they have contributed about $6.4 million to Ohio politicians and committees since 1998. Of that, less than 3 percent went to Democrats.”
It is clearly in the financial interest of Ohio’s legislative leaders that charter schools not be regulated.