I agree with David Hornbeck, longtime superintendent of public instruction in Maryland and superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1994 to 2000. Hornbeck authorized charter schools in Philadelphia when he was superintendent because he believed at the time that they would expand opportunity for the students, but the evidence from the past 20 years has caused him to change his mind. Hornbeck refuses to focus on stronger regulation of charter schools, instead believing that charters, which divert public funding to privately managed schools are a bad idea altogether. “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better: Advocates say we need a ‘stronger’ charter law, noting that Maryland ranks near the bottom. Pennsylvania’s law is ranked much higher, yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.” Hornbeck points out that, “Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance.” “Charter funding is also negatively affecting regular public schools.” “Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges. Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students. Some do. However, the citywide charter lottery inherently skims. Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for him/her to apply and succeed.”
Like Hornbeck, I oppose the flow of public dollars to privately managed charter schools because I believe charters undermine the public schools’ capacity as a system to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s 50 million students. However, as a taxpayer and supporter of public education here in Ohio, neither can I endorse our out-of-control charter school sector that sucks $1 billion out of the state’s education budget every year. In Ohio there is virtually no oversight or accountability. While I believe our society will be strengthened when we return to a fully public system, I cannot oppose better regulation.
At the end of February readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were treated to a report from Patrick O’Donnell, who attended a panel at a Denver conference of the Education Writers Association where Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers poked fun at Ohio’s charter school free-for-all as “the Wild, Wild West of Charters.” David Welker, from the National Education Association is reported to have said Ohio’s charter sector is dominated by “grifters” and “cheats.” From the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Todd Ziebarth named K12 Inc., and White Hat Management as “operators who are exploiting things.” And Michael Petrilli of the Thomas Fordham Institute added Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) to the list of exploiters and added, “Ohio needs a top-to-bottom overhaul of its charter school sector.”
Perhaps surprisingly in a state dominated by charter-friendly Republicans in both houses of the General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion, there is a move afoot in Ohio to regulate charters. Dave Yost, Ohio’s elected Auditor of State, also a Republican, has turned up major concerns. In testimony he presented last week to a committee of Ohio’s House (Yost’s testimony is available through a link in the Plain Dealer article in which Patrick O’Donnell covers the story.), Yost describes his office’s investigation: “I’m going to focus on my team’s area of expertise: accountability, finance and governance. There are many other important factors, especially on education itself that you will consider in your debate. I will not presume to offer any thinking on them. By way of background, my office audits every single charter school in Ohio. Since 2001, we have issued findings for recovery in 309 audits… with $27 million in findings for recovery, and $9 million alone during my time in office. Since I took office, a total of 22 people associated with charter schools—board members, vendors, employees—have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing, and more are waiting for their day in court.”
According to Yost, however, statutory regulation is so weak that his office cannot go after many serious violators of the public trust. Here is some of what Yost suggests the legislature fix:
- “Under existing law, a charter school must withdraw a student who misses more than 105 unexcused consecutive hours of school. That amounts to nearly a month. If the student misses 124 hours, then shows up for a single day, the student gets a new 105 hour clock… That means that it is possible for a student to show up for as few as 10 days of school and (for the school to) receive funding for an entire year.”
- In the online academies and the charters that mix online instruction with classes taught by human teachers, “you simply can’t count hours online as one-for-one equivalents with classroom instruction.”
- Charter schools across Ohio receive funding for students on a per-pupil basis, with the students identified not by name but instead by an identification number (SSID). “We have discovered that schools will often generate a new SSID for a student when they have difficulty finding that student’s previously assigned SSID. In 2012-2013, we discovered multiple SSIDs for the same student, which wreaks havoc on efforts to track student transfers between schools.” Of course the implication is that several schools may be collecting state funding for the same SSID, but no one can track which school that particular student is attending.
- Currently in Ohio, “because of short investment horizons, (charter school) facilities are often funded by front-loaded leases that use a high proportion of (state) revenue in early years to retire the debt over a short amortization. Then, if the school fails, the realty company, often controlled by the management company, owns the building… Education of our children ought not be a back-door means to acquire real estate.”
- Yost asks the legislature to require better accounting practices and the elimination of what are known as “sweeps contracts” by which the board of the charter school turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to a private management company without any transparency in the expenditure of the funds. Too often even the charter school’s board can get no information about how the money has been spent. The charter’s board “acts as little more than a pass-through for state money to get to the management company, which then hires the teachers, buys the books, etc. In this model virtually all the money is spent by a private company and is out of sight of the public.”
- Finally Yost asks the legislature to give the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) the capacity to oversee charters and take action when problems arise. “Ohio’s fragmented system of oversight—spread among ODE, governing boards and sponsors—is further complicated by other players who have duties delegated by contract, including management companies and sponsor contractors who serve as de facto authorizers. In particular, ODE’s role should be explicit. Is it a sponsor, a coach, a regulator, a funder, a licenser? … At a minimum, ODE should not act as a sponsor. Under HB 555, ODE is to evaluate the effectiveness of sponsors—how can it evaluate itself?”
Yost’s ideas do not cover even all of the regulatory problems with Ohio’s charter schools, but they would be a good start. Many Ohioans remain skeptical, however, about the probability that the legislature will ever pass laws to strengthen the oversight of charter schools, and especially the notorious schools identified at the Education Writers Association panel—K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy, David Brennan’s White Hat Schools, and William Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Brennan and Lager are among the largest contributors to the political coffers of Ohio’s legislators. And Bill Batchelder, until December 2014, the speaker of Ohio’s House, just joined with a number of his former staffers to form a new lobbying firm in Columbus. Batchelder’s first client? William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.