Ohio Regulator Favors Politically Connected Charter School Sponsors, Resigns When Exposed

Things unraveled pretty quickly last week for David Hansen, the director of school choice at the Ohio Department of Education.  On Tuesday, the State Board of Education, dominated by appointees of Republican Governor John Kasich, met and discussed why, as Ohio began to evaluate the sponsor-authorizers of Ohio’s charter schools, the test scores of students at on-line charters were quietly omitted—a violation of state law as Republican chair of the state senate’s education committee, Peggy Lehner, and Republican state auditor, Dave Yost, have both confirmed.  When underlings of Hansen could not adequately answer the questions of Senator Peggy Lehner, who had come to the meeting of the State Board to ask questions, she demanded their boss come downstairs to the meeting room to address her concerns.

On Saturday, David Hansen resigned from his post overseeing charter schools for the Ohio Department of Education.

This is all a huge embarrassment for Governor John Kasich.  David Hansen’s wife, Beth, has been Kasich’s chief of staff for some time, but she recently resigned that position to chair his campaign staff, as he plans to announce soon as a Republican candidate for President.

Before he came to the Ohio Department of Education in 2013, David Hansen led the extremely conservative Buckeye Policy Institute, which is part of the far-right State Policy Network.  (You can learn about the State Policy Network that coordinates the work of far-right think tanks across the states here.)

The Plain Dealer noted in its editorial yesterday: “A 2012 state law on evaluating charter schools clearly mandated ODE (Ohio Department of Education) to include the grades of all online charter schools when grading their sponsors—agencies with oversight over the charter schools.  Lawmakers hoped the pressure on sponsors would force them to provide better oversight of their schools… However, Plain Dealer education reporter Patrick O’Donnell recently revealed that ODE quietly ignored that law, a revelation that shocked the state Board of Education among others.”  Because Hansen excluded the performance of online schools from his rating of sponsors, one sponsor, “the Ohio Council of Community Schools… earned the highest grade—exemplary—even though its online schools including OHDELA, which is run by the politically connected White Hat Management, earned the lowest–Fs.”

In his story yesterday, O’Donnell reported: “The evaluations of charter school sponsors, also called authorizers—the agencies that help create and oversee charter schools—are the cornerstone of Gov. John Kasich and the state’s roundabout plan to improve Ohio’s charter schools… The key beneficiary of the exclusion—so far—was the Ohio Council of Community Schools, a non-profit agency which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from the more than 14,000 students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by White Hat Management.”  David Brennan, owner of White Hat Management, and William Lager, the founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the private company that provides services for ECOT, Altair Management, are known to be among the state’s largest contributors to the campaigns of Ohio’s Republican elected officials.  It is well known that Ohio Virtual Academy (Ohio’s K12 affiliate), OHDELA, and ECOT have among the state’s highest dropout rates and notoriously low student achievement.

Last Friday, in follow up reporting to the story that had broken earlier in the week, O’Donnell noted that when asked about whether he would count ECOT’s persistently low scores in an upcoming evaluation of ECOT’s sponsor, “State Superintendent Richard Ross is refusing to say whether he will count the F grades for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school and one run by a major Republican contributor, in a key charter school evaluation coming soon… (T)hough an evaluation involving ECOT is imminent, he declined to answer direct questions from The Plain Dealer about how ODE will handle failing state report card grades for the online school that receives close to $100 million in state tax dollars for its 14,600 students.”

On Friday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio’s state auditor, Dave Yost, “is examining how the Ohio Department of Education excluded poor student-performanc data from online charter schools when it rated the schools’ sponsors last spring.” “‘You don’t get to pick and choose the laws you obey,’e Yost said.  After meeting with his staff on Thursday morning, Yost said he already had ‘folks that are out there talking’ to Education Department officials about what happened.  They are ‘collecting information,’ not conducting an official investigation, Yost said.”

State Senator Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat, has demanded the resignation of Richard Ross, Ohio’s state superintendent.  The Plain Dealer’s editors do not spare Ross in yesterday’s editorial: “(I)f Richard Ross, state superintendent of schools, hopes to regain his credibility and make true inroads in reforming Ohio’s broken charter school system, he must explain why he allowed this to happen.  An Ohio law requires state evaluations of all online schools and requires those evaluations to be part of overall sponsor evaluations—that means honest evaluations, not cooked grades… Ross must correct course immediately.”

What few have said directly is that the mess is also an enormous embarrassment to Governor John Kasich.  Hansen’s quick resignation is clearly part of an attempt to contain the damage.

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