Two important things relating to education happened in Columbus in June, right before the Ohio legislature went on summer break. The legislature did fast-track a bill to take over the public schools in Youngstown. The legislature didn’t follow through on a promise to regulate Ohio’s notorious charter schools and their sponsors. Now we learn that all this was how Governor John Kasich and his appointed state superintendent, Richard Ross, intended things to work out. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will pay for it.
First, at the end of June, on the Wednesday before the legislature adjourned for the summer, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing on a bill to expand full-service, wraparound Community Schools in Ohio, Senator Peggy Lehner introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and a takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the locally elected school board meaningless. Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature. There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill.
Second, the legislature took a pass on approving a well-debated bill to improve state oversight of the charter school sector in Ohio. The Senate had passed the bill, and the House had been asked to concur, but instead the bill was not brought to the floor. Everybody speculated this was a move to ensure that the bill would eventually be sent to a conference committee where Ohio’s charter school czars who have invested millions in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans would have more power to soften the regulations intended to make Ohio’s charter schools more accountable, both academically and fiscally. The Ohio legislature did return this last week of September and sent the bill, as predicted, to a conference committee for further work. We wait to see whether Ohio will get any improvement in the regulation of its charter schools.
It now turns out this is all connected to a huge, $71 million grant awarded earlier this week to Ohio by the U.S. Department of Education to expand charter schools, specifically in academically distressed school districts. Youngstown qualifies; Lorain will be next.
Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s fine investigative reporter, has over recent months exposed a scandal by which David Hansen, appointed by State Superintendent Richard Ross as Ohio’s school choice director, had ignored in the state’s rating of charter schools and their sponsors the students’ overall failing test scores in several on-line schools run by influential Republicans. Hansen was subsequently forced to resign. O’Donnell explains: “The ODE’s (Ohio Department of Education’s) rating of the academic performance of charters came into question earlier this year, following a June Plain Dealer report that it deliberately left out the F grades of online schools—some of whom were created by large Republican donors—from those evaluations. The department’s former school choice chief David Hansen, husband of Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen, resigned in July over that decision, even as the U.S. Department of Education was reviewing the grant applications. Federal evaluators found shortcomings in Ohio’s application, but they had mostly glowing reports of Ohio’s evaluation process for oversight agencies and still awarded Ohio the $71 million—the most money out of the seven states and the District of Columbia that are sharing a total of $249 million.” Here is the press release from the U.S. Department of Education that describes two categories of federal grants—large, long-term grants to states and smaller grants to replicate or expand “high-quality” charters.
The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston, Ohio’s long and revered education reporter, adds that not only did the federal government provide a big grant to expand Ohio’s questionable charter sector, but the proposal the Department of Education funded this week is designed specifically to pay for the fast-tracked state takeover of the Youngstown schools, with the purpose of expanding privatized charter management and removing power from the elected school board: “Records show that David Hansen, a longtime advocate for charter schools, hired by State Supt. Richard Ross to run his school-choice office, was involved in the grant application that will facilitate the takeover of Youngstown city schools and other targeted urban districts. The takeover of so-called ‘recovery school districts’ such as Youngstown was secretly negotiated by Ross, Kasich’s then chief of staff Beth Hansen, and Youngstown business officials and approved by the legislature in June in a stunning last minute maneuver. David and Beth Hansen are husband and wife, and she left Kasich’s staff in July to run his presidential campaign. Records released by the Ohio Department of Education Sept. 3 in response to newspaper investigations of Hansen’s role in the data manipulation also show that he assembled the supporting documents for the federal grant.” Livingston explains that earlier this week when the five-year state grants were announced, Arne Duncan’s press secretary Elaine Quesinberry confirmed, “that the Ohio education officials filled out the grant application with the intent to direct money to charter school startups in academic distressed areas. Only two, Youngstown and Lorain, currently fit that description.”
There is growing concern nationally about an out-of-control charter sector. Ohio’s problems with regulation of charter schools and especially the sponsors who supposedly provide oversight are well known. Bill Bush, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, describes the concerns of Dave Yost, the Republican state auditor: “Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said earlier this month that Ohio had a ‘broken system’ of charter sponsorship and that the state needed ‘real reform.'”
In the Washington Post‘s coverage of the new U.S. Department of Education’s grants to charter schools, Lyndsey Layton addresses growing questions about the lack of federal and state regulation of charter schools. Layton quotes a Department of Education assistant secretary, Nadya Dabby, addressing allegations of poor state oversight of Ohio’s charter sector: “Ohio has a pretty good mechanism in place to improve overall quality and oversight We believe Ohio has put practices in place; although there’s always room for them to grow.”
According to Doug Livingston’s Beacon Journal report, officials at the U.S. Department of Education were informed during the summer that Ohio had failed to pass the bill that would have put in place what many in this state would call “minimal” regulations. The Department of Education approved the five-year grant of $71 million for Ohio despite the warning.
The essential questions are these: Are the federal officials—who chose Ohio as one of seven states for a five-year charter expansion grant and then gave Ohio more money than the other six states—incompetent and unable to read about Ohio’s failure to pass a bill to improve oversight?
Or is the U.S. Department of Education blindly determined to expand the charter school sector despite overwhelming evidence that students are poorly served and tax money wasted?