U.S. Dept. of Ed. Acknowledges Flawed Charter School Grant Review Process

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter (Scroll to the end of the news story to see the letter itself.) on Wednesday to Richard Ross, Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, to inform Ross that, despite the Department’s huge grant—$71 million to Ohio (the largest of any of this year’s five-year, federal Charter School Program grants to seven winning states) to expand charter schools and take over and charterize the Youngstown School District, the Department has decided to withhold the money until Ohio does a better job of explaining what journalists have shown to be mistakes and lies in the grant application submitted last summer by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) for federal  dollars.

The letter explains: “(A)t various stages during and after the competition, the Department became aware of various concerns regarding ODE’s Office of Quality School Choice and the circumstances surrounding the resignation of the director of that office… [I]n making the original grant award, the Department conducted an expedited review of information available at that time and made a preliminary determination that these concerns and issues should not disqualify ODE from the FY 2015 CSP SEA competition. The Department took such concerns into consideration when awarding ODE’s grant, however, and placed special conditions on the grant, pending receipt of more information regarding these matters. Since awarding the grant to ODE, the Department has received additional information that raises continuing concerns regarding ODE’s ability to administer its CSP SEA grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability with respect to Ohio’s charter schools.”

So what are the concerns of which the U.S. Department of Education has recently become aware—the concerns missed by the grant reviewers the federal government brought in to read and evaluate the proposals?  Well, David Hansen, head of Ohio’s charter school program for the ODE, was the person who prepared the federal grant proposal along with designing and implementing a plan to evaluate how well Ohio’s charter school authorizers have been overseeing the charter schools for which they are responsible.  After the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell noticed and reported last June that Hansen had protected Ohio’s notorious online charters and “dropout recovery schools” by omitting their low ratings from his plan to evaluate their authorizers, Hansen was fired in July, only days after his federal grant application had been submitted.  And Hansen’s federal application said that Ohio had already implemented a plan for better regulation of its charter schools, while in fact at the time, that plan was on-hold and being hotly debated by a legislature beholden to Ohio’s wealthy charter-czar campaign investors.  A bill to improve oversight of charters was finally passed by Ohio’s legislature in October and signed into law last Sunday, November 1, by Governor John Kasich.

O’Donnell, who continues to track this story for the Plain Dealer, reports this week that the U.S. Department of Education’s new letter warns the Ohio Department of Education that it must provide new information in order to free up the federal money: “ODE must now provide the following materials, among others, before receiving any of the money: An explanation of ‘the extent to which any information in the application (for the grants) is out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.’  A summary of the last seven years of charter school audits by the state, and actions taken by the state in response.  An explanation of all changes to the state’s method of evaluating charter school oversight agencies, known as ‘sponsors’ or ‘authorizers.'”

O’Donnell concludes by reminding us that, “Ohio’s application for the grants in July was inaccurate and incomplete even as it went out the door.”

It is a wonderful thing, and heartening in these times of financial crisis and cutbacks at major newspapers, that the work of O’Donnell—and followup from Doug Livingston at the Akron Beacon Journal and Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel at the Columbus Dispatch—shamed Ohio’s state superintendent into firing David Hansen and have now embarrassed the U.S. Department of Education into admitting that its review of grant applications was, at best, shoddy and superficial.  (This post summarizes some of the important press coverage.)  All of Ohio’s Democratic representatives to Congress—Senator Sherrod Brown, Reps. Marcia Fudge, Marcy Kaptur, and Tim Ryan, along with Ohio’s Republican Auditor of State, Dave Yost—have reinforced the criticism by protesting the U.S. Department of Education’s grant review.

But I am not naive enough to believe that the U.S. Department of Education will hold Ohio to a strict ethical standard.  After all, new charter school oversight has, as of this week, finally been signed into law.  The new law is far from exhaustive, but it does eliminate some of the most egregious practices that have prevailed in our state:

  • the practice of sponsor hopping by which a school whose authorizer tried to close it for fraud or academic failure could merely find a new authorizer to keep it open;
  • a practice by which a big Charter Management Organization like David Brennan’s White Hat Management would suggest the names of individuals who would be well-suited to make up the charter school boards of new schools that sought to open under Brennan’s umbrella (It is the job of a non-profit charter school board to hire any private management company, not the job of the management company to recruit the board that is supposed to oversee the contract with the management company.); and
  • the kind of contract that White Hat Management has been selling to its gullible boards that has ensured that if a school closes, White Hat and not the public retains all the assets (desks and computers and etc.) despite that they were purchased with public tax dollars.

The U.S. Department of Education has saved face by appearing to demand some honesty from the Ohio Department of Education.  Ohio will trumpet its new law as a response.  Problems with the application that helped Ohio beat other states in the grant competition will be forgotten.  Ohio will keep its grant.  Charters will be expanded.  Youngstown Schools will be taken over and charterized.

Having lived in Ohio for forty years, I sometimes worry about the cynicism I’ve developed.  I just assume strings will be pulled, influence peddled, and money invested in the campaigns of legislators by those like Ohio’s online charter czars who depend on the legislature to protect their profits. I’m reassured that others are noticing the questionable process that has produced the huge, 2015 federal grant to expand Ohio’s charter schools and take over Youngstown’s schools. In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss shares my disbelief that the U.S. Department of Education makes enormous grants based on merely “an expedited review of the information available at that time”:

“Federal education officials just sent a letter to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross saying that, in fact, it didn’t quite understand the depth of Ohio’s charter problems, and now is putting new restrictions on the grant money….  Who didn’t know that Ohio’s charter schools had become a national joke—literally.  The Plain Dealer ran a story this year that started like this: “Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you. Ohio’s $1 billion charter school program was the butt of jokes at a conference for reporters on school choice in Denver late last week, as well as the target of sharp criticism of charter school failures across the state.’  Wouldn’t you expect someone in the federal government considering giving millions of dollars to Ohio for charter schools to have read the June 2015 coverage in the Akron Beacon Journal which said, ‘No sector—not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals—misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.’… When the Ohio charter award was announced last month, Republicans and Democrats alike shouted their concerns.”

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One thought on “U.S. Dept. of Ed. Acknowledges Flawed Charter School Grant Review Process

  1. I sent an email about 10 days ago to Senators Brown and Portman and to Congressman Jordan, my representative. In the message I urged the legislators to pressure the Dept. of Education to withdraw the grant Ohio had been given. I heard back from only one legislator – Senator Brown – and I appreciate receiving a response from him. I have yet to hear from Senator Portman or Congressman Jordan, and I’m not holding my breath.

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