The Ohio state government’s long history of deception in the evaluation of charter schools drags on. We are a super-majority Republican state without normal checks and balances. The legislature, Governor John Kasich, and the state board of education are all in the pocket of the charter lobbies. There isn’t accountability. There isn’t even any transparency about which numbers are being used to evaluate charter schools or the ways those numbers are applied and misapplied when some kind of report is demanded.
In response to a request from the U.S. Department of Education, at the end of January, the Ohio Department of Education sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to explain how Ohio regulates its charter schools. You may remember that in the fall, the U.S. Department of Education delayed giving Ohio the huge $71 million grant that the U.S. Department of Education had already awarded to Ohio in the summer for the purpose of expanding charter schools and taking over and charterizing the school district of Youngstown.
The U.S. Department of Education was shamed into demanding more documentation from Ohio when all of the state’s major newspapers covered and editorialized again and again about David Hansen’s charter rating system that “accidentally” left out the notorious on-line charter sector that includes the politically powerful Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the Ohio Virtual Academy (a K12, Inc. operation), and some of David Brennan’s White Hat Management dropout recovery schools. The press had exposed that David Hansen (husband of Beth Hansen—then Governor Kasich’s chief of staff and now chair of Kasich’s presidential campaign) was the person who had written the federal grant proposal that won the award of $71 million. He submitted the grant proposal only days before he was, under great pressure from the press, fired for his “flawed” charter rating system. After all this, the U.S. Department of Education capitulated to pressure from the press in Ohio and demanded that, before Ohio could get the $71 million grant, it must update its federal application to show that Ohio is capable of accurately and fairly evaluating its charter schools and that Ohio has the capacity to administer the federal grant.
Yesterday the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a huge editorial that charged: “At this point, it’s nearly impossible to trust anything the Ohio Department of Education has to say about charter school performance, the subject of so much chicanery last year that in November the federal government froze a giant $71 million charter school expansion grant to Ohio. And it just gets worse.” The editorial board continues: “A Jan. 29 letter from ODE to federal regulators sent in an attempt to win back the grant reveals that Ohio has nearly 10 times as many failing charter schools as it first reported to the U.S. Department of Education in its 2015 charter school expansion grant application… The application is supposed to give the feds an honest evaluation of the state’s best-and worst-performing charter schools. But that has become murky, thanks to ODE’s changing definitions. The obfuscation—which is not how ODE sees it, by the way—raises even more doubts about the wisdom of the federal government giving Ohio those funds, and about the credibility of ODE, which seems more interested in the best interests of the charter school industry than in those of Ohio students.”
While the state had identified six low performing charter schools in its application last summer, the letter sent at the end of January identifies 57 charter schools in trouble. And while last summer the state had claimed 93 charter schools as “high-performing,” the new letter puts only 59 of the state’s charter schools in that top category.
Dick Ross, who was Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time the Ohio Department of Education applied for the federal grant, resigned at the end of December. Lonny Rivera is now Ohio’s Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction. Perhaps Rivera is more honest. The Associated Press highlights the magnitude of the disparity in reporting: “Superintendent Lonny Rivera’s figures in a Jan. 29 letter reflect that Ohio has 10 times as many failing charter schools and only about half as many high-performing ones as previously stated.” And Catherine Candisky, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, explains that the new letter doesn’t even include the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and Ohio Virtual Academy: “The performance statistics for the 2013-2014 school year are for 290 ‘site based’ schools and do not include online charters, which generally have been among the poorest performers.”
Candisky reports that Superintendent Rivera explains the discrepancy by claiming that last summer Ohio adopted the “federal definition” of a failed charter school, but now Ohio is adhering to its own “more rigorous” definition: “The 93 ‘high quality’ and six ‘poor performing’ charter schools identified in the state’s grant application were based on ‘the federal definition,’ Rivera wrote. The revised numbers showing fewer high performing schools and more failing ones, he said, are based on new and tougher state definitions.”
Tom Gunlock, president of the state board of education, commented that it is a good thing if Ohio is now using a “tougher definition of charter-school performance.” The Dispatch‘s Candisky would certainly agree, because, as she explains, in October the Dispatch had reported, “that the (Ohio) Department of Education’s claims about the performance of Ohio’s $1 billion charter-school system were inflated. In the state’s July 18 grant application, education officials claimed that in the 2012-2013 school year, Ohio had no ‘poor performing’ charters, even though about a third of the schools didn’t meet a single standard on their state report cards that year and 60 percent of them got D or F grades on the ‘performance index,’ a measure of how students perform on state tests.”
Apparently Ohio’s receipt of the $71 million charter school expansion grant remains in question. Candisky reports that the January 29 letter of explanation submitted by Interim Superintendent Rivera, “was the state’s third response to questions from federal regulators since the review was opened in November.”
The bigger question—for those of us who pay taxes in Ohio and who also watch a significant portion of our locally voted school district millage diverted to charter schools when students enter the school choice marketplace—is why nobody has taken any steps to close the charter schools that are failing to serve their students, and the charter schools that are mismanaged, and the charter schools where conflicts of interest and even fraud have been demonstrated.