Today is the Ohio Primary that will determine whether John Kasich’s presidential campaign has any future at all. If Kasich loses, don’t grieve. If Kasich wins today in Ohio, beware the temptation to be lulled by his comparative calm and by his policy ideas that may seem mild in contrast to those of other candidates.
You do have to give Kasich credit for one thing. He has been honest about his priorities: he is a tax slasher and a charter school supporter. He is also delusional about his accomplishments as Ohio’s governor since 2010. He claims the state has turned around economically. If there has been a turnaround, it hasn’t yet come to Ohio’s Rust Belt cities. He continues to claim he has turned around the Cleveland schools, but that isn’t true either. To his credit, he did, against the wishes of those in his own party, expand Medicaid.
He has also slashed the income tax, eliminated the estate tax, and eliminated a reimbursement the state had created for local governments and school districts when a previous administration summarily eliminated a local tax on inventories and equipment. The Plain Dealer reminded us last Friday that local governments have been busy trying to pass local taxes to make up for enormous losses of state revenue because of Kasich’s “sharp reductions in the state’s Local Government Fund, which was created during the Depression when the sales tax was enacted to share money with the cities and villages.” Under Kasich, according to Friday’s Plain Dealer, state funding in Cleveland this year is down by $21 million, in Columbus by $27 million, and in Cincinnati by $28 million, and the big cities are not the only losers. The inner ring suburb where I live is down over $2 million this year. School districts across the state are struggling to pass levies at the same time they are increasing class size and charging students large fees to play sports.
In a stunning piece published yesterday by Politico, Kimberly Hefling summarizes Kasich’s troubling record of flawed oversight of Ohio’s charter school sector, despite that Kasich has made charter school regulation “a priority.” She quotes Kasich in 2014 claiming: “We are going to fix the lack of regulation on charter schools. There is no excuse for people coming in here and taking advantage of anything.” That was the claim. And to give the governor credit, Kasich signed a law at the end of 2015 that, Hefling explains, “improves the state’s ability to revoke the rights of the poorly rated charter school sponsors and makes it more difficult for schools to switch sponsors.” (It has been a practice in Ohio that if an authorizer tries to shut down a charter school for academic or financial reasons, the school could merely “hop” to a new sponsor.)
Here, however, are some realities described by Hefling, that demonstrate the seriousness of Ohio’s problem with charter schools and that undermine Kasich’s claim that he has led the way to better regulation: “Ohio ranks among the top five states in the number of charter schools. It has more than 370 charters that enroll 132,000 students… but the sector has been plagued with problems including mid-year school closures, allegations of financial improprieties and charter schools ‘sponsor shopping’ to avoid scrutiny. Ohio has more than 60 charter school sponsors, or authorizers, that open and oversee the schools… A 2014 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes paid for by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found students in the state’s charter schools perform worse on average in reading and math than their peers in traditional public schools.
And then there are the notorious online charters. “A big player among Ohio online charters is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which enrolled 14,000 students last year and was founded by longtime GOP booster William Lager. Another longtime Ohio charter school backer is David Brennan, founder of White Hat Management, who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Kasich over the years. Innovation Ohio has estimated that since charter schools first opened in Ohio in the late ’90s, $1.8 billion of the $7.3 billion the state has spent on the sector has gone to schools run by Lager and Brennan—or $1 out of every $4 spent. Then, there’s the 11,000-student Ohio Virtual Academy, run by K12 Inc., that donated $100,000 in 2014 to the Republican Governors Association.”
Finally, Hefling reports, there was the scandal that began last summer when David Hansen, then head of the charter schools office at the Ohio Department of Education, submitted a federal charter school expansion grant application that painted a rosy picture of the performance of Ohio’s charter schools and mysteriously omitted the horrible ratings of Ohio’s online charter schools. This whole mess is very much connected to Kasich, because Hansen’s wife was then the governor’s chief of staff and is now the head of Kasich’s presidential campaign. When the U.S. Department of Education responded by awarding what is a $71 million grant to expand charters—and to take over and charterize the Youngstown City Schools—a firestorm broke out. David Hansen was fired for his flawed rating system, and the federal government has demanded documentation that charter school regulation is being improved. As Hefling reports, “(T)he state took the embarrassing step in January of updating its application figures to say that instead of having nine charters schools that are poor performing, 57 are in that condition.” But even in the updated federal application, Ohio’s amended figures rate only brick and mortar schools and omit the politically connected virtual academies.
Meanwhile, at the same time Kasich has been out on the national campaign trail running for President, Ohio’s Republican legislature has been actively working to water down the modest oversight of charter schools that Kasich recently signed into law. Ohio’s major newspapers have relentlessly pushed for more state monitoring of the state’s notorious online academies, and the Ohio Department of Education has begun checking whether the schools are accurately reporting their enrollment to ensure that the $6,000-per-student the state gives the schools correlates with students actually studying online rather than those who signed up but may not be logging on for the hours they have promised to “attend school.” Attendance records of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow were to have been reviewed in February, but the school has rescheduled the review. Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky report for the Columbus Dispatch that in addition to delaying the Education Department’s review, “School officials from ECOT reportedly crafted a softened attendance-tracking amendment—floated recently in the Ohio House—which would require online schools only to offer the statewide minimum 920 hours of instruction per school year but not require students to actually participate in these hours.” William Lager—who reaps all of ECOT’s profits—and his lobbyists are angling to get ECOT’s attendance review delayed until they can get the legislature to change the law so that ECOT can continue collecting $6,000-per-student for all 18,000 (The Dispatch‘s number of 18,000 students differs from Hefling’s number of 14,000 students.) young people it says are enrolled.
Hefling summarizes her concerns about Kasich and the charter schools he loves: “Ohio Gov. John Kasich is an avid proponent of school choice, but his home state’s notoriously problematic charter school sector is often held up as an example of what can go wrong.”