Knowyourcharter.com, a collaboration of Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Education Association, released a scathing report last week about the waste of millions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants for Ohio charter schools that soon closed, or worse, never opened in the first place.
Belly Up: A Review of Federal Charter School Program Grants explains that in Ohio, “At least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP (Charter School Program) funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million.” “Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned.” Charter School Program grants are to support the development of new charter schools, and Ohio has been a big recipient over the years, receiving CSP grants of $99.6 million since the 2006-2007 school year.
According to the new report, federal demands for oversight of Charter School Program grants has been minimal: “Since the grant program started in 1995, the U.S. Department of Education apparently has conducted exactly one examination of Ohio’s grant awards—and that review was contracted out seven years ago to a private education consulting firm called WestEd, which has written many pro-charter school reports. Not surprisingly though, this 2009 assessment found some serious problems in Ohio. ‘The State needs to strengthen its subgrant application and verification process to ensure compliance with Section 501(c)3 eligibility requirements….’ WestEd was particularly concerned about the for-profit operators acting as the de facto school, even choosing the members of its charter schools’ boards.” Last week’s Belly Up report adds, however, that in the years since WestEd’s report, “several new charter school laws (most significantly House Bill 2 which passed last year) have remedied some of these concerns. However, Ohio’s history of not allowing the state’s oversight agency—the Ohio Department of Education—to exercise any real, meaningful oversight of the state’s charter sector greatly concerned the private company hired to monitor the state’s federal grant program.”
Last summer, prior to the passage of House Bill 2, which provides for only the most minimal oversight of charter schools in Ohio, the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter School Program granted Ohio $71 million, its largest 2015 CSP grant to any state. After it was exposed that David Hansen (husband of John Kasich’s presidential campaign chair Beth Hansen) had not only provided misleading information in the federal grant application but also created a charter school evaluation scheme that mysteriously omitted any kind of records of Ohio’s notorious online charter schools, Hansen was fired. Publicity about Hansen’s dubious work forced the U.S. Department of Education put the $71 million grant on hold. Last week’s report includes a timeline with dates of the filing of the application, the firing of David Hansen, the freezing of the grant by the U.S. Department of Education pending Ohio’s production of additional information, the U.S. Department of Education’s demanding more information from Ohio, and the Ohio Department of Education’s attempting to answer questions in December, January and twice in February. Ohio has not yet received the grant.
Earlier last week, Ohio’s Republican state auditor, Dave Yost, held a news conference to announce the results of surprise visits his staff made to Ohio charter schools on November 9. The purpose of visits by the auditor’s office was to spot-check attendance, as charter schools are reimbursed by the state on a per-student basis and inflation of attendance records has been a long-running problem. At his press conference, Yost highlighted a severe attendance inflation problem at what Ohio calls its drop-out recovery schools—schools designed for students who want to earn a high school diploma after already having dropped out. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky reports, “Auditors found attendance ranged from 0 to 50 percent of students at the 14 drop-out recovery schools visited, for an average of 34 percent… Yost also told reporters that the Ohio Department of Education, responsible for overseeing charter schools, was ‘among the worst, if not the worst-run state agency in state government…. It takes weeks or months to get data.'”
Candisky continues: “Three of the schools were referred to the Department of Education for review because of ‘high variances in students counted by Auditor of State staff versus the number of students those schools reported to the Ohio Department of Education.’ The Urbana Community School, a drop-out recovery school sponsored by the Urbana School District, reported 38 students to state officials but auditors found none. London Academy, a drop-out recovery school overseen by London Schools, reported 123 students but auditors found 10. Yost said the academy appears to be a correspondence school which is illegal in Ohio. Utica Shale Academy was the third school Yost referred for review.
Yost commented: “What continues to be concerning is there are too many empty chairs that taxpayers are paying to be occupied, particularly at our high-risk drop-out recovery and and prevention schools.” He added that, in his opinion, the state reimbursement ought to be calibrated according to a very different measure: “I think we have to look at them by the number of lives redeemed.”
In a recent reflection for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant examines the problem from state to state of legislative politics dominating the entire conversation about charter schools: “Regardless of how you feel about charter schools, because of the way they’ve been forged in the crucible of politics, they’ve become much more political beings than they are institutions of education. Simple mandates to expand these schools, without any attention to these political consequences, will make matters worse.” In Ohio, because of power and money, it seems there is no way to get charters under control, and the federal government which has been actively promoting charters as an experiment has created a cash flow but never any empirical analysis of the results.
This blog has covered Ohio’s failure to regulate charter schools here.