Ohio Auditor’s Report on Low Attendance at Dropout Recovery Schools Confirms Long Trend

Last October, Ohio State Auditor, Dave Yost sent staffers unannounced to 30 charter schools across the state to see if the headcount of students present matched the number of students the schools had declared were enrolled this year.  Yost announced on January 22, 2015 that, “Out of the 30 schools reviewed, seven were identified as having unusually high variances in students counted by AOS (Auditor of State) staff versus the number of students the schools reported to ODE (Ohio Department of Education).  For example, when AOS staff went into the Academy for Urban Scholars in Youngstown, they found zero students in the school where 95 students were supposed to be enrolled… All seven schools are classified as Dropout Recovery and Prevention schools by ODE and serve predominantly dropout recovery students.” The state reimburses the schools at a per-student rate, based on the number enrolled.

Akron Beacon-Journal reporter Doug Livingston puts the new report from Auditor Dave Yost in context: “According to October enrollment figures self-reported to the Ohio Department of Education, the 30 charter schools were on track to receive $54,592,383 in taxpayer funds to educate 6,985 students.  The auditors, however, counted only 5,524 students.  The more than 1,400 missing students, if they were absent for an entire year, could cost taxpayers $12 million for empty seats…. That $12 million represents 8 percent of the support going to Ohio’s 381 charter schools.  The lowest attendance rates were found at charter schools that enroll students who already have dropped out of a traditional public school and are at least a year behind.  These ‘dropout recovery’ schools had, on average, a 50 percent attendance rate,” when Yost’s staff made their unannounced visit last October.

According to Yost’s January 22 report, one of the problems is that “dropout recovery” schools are permitted in state law to use a strategy called “blended learning,” “the delivery of instruction in a combination of time in a supervised, physical location away from home and online delivery where the student has some element of control over time, place, path or pace of learning.  The combination of on-site and online instruction for community schools, offering blended learning opportunities increases the risk of noncompliance with enrollment documentation requirements.”

Yost’s office explains that the charter schools that offer blended learning opportunities “must carefully document both the physical attendance of students as well as their participation in online learning opportunities as verified by log in records.”  And that is where one is reminded of Ghost Schools, a very similar report by Scripps Howard News Service back in 2008Ghost Schools tracked poor attendance at Ohio’s “dropout recovery” schools, which had at that time been around for a decade.  “The dropout-recovery school movement began in 1998 in Ohio, and in recent years has been averaging about $30 million a year in state payments for absent students.  Taxpayers have paid more than $100 million in the last five years through this system.”

Ghost Schools focuses on David Brennan’s White Hat “dropout recovery” schools as those with the worst record for both attendance and performance.  “The Ohio Department of Education requires schools to take action if absenteeism exceeds 7 percent, although dropout-recovery schools have been exempted from the rule… The Ohio schools with the worst attendance are the 17 Life Skills Centers run by the for-profit company White Hat Management, founded by Akron, Ohio businessman David Brennan.  The company operates 20 more Life Sills Centers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Michigan, many of which also have high levels of absenteeism.”

The Scripps Howard reporters explain, “Under Ohio law, truant students must be dropped from the enrollment lists after missing 105 hours of instruction.  But former employees and students at Life Skills Center schools said habitually truant students were kept on the active enrollment lists.  Former employees said they were routinely sent to students’ houses to obtain written excused absences using a standard form the company developed.  Then the absence became ‘excused’ until another 105 hours were missed.”  A supervisor for the Ohio Department of Education told the reporters, “the auditing methods used to determine how many full-time equivalent students (FTEs) are actually attending a school does not allow for any challenge of the accuracy of excused absence forms, other than to confirm that they exist.”

Back in 2008, the Scripps Howard reporters conducted the same kind of  headcount repeated by Yost last October, and with similar results: “The Ohio Department of Education during the 2007-2008 school year paid White Hat Management $1.5 million to teach 264 students enrolled at the Columbus school.  But a headcount by Scripps Howard News Service found that only 122 teenagers and young adults actually went to class on May 1, a typical school day.  It’s a figure school officials didn’t challenge.  Similar checks at Life Skills Center campuses in Akron and Cleveland also found that less than half of enrolled students actually went to class.”

One suspects that the records described in Yost’s new audit— of time spent in “blended learning” computer study outside of class—are not any better verified than the absence excuse forms Ghost Schools reported were collected and filed back in 2008.

The lax regulation of Ohio’s “dropout recovery” charter schools is widely believed to derive from the political power of White Hat Management owner David Brennan.  According to a recent report from Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Education Association, Brennan and his wife, Ann, have contributed more than $4 million in campaign donations since 1998 to Ohio legislators and other state officials.  One wonders if we will read the same report eight years from now about tax dollars being redirected out of Ohio’s public school education budget into the coffers of the huge charter operators whose profits help them buy weak regulation of Ohio’s charter sector.