Fine Press Reporting Leads to Long Overdue Regulation of Ohio Charter Schools

Yesterday afternoon, a House-Senate conference committee of Ohio’s legislature met to work out a compromise to regulate Ohio’s notorious charter school sector.  In Ohio, Republicans dominate both houses of the legislature, occupy the governor’s mansion, and even dominate the elected state supreme court.  Despite a year of negotiations and a long delay, the members of the conference committee voted unanimously to support a bill that will be submitted today for approval by both houses of Ohio’s legislature.

Everyone had worried that several months’ of lobbying by Ohio’s charter czars would weaken the bill. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s  Patrick O’Donnell reported late yesterday, however, that the bill does not appear to have been weakened by the House-Senate conference committee: “Still intact, with only minor adjustments, are changes designed to distance the often-cozy relationships between for profit charter school operating companies and the school boards that govern the schools.”  The big charter management companies that have had “sweeps” contracts that forward over 90 percent of the schools’ operating budgets to the management company without reporting about how the money is used will now be required “to provide more information to the public about how they spend tax dollars they are paid to run the schools.”  And there is a new “White Hat” rule designed to correct the situation that arose last month when “an Ohio Supreme Court ruling… allowed prominent for-profit charter operator White Hat Management to keep desks and computers it bought for schools using tax dollars, even after the schools closed.  The court let White Hat keep the property because its contract with the school allowed it.  The new provision blocks any such agreement and requires that leftover assets from closed schools, after bills are paid, go to the Ohio Department of Education to distribute to school districts.”

The conference committee was under enormous pressure yesterday not to cave in to the online charter czars who are described by Ohio’s Plunderbund: “For a long time, it hasn’t been a secret that the entire charter system is well protected by the state’s two top managers, David Brennan’s White Hat Management and Bill Lager’s Altair Learning based in Columbus.”  Altair is the firm, privately-held by Lager, that provides the curriculum for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest and one of its worst charter schools.  Plunderbund continues: “Together, they have been enriched with $1 billion in taxpayer money.  That arrives via their control over their ‘investments’ in Republican politicians who form the pro-charter chorus in the legislature without much prodding.”

Besides the well publicized Ohio Supreme Court ruling that permitted White Hat to keep assets purchased with tax dollars, four additional events converged—along with massive press coverage—to pressure the House-Senate conference committee not to cave in to what is known to be ongoing political pressure from Brennan, Lager, and their army of lobbyists.

First: Here is how the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports on his own discovery earlier this summer that the state’s Department of Education omitted disastrous academic ratings for the big e-schools and “dropout recovery” schools from a statewide evaluation of charter school authorizers: “Former school choice chief David Hansen resigned in July after The Plain Dealer reported in June that he had excluded the F grades of online schools from the academic evaluations of their sponsors.”

Second: The legislature, which had been debating for months new rules to regulate the charter school sector, failed to vote out a bill at the end of last spring’s legislative session.  The Senate had agreed on a bill, but the House leadership chose not to bring it to the House floor for concurrence.  The process of regulating charters was left to linger until fall—several months for the lobbyists representing the charter sector to work their magic. (Remember that when former House Speaker Bill Batchelder was term-limited out of office at the end of 2014, he opened a Columbus lobbying firm and took on a very prominent client: Bill Lager of ECOT and Altair Learning.)

Third, on the final Wednesday of the spring legislative session, Senator Peggy Lehner introduced an amendment to a popular bill designed to expand full-service, wrap-around Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (Such schools locate medical, dental and mental health clinics right at school, along with social services to support families and after school and summer enrichment programs.)  Lehner’s amendment had nothing to do with the bill being considered; her amendment was for the state takeover of the Youngstown City Schools.  The amended bill was immediately voted out of committee, subsequently affirmed by both Senate and House, and sent to the governor all within hours. There was no scheduled debate, and opponents of the plan were not permitted to testify.

Fourth, last week the U.S. Department of Education awarded grants to seven states in addition to the District of Columbia to expand charter schools. Ohio won the largest of those grants, $71 million, specifically, it turns out, to pay for expanding charters as part of the Youngstown takeover. Doug Livingston, the Akron Beacon Journal’s crack investigative reporter, continues to explore who was involved in secret negotiations to arrange for the Youngstown takeover and who wrote the federal grant proposal to fund the takeover and transformation of Youngstown’s public schools into charters. Livingston reports that David Hansen, the guy who was fired in July for withholding the grades of Ohio’s failing online charters from the state’s rating of charter school sponsors, apparently wrote the federal grant proposal, while his wife, Beth Hansen—then Governor John Kasich’s chief of staff, but who has since resigned to head up Kasich’s presidential campaign—apparently helped negotiate the Youngstown takeover during a period of several months: “Documents released by Tom Humphries, the president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, show Beth Hansen met privately in October 2014 with Kasich, State Superintendent Richard Ross and a group of Mahoning Valley leaders to develop the takeover plan, which allows a private board appointed by Ross to dissolve the local school board and replace the system with charter schools… Personnel at the federal level say the state’s proposal spelled out a plan to use grant money to support charter schools in Youngstown, the only ‘recovery district’ identified in the state takeover plan. ‘Ohio’s application states it will reserve funds specifically for the creation of high-quality charter schools in ‘recovery districts’ designed by the state,’ explained Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department.'”

While neither the state nor the U.S. Department of Education has been willing to release the federal grant application that won the $71 million to expand charter schools in Youngstown, Catherine Candisky, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, has seen drafts of David Hansen’s application, drafts in which he bragged about the evaluation scheme for charters—the scheme that omitted the ratings of on-line and dropout recovery schools—and the same scheme for which he was eventually fired.  He also bragged about charter school regulation as though it had already passed in the legislature: “In draft applications, he touted the faulty evaluations and new legislation designed to increase charter-school accountability and performance even though that bill had stalled in the state legislature.”

Five interwoven concerns about charter schools, if you count the Supreme Court’s decision to award school assets to White Hat Management instead of returning them to the public, have threatened to discredit prominent Ohio politicians including Governor John Kasich, who is running for President. Thanks to discerning and persistent reporting by Ohio’s major newspapers, there was intense pressure on the House-Senate conference committee. No wonder the members of the conference committee agreed to send to the full legislature today a bill designed to provide some oversight of Ohio’s charter schools.