Father of Ohio School Privatization, David Brennan, Dies

David Brennan, the Akron industrialist and businessman who died last Sunday, was the father of Ohio school privatization.

The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter Patrick O’Donnell reports: “David Brennan, the Akron industrialist who helped create tuition vouchers and charter schools in Ohio but whose low-performing White Hat charter schools became a lightning rod for critics, has died at 87.  Throughout more than 23 years of leading voucher and charter school efforts in Ohio, Brennan played a major role in shaping school choice.  Admirers said he opened doors to educational opportunity by removing legal barriers to how public-school dollars could be spent. Critics saw him as a profiteer who used political donations to limit quality controls on charters…. The White Hat schools managed by his company were some of the lowest scoring in the state.”

O’Donnell explains concisely just how Brennan abandoned the idea of vouchers when he realized charter schools would be a far more lucrative investment: “Brennan was central to Ohio starting its first private school tuition vouchers—the Cleveland Scholarship voucher program in 1995—after chairing a commission on school choice created by George Voinovich, the former governor and former Cleveland mayor.  Brennan created private schools in Cleveland to use the vouchers. Two years later, he converted them to charter schools after the state offered more money to charters, partially at his urging.  White Hat expanded rapidly, and was soon Ohio’s largest charter chain.  It eventually included Hope Academy charters, Life Skills dropout recovery schools, and the OHDELA online school.”

In early August 2018, the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston traced the history of David Brennan’s profit-making venture into the privatization of public education: “Brennan made millions buying and selling manufacturing companies in Akron.  In the 1990s, he promised to unleash the private market on what he demonized as failing government schools. His tactics included $1 million in political contributions to elected GOP officials… Then Gov. George Voinovich put Brennan in charge of crafting Ohio’s private voucher program, which would eventually bring Brennan’s private schools more state funding per pupil than was flowing to 85 percent of Ohio’s traditional public schools.”

Later, writes Livingston, Brennan realized that operating charter schools would be far more profitable—under what had become, through the lobbying maneuvers of Brennan and his friends, extremely lax oversight laws: “The Akron Beacon Journal reported that flipping the switch from private to charter school on just one White Hat operation in Akron would generate $285,000 more a year for a mere 75 students. The school, reconstituted to get around a state law that banned converting private schools to charter schools,… was called Hope University Campus.  It would be the first of dozens of K-8 schools bearing the Hope Academy moniker. Brennan’s charter schools, ranking among the lowest performers in the state, were plagued from the start with allegations of padded enrollment and skirting accountability. Amid the bad publicity, White Hat lobbyists pushed for exemptions… In 2010, fed up with not knowing how White Hat was spending 97 percent of the tax dollars sent to each academically failing school, 10 (of Brennan’s White Hat) school boards sued the operator.  White Hat fought them to keep ownership of all the desks, computers, and assets bought over the years with public money.”

That lawsuit, which was eventually decided by the Ohio Supreme Court in White Hat’s favor by allowing the management company to keep all equipment, helped drive the Ohio Legislature to improve charter school oversight.  White Hat contracted with the boards of its charter schools to provide operations under what are known as sweeps contracts, by which the school turns over more than 90 percent of the state’s per pupil charter school dollars to the management company and permits the company to run the school without much input by the charter school board. There were a number of complications in White Hat’s case. For example, conflicts of interest arose when members of the charter school boards that are supposed to oversee the management company contracts also turned out to be associated with White Hat or to have been recruited by White Hat. The questionable operations of White Hat and the 2010 lawsuit about who gets to keep the equipment when charter schools close or switch management companies finally stimulated modestly improved charter school oversight by the Ohio Legislature.

One might wish that with the exit of David Brennan ‘s White Hat empire, the state would step in to reduce the influence of the for-profit charter school sector in Ohio. But sales this year of Brennan’s Ohio charter schools have expanded Ron Packard’s education management organization—the for-profit Accel Schools. Ron Packard has a long history.  Packard founded and, until 2014, served as CEO of K12 Inc., the nation’s giant operator of for-profit, online charter schools.

In July 2018, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported: “The once-mighty White Hat charter school empire continues being dismantled, with its longtime e-school—the Ohio Distance Learning Academy (OHDELA)—being turned over to the fast-growing Accel charter school network. The move puts Accel founder Ron Packard, the founder and former CEO of the giant national e-school company K12 Inc., back in the online education business after four years away… As White Hat’s presence shrinks, Packard’s is growing incredibly quickly. After resigning as K12 CEO in early 2014, Packard has been taking over operations of charter schools across Ohio, usually by negotiating to assume management of financially-struggling schools. He snagged several strong schools from the Mosaica network first, then more than a dozen low-performing White Hat schools. When Cleveland’s I Can charter network had financial trouble in early 2017, he took over those schools. And earlier this year, he added several more previously run by Cambridge Education Group, a company with White Hat ties.  Even before the OHDELA transfer, Packard and Accel were running 37 charter schools across Ohio with about 10,700 students…. OHDELA adds another 1,100 students. Accel is also starting new schools this fall in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Lorain. That combined enrollment makes Accel bigger than all but 13 school districts in Ohio.”

Ohio’s for-profit charter school sector has outlived its founder, David Brennan.

In Ohio, Political Contributions Yield Budget Gift for White Hat’s David Brennan

Here’s what happened in Ohio’s mid-biennium budget review bill, signed into law on Monday by Governor John Kasich.  The governor and the legislature rewarded David Brennan, who runs the White Hat Life Skills Academy “dropout recovery” schools.  According to Brent Larkin in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, David Brennan “has poured more than $4 million into the coffers of Republican candidates in Ohio during the past decade.”

Recently this blog covered the scandal of Ohio’s so-called “dropout-recovery” charter schools, a scandal that has been exposed by Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal.  These schools offer students who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out the opportunity to sit in a cubicle with a computer for four hours each day to recover enough credits to graduate from high school.  The state pays the dropout-recovery schools for all the students who are supposedly enrolled, but the dropout rate at these schools is higher than at any other secondary schools in the state, and the state keeps on paying for several weeks after the students stop attending.  Livingston has demonstrated that these schools are, in fact, driving up Ohio’s high school dropout rate.

Livingston writes, “Absenteeism tops the reasons why students drop out; charter schools continue to collect tax dollars for more than a month while they are gone.” “Administrators call it churning’ or ‘school hopping’—when student drop out, disappear for months and then return.”  “The state requires that students who are absent or truant for more than 23 days be taken off school rolls, but during that 23 days, the state reimburses the school. Livingston explains: “There were more than 11,000 removals for truancy last year, meaning taxpayers paid for perhaps 253,000 days of no student instruction, or the equivalent of 1,400 empty desks for an entire school year.”

So, what happened in the new mid-biennium budget review bill signed by the governor this week?  The state, according to the Plain Dealer‘s Larkin, has already been wasting money paying for students up to age 22 to attend “dropout recovery” charters that themselves account for 66 percent of Ohio’s high school dropouts.  The new bill allows such students to continue at White Hat Life Skills Academies and the state’s other designated “dropout recovery schools,” at state expense, until they are nearly 30 years old.  While this may sound like a good way to give young adults a second chance, it is far from the ideal plan.  Governor Kasich himself had already proposed a better state program that would, at state expense, enable community colleges and career-technical schools more suited for adults to begin serving Ohio’s adult high school dropouts who have already earned at least ten credits toward high school graduation.

Here is how the Plain Dealer‘s Larkin describes the story of what happened as the legislation was crafted: “The House approved paying White Hat and other schools $5,000 per student to attend schools that have ‘already failed’ those students.  Recognizing this as a total scam, the Ohio Senate removed that language from the bill.  Unfortunately, when legislators met to reconcile the differences, the House version resurfaced.”  On Monday, when Governor Kasich failed to use the line-item veto he is permitted in a budget bill, he preserved the House’s reward for David Brennan.

In a short editorial update, the Akron Beacon Journal comments: “The Republican majority in the House, led by Speaker William Batchelder, pushed for the provision, the item resurfacing in the conference committee.  What explains its presence, if not the merits?  The speaker invites the impression of his team doing the bidding of David Brennan, an influential donor to Republicans whose White Hat Management includes in its portfolio the operation of dropout recovery programs.  So a set of charter schools with a lousy record of achievement now has an additional avenue to public money.”

Ohio’s “Dropout Recovery” Charters Increase State’s Dropout Rate, Swallow Tax Dollars

Doug Livingston, the education writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio’s top education journalist, recently reported on the financial scam at Ohio’s so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools. These are the on-line charters that say they are serving Ohio’s most vulnerable adolescents while in reality they are, according to Livingston, making enormous profits while driving up Ohio’s dropout rate at the same time other states are significantly increasing the rate of high school completion.

It is, of course, true that these schools cater to students in danger of dropping out, but because of the way the state reimburses such schools, there is massive profit to be made. In  the first of his new series of articles Livingston explains that two-thirds of Ohio’s dropouts are from charter schools, the vast majority on-line academies that require students to sit in a cubicle with a computer for four hours a day.

In a table that accompanies his recent investigation, Livingston lists a dozen dropout-recovery charter schools with a graduation rate below 4 percent, two of them posting a 4-year graduation rate of zero percent. Seven of these schools are part of the Life Skills Academy network owned by politically connected David Brennan as part of his White Hat chain.  In a second piece, Livingston reports: “For 15 years, White Hat and its programs for high school dropouts have cornered an education market saturated with struggling students who often bounce from school to school. White Hat’s model—what founder and owner David Brennan held up as the alternative to government schools’ failing ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach—has spread to every major city in Ohio.”

“Absenteeism tops the reasons why students drop out; charter schools continue to collect tax dollars for more than a month while they are gone.” “Administrators call it churning’ or ‘school hopping’—when student drop out, disappear for months and then return.” “The state counts a dropout as an event, not as a person. If one student drops out three times in one year, that is three dropouts. It happens, a lot.” The state requires that students who are absent or truant for more than 23 days be taken off school rolls, but during that 23 days, the state reimburses the school. Livingston explains: “There were more than 11,000 removals for truancy last year, meaning taxpayers paid for perhaps 253,000 days of no student instruction, or the equivalent of 1,400 empty desks for an entire school year.”

Besides Brennan’s White Hat charter chain, there are two other primary players in Ohio’s cyber charter sector: The Ohio Virtual Academy, a K12 affiliate, and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) operated by William Lager, who has made a profit of over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services to ECOT. The Ohio Virtual Academy and ECOT do not market themselves exclusively as dropout recovery schools.

Livingston reports: “In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 5,300 dropouts—a quarter of all Ohio dropouts that year—attended one of two online charter schools: the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or Ohio Virtual Academy. Collectively, these two charter schools have a dropout rate 45 times higher than traditional public schools, and 10 times higher than the state’s eight largest city school districts. Another 6,829 students—about a third of all Ohio dropouts—attended charter schools designed specifically for dropouts…. Last year, these dropout charter schools enrolled one percent of Ohio’s public school students but accounted for roughly the same number of dropout events as did public district schools, which enrolled 91 percent of Ohio’s students.”