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.