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.

Ohio Regulator Favors Politically Connected Charter School Sponsors, Resigns When Exposed

Things unraveled pretty quickly last week for David Hansen, the director of school choice at the Ohio Department of Education.  On Tuesday, the State Board of Education, dominated by appointees of Republican Governor John Kasich, met and discussed why, as Ohio began to evaluate the sponsor-authorizers of Ohio’s charter schools, the test scores of students at on-line charters were quietly omitted—a violation of state law as Republican chair of the state senate’s education committee, Peggy Lehner, and Republican state auditor, Dave Yost, have both confirmed.  When underlings of Hansen could not adequately answer the questions of Senator Peggy Lehner, who had come to the meeting of the State Board to ask questions, she demanded their boss come downstairs to the meeting room to address her concerns.

On Saturday, David Hansen resigned from his post overseeing charter schools for the Ohio Department of Education.

This is all a huge embarrassment for Governor John Kasich.  David Hansen’s wife, Beth, has been Kasich’s chief of staff for some time, but she recently resigned that position to chair his campaign staff, as he plans to announce soon as a Republican candidate for President.

Before he came to the Ohio Department of Education in 2013, David Hansen led the extremely conservative Buckeye Policy Institute, which is part of the far-right State Policy Network.  (You can learn about the State Policy Network that coordinates the work of far-right think tanks across the states here.)

The Plain Dealer noted in its editorial yesterday: “A 2012 state law on evaluating charter schools clearly mandated ODE (Ohio Department of Education) to include the grades of all online charter schools when grading their sponsors—agencies with oversight over the charter schools.  Lawmakers hoped the pressure on sponsors would force them to provide better oversight of their schools… However, Plain Dealer education reporter Patrick O’Donnell recently revealed that ODE quietly ignored that law, a revelation that shocked the state Board of Education among others.”  Because Hansen excluded the performance of online schools from his rating of sponsors, one sponsor, “the Ohio Council of Community Schools… earned the highest grade—exemplary—even though its online schools including OHDELA, which is run by the politically connected White Hat Management, earned the lowest–Fs.”

In his story yesterday, O’Donnell reported: “The evaluations of charter school sponsors, also called authorizers—the agencies that help create and oversee charter schools—are the cornerstone of Gov. John Kasich and the state’s roundabout plan to improve Ohio’s charter schools… The key beneficiary of the exclusion—so far—was the Ohio Council of Community Schools, a non-profit agency which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from the more than 14,000 students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by White Hat Management.”  David Brennan, owner of White Hat Management, and William Lager, the founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the private company that provides services for ECOT, Altair Management, are known to be among the state’s largest contributors to the campaigns of Ohio’s Republican elected officials.  It is well known that Ohio Virtual Academy (Ohio’s K12 affiliate), OHDELA, and ECOT have among the state’s highest dropout rates and notoriously low student achievement.

Last Friday, in follow up reporting to the story that had broken earlier in the week, O’Donnell noted that when asked about whether he would count ECOT’s persistently low scores in an upcoming evaluation of ECOT’s sponsor, “State Superintendent Richard Ross is refusing to say whether he will count the F grades for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school and one run by a major Republican contributor, in a key charter school evaluation coming soon… (T)hough an evaluation involving ECOT is imminent, he declined to answer direct questions from The Plain Dealer about how ODE will handle failing state report card grades for the online school that receives close to $100 million in state tax dollars for its 14,600 students.”

On Friday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio’s state auditor, Dave Yost, “is examining how the Ohio Department of Education excluded poor student-performanc data from online charter schools when it rated the schools’ sponsors last spring.” “‘You don’t get to pick and choose the laws you obey,’e Yost said.  After meeting with his staff on Thursday morning, Yost said he already had ‘folks that are out there talking’ to Education Department officials about what happened.  They are ‘collecting information,’ not conducting an official investigation, Yost said.”

State Senator Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat, has demanded the resignation of Richard Ross, Ohio’s state superintendent.  The Plain Dealer’s editors do not spare Ross in yesterday’s editorial: “(I)f Richard Ross, state superintendent of schools, hopes to regain his credibility and make true inroads in reforming Ohio’s broken charter school system, he must explain why he allowed this to happen.  An Ohio law requires state evaluations of all online schools and requires those evaluations to be part of overall sponsor evaluations—that means honest evaluations, not cooked grades… Ross must correct course immediately.”

What few have said directly is that the mess is also an enormous embarrassment to Governor John Kasich.  Hansen’s quick resignation is clearly part of an attempt to contain the damage.