School Privatization in Ohio Has Been a Disaster. Now Betsy DeVos Wants to Expand It Across the Heartland.


In late September, the U.S. Department of Education announced $253 million in grants for charter schools around the country. The money for these publicly funded, but privately run, schools will go to nine states, seventeen nonprofit charter management organizations, and eight development agencies that will help charter schools access credit to buy or renovate facilities.

Since its inception under Bill Clinton’s administration, the federal Charter Schools Program [CSP] has worked to grow the number of charter schools, which increased from 3,400 in 2004 to 6,750 in 2014. That represents some 7 percent of all publicly funded schools, serving 2.7 million students. Traditional public schools—over 90,000 of them nationwide—continue to serve 50 million students.

Among the 2017 state grant awardees are Wisconsin and Indiana—two Midwestern, mostly red, Rust Belt states that have both embraced school privatization, albeit via different avenues. They share these characteristics with another state, Ohio, a previous awardee of federal Charter Schools Program money, and one that provides a cautionary tale.

The Buckeye State enthusiastically embraced privatization beginning in 1995, through a program of publicly-funded school vouchers given to families who could redeem them at any private school. Later, Ohio saw a rapid expansion of charter schools, and received a grant of $71 million in 2015—the largest grant awarded by the federal charter school funding program that year.

But soon after being awarded the grant, the Ohio Department of Education forced its school choice director and the author of the CSP grant application, David Hansen, to resign. Investigations revealed Hansen had intentionally left the “F” grades for online charter schools out of evaluations of their sponsoring agencies. Hansen had also lied in the application, claiming Ohio had improved its oversight of charter schools, when in fact the state legislature didn’t pass its (relatively weak) law to improve regulation until months later.

In response, the U.S. Department of Education placed Ohio’s $71 million grant on hold, while the state made efforts to clarify errors in the grant application. In June of 2016, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown demanded that some of the federal grant money be spent on external oversight, the lack of which “disadvantages students and wastes taxpayers’ money.” A full year after the CSP’s original award to Ohio, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement that the grant was “high risk,” and required that the state take extra steps to document ongoing compliance with federal regulations—but then gave Ohio the $71 million anyway.

Coincidentally, a report on Ohio charter schools that had received federal grants revealed:

“At least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million. Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned… A recent state audit of 44 Ohio charter schools found 15 percent attendance discrepancy. Of these 44 charters, 17 had received CSP grants totaling $6.6 million in federal funding and one of these schools—the London Academy—had only 10 of the 270 students in attendance.”

Reading across the proposal abstracts of the 2017 Charter School Program awardees, it’s clear that the program continues to aim—in a very general way—to expand the number of charter schools, along with improving their performance.

Wisconsin is this year’s second biggest winner with a grant of $37,954,114. The state has a long history in school privatization, launching the nation’s first voucher program in 1990 in Milwaukee. In 2011, with governor Scott Walker’s blessing, vouchers were expanded to Racine and then statewide in 2013. Now, with 2017 federal money for charter schools, the state plans to focus on “implementing a state-wide strategy that strengthens charter school authorizing, supports the development of high-quality charter schools and the replication and expansion of successful high-quality charter schools….”

Indiana’s grant proposal for charter school funding describes the state as “on the forefront of the school-choice movement with a charter law that has been in place since 2001…” Since then, charter schools have been a primary feature of Indiana’s move toward privatization. But vouchers have played a large role there as well. After Mike Pence was elected governor in 2012, he loosened voucher eligibility requirements—that children first attend public school, for example—and greatly expand the program’s reach around the state. The number of children attending voucher schools jumped from 9,000 to 19,000 in that year alone. Indiana’s 2017 CSP award is $24,002,291.

“As our federal regulations shift to evidence based best practices...” Indiana’s grant proposal states, “Indiana’s robust longitudinal data set within a school choice landscape makes us uniquely well positioned to better understand the impact of school choice on student outcomes… We also have a newly emerging rural group of charter schools to support.”

Looking beyond how individual states will use the $253 million charter school jackpot this year, the larger federal Charter Schools Program is itself a serious concern.

In 2012 the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General published a scathing indictment of the federal Charter School Program, declaring: “We determined that OII [the Office of Innovation and Improvement that operates the Charter Schools Program] did not have an adequate process to ensure SEAs [state education departments] effectively oversaw and monitored their subgrantees.”

Again in 2016 the Inspector General charged: “Specifically, we found that 22 of the 33 charter schools in our review had 36 examples of internal control weaknesses related to the charter schools’ relationships with their CMOs [Charter Management Organizations] concerning conflicts of interest, related-party transactions, and insufficient segregation of duties.”

The history of the federal Charter Schools Program makes one thing absolutely certain: The quality of the programs states develop with 2017 grants will depend on the integrity and oversight of each state’s Department of Education. Supervision from the U.S. Department of Education over these grants will be sketchy—or even nonexistent.

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