Education

Why Is Ohio Refusing to Tighten Oversight of Charter School Sponsors?

What was left out of Ohio’s new charter regulations was any way for the state to regulate the sponsors that have proliferated the state.

After years of delay and the waste of millions of public tax dollars awarded to poorly operated charter schools, finally early last October, the Ohio legislature passed a bill to regulate charter schools. Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell described the new law’s provisions that include, “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.”

What was left out of Ohio’s new charter school regulations was any way for the state to regulate the sponsors that have proliferated in a state that permits non-profits to collect oversight fees for charter schools they approve and agree to oversee. Too many of these organizations have been neglecting their responsibility as sponsors at the same time they have been collecting so-called “walking-around-money” for the job they have persistently neglected to perform. David Hansen who was Ohio’s former chief of school choice designed a plan to evaluate charter authorizers by the test scores of the students in the schools the sponsors oversee, but he quietly left out the huge, notorious on-line charters from his rating system. The online academies are politically powerful, and Hansen was forced to resign last July after it was widely reported in the state’s newspapers that he had favored the politically connected. Richard Ross, until January when he retired as Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, spent several months last fall developing a new rating system for charter sponsors. But now the politically powerful are working hard to delay its implementation.

Here is how O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, describes the current status of Ohio’s supposed crackdown on notorious sponsors: “The state legislature is considering delaying—yet again—the ratings of charter school oversight agencies that were supposed to be the centerpiece of Gov. John Kasich’s plan to fix Ohio’s troubled charter industry. The House Education Committee will consider proposals next month to skip rating those agencies, known as sponsors or authorizers, for 2014-15 and this ongoing 2015-16 school year… The state legislature voted in 2012 to rate sponsors to encourage them to improve the schools they oversee. The ratings were supposed to be completed last year, but David Hansen, the state’s former school choice chief, artificially inflated some of them by leaving out the F grades of online schools. This violated state law and led the state to throw out the first ratings. It also led to the resignation of Hansen, husband of Kasich’s Presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen.”

Because the plan for regulating sponsors involves a three year phase in, any delays in implementing regulation also put off the time when Ohio will stop delivering millions of tax dollars to the weakest sponsors who are failing to fulfill their promise to oversee their schools. O’Donnell explains: “If new delays are approved, there would be no ratings anytime soon to start the three-year process that Kasich proposed last year for shutting down poorly-rated sponsors. In the meantime, sponsors would continue collecting millions in tax dollars in fees without having to fix the academic performance of charter schools that lag behind traditional schools statewide.  In addition, delays could jeopardize $71 million in charter school expansion grants the state is in line to receive from the federal government.”

Keep in mind that Ohio is a super-majority Republican state. The chair of the House Education Committee, Andrew Brenner—always friendly to the huge on-line charter operators and political contributors—had said his committee would discuss regulation of charter school sponsors this week, but he has delayed such a conversation until at least next month, he says, “to gather more information.” Because the state shifted this year from the PARCC test to another standardized test designed by the American Institutes for Research, the state is granting traditional public schools and school districts “safe harbor” until the end of the 2016-17 school year before penalties for low aggregate test scores kick in. Charter school sponsors claim they should also be granted “safe harbor,” while their critics point out that the charter school sponsors have never been regulated at all in the past, and it is now time to crack down.

Ohio’s huge charter schools also claim that their test scores are low because they serve many children living in poverty. They insist that their aggregate test scores should be adjusted to recognize the impact of family poverty on their students’ scores. The charter schools and their sponsors make no such claim, of course, about the test scores in Ohio’s poorest public school districts.

Meanwhile, Jim Siegel and Catherine Candiksky in the Columbus Dispatch describe the lobbying exploits of Ohio’s most notorious and largest charter school: “Representatives of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the state’s largest charter school whose operator is a top GOP contributor, reportedly are leading efforts to attach amendments to an education-themed bill that the House hopes to pass next week. These new proposals include delaying for at least a year new attendance-tracking requirements for e-schools, and changing the basis for e-schools funding to whether at least 900 hours of instruction are simply offered to each student who enrolls and receives a computer, rather than requiring that students actually participate in all 900 hours.” The legislature had tried to crack down on widespread inflation of attendance in enrollment reports being submitted to the Ohio Department of Education by the on-line charters whose students study at home on computers and cannot be counted as present by a teacher in a classroom. The on-line charters are paid by the state for each student enrolled, but have failed accurately to track the students actually doing the work. The Dispatch reporters remind readers that, “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”

Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, told Dispatch reporters she will resist what she expects to be strong political pressure as the the rules, passed by the legislature last fall to begin regulating charter schools, are implemented: “As provisions of House Bill 2 go into effect, they are going to have a negative effect on low-performing schools. I don’t expect them to just hold their hands up and surrender. But I will be very vigilant.”

A.J. Wagner, a Democrat and an elected member of the Republican-dominated state school board, doesn’t quite trust legislators to crack down, however. He is reported by Candisky in the Columbus Dispatch, to have demanded from Stefan Huh, who heads the Charter Schools Program at the U.S. Department of Education, “an independent investigation into the state Department of Education’s illegal manipulation of charter-school evaluations to boost the ratings of some sponsors… Wagner and others contend that an independent probe is needed to restore public trust in the (Ohio) Department of Education….”

Jan Resseger is a writer and public education advocate in Ohio. She formerly chaired the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education.

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