Chartered Cruise

Ohio’s charter schools continue to underperform. Do new laws regulating them justify creating more?

Feb 24, 2016 at 11:39 am
click to enlarge VLT Academy was shut down in 2014 amid poor performance and conflicts of interest.
VLT Academy was shut down in 2014 amid poor performance and conflicts of interest.


early two decades ago, the state of Ohio set up a grand experiment that lawmakers said was an attempt to provide better educational opportunity in the state’s impoverished urban areas.

In the intervening 19 years, some of the state’s 290 physical charter schools, which receive more than $1 billion a year from taxpayers, have performed well. But other privately run, publicly funded charters have seen financial mismanagement and consistent low performance.

The state’s overall charter system has been rocked by recent scandals, including performance-data rigging at the Ohio Department of Education and last month’s revelations that the state underreported the number of failing charters and overstated successful ones here.

Lawmakers and Ohio Department of Education officials tout new rules that will increase accountability for privately run, publicly funded schools. But some school districts are pushing back against charters as charter supporters and state officials work to create more.

“Charter schools as a group in Ohio demonstrate low academic performance compared to traditional schools,” a December statement from the Clayton City School Board reads, explaining a motion to bill the Ohio Department of Education for the $2.6 million it lost to charter schools. “The fraud and corruption in charter schools, as reported repeatedly in the public media, has made Ohio the laughing stock throughout the nation.”

Locally, a coalition of 43 school districts in the Greater Cincinnati area, including Cincinnati Public Schools, has pushed back against the state’s charter school system. CPS loses more than $56 million in funding to charters in the area.

Ohio lawmakers first created charters here in 1997 under the logic that establishing the schools would give low-income families more choices in where to send their children while applying competitive market pressures to low-performing urban public schools. Charters don’t require tuition, but are instead paid for by money from public school districts based on the number of students they draw away from public schools.

Charters don’t have to adhere to the same standards as traditional public schools, the logic being that market forces will shut down poor-performing schools when parents refuse to send their students there. That’s caused controversy, but charter supporters say the opposition is unfair.

“Districts sort of have this mentality that ‘the money belongs to us,’ ” Greg Harris, the director of the Ohio arm of school reform think tank StudentsFirst, told The Cincinnati Enquirer late last year. “But the money doesn’t belong to districts. It doesn’t belong to property. It belongs to kids. The districts are also losing those students. They’re not educating those kids anymore, so why should they be paid to educate them?”

The problem is, data shows some charter schools aren’t educating those students, either.

In the Cincinnati area,18 of the 21 charters graded by the Ohio Department of Education for 2014-2015 scored an F grade, and another scored a D. One, TCP World Academy, scored an A, and another wasn't rated.

Charters have scored

well behind Cincinnati Public Schools on both standardized tests and graduation rates in past years, though CPS was ranked low in the last grades as well. In 2013-2014, CPS rated a “C” on ODE’s report card, with a 73 percent rating on the state’s performance index. That index measures how many students pass state standardized tests. Charters ranked a D with 64 percent.

Statewide, there are some high-performing charter schools in urban districts like Columbus and Cleveland. But the state recently had to make a significant correction in numbers about high-caliber and failing charters it gave to the federal government.

A $71 million grant for more charters in Ohio from the federal Department of Education is on pause after that agency learned about the state’s charter school issues. Originally, Ohio told the federal government that 93 out of the state’s 290 brick-and-mortar charter schools were “high performing” in 2013-2014 based on federal standards.

It also said that just six were “poor performing” schools.

However, a bevy of questions from the feds following its grant award forced the state to reveal that, in fact, only 59 of those schools qualify as “high performing.” The state also clarified that 57 schools in the state are “poor performing,” not six.

ODE officials say they reevaluated the schools using tougher standards to come to those revised numbers. But the official who wrote the grant with the original figures in it was forced to resign last year for fudging other data around charters.

Nick Swartsell

Former ODE school choice official David Hansen, who is married to Ohio Gov. John Kasich campaign manager Beth Hansen, wrote the original grant application last July, just days before he resigned from ODE over revelations that he omitted poor-performing online charter schools from charter school sponsor performance data. That omission boosted charter school performance figures.

Cincinnati has seen its share of low-performing charters, including VLT Academy, which was shut down in 2014 after multiple years of poor performance in many state rating categories.

But it wasn’t just low test scores and attendance records that sank VLT.

In 2012, a state audit found that the school was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to a janitorial company owned by the husband of superintendent Valerie Lee. Lee’s daughter was also employed at the school. After the audit, the school announced that neither Harris nor Lee’s husband would continue to be employed there.

That’s a snapshot of a larger trend, some investigations suggest.

A report last year by the Akron Beacon Journal found that since 2001, state audits have shown that charters across the state have misspent more than $27 million.

That number amounts to a rate four times higher than any other public agency in the state.

Ohio officials say reforms in recently passed House Bill 2, which took effect Feb. 1, will make the state’s charters, especially its online virtual schools, more accountable. The law tightens student attendance and other performance reporting requirements among other reforms.

The state also recently created an advisory panel to suggest better ways to oversee charters’ sponsoring organizations, officials say, and bring greater accountability to them.

“Ohio and our children are stronger thanks to new reforms in Ohio’s charter school law which make sure that all schools are held accountable,” the Ohio Department of Education said last month in a statement. “Ohio’s state superintendent was tough on charters over the past several years and these new reforms give the Department of Education better tools to help ensure students have access to a high-quality education.”

But some reforms the state touted in its federal grant application continue to be pushed off.

Ohio lawmakers first passed a law in 2012 creating a rating system for organizations that sponsor charter schools in an effort to hold them more accountable. After three years of low ratings, poorly performing charters could be shut down under that system. But the rating system has yet to be instituted, and lawmakers are currently discussing delaying it another two years.

Meanwhile, charter supporters are looking to expand.

A survey of charter school sponsors in Ohio by the Fordham Foundation, a pro-charter conservative education think tank, found that 40 percent of those leading charters in Ohio are working to open more schools and that 80 percent expressed support for expansion of charters if they were high-performing.

If the federal government eventually gives the state the $71 million it was initially awarded, Ohio officials say the money will go to $700,000 grants aimed at subsidizing the creation of new charters.

That could cause trouble, however. A recent study by faculty at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education suggests that an increasing amount of lightly regulated charter school sponsors could create a “bubble” that could increase the number of low-performing schools in low income areas.

“Folks in poor communities and black, urban communities obviously want better opportunities for their kids,” study author Professor Preston C. Green told the Washington Post last month. “And I don’t blame them for really pushing for better options. But I do feel that there are people taking advantage of their desire to get better opportunities by pushing forward more options for charters without ensuring that these schools are sufficiently screened.” ©