Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Questions: Is Hope the Answer?

Cincinnati Federation of Teachers president questions

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Ever since Riverside-Harrison Elementary School closed 17 years ago, area parents have wanted another neighborhood school for their children.

But the new Riverside Academy set to open this fall as a Hope Academy charter school, which Cincinnati Councilman Phil Heimlich helped recruit, might not be the solution parents hoped for, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) President Tom Mooney said.

A recent report shows that two Hope Academy schools in Cleveland are no better than public schools. In fact, students there performed significantly worse than public school students, according to a study by Indiana University.

And, Mooney said, Hope Academies founder David Brennan is operating the schools in a way that is contrary to the charter school concept.

Hope Academies officials counter that the report was misleading and that the charges against Brennan were inaccurate.

Charter schools — also known as community schools — are designed to offer alternatives in education to traditional public schools. They get public funding but operate independently of local school districts.

Last summer, parents in Riverside petitioned the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Board to sell the vacant school building to Hope Academies, which operates five charter schools in Ohio. The building was sold for $250,000.

Cincinnati City Councilman Phil Heimlich, a supporter of charter schools, brought Brennan to Cincinnati. After the sale of the building, Heimlich told CityBeat, "Hope Academies has provided hope for Cleveland kids, I want to provide hope for Cincinnati kids."

Contacted about the new study, Heimlich said it didn't change his mind about the value of bringing the school here.

"I'm not saying charter schools will always do better than public schools," he said. "Whether Hope Academies in Cleveland didn't perform as well as some public schools, that's not the point."

The point of charter schools, Heimlich said, is to provide a choice for parents and competition for the traditional public schools. And charter schools will not survive if students do not perform well and if parents are not satisfied with the programs offered, he said.

"We believe that competition is going to make everyone better," he said.

But Mooney said parents needed to know that while Brennan and Heimlich have said that Hope Academy students would do better than public school students, "There's no such evidence that they do, and now there's evidence that they don't."

Mooney said the situation in Riverside was especially troubling because parents there just wanted their children to have a school in their own neighborhood, and the CPS Board of Education could have come up with a better solution for them such as a small board-sponsored charter school.

"Instead, Brennan and Heimlich are posing as the parents' champions," he said.

Hope Academies officials said there were several reasons why the study results could not be taken seriously.

John Morris, Hope Academies chief executive officer, said that, "The use of the term 'study' is totally inappropriate" because the results were from a small number of fourth-grade students who were given a one-time achievement test, instead of being studied over a period of time.

Morris also said the poor achievement scores could be explained by the fact that students were given the test after they already had been through a week of school-sponsored testing, and the testing for the Indiana University report was administered by strangers, not by the students' regular teachers.

Morris said that only 52 students, of which 28 were Hope Academy students, were tested.

Mooney has additional concerns about the Hope Academy coming to Cincinnati, specifically, Brennan.

"Charter schools are supposed to be small, autonomous and decentralized," Mooney said. But Hope Academy is "one man running a for-profit business, a chain of schools. This is not what charter schools are supposed to be at all."

Mooney said Brennan had funneled money from other Ohio Hope Academies into his for-profit businesses.

In a recent memo, Mooney listed the following examples of how money had been flowing from Hope Academies to White Hat Management and White Hat Ventures:

· White Hat Ventures Limited Liability Corp. advances $479,613 to each school, which must be repaid at 10 percent interest.

· Each school pays a $50,000 franchise fee to White Hat Ventures.

· Another 10 percent of operating revenues go to White Hat Ventures as a management fee.

·All technology, including one computer for every five children, is leased from White Hat Management Limited Liability Corp. at cost plus 10 percent. Each school is required to pay an additional fee of $300 per computer for anticipated future technology needs — about $20,000 per year.

Morris said Hope Academies was a non-profit organization that contracts services out to White Hat — a for-profit company of which Brennan is a board member — but Morris did not think that was unusual.

"Public schools contract services out all the time to for-profit companies," Morris said.

Mooney also said that a problem with Hope Academies and some other charter schools was the lack of accountability. The state guarantees about $5,000 per student for charter schools, but there is little accountability to taxpayers because they are governed by private boards, he said.

"The only thing public about them is the money," he said.

Mooney said there were solutions to these problems with charter schools.

He said the Charter School Forum, a group of organizations including the CFT, Cincinnati Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, the Baptist Ministers Conference, civic and civil libertarian groups and advocacy groups for the disabled, planned to:

· Monitor charter schools for compliance with the law because the state Department of Education is not monitoring them closely.

· Advocate for internal charter schools, which hopefully would retain and bring students back to CPS.

Mooney said these internal charter schools would be accountable to the taxpayers and governed by the school board but with "looser strings."

A proposal for these internal charter schools is being drafted and will be presented to the board in a few weeks, Mooney said. ©

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