Public Money, Private Problems

Questionable management and low performance bring scrutiny on Ohio’s charter schools

click to enlarge Site of the former VLT Academy
Site of the former VLT Academy

As quasi-private schools funded with public money across Ohio face scrutiny, some say they need to be held to a higher standard.

Supporters of charter or community schools say they do a better job at a lower cost than public schools. But critics say the schools are inconsistent, that state oversight of charters is too weak and that the privately run schools are turning a profit on state money that could be used to shore up traditional public schools.

Despite being the darling of conservatives who favor free-market approaches to education, the issue is politically divisive even among Democrats. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pledged support for the charter school concept. But other notable Democrats, including former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Democratic National Committee Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile, are adamantly opposed to them.

“The very premise of market-driven education reform rests on the fallacy that the public school system is in crisis and that the only solution is to let the market pick winners and losers,” Brazile said July 12 at the American Federation for Teachers convention. She was announcing a group opposed to charters she helped co-found with Strickland called Democrats for Public Education.

Ohio has 391 charter schools, according to state records. In some cities, these schools have seen some success. 2012-2013 Ohio Department of Education data shows that in Cleveland, charters outperformed public schools, putting 55 percent of students at or above their grade level, compared to 48 percent in public schools, and at a per-pupil cost that was $4,000 less. However, the charter schools also had significantly fewer low-income students proportionally.
In other cities, including Cincinnati, charters have underperformed.

ODE listings show there are 30 charter schools in Cincinnati, many of them in low-income areas where public schools have struggled to meet state standards and provide students with quality education. However, state ratings show many of Cincinnati’s charters have similar, if not worse, performance compared to the public schools with which they compete.

Charters lag behind Cincinnati Public Schools on both standardized tests and graduation rates. Overall, CPS rates 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. Meanwhile, charters for which data is available score what would be a “D” grade, with an average just 64 percent on the index. CPS averages a 64 percent graduation rate, which is well below the state’s average of 81 percent but still higher than charter schools in Cincinnati. Of the 10 charter schools for which graduation rate data is available, the average graduation rate is just 55 percent.

Ohio first passed legislation allowing charter schools in 1997, under the assumption that establishing the schools would give low-income families more choice in where to send their children while applying competitive market pressures to area public schools to improve.

The schools don’t require tuition but are instead paid for with vouchers from the state. The schools are held to more relaxed general state performance standards than public schools.

“The difficulty you have is there are not the same requirements for tracking systems and reporting for both our traditional public schools and charter schools,” Mike Collins, who sits on the Ohio Board of Education told State Impact, which covers education in Ohio, last month. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have any… but they’re not the same and so the transparency at this point from my vantage point is lacking.”

Despite lax regulations, the state has closed 157 charters for lack of academic achievement since 2000. But other chronically underperforming schools prove very hard to shutter under existing rules.

In Ohio, charter schools must have a sponsoring organization in order to operate. Last year, VLT Academy in Over-the-Rhine lost its sponsor, Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio, over its academic struggles.

“The renewal process was really all about — is this school on track to succeed and to produce outstanding results for students? And we really did not see that,” the group’s spokesperson Jodi Billerman said last year after announcing ERC would not continue its sponsorship.

The school had just a 59 percent graduation rate and a 55 percent performance index, according to ODE data. That’s lower than other area schools, including nearby Rothenberg Academy, an elementary school run by CPS in OTR with a 66 percent performance index. Last year, the ODE called VLT “one of the worst schools in Hamilton County” and “a demonstrable academic failure.”

In addition to low academic performance, allegations of financial impropriety have followed 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 Valerie Harris was also employed at the school. After the audit, the school announced that neither Harris nor Clyde Lee would continue to be employed there.

Despite these problems, the school might continue to operate. On July 14, a Hamilton County judge ruled that ODE was required to sponsor VLT. The school applied to several potential sponsors, including the ODE. When all declined to partner with the school, VLT sued the ODE. Because the state agency told other potential sponsors about the school’s academic struggles, the judge ruled that it made it difficult for VLT to find a sponsor and must therefore partner with the school.

VLT could get $300,000 from the state to pay teachers’ and administrators’ salaries next year. An appeals court put a stay on that decision July 21, and now the school waits for a definitive ruling from the courts as to whether it will be able to stay open. The school did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Other charter schools in the state are facing accusations of mismanagement. The ODE is investigating complaints about Dayton’s Horizon Science Academy, where former employees this month said administrators running the school discriminated against black students, falsified attendance records, hid sexual misconduct between students from parents and officials and intimidated teachers.

Horizon is run by Chicago-based Concept Schools, which operates 19 schools in the state. The FBI is also investigating that company for its handling of a federal grant it was awarded. The company denies any wrongdoing and says it prioritizes a safe and professional school environment. As the allegations surfaced, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald blasted the lax regulations enjoyed by charter schools.

“This is what happens when you weaken accountability and oversight,” he said July 18. FitzGerald is calling for the resignation of ODE Superintendent Richard Ross after the ODE indicated that the Concept whistleblowers may face charges from the state for not reporting their allegations in a timely manner. The former teachers say they did report their allegations earlier and were ignored.

The controversy surrounding ODE’s response to the Concept Schools allegations grew July 18, when the department’s head of communications John Charlton sent a response to charter school critics via his personal Twitter account. In the tweet, he advised opponents of charter schools to “take a break from muckraking and enjoy the weekend. Maybe you can get laid. Lol.” Charlton later apologized for the tweet. The ODE said he could face disciplinary measures.

Concept isn’t the only big charter school player to draw scrutiny. Akron-based White Hat Management, a for-profit company, operates 49 schools in six states. It has 15 in Ohio, including Cincinnati’s Riverside Academy. Riverside, like many White Hat schools, is under-performing, with just a 64 percent performance index, nine points lower than the CPS average.

The company is owned by David Brennan, a prolific donor to conservative politicians in Ohio and a big driver of charter school legislation in the state. Brennan has said that his schools have low performance because they’re working with low-income students who face many challenges. But in 2010, the boards of 10 schools that White Hat operated in Cleveland and Akron sued the company. They alleged the company was shortchanging the schools on public money it collected to turn a profit.

White Hat argued that as a private company, it didn’t have to disclose its profits or the amount it charged schools for management fees and the like. It took three years for courts to order White Hat to show financial records. The 10 schools that sued White Hat broke away from the company and are now managed by other firms, but White Hat simply opened new schools nearby. ©

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