Report blasts charter school oversight in Ohio

Critics say $4 million was given to charters that never opened

More than one-third of Ohio charter schools that received federal grants in the past decade have either closed or never opened, according to a report released Thursday by a coalition of charter school critics.

The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project found that 292 charters in Ohio have received federal grants since 2006, but 108 of those schools have either closed or never opened. The 26 that didn’t open received a total of $4 million in taxpayer money, according to the report, and there are no records indicating funds were returned.

“We didn’t think the failure rate would be that high,” said Innovation Ohio President Keary McCarthy. “We know charters close, but we were surprised.”

Innovation Ohio partnered with the Ohio Education Association and ProgressOhio to produce the report after a $71 million federal grant to Ohio was put on hold last fall due to questions about the state’s grant application.

Chad Aldis of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a charter school sponsor, said the new report was misleading because 40 percent of the charters that received federal funds but never opened were sponsored by traditional public schools.

“Several of these ‘failed’ schools were sponsored by some of the state’s highest-achieving districts. They were opening a charter, probably to chase federal dollars, and (the report) doesn’t say that,” Aldis said.

Charter schools debuted in Ohio in 1999 and there are close to 400 of them in operation. They receive most of their funding from the state.

The report takes to task the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education, saying there needs to be more accountability and increased scrutiny in how federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants are awarded.

“This program, through multiple administrations, has had very little oversight,” McCarthy said.

When asked to comment on the report, Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Brittany Halpin wrote in an email: “This department has no interest in playing partisan politics with a special interest group.”

Oversight questioned

None of the 26 schools that received CSP grants and didn’t open were located in the Miami Valley. The charter that received the most money and never opened was the Academy for Urban Solutions in Columbus, which was awarded $422,336.

Of the 82 schools cited in the report that received funds and later closed, seven were in Montgomery County, four in Hamilton County and one in Clark County. Of those, the ISUS Institute of Construction Technology in Montgomery County received the most federal money: $453,206.

McCarthy said that only one evaluation of Ohio’s grant process has been performed, several years ago, and that it was “highly critical” of how the state doled out federal money.

The report noted that Charter School Program grants have been awarded nationally for more than 20 years, but federal regulators did not begin tracking them until 2006-07. Only Florida and California have received more federal charter funding than Ohio, according to the report.

McCarthy said the federal government has awarded Ohio charters nearly $100 million through the years. Those funds make up a small percentage of charter schools funds; he said Ohio will for the first time hit $1 billion in state charter funding in 2016.

Charter ‘scofflaws’

The report labeled three groups as Ohio’s “most notorious charter school scofflaws,” accusing them of a wide range of failures — from alleged test-tampering and sexual misconduct to contractual non-compliance and poor academics.

The three groups singled out were Horizon Science Academies and Noble Academies, which received $7.6 million in Charter School Program grants: Imagine Schools, which received $5.9 million; and White Hat Management, which got $1.4 million.

“They’re not perfect and some have closed, absolutely, and we should do a better job of vetting them,” Fordham’s Aldis said. “If the hold is taken off of this federal grant and those dollars are released to Ohio, it is incumbent upon the Department of Education to establish a rigorous, high-quality grant program that awards these dollars only to these schools that have a track record of success and a viable plan for the future.”

The report also was critical of charter school performance, but Aldis said it is unfair to compare charters in urban areas with wealthy suburban districts. He said any future federal funds should go only to high-performing charters.

“If we have to give back $20 million or $30 million because there aren’t enough good options, so be it,” he said. “We’re not about trying to spend the whole $71 million. But when a school like (Dayton-based) DECA has to run around and do a tremendous amount of philanthrophic work instead of being able to have access for a good school to grow, that’s a mistake, when these funds are out there that Ohio taxpayers sent to Washington.”

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