A series of scandals and charter school failures — along with rising costs — has Ohio lawmakers looking to make the schools’ operators more accountable in hopes of safeguarding students, protecting taxpayer dollars and avoiding some of the bad outcomes that have included shut-down schools and even criminal behavior.
Southwest Ohio boasts success stories such as the Dayton Early College Academy, the area’s highest ranking charter school.
But many area charters fell short of expectations set when the region was heralded as the epicenter of the school choice movement. “We’re the No. 1 charter school Mecca in Ohio, if not the country,” local charter operator William Peterson told the New York Times for a 2005 story.
A decade later, Peterson is one of more than a dozen charter school administrators charged with fraud or accused of misspending tens of millions of dollars at dozens of now-shuttered charters, many from this area.
At the same time, state expenditures on charter schools have grown to nearly $1 billion and the number of kids using them has doubled to more than 120,000.
With bipartisan backing, both the Ohio House and the governor’s office have advanced proposals to hold charter school sponsors more accountable. The Ohio Senate is expected to consider even more extensive reforms.
“The public can certainly expect something of significance will come out of this legislative session,” said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
Lehner said she hopes to have a comprehensive reform bill introduced in coming weeks.
Legislation pending in the Ohio House would create performance reports on charter school operators, make it harder for schools to jump from one sponsor to another and prohibit sponsors from entering side-contracts with schools.
The bill had a seventh hearing last week, where lawmakers introduced a raft of amendments that included putting the names of school board members and school-operator contracts online, shutting down the lowest-performing sponsors, and requiring training in public records and open meetings for school administrators and board members.
Skepticism over changes
Charter school critics say measures discussed so far are too weak to trigger substantial change.
“(The proposals) look like they’re real reforms but they’re really not, and there are some provisions in there that don’t address what we really found,” said Sandy Theis, executive director of Progress Ohio, a liberal group that has served as an ardent charter critic.
Progress Ohio thinks additional measures should restrict what types of groups can become charter school sponsors and should mandate that management companies open their books to the public. The companies can operate in the shadows, Progress Ohio says, despite often receiving nearly all of a charter school’s funds to run the school.
Theis applauded some of the proposed reforms, but she fears they will be stripped down by political lobbying by charter school groups.
Dozens of registered lobbyists work for charter schools, according to state records, including a lobbying group that lists former House Speaker William Batchelder as chairman emeritus. The CEOs of the state’s largest charter school chains have donated more than $1 million to political campaigns in recent years.
“That was a statement they’re ready and willing to put up quite a fight, and they’ve been very, very successful in the past,” Theis said.
There is a sense, though. that the reform movement is gathering steam. Current calls for reform are coming from school choice supporters on the political right, with Republican Gov. John Kasich making it a key part of his proposed two-year budget and Republican Auditor Dave Yost pounding the pulpit for reform.
“The people who stand to gain the most from getting it right are the people who operate charter schools,” said Lehner. “It’s good government. If a school isn’t functioning properly, if public money is not being spent properly, they should be called on it and shut down.”
‘Unintended consequences’ feared
Some of the same charter school advocates calling for increased regulation now were championing a more free market approach when the rules were initially written, said Secretary of State Jon Husted, an architect of Ohio’s current charter school law.
Husted, a Republican former state representative from Kettering who was speaker of the Ohio House from 2005 to 2009, said the system has gone through a “perpetual reform.”
“Every two years you go through the budget cycle there is a new set of reforms to fix the old set of reforms and that process continues to this very day,” he said.
Husted said the current sponsor system was created because the Ohio Department of Education proved incapable of both authorizing and overseeing charter schools.
He encouraged lawmakers to examine the landscape of closed and thriving charter schools and make a determination based on what works.
“For the charter school movement to achieve success and move to the next level, the number of failures have to be reduced and we have to have a more accountable regulatory system for how they’re being created,” he said.
Ron Adler, executive director of the pro-charter group Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, said inexperienced sponsors have made “rookie mistakes” that have led to problems. He applauded the Ohio Department of Education for more aggressively screening new applications, but he expressed concern about broad-brush legislation.
“I just think there’s too much chance of unintended consequences,” he said.
‘The biggest losers were the children’
Chad Aldis, president for Ohio policy at the charter think tank and school sponsor Fordham Institute, noted that charter schools are layered organizations. There is a sponsor/authorizer (which range from universities to daycare centers), a school board and often a management company (which can be non-profit or for-profit). All three levels need to be transparent and rated in some way, he said.
“I think it’s critical we learn from the experiences we’ve had,” Aldis said. “(If reforms are passed), all of a sudden we have an environment that I think is on the cusp of turning around.”
Kasich’s proposed budget calls for giving the education department authority to shut down poor-performing charter school sponsors and making $25 million available for facilities upgrades for schools with “exemplary” sponsors.
It also would allow well-performing charters to receive local tax revenue if approved by the local school board and voters.
The Department of Education this year began the process of rating sponsors either exemplary, effective, ineffective or developing (for new sponsors). Last week it released its first ratings, naming the Ohio Council of Community Schools and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation as “exemplary.”
“This new authorizer evaluation system ensures that authorizers are doing their jobs correctly,” said Richard A. Ross, Department of Education superintendent. “When a sponsor fails to do its job, students, families, teachers, school leaders and the entire charter sector suffer.”
The department expects to have ratings for the sponsors of 327 of the state’s 381 charter schools by year’s end.
Area charter schools, meanwhile, are filling up with children whose parents don’t want to send them to failing public schools. State report cards for charter schools released in September show that some area charters did better than the public school district they’re in, though most also posted failing grades on state tests.
Judy Hennessey, superintendent of Dayton Early College Academy and DECA Prep in Dayton, said the scandals and turf wars with traditional school district that have marred the movement over the past decade are “terribly disappointing.”
“Ohio is often used as the worst-case example, where the floodgates were opened and lots of charters that failed quickly were allowed to operate,” she said. “The biggest losers were the children. We really have to do some back-tracking, in quick order, to improve the situation.”
Staff writers Jeremy P. Kelley and Brian Kollars contributed to this report.