Ohio gets charter money despite red flags

Ohio barely made the cut to receive a federal charter school grant last week, earning the lowest score of eight states that were funded. But the grant Ohio will receive from the U.S. Department of Education — up to $71 million — is almost double the size awarded to any other state.

Ohio was approved despite a series of red flags, including concerns about poor academic performance by Ohio charter schools, warnings from “peer reviewers” who scored Ohio’s grant application, and, on the federal side, major oversight deficiencies in the last round of the grant program.

The application Ohio submitted to expand charter schools was guided by former school choice director David Hansen, just weeks before he admitted manipulating online charter school scores to make charters look better.

“Ohio clearly needs a much stronger mechanism in place to ensure that our state’s few high-performing charter schools benefit and ne’er-do-wells do not,’’ said Stephen Dyer, education fellow at charter school critic Innovation Ohio. “The grant runs contrary to overwhelming evidence that Ohio’s charter school regime is broken.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan touted nationwide statistics showing that charter students outperformed those in neighboring public district schools.

“Ultimately, this (grant) is about very significantly trying to improve student achievement,” said Duncan, who announced Friday that he will resign in December.

But two of the three peer reviewers who evaluated Ohio’s application said the state did not include sufficient data to determine whether charter students were more successful in Ohio.

A Stanford University study that was widely publicized last year showed that the opposite was true, with Ohio charter students learning less. The study called Ohio charters’ academic performance “grim.”

This newspaper could not confirm all details of Ohio’s charter expansion plan. Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Kim Norris said Friday she could not provide a copy of the state’s application, which was submitted months earlier.

“We are proud Ohio has been awarded this grant to expand high-quality community schools and will continue to work with the USDOE to move forward with implementation,” Norris said.

Reviewers’ warnings

The three peer reviewers who scored Ohio’s application alternately praised the state’s plan and raised major questions about “weaknesses.” U.S. DOE press secretary Dorie Nolt declined to identify those peer reviewers, saying only that they are independent from DOE.

The reviewer labeled “Reader #1” said that while Ohio has closed many noncompliant charter schools, “there is no evidence that this data has been used” to prevent other schools from ending up in the same situation.

That same reviewer said Ohio’s application seems more focused on increasing the quantity of schools rather than quality.

“There is not sufficient evidence to suggest that (school) replication and growth should be supported to the degree requested,” the reviewer wrote.

The other two reviewers called Ohio’s plan “overly ambitious,” saying it referred to 400 charter schools, but did not articulate “training or resources or support for new charters.” Reviewer 3 said it was unclear if Ohio checks whether proposed new school sponsors have operated any high-quality charters in the past.

Hansen, evaluations

Norris said Ohio informed the U.S. DOE of Hansen’s resignation before the feds approved Ohio’s grant. Nolt did not address detailed questions on whether DOE checked for data manipulations in Ohio’s application, instead issuing a brief statement.

“The department reviewed Ohio’s administrative structure and past performance with other federal grants, which is what led to the state having special conditions placed on its new grant,” Nolt said. “Those conditions include requiring the state to submit quarterly reports on its grant activities and budget.”

But Nolt said it was the reviewers’ scores that determined whether Ohio got the grant itself, and it’s not clear from those scores whether the reviewers knew about Hansen’s rigged school authorizer evaluations. No reviewer mentioned it.

In the category of “high-quality authorizing and monitoring processes,” all three reviewers gave Ohio at least 13 of 15 points, with one giving Ohio a perfect score. They praised the new sponsor evaluation system Ohio launched this year, and Reviewer #1 lauded the state, saying by January 2016, Ohio will have evaluated 90 percent of its charter school sponsors.

But by the time those words were written, there was a major hole in that new evaluation system. Hansen had resigned for skewing online school data, the state had rescinded the few sponsor evaluations it had completed, and State Superintendent Richard Ross appointed a three-member panel to redo part of the system that had otherwise earned Ohio so much praise.

That work continues today, and no sponsor evaluations have been completed.

What’s next

A 2012 U.S. Inspector General’s report found close to a dozen deficiencies in federal and state oversight in a previous round of these federal charter grants. The report said DOE didn’t properly review states’ spending and didn’t make sure states corrected problems. None of the three states the report studied closely had adequately monitored the charter schools or sponsors that received the money.

Asked about those problems, Duncan said school authorizers and states need to hold charters themselves accountable.

“At the federal level, we don’t have a whole lot of leverage,” he said.

Nonetheless, U.S. DOE will make $32 million of Ohio’s potential $71 million grant available in the next year. A brief abstract of Ohio’s application says the state intends to target the money for new charters in districts like Youngstown and Lorain, where low scores have led to a form of state takeover.

Ohio education officials have told Dayton and Trotwood schools that they are also at risk for that takeover, as soon as 2018 if student achievement doesn’t improve.

ODE said groups that want to start charter schools will participate in a “highly competitive” grant process to get a piece of the money. Norris said details are being finalized and the application window would open in February, with the first funds disbursed in June.

ProgressOhio executive director Sandy Theis argued that the money should be delayed until Hansen’s resignation is addressed.

“Ohio’s money should be withheld until it fills the vacancy of its charter oversight office with a highly qualified educator,’’ Theis said. “Only then can we have confidence that our money will be well spent and our kids well served.’’

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