Ohio's Charter Schools: Part II
Are Charter Schools Accountable?
Barbara Brothers, PhD
Charter schools are exempt from more than 150 provisions of state law that otherwise are applicable to school districts, including a requirement to annually report the names, salaries, and credentials of licensed employees to the State Board. Of the Education Laws and Community Schools Members Only Brief produced by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (http://www.lsc.state.oh.us/membersonly/129educationlaws.pdf), pages 2-11 of the 20 pages list the State policy requirements from which charter schools are exempt, leaving only 9 for those to which they must adhere.
Examples of exemptions include the following:
- Teacher qualifications and evaluations: State Board of Education minimum standards that require teachers to be assigned to teach in the area or grade level in which they are licensed, e.g., "highly qualified" requirement, ORC 3314.04; OTES teacher evaluation system (currently applies only to charter schools in the Race to the Top program), ORC 3319.11; Substitute teacher employment requirements, ORC 3319.10
- Curriculum, student protections, and reports: Requirement that school principals report certain offenses committed by students, ORC 3319.45; School course of study requirement, ORC 3313.60; Penalties and consequences for failure to submit reports to the State Board, ORC 3319.35 and 3319.37; Requirements on statistical reporting to the State Board, ORC 3319.33; Requirements to annually report licensed employees to the State Board, ORC 3317.061; Requirements on retention of school records and establishing a records commission, ORC 149.351 and 149.41
- Financial requirements: Regarding temporary deficits in school district special funds, ORC 3315.20; Requirements related to the payment of employee salaries and the administration of payroll accounts, ORC 3315.08; Check writing and deposit requirements related to school treasurers, ORC 3313.51; Requirement to attach certificate of available resources to school district appropriation measures, contracts, and purchase orders, ORC 5705.412; Requirements related to shared savings contracts for energy savings measures for school facilities, ORC 3313.373
- Ethical standards and transparency laws: Ohio’s Sunshine laws and ethics laws that can lead to dismissal or criminal charges against officials who violate them do not apply to those running the Educational Management Operations (EMO) of charter schools. The State laws are written to consider the EMO personnel and their operations as private for the purpose of operations but public for the taxpayer money they receive. For example, they can award contracts to relatives, and there is no prohibition against appointment of their board members as charter school employees or consultants. ORC 3313.70
Most recently in articles for The Columbus Dispatch and for Diane Ravitch's blog, Denis Smith, a retired school administrator who worked both as a sponsor representative for charter schools as well as a consultant in the Ohio charter school office, points out the fatal flaw in Ohio’s charters: Governance, or rather the lack thereof. "Charter-school board members aren't elected by or responsible to the voters. Some are hand-picked by for-profit management companies running the schools." Charter school board members can be replaced by the EMOS if they raise questions or interfere with the running of the business.
"Charter-school board members do not have to be qualified voters (citizens) who are registered with the secretary of state’s office in recognition of their status as members of a public board." How ironic that in an age that wants to enclose US borders with fences and guards, we permit foreign nationals to run schools to educate our children. "With hand-picked, unelected boards, charter-school administrators can pay themselves exorbitant salaries." The citizens of Ohio have no basis in Ohio law for objecting to those salaries or any other self-serving practices boards engage in. Administrators are paid exorbitantly; on the other hand, teachers, who we say are the ones solely responsible for the educational achievement of our children, are paid poorly.
When charter schools fail, shouldn't they be closed and turned over to local public schools and elected boards? The Department of Education's ranking of Ohio schools and districts reveals that 83 out of the bottom 84 schools are charter schools. The same performance records that lead to urban schools being closed and public school teachers being dismissed are excused for charters. In fact, the head of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools cautions against using the same ODE standards to close charter schools because of "extenuating circumstances." Why aren’t the public schools and their teachers excused because of "extenuating circumstances"? What are the "extenuating circumstances"? Wasn’t the excuse for giving public dollars to private charter entrepreneurs that they could do the job the public schools and their teachers were not doing?
Ohio officials have not enforced the rules and laws for closing failing charter schools. A name change seems to be all that is required. The Akron Beacon Journal reported in August of 2013 that Romig Road Community School in West Akron, a huge, publicly funded charter, would have "to close at the end of the coming school year, 2012-13." Poor academic performance and failure to show improvement were the reasons. However, the same letter that announced the school closing to parents said that the school would now operate under the name of Imagine Leadership Academy. What happened on Romig Road isn’t all that new. Analysis of Ohio Department of Education records for years prior to 2013 by Doug Livingston shows that seven charter schools operated by for-profit management companies were closed for academic performance and were reopened under that same company, with only one exception.
Failed charter schools are allowed "to reopen with essentially the same facilities, personnel, students" (September 1 The Columbus Dispatch) is a story told over and over. Livingston points out two more examples of failing charter schools in the Canton area, both of which were also ordered closed by the state. Yet White Hat Management, the company operating the schools, maneuvered to keep each essentially in operation, the names of the schools changing but little else, one school holding onto 70 percent of the staff, the school boards apparently remaining the same. The same thing happened a few years ago in Youngstown when Eagle Heights Academy became Summit Academy.
Policy Matters Ohio published a report as early as May of 2010, Public Good vs. Private Profit: Imagine Schools, Inc., on Ohio’s failure to enforce its wholly inadequate charter laws. In 2010, Imagine Schools, Inc. was "no longer allowed, by law, to open new schools here." At that time, its "six Ohio schools that had been open long enough to be rated by the state were either in Academic Emergency or Academic Watch." Instead of closing these schools or enforcing the law, the state has granted them permission to open an additional 6 more, increasing to 17 the number of schools operated in Ohio. The Romig Road School that was ordered closed in 2013 and then reopened under another name was an Imagine School. One might quip, "Imagine That!" The Cleveland-based think tank has again recommended strengthening the mechanism for oversight. Management companies should be accountable for the performance of their charter schools (see Appendix D).
Recommendations for enforcement and a moratorium on additional charters are ignored. Instead, the state has decided to revamp the way schools are evaluated and to hold failing charter schools exempt from closure until 2017. Instead of responding to criticism and calls for accountability, the state has decided to allow the charter train to run full steam ahead. In his mid-year legislative update, Senator Schiavoni, minority whip of the Democratic party, has once again focused on the need for charter school reform legislation. The bill he jointly introduced into the Senate in September of 2013 has languished without even a hearing in spite of repeated attempts to call attention to the need for such legislation (see Appendix E).
Accountability applies only to public education, and as soon as charter schools are asked for even the most basic of information--such as how they spend their taxpayer money or who oversees them--they claim they are private. Earlier this year, The News Outlet (http://thenewsoutlet.org) asked nearly 300 Ohio charter schools for such information as: Who are your board members? Nearly 100 refused to respond with any information (Akron Beacon Journal, 2013).
Even more disturbing is the fact that Chad Readler, member of Ohio’s Constitution Modernization Commission and a lawyer who serves as chair of the Board of Directors of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools, wants to remove the phrase "thorough and efficient" from Article VI of the Constitution (see Appendix C). In August, Readler, on behalf of the Ohio Alliance for Quality Education, another charter school advocacy group, filed a Merit Brief of Amicus Curiae in support of Appellees White Hat Management. The brief for the Alliance supports White Hat's claims that "public funds sent to the company are private." White Hat asserts ownership of all of the assets of the charter schools. White Hat further asserts that neither the charter school board nor the public is entitled to any financial information from the company. Readler presented some arguments: Fees paid to management companies (as high as 96%) do not constitute public money; Property purchased by and used by management companies is owned by the private company; Ohio's schoolchildren will be the "victims" if the Court rules that White Hat and other companies are local and considered to be "public."
Why is it that Ohio’s legislators and charter advocates claim that the public has no grounds to ask for accountability and transparency in the spending of their tax dollars? As one commentator put it, "The for-profit management companies that operate many charter schools think that their mission and vision (read: profit) supersede the legitimate interests and aspirations of the public and their tax monies."