Monday, May 20, 2013

Former Ohio Charter Overseer Pleads to Slow Charter Growth

Last week, Denis Smith, a former consultant with the Ohio Department of Education on Charter Schools gave some of the most powerful testimony to date about the state of Ohio's Charter Schools. In short, it's bad. And it's so bad for Mr. Smith that he asked the legislature to put a moratorium on new Charter Schools until major reforms of their governance and oversight are fixed.

His suggestions include not allowing non-profits to sponsor Charters (only two other states allow that), as well as requiring administrators to be professionally licensed and eliminating the predominance of for-profit operations to run Charter Schools in Ohio.

I have posted a link to Mr. Smith's compelling testimony here.

Mr. Smith did not get into the serious funding problems Ohio has with Charter Schools, which allow for every kid not in a Charter to receive 6.5% less state revenue than the state says they need to succeed. Nor does he really get into Charter Schools' abject performance failure in much detail.

His concern is pretty basic: Ohio's system allows really bad Charters to thrive far more easily than it should. Some of his most compelling testimony was laid out here:

  • A community school with only 175 students enrolled was led by a school director who hand-picked her governing board, which then employed her at a salary of $156,000 per year plus benefits. The governing board also employed the school director's sister at an inflated salary.
  • Another community school leased space from the building's owner, who also happened to be president of the school's governing authority. In a recent audit, the state auditor revealed a pattern of overpayments above the stated contract for the school's lease and shell companies that were created to function as school vendors. Nearly $2,000,000 in questionable payments have been identified by the state auditor and 10 people associated with the school, including administrators and board members, have been indicted as a result. Three of the 10 indicted were family members who originally established the school. In spite of all of these misdeeds, the school can't be padlocked because it is held to a different operating standard due to the nature of the students served.
  • Several years ago, a school established by a member of a vocal group was opened, and thousands of dollars of start-up funds were spent to build a state-of-the art audio recording and production studio on the school premises. Reports at the time indicated that the students were denied access to the recording studio and that adults were the primary beneficiaries of public funds spent on its construction. The school closed in less than two years.
  • One group of schools, part of a national chain and established and operated by an organization with international ties, has a tendency to populate its schools with governing board members, almost exclusively male, who are not representative of the clientele of the schools. The New York Times reported extensively on this school management group nearly two years ago.
  • During the course of several years at the Ohio Department of Education, I received dozens of phone calls from the public who had grievances against a number of community schools but were unable to find out the names of governing board members and contact information for them, their supposed representatives and overseers for public charter schools. 
Let us hope that Ohio's Legislators take heed of this professional's opinion and at least slow the growth of the Charter Schools over the next few years. If not, we're looking at $1 billion going out to schools that overall perform far less well than the traditional public schools while serving some of our most at-need youth.

And the state is spending far more per pupil to get those poor results. Imagine, for a moment, if 40% of traditional public schools rated D or F on the state's report card? How fast would the state be ripping money from them?