Wednesday, September 14, 2016

USDOE Calls Ohio Charter Program "High Risk", puts Special Conditions on Nation's Largest Federal Charter School Grant

It what appears to be a first for the U.S. Department of Education, Ohio has been designated a "high risk" state for charter school oversight, which means the federal government will assert far more authority over how Ohio distributes the $71 million it received last year through the federal Charter School Program grant, which was the largest given last year.

When the grant was given, many immediately questioned how it could have happened, given the fact that Ohio's well-told story of struggling charter schools was well known. The person who sent in the application, David Hansen (husband of Gov. John Kasich's chief of staff and presidential campaign manager Beth Hansen) was forced to resign for illegally doctoring a new charter school accountability regime to benefit politically powerful online charter school operators. It was this regime that was the foundation for the USDOE grant.

There were other sleights of hand that many people identified in the application. However, while USDOE found that there were no "significant inaccuracies" in the state's grant (leaving open the possibility that inaccuracies did exist), there were several problems with Ohio's history with charter schools in general that forced the Department's hand. Specifically, the letter cites the following concerns:

  1. The Hansen affair
  2. Ohio congressional leader concerns
  3. Issues found in previous audits of ODE's capacity to implement federal charter school programs (the only available audit I wrote about here in some detail)
  4. Implementation issues of the additional oversight functions prescribed by House Bill 2 that could impact the state's ability to administer the grant
In addition, the feds urged ODE to "put into place additional mechanisms to help earn the public's confidence in its ability to act as a proper steward of its Federal grant funds on behalf of Ohio's families and students."

The feds also went out of their way to "strongly encourage" the state to put special mechanisms in place to increase transparency between non-profit charter schools and the for-profit entities with which they contract. The feds also made explicit that no online schools can receive the funding. The feds also expressed so much concern about Ohio's miserably performing dropout recovery schools that they told ODE that the feds themselves have to approve all grants given to dropout recovery schools.

The feds wrapped up by expressing confidence that ODE will be able to administer the grant. But they warned that if they fail to meet these special conditions, the state will be subject to strict penalties. They especially pushed ODE to work toward creating "the rigorous oversight of authorizers that was described in ODE's approved grant application."

While I'm glad Ohio will have the opportunity to use this federal money to expand higher performing charters, it is once again a reminder of just what a backwater we have been on charters and how far we have to go.

To add insult to injury, a charter school chain that has some of the highest performing charters in Ohio was rejected for sponsorship in Mississippi -- yes, THAT Mississippi -- this week for not being high performing enough for that state to sponsor.

When the best performing schools in your state aren't high performing enough for Mississippi, you've got problems.

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