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Sawyer wants loophole closed for failing charter schools

By admin Published: September 16, 2011

State Sen. Tom Sawyer wants to eliminate an exemption for charter high schools that protects them from closure despite poor academic performance.

Sawyer, D-Akron, recently introduced Senate Bill 219, which would repeal the exemption to a 2006 law that spells out criteria for closing charter schools with persistent low ratings.

So far, the state has closed a dozen charter schools for academic reasons under the law. The latest report cards have resulted in three more charter schools slated to close by the end of this school year, including Lighthouse Academy in Akron.

But charter high schools with dropout recovery programs can obtain waivers that exempt them from the closure law.

''The waivers that have been put in for dropout-prevention programs have been used, in my judgment, to shield some charter schools from closing due to poor performance,'' Sawyer said. ''All you have to do is apply for a waiver from the Ohio Department of Education.

''The waivers are offered without very much review,'' he said, '' and once [the schools have] gotten that waiver, they're largely shielded from standards of performance.''

Students in dropout programs must be ages 16 to 21 and at least a year behind in credits or unable to graduate from a traditional high school because of a personal crisis. Under the new two-year budget, the state education department must make recommendations for providing an additional two years of instruction to students age 22 or older.

Charter high schools with waivers include 18 Life Skills Centers in Ohio operated by Akron-based White Hat Management, one of the country's largest for-profit charter school operators.

Under recent changes to the law, a high school that is in ''academic emergency'' two out of the previous three years would be subject to closure.

Life Skills of North Akron was rated in academic emergency this year and two years ago.

Life Skills of Summit County, Life Skills of Akron and Akron Digital Academy, which is staffed by Akron Public Schools, also have waivers. But even without the waivers, those schools would not be at risk for closure based on their performance over the past three years.

White Hat owner David Brennan told the Beacon Journal earlier this year he is not opposed to a new assessment system for schools with dropout programs.

''We're not afraid to do that,'' Brennan said. ''There's never been a consensus about what it might be. We think some measures might be appropriate.''

Lawmakers recognized that dropout schools needed a different yardstick when they passed the 2006 law and ordered the State Board of Education to recommend one. The state board made recommendations in 2008 and envisioned having those new standards in place by the end of this school year.

The Legislature has never acted on the recommendations, however, and the state education department will not move forward on its own.

The new two-year budget keeps the exemption in place, but directs the state board to issue new recommendations by July 1 for an alternative way to assess exempted charter high schools.

Sawyer, the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee, unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate the exemption during the budget debate. He said he hopes that introducing the measure as a separate bill will give lawmakers more time to consider the issues.

''These are the kinds of bills that probably need to be worked with to get it right in the course of consideration in committee,'' Sawyer said. ''I believe the question with regard to [Senate Bill] 219 is what the standard ought to be in granting a waiver and what the performance level ought to be when that waiver no longer applies.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/

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