WHOSE CHOICE? / First in a four-part series
Published Sunday, December 12, 1999
By Dennis J. Willard and Doug Oplinger
Beacon Journal staff writers
Ohio, already No. 1 in the '90s for putting public dollars into private schools and last in the nation for placing children in safe and sanitary buildings, is on course to earn a new distinction in the next decade.
The state is ready to rival Arizona, California, Florida and Michigan for funneling state and local tax dollars to a new class of schools -- charter schools -- that are public in some ways and private in others.
Two years ago, Ohio did not have a charter school law on the books. But state lawmakers, former Gov. George Voinovich and current Gov. Bob Taft have made up for lost time -- paving the way for 48 charter schools to open statewide in just the past 15 months.
While making good on promises to provide parents with educational options, state leaders and lawmakers were busy making choices of their own.
They opted to bully charter laws onto the books. They granted the state unchallengeable authority to create charter schools in existing public school districts. And they denied local communities any say in the matter, not even allowing public hearings.
Now, less than five months into the second year -- as charter schools move from concept to reality -- serious questions and disturbing problems are starting to arise.
+ Private, profit-minded companies, known as education management organizations, are making strong inroads into the state. In doing so, these EMOs are concentrating school ownership in the hands of a few and brushing aside the people who were to be given control of their local charter, or community, schools -- parents, teachers and community members.
+ The Ohio Board of Education, responsible for oversight, is rubber-stamping contracts as fast as it can without thoroughly reviewing the written proposals or hearing from a single charter school representative. One reason: Most board members say they have almost no authority to reject a proposal.
+ Lawmakers did not fund an oversight office for charter schools until the program's second year and after more than 60 contracts had been approved and 15 schools had opened. The undermanned office is hard-pressed to complete routine checks for fire safety and criminal backgrounds, and is barely monitoring academic progress.
+ Children are bearing the brunt of the charter school problems. The state has allowed charter schools to open without textbooks or indoor toilets. Students have attended class in unsafe buildings that lacked sprinklers or fire alarm systems. And local police in Columbus were called 12 times in two months to one charter school to investigate disturbances, including one case of sexual assault.
+ Most charter schools are not models for reform. First-year test scores indicate students in charter schools are doing dramatically worse than public schoolchildren, and the new schools are not incubators for innovation as proponents promised they would be.
+ Profits are being reaped, but there is no evidence that charter schools are reducing education costs or saving Ohio taxpayers money -- despite lower pay for teachers and exemptions from 191 state mandates that hike the cost of education in public schools.
The result is that parents pick the school of choice for their children while Ohioans foot the bill. And despite the millions of taxpayer dollars pouring into charter schools annually, there appears to be little government regulation.
"I think it's a mistake to have the state charter these schools and turn them loose with little or no supervision," said John Gilligan, Ohio's governor from 1971-75 who was elected to the Cincinnati Board of Education in November.
While he believes some charter schools have been successful, others have been fiascoes, he said.
"In the meantime," he said, "we're going to experiment with our children's welfare."
At the dawn of this decade, charter schools didn't exist anywhere.
In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to pass a law permitting them. By this year, an estimated 350,000 children were enrolled in about 1,700 quasi-public schools in 36 states and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Ohio's entree, albeit belated, has been dramatic.
During the 1998-99 school year, 15 charter schools were up and running. An additional 33 charter schools opened this year. The state will spend more than $52 million to enroll about 10,400 students.
And it's just getting started. Taft and state lawmakers have made a substantial commitment and investment in charter schools, extending their reach to Ohio's 21 largest cities and poor-performing school districts. With that, the number of schools and enrollment is expected to double by next fall.
Charter schools were a simple concept. To break the public school mold and monopoly, a local building would be turned over to parents, teachers, educators and community members.
Former state Sen. Cooper Snyder, R-Hillsboro, an early sponsor, made it sound like local folks would run a school building the way parents organize a little league baseball team.
"A good education system is central to any community," Snyder said in 1995. "My proposal simply allows the community to make significant contributions to the process and, in the end, I think we'll see better schools as a result."
Although profit is not a dirty word to charter school backers, Snyder and other lawmakers never mentioned it. Nor did they talk about private companies coming in from all corners of the country to open schools.
Now education management organizations dominate the charter school movement. Ohio is already following other states that have EMOs, such as Michigan.
A study completed in October by three Michigan State University professors found 70 percent of the charter schools in that state were run by EMOs during the 1998-99 school year, up from 50 percent a year before.
"I think this was an unexpected development," said David Arsen, one of the MSU professors. "Is it a good or bad thing? We don't know. What we do know is this is a terrifically important development. It's quite possible that linking the profit motive to improvement will work. It's possible that the opposite is true," Arsen said.
In Ohio, EMOs run 16 of the state's 48 charter schools. Although they represent one-third of the charter schools, the EMOs control 45 percent of the state and local funds and enroll 46 percent of the students.
By far, Akron entrepreneur David Brennan's White Hat Management is Ohio's EMO leader.
White Hat runs 11 schools with 3,267 students and is projected to take in $16 million -- or almost one of every three taxpayer-funded charter dollars -- this year. By next fall, Brennan and White Hat could have more than 30 charter schools in Ohio.
By law, only nonprofit organizations, and not private for-profit companies, can start a charter school. But the nonprofits and EMOs work hand-in-hand, often so close it is difficult to determine which came first or if they truly are distinct entities.
For example, identical contracts for several White Hat Management-managed schools were submitted together to the state board although the schools are supposed to be run by independent governing authorities -- the private equivalent of school boards.
These governing authority members, unlike public school board members, can have a financial interest in the schools, give contracts to friends and relatives without competitive bids, and are not required to undergo criminal background checks.
Those liberal doses of public funding with few strings attached make Ohio attractive to EMOs.
The state gives charter schools the same basic funding per pupil as the local public school district, but Taft and lawmakers upped the ante for the quasi-public schools this June with increased money for computers, all-day kindergarten, textbooks, aid to poor children, special education and startup funds.
Even charter school advocates are split on the issue of EMOs and the privatization of public education.
Brennan and other entrepreneurs say a market driven by parents will decide the fate of charter schools while others think charter schools should be limited to filling niches not addressed by local districts.
The Ohio Department of Education is struggling with this issue, largely because more than half of the 60 contracts proposed for next year are from EMOs or charter school developers already operating in the state.
But their internal debate may be wasted effort because a majority of the state Board of Education, empowered with creating charter schools, say they do not have the authority to reject a legal contract.
MASTERS OF OVERSIGHT
To paraphrase Will Rogers, the state board has never met a charter school it doesn't like.
The board rarely questions individual contracts. It voted for 37 contracts with a single roll call on April 13.
State board members -- 11 of them elected and eight appointed -- are responsible for approving 36 of the state's 48 open charter schools. The remaining charter schools are in the Toledo area, created by public agencies in Lucas County.
Jennifer Sheets, an elected member from Meigs County, said the state board has no discretion and must approve any contracts that meet standards established by state lawmakers.
The gray area, of course, is the standards.
The board relies on recommendations from state education department staff, who review the proposals, point out legal, academic and operational problems, and raise questions for the board to consider and discuss.
Some contracts, like those for the Ida B. Wells and Edge Academy charter schools in Akron, are thorough. Staff reviews indicate little or no problems with those contracts.
But they are not the norm. Most contract proposals are flagged by staff for numerous problems. Some contracts have as many as 20 areas marked "no," meaning they are not acceptable in those areas.
While Department of Education staff is expected to iron out the problems with the charter school, the state board has been more interested in getting schools open and approves almost all contracts on a conditional basis.
State board members, however, do not follow up on the outstanding conditions in the contracts, and the education department reviewers who originally noted the problems are not asked to sign off on any negotiated changes.
Diana Fessler, an elected board member from the Dayton area, has criticized the board for not doing homework or addressing important issues. She also could not get education department staffers to send her contracts to review and was not given access to the thousands of pages until shortly before the April 13 meeting.
"It would have been humanly impossible for someone to read and absorb," Fessler said.
Melanie Bates, an elected board member from Cincinnati, said she supports charter schools and voted to approve the 37 contracts. But some schools in that bunch should not open, she said.
"They are bundled. I think the full board should vote on these individually," Bates said.
One of the contracts approved was the Cleveland Alternative Learning Academy, run by a Maryland-based company that also opened a school in Dayton. Department staff reviewing the Cleveland contract cited 17 deficiencies on Feb. 23, noting the proposal appeared to have been completed in a rush.
Six weeks later, the deficiencies were never discussed as the state board approved the contract without mentioning the school.
In another possible problem, most charter school contracts do not list potential locations for school officials to check out before approving a binding contract. That may explain why no one from the state board or department inspected the Cleveland Alternative school before it opened in August.
But city fire inspectors eventually did. A month after classes began, fire inspectors forced the school to close because it did not have fire alarms or sprinkler systems. The state let the school move to a different building without a working alarm -- a problem once again cited by city, not state, officials.
In October, staff from the Office of School Options -- which oversees a majority of charter schools in Ohio -- made site visits to the 36 schools approved by the state board. Ten charter schools were not in full compliance with fire inspections, 17 did not have completed occupancy permits, and nine schools were not in full compliance with health and safety inspections.
More than a month after opening, seven schools were not in full compliance for any of the three critical areas -- occupancy, fire or safety and health. The schools are providing the state with weekly updates on their inspection status. But there was almost no progress four to six weeks later.
Only one school had secured an occupancy permit while none of the schools noted in the first visit had reached full compliance on fire, or health and safety inspections.
Steve Ramsey, assistant director of the Office of School Options, said the state board will continue to approve contracts that do not list a specific location, but operators must have a facility by June 15 beginning next year. All occupancy permits and fire, safety and health inspections must be completed before a school can open next year, Ramsey said.
Still, state board members appear to be looking no further than the last page of the contract summary for a recommendation. In doing so, they are not asking questions or discussing problems brought to their attention by the department.
And the board doesn't always follow recommendations.
When contracts for Cincinnati's Riverside Academy and Hope Academy Lincoln Park in Cleveland were approved in April, they came with this staff recommendation: The Brennan schools should be allowed to open only "upon satisfactory completion of the state auditor's report of the current Hope Academy charter schools for the 1998-99 school year."
But when the schools opened in September, State Auditor Jim Petro's office had not yet received financial data from the Hope schools. And the audit results won't be ready until next year.
Neither state board President Martha Wise nor state school Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman were aware of the decision to allow the schools to open -- a decision made by education department staff without their bosses signing off.
There is one part of the contract that state board members have been sticklers for -- a clause that clearly states they are not personally liable as individuals or as a state panel for any damages or personal lawsuits brought against the charter schools.
And state lawmakers, after being lobbied aggressively last spring, changed Ohio law to ensure charter schools could be sued, but the individuals operating them were not personally liable and would not lose their homes or possessions through a court action.
Wise, the state board president from Avon, defended the board and its actions thus far on charter schools. She noted that the board relied on the state education department to review and monitor the schools.
"We were trying to go as fast as possible and not be inhibitors for choice for parents and their children," she said. "The term would be due haste. We were working as fast as possible."
Ramsey said the state will "have egg on its face" at times as these schools start to open, but the setbacks are worth the effort to increase competition in the public school monopoly, provide choice to parents and reduce overall education costs.
LITTLE, IF ANY, INNOVATION
Charter schools were supposed to spur healthy competition and innovation.
"Charter schools can make it really easy to innovate in the classroom," said former state Rep. Sally Perz, R-Toledo, an early sponsor.
To date, the state has no program designed to share innovations if there were any.
Many charter school operators rely on nationally developed, alternative education programs that many public schools would experiment with if money was available.
There are two Montessori charter schools in Ohio. At the Millennium School in Columbus, Jim Cowardin uses Direct Instruction. In Akron, 120 miles away, Susan and David Dudas bought the same program from McGraw Hill for their Edge Academy.
"Innovation does not equal success. It's results that count," Susan Dudas said.
The large EMOs often bring the same cookie-cutter approach to their schools that charter school supporters have argued are problems in public schools. After all, developing new educational approaches takes time and money.
Edison is one of the few EMOs that is credited with investing in research and development, but it still relies on Success For All, a widely used reading program.
David Brennan, who denounced the cookie-cutter approach used by public school "educrats" as chairman of Gov. George Voinovich's school choicecommission in the early '90s, has opened two types of cookie-cutter schools.
His Hope Academies and Life Skills schools rely on the Josten computer-based education program, which is used throughout the nation. One of his schools may begin to use Direct Instruction.
Jim LaRiccia, principal of the largest charter school in Ohio -- Brennan's Eagle Heights Academy in Youngstown -- was asked to explain the difference in academic approaches between his school and the local public schools.
"There's a lot of hugs," LaRiccia said. "That breaks down a lot of walls."
Charter schools also are supposed to save money, but there is nothing in the law that requires them to do so.
In February 1997, the state's Legislative Service Commission prepared a 13-page memo that identifies 191 sections of Ohio law that charter schools are not required to follow. Public school administrators maintain they would spend less if they were given the same exemptions from mandates that charter schools enjoy.
While some laws pertain to bureaucracy and recordkeeping -- a cost that cannot be ignored in public schools -- other areas require the public schools to spend considerable amounts of money.
Public schools must continue to notify parents when students are absent and meet per-pupil ratios for librarians, guidance counselors, nurses and art, music and physical education teachers. Many charter schools offer these services part time or not at all.
In public schools, gifted children must be identified and provided special attention. Not so with charter schools.
LaRiccia, the Eagle Heights principal, said he doesn't test the school's 732 students to determine if any are gifted, and there are no special classes or pullout programs for the children.
That helps keep costs lower for the charter school.
Clint Satow, Ohio Community School Center assistant director, said charter schools already spend less per pupil than local public schools. While he is correct that public schools spend more, the differences can be accounted for by hundreds of dollars spent by public schools for school bus transportation and federal, vocational and gifted programs.
Some charter schools avail themselves of those services, which would push their per-pupil expenditures much closer to that of the public schools. The charter schools can also receive up to $150,000 over three years in federal and state start-up grants that public schools do not.
And Taft and state lawmakers this year made sure charter schools would receive the same amount of money per pupil or more than a local district in almost every state and federal funding area.
Ironically, due to the complexity of the state's funding system for public schools, charter schools are actually costing local property taxpayers more money for their local school system.
That's because the state guarantees 100 percent funding for each child enrolled in a charter school, but does not extend the same to the public school student.
Why? State funding increases are capped at 11.5 percent regardless of enrollment.
That means Cincinnati, the largest urban district affected by the cap, will lose $8 million in state aid this year. The cap forces the district to pay 100 percent of the funding for the local charter school students, including the state's share.
"The impact is there," said Richard Gardner, Cincinnati schools treasurer. "The state would say it is just a pass-through. The problem is that really doesn't happen. The cap kicks in. We don't get any more money because of the community schools."
Gardner said charter schools will cost his district $7 million this year, and a levy approved by local voters in November was needed to pay the bill.
The state is picking Cincinnati's and other urban district's pockets in another way. The state guaranteed to the 15 original charter schools that they would get as much special education money as last year -- regardless of whether special ed students actually enrolled there.
Four schools in Toledo and two in Cincinnati opted to take the guarantee, which will cost the local districts $500,000 each.
But under the guarantee, if the child returns to Cincinnati, the money doesn't follow the student. It stays with the charter school.
For example, Harmony Community School in Cincinnati will receive nearly $485,000 more this year in guaranteed special ed money as a result. The money for the guarantee comes from Cincinnati. "I have to pay Harmony for not educating that student," Gardner said.
Those problems aside, charter schools appear to be here to stay. And each state is faced with designing its own laws and policies.
"The rules matter," MSU professor Arsen said. "You have to have rules, and you have to get the rules right."
In Ohio, charter schools are expected to keep opening at a quick pace. Millions of state tax dollars will continue flowing into them. And the state will be deducting dollars from local school districts that in effect will move local property taxes into private hands.
But the idea of the charter school has changed a great deal without much public debate.
Gone is the talk of communities controlling a local school building. More and more, charter schools are a privatization of public schools although supporters are reluctant to acknowledge this idea.
At a workshop held once a week by the education department to help people prepare proposals for charter schools, Dr. Patricia Hughes, a consultant hired by the state, was recently talking about the types of charter schools that have opened in Ohio.
Like most people at the statehouse, Hughes calls them "community schools."
She noted there was one type of community school that had not emerged as the state began working to open more schools in the third year of program.
"Right now, we don't have a neighborhood community school," Dr. Hughes said.
And she said it without a hint of irony.
Doug Oplinger can be reached at email@example.com