By Doug Livingston

Beacon Journal staff writer

Lawmakers are once again trying to determine if charter school lobbyists are watering down efforts to hold privately run public schools accountable.

In the Ohio House this week, Gov. John Kasich’s state budget bill was altered to give charter school sponsors a way to pass newly created evaluations, which many have failed. The provision prohibits the Ohio Department of Education from flunking a sponsor that gets a zero on any one component of the state’s new three-pronged accountability system. Another change allows sponsors, which sign off on the opening and closing of charter schools, to review and appeal evaluations before they are released to the public.

Unlike state report cards issued to charter and traditional public schools, sponsors get evaluated in three areas: adherence to state law, following best industry practices and the academic performance of students. The report cards can be appealed before they are made public.

If passed, the amendments inserted in the budget bill this week by Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, would prevent the state from flunking sponsors if they bomb the two non-academic portions of the evaluation. Another amendment would make student growth, or how much a student learns in a year, account for 60 percent of the academic portion. This means less emphasis would be put on other academic measures, like graduation rates or how high students score on end-of-year tests.

School choice advocates, including the lobbyists pushing these changes, have long argued that charter school students should be measured on student growth, not achievement, to account for the impact of poverty and other factors beyond a teacher’s control.

The changes have drawn sharp criticism from Rep. Kristina Roegner, a Hudson Republican who broke ranks with her party two years ago to push for more regulation and accountability in Ohio’s charter schools, which as a group have been found by auditors to misspend more tax dollars than any other type of state-funded organization and are among the lowest academic performers, according to national researchers.

“I do not support any provision which would water down the charter school reforms we worked so hard to enact though House Bill 2,” Roegner said. “If we expect excellence in education, all of Ohio’s public schools — both traditional and charter — need to be held to high and rigorous standards.”

Brenner said charter school lobbyists and advocates asked for the changes. But, after listening to a reporter relay Roegner’s concerns, he agreed that a standalone bill might be a better venue to debate how sponsors should be graded.

“Yes, she’s got a legitimate concern on a couple of these issues,” Brenner said. “She’s got a legitimate concern about watering down [charter school reform].”

Lobbyist’s touch

Ron Adler, president of Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, lobbies for charter schools and their sponsors. He calls often and speaks directly to Brenner, the lawmaker said.

But Adler isn’t happy with plans to pull his amendments, which Roegner asked of her colleagues Friday.

“I would prefer it [stay in the budget bill],” Adler said, responding to Roegner’s concern that the provisions weaken the sponsor evaluations, and therefore accountability.

“This is not eliminating anything,” Adler continued. “We believe this is coming back to legislative intent and reducing the unfairness. We believe that [the Ohio Department of Education], as they often do, let the pendulum swung too far.”

Adler is referring to a spate of state regulations cracking down on charter schools.

Last year, he said ODE “arbitrarily” forced charter schools to produce in a matter of weeks thousands of documents for the new evaluations. Then the evaluations came out. Only five sponsors passed. Many were given termination notices. Others were told to improve or they would be next.

Thirty-three sponsor scored too low to qualify for grant funding, much of which had to be returned to the U.S. Department of Education last month after a former school choice chief at the ODE, which has since changed management, lied on the federal grant application back in 2015.

“It’s overreach,” Adler said of the pendulum swinging from what was once called the “Wild West” of charter schools to a more regulated environment. The scathing evaluations are an extension of that overreach, he argued. “I think when we’re evaluating a charter school or a newspaper reporter or a charter advocate like myself and my boss sits down and says you’re doing good on this and this and this and here’s where we need to make improvement, but then we put together a rubric that nobody understands — I frankly don’t understand it, I don’t think you do either — and then say we’re going to shut you down if you don’t pass?

“That’s pretty harsh.”

Familiar issues

Roegner’s attempt to raise academic performance and reduce taxpayer misspending in charter schools has not gone smoothly, partly because of continued scandal and lobbying efforts to undermine the new rules that she and colleagues supported two years ago.

Roegner introduced her charter school reform package, House Bill 2, in 2015. The plan was welcomed by Democrats who, representing urban districts where most charter schools operate, have cried foul for years. Mounting media reports detailed problems emerging in Ohio’s 20-year experiment in for-profit companies running publicly funded schools.

Before House Bill 2, management companies that continue to dominate Ohio’s charter schools to this day routinely picked the nonprofit board members who were supposed to call the shots, not the other way around. In the few instances when the state tried to close problem charter schools, the companies sometimes borrowed board members from other schools, changed the name and reopened without missing a payment from the state.

When a group of school boards exerted its autonomy by rebelling against White Hat Management, the Ohio Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Akron company, under state law, had the right to kick them out and keep all the assets accumulated through years of collecting taxpayer funding.

Asleep at the wheel throughout much of this were the sponsors. The state gave these mostly private organizations the authority and responsibility to police academic and fiscal performance.

House Bill 2 strengthened state regulation on charters and their sponsors to weed out the bad apples.

Lobbyists return

Roegner’s reform plan initially stalled in the summer of 2015.

School choice advocates, including Adler and lobbyists for the state’s largest online charter school, went to work on House and Senate leadership.

As Roegner’s bill was debated, the state’s school choice director, David Hansen, was caught cherry-picking test scores to make online charter schools look better. Later that year, after what Roegner considered a “watered-down version” of her bill was signed into law, Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican who carried charter school reform in the Ohio Senate, heard that the charter school lobby was already working on a way to change the test scores used to evaluate the sponsors.

Now, Brenner has introduced that plan, pushed by Adler, who is pushing back against a state that is cracking down after a history of poor performance.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug .