The trend in Ohio has been to change school funding and teacher work rules to reward improved academic performance.
That’s not the case for privately run charter schools in the $62 billion, two-year state budget passed last week.
The 5,300-page state budget, approved with no Democratic support and little opposition from House or Senate Republicans, gives the highest dollar increases to some of the state’s lowest-performing charter schools, while state aid for many of the highest-performing charter schools could be cut.
“Not only will high-quality charters not get funding, but low-quality charters could get a boost. That can’t be right. No legislator in their right mind would get behind something like this,” said John Zitzner, president of Friends of Breakthrough Schools, the marketing and fundraising arm for Citizens Academy East and other top-performing charter schools.
“I always thought that if you did a great job, the public would reward you,” Zitzner said.
National award-winning Citizens Academy East was one of only five charter schools statewide to receive the equivalent of an A+ on last year’s state report card. Yet funding for this high achieving school, located in Cleveland, would be cut by $963 per student under the state budget.
Statewide, it is the worst academic performers that will score the largest increases, on average $276 per pupil.
Among those with low academic scores but per-pupil funding increases are Life Skills Centers, many of which were founded and continue to be operated by White Hat Management, Akron businessman David Brennan's school management company.
White Hat is the state's largest for-profit charter-management company and Brennan and associates are the largest political campaign contributors to Republican leadership among the charter school interests.
The Life Skills centers, on average, will receive more than $1,400 per pupil in the new state budget.
A call to White Hat Management on Friday seeking comment was not returned.
The charter school that will receive the largest increase next year is Life Skills of Cleveland, which scored an F on the state report card last year. However, the board that runs that school last year severed its ties with White Hat, hired a new management company, Cambridge Education Group in Akron, and changed the name to Invictus High School.
(An early version of this story incorrectly identified the manager of Invictus.)
A spreadsheet showing the increases for poorly performing schools was delivered by the Legislative Service Commission after the budget had moved from the governor, through the House and approved by the Senate.
The large increases caught the eye of some.
“That discrepancy became obvious and I believe the conference committee has taken steps to adjust it,” Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said a few days before the conference committee unveiled the final version of the budget. She is chair of the Senate Education committee and was vice chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee.
“You’re going to see a difference,” she assured.
No new spreadsheets have been made available since the conference committee delivered a compromise budget, but there appears to be no substantive change in funding for high-performing vs. low-performing schools.
“They have done nothing to rectify it,” charged an aide to Ohio Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, on Wednesday after the conference committee passed the budget revisions.
In fact, charter schools in urban areas may have gotten even more money after the conference committee moved funding into a program for disadvantaged pupils, capping public school districts to specific percentage increases while applying no caps to charters.
The Legislative Service Commission typically recalculates funding so lawmakers can see who wins and who loses before voting, but the Beacon Journal could find no one who had seen the calculations, though some, like Lehner, said they had requested them.
What is known is that the Senate’s formula would have given charters $22.6 million more than they received in 2013 if there were no changes in enrollment. That figure could be higher because of the shift in funding from early childhood literacy to districts with concentrations of economically disadvantaged students — coincidentally where most charter schools are situated.
The increase would follow a $60 million jump from 2012 to 2013.
“We need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on [low-performing schools] and, more importantly, we need to stop wasting kids’ lives,” said Greg Harris, a school reform lobbyist and director of the Ohio chapter of Students First, a national advocacy firm that promotes quality school choice.
Harris and other charter-school advocates lobbied Ohio senators a month ago to increase the investment in the state’s highest-performing charter schools.
The charter-school movement was meant to offer better choices for parents, who would invest in the best options by enrolling their children in high-performing schools.
“Twenty years into the [national] charter movement there are no more excuses,” Harris said. “Our funding policies have to be reformed accordingly. And that is not reflected in this [state] budget.”
Financially rewarding the lowest performing schools undermines the entire movement, Harris said.
But that’s what the next two-year state budget would do.
On average, charter schools would receive $195 in additional base aid per student, according to the June 3 Legislative Service Commission simulations. Charter schools that received the lowest academic rating in 2012 would receive an average of $8,715 per student while the highest-ranked charters schools would get $6,762, a difference of nearly $2,000.
Advocates for quality school choice, like Harris, say that’s not fair or adequate.
He had expected legislators to increase accountability and regulation of Ohio’s more than 369 charters schools by linking funding to performance.
That’s the message he presented to senators in early May.
He shared the stage with Breakthrough Schools, a top-ranked charter-school operator. Four of the company’s seven schools received academic ratings last year. They were effective, excellent and two excellent-with-distinction ratings, the highest possible academic ranking. Only two other charter schools in Ohio achieved that highest designation.
Instead of giving increases to top performers like Breakthrough, the conference committee removed language that would have guaranteed at least the same level of funding from year to year for 29 charter schools that scored excellent or better.
That would have maintained current funding levels for most Breakthrough Schools, which instead are cut by $321,142, or a reduction of more than $200 per student.
Harris has only one explanation for how funding would be distributed.
“A lot of times it has to do not with how well your school is performing but how well your lobbyist is paid,” he said.
White Hat a winner
One of the biggest winners in the Senate version is also the largest campaign contributor among for-profit charter-school management companies.
Brennan, along with his wife,Ann, and lobbyist Tom Needles, have contributed more than $3.8 million to more than 51 politicians between 2004 and 2012. Primary benefactors include Senate President Keith Faber, House Speaker William Batchelder, chairs of House and Senate education and finance committees, the Republican Party, Secretary of State John Husted, Ohio Auditor John Husted and Gov. John Kasich.
Needles, in a conversation last week, declined to discuss specifics of funding as the conference committee had it under consideration. But, he said, “The right to petition one’s government has been around since the beginning of the government.”
The biggest winners in this budget are dropout recovery programs that cater to high school students.
Nearly two-thirds of Ohio’s dropout recovery programs scored the academic equivalent of a D or F in 2012, the most recent year for performance data.
These 61 programs, which serve less than 8 percent of Ohio’s charter school students, would receive more than 15 percent of the $22.6 increase in basic state aid for Ohio charter schools.
This list of dropout recovery schools includes at least 17 Life Skills facilities that are or have been operated by Brennan’s White Hat Management.
These Life Skills facilities, like all dropout recovery programs, are also some of the state’s least regulated charter schools. They’ll be the last to receive a grade under the new report card. Academic standards for measuring these schools won’t be determined until the end of next year.
While these programs attempt to educate the most challenging of students, they often have graduation rates in the single digits.
In order to remain open, these dropout recovery programs would only need to improve graduation rates by as little as one percentage point to meet regulations added to the budget by the House.
An amendment later added by the Senate calls for dropout recovery programs to receive “separate report cards that do not include letter grades and are subject to separate closure standards.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.