School-choice advocates defend Ohio charter-school law as the toughest in the nation, partly because the state can shut down the poorly performing, publicly funded schools.

National studies and state data suggest otherwise.

Most charter schools close for non-academic reasons — usually financial — and it takes the state three years to act on the academically failing schools.

Meanwhile, the state has stood helpless as some forced closures simply reopened with a new name but under the same management, returning as “recycled” schools, “which we don’t approve of and we’re trying to crack down,” a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said.

At least nine charter schools, managed by for-profit companies, have reopened after ordered to close. This happened once in Akron and once in Columbus last year, and almost again this spring in Cincinnati.

In the past decade, 188 charter schools have collected $865 million in taxpayer funds before folding.

Adding to the turmoil for families, about a dozen closed last school year, sending parents and students school-shopping in the middle of the year.

The burden for taxpayers is that closed charter schools often leave behind debt that cannot be collected, some of it due to fraud or misspending.

Republican State Auditor Dave Yost, whose office inspects 5,800 publicly funded agencies, says half of all misspent tax dollars statewide were in the fewer than 400 Ohio charter schools — “a signal that the legislature needs to tighten up the system.”

And in terms of academic performance, 92 percent of charter schools received a D or F on the most recent state report card compared with 64 percent of traditional urban public schools, which were deemed an academic failure by lawmakers when they created charter schools in 1997.

The sector has flourished while accountability has waned and the state decentralized control.

In 2003, legislation sponsored by then Rep. Jon Husted, now the secretary of state, created a buffer between the Department of Education and charter schools by placing control in the hands of “sponsors,” or “authorizers,” who generally were school-choice advocates.

They, not the Ohio Department of Education, were in charge of approving new charters, and enrollment surged from 30,000 in 2003 to 125,900 today. And they have an incentive to open more schools rather than close them because their revenue is based on the number of children in the schools they oversee.

Like private management companies, Ohio’s charter-school sector is big on private sponsors.

Concentrated control

A Beacon Journal review of 67 groups that sponsored charter schools last year shows that seven private nonprofit organizations oversaw more than half of the $920 million in funding for charter schools.

With sponsors receiving 3 percent of the school revenues, or about $230 per student, there’s a financial incentive to grow enrollment and approve more charter schools.

As a group, charter schools sponsored by private groups performed lower academically than those sponsored by school districts or colleges, but better than those sponsored by educational service centers, or county school boards.

The state has cracked down on at least two educational service centers in Portage and Seneca counties for sponsoring, or attempting to sponsor, recycled charter schools.

The state has banned 22 groups from opening new charter schools, citing poor performance or failing to convey state assurances in a timely manner.

Four more, discovered by the Beacon Journal, scored lower than some that had sponsoring privileges revoked. But the state can’t go after them because, like 56 percent of all sponsors, their charter schools are too new, too small or educate too many special needs students to receive a state ranking.

Spotlight on sponsors

Any effort to reform charter schools would affect the groups that sponsor them.

“It’s a reflection of the need to get authorizing right. And that’s critical to getting charter schools right,” said William Haft, vice president of authorizer development at the National Alliance for Charter School Authorizers. “You can have a great charter school anywhere regardless of what the authorizer does. But you can’t have a quality charter-school sector without quality charter-school authorizing.”

Haft emphasized that ultimate accountability rests with sponsors. But Ohio — where charter schools lag national performance — is one of only two states with private, nonprofit groups approving charters faster and more frequently than any other type of sponsor across the nation.

“What you see in both Ohio and Minnesota in recent years is a shift to authorizer accountability,” Haft said. “I think Ohio and Minnesota are learning from the lessons of Ohio and Minnesota.”

Research-based reform

The call for reform of Ohio’s charter schools can be heard across the nation.

“Ohio has notable populations of ... public charter school students. However, such students, on average, are not performing as well as their peers in traditional public schools,” writes the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in its annual report. “To better support the growth of high-quality public charter schools, we recommend that the state change its law to further strengthen its accountability policies by improving the charter school approval process, charter school oversight, and the charter school renewal and closure process ... We also encourage the state to ensure that authorizers are closing chronically low-performing charters and to shut down low-performing authorizers.”

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, has begun a review process to address the regulation and performance of Ohio’s $920 million charter-?school sector.

“We’ve learned a lot about charters since we first started down this road, and I think it’s time that we take what we have learned — some of the challenges, some of the benefits — and look at potentially rewriting Ohio’s entire charter-school law code,” said Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Lehner has formed an advisory group — many charter-?school supporters — to review regulations that have evolved since 1999.

The group includes Barbara Mattei-Smith, former education adviser to Gov. John Kasich; Steve Dackin, former superintendent of Reynoldsburg City Schools; Robert Cupp, a former state senator and state supreme court justice; and representatives from Education First, a national education think-tank that works with policymakers; the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a charter-school sponsor and advocate for heightened performance and accountability; the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an industry group; and the Auditor of State’s office.

There are no other lawmakers in the group, though Lehner said policy advisers from both sides of the aisle will contribute to the group’s recommendations, which she will include in a “comprehensive” bill to be introduced early next year.

Previous bills, exclusively introduced by Democrats, have sought to tighten accountability and transparency in charter schools. They’ve all died in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Lehner tentatively plans to balance the growing call for heightened accountability with compromise, perhaps by rewarding successful charter schools with increased funding so the best, not the worst, multiply.

“I’m not naive. I know there will be opposition,” Lehner said. “It’s a deep dive. And it’s not something we’re going to be doing quickly or in a rush. We’re going to make sure we have it right.”

Tuesday: There are several charter schools with high academic ratings. What makes them unique?

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.