Ohio’s charter schools have a national reputation for hiring for-profit companies that produce poor academic results.

Only three of 26 states had lower performing charter schools, according to a Stanford University study of states with schools in operation long enough to compare results.

After a year in a charter school, Ohio students typically lag behind district school students by weeks in reading and months in math, the study finds.

In most states, it’s the opposite.

A factor in the difference appears to be the motivation to make money.

Tennessee, New York and Rhode Island, which the study reckons have the highest-performing charter school sectors, are among the six states that ban for-profit companies.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ohio trails only Michigan and Florida in the percentage of taxpayer-funded charter schools run by for-profit companies, according to the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center.

The companies vary in style, some managing all operations and assets, and some providing only targeted support; one managing one online school of 14,500 students, and others in charge of multiple traditional schools across the state.

For-profits languish

In a first-time analysis of Ohio charter-school performance by management companies, the Beacon Journal compared financial and academic records for each of the 417 charter schools open last year, linking each school’s performance, enrollment and funding to the company hired to manage it.

The analysis totals state aid for each network of charter schools and determines the effectiveness of individual management organizations by combining their network’s academic ratings for performance — how students performed on tests — and student growth — how much students, regardless of their ability, learned in a year.

The paper found that:

•?Charter schools that hired no company, as a group, performed the best academically; those managed by nonprofits showed the best student academic growth; and those managed by for-profits scored lowest in both categories.

•?Of the 16 lowest performing networks, 14 were managed by for-profit companies.

•?The online charter schools Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and Ohio Virtual Academy, which account for a quarter of all charter enrollment, averaged the lowest student growth in the state.

•?Of the 12 highest-performing charter school networks, eight hired nonprofit management organizations.

•?$503 million of $920 million in public funding went to charter schools managed by for-profit companies. A little over half of the $920 million went to out-of-state companies.

•?Out-of-state and for-profit companies enrolled 74,458 of the 119,271 Ohio charter school students.

•?The 10 highest performing companies managed schools with above-average revenue, many propped up by private philanthropists who invest in successful academic models. Others got a boost from Cleveland voters, who approved additional local aid (about $1,000 more per pupil) for high-performing charter schools. A similar local levy failed in Columbus. The state offers no financial incentive for top-performers.

“Policymakers, parents and [especially] the governing board of the charter really need to scrutinize [companies’] results and hold them accountable for delivering on what they promise. If they don’t deliver, kick them out,” said Aaron Churchill, a policy and data analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors charter schools and advocates for heightened accountability and performance in Ohio.

Most of Fordham’s charter schools have no management company; none contracts a for-profit company. A few high-performers have banded together, while remaining independent, to form nonprofit management companies.

Churchill reviewed the Beacon Journal’s analysis and concluded that charter schools with no management company appear to produce only slightly better results than those managed by nonprofits, which in turn perform better than the for-profit kind.

Churchill noted a much wider variation in student growth, with nonprofit managed charter schools making the largest gains and for-profit managed schools, again, lagging.

The biggest takeaway is how some companies do well and others appear to be failing.

“There are some exemplary Educational Management Organizations out there, and lame ones, too,” he said.

Mosaica ranks high

While for-profit companies accounted for the bulk of poor-performers, a few excelled.

New York-based Mosaica Education ranked the highest when combining performance and student growth. However, the apparent success of its network of 17 Ohio charter schools is largely driven by three Columbus area schools, each located in wealthier suburbs and drawing 40 percent of enrollment from outside the city.

The state’s highest performing charter school, Mosaica-managed Columbus Preparatory Academy, is located west of Upper Arlington, a wealthier suburb, and draws less than half of its students from the Columbus City School District.

In the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year that public and private revenue per school is reported, Columbus Preparatory Academy received $1,994 more per pupil than the average Mosaica-operated charter school.

Constellation Schools, a for-profit that educates almost entirely inner-city Cleveland students, has a more balanced approach to distributing funds, according to state financial records. This company was hired by four of only eight Ohio charter schools that met all academic standards last year.

Constellation doesn’t provide the full-service, turnkey management some companies provide and therefore does not exert the same control.

“We consider ourselves, and especially more than ever, a service provider,” said Lisa Vinarcik, who handles marketing and public relations for Constellation. The company provides technology, personnel, curriculum and financial support to its schools. But it doesn’t hire the teachers or collect rent, as some of the lowest performing full-service, for-profit operators do.

“The schools pay us to do what they need us to do. They own everything. We’re just a provider of a service,” Vinarcik said.

Most Ohio charter-school students receive an education from a teacher hired by a for-profit management company. These companies buy the books, own much of the school’s assets — purchased with tax dollars — and tell teachers, who are essentially employees of the company, how and what to teach.

This is called “turnkey” management. The company does everything. In some cases, they are known to recruit the school board responsible for guarding the funds, although most of the money is turned over to the manager.

Of the 417 charter schools open last year, 239 hired a management company. The majority, 162, hired the for-profit kind, which managed $503 million worth of public education.

About two-thirds of the $503 million went to five large, low-performing companies. These companies — White Hat, Leona Group, Altair Learning Management, K12 and Imagine Schools — enrolled 41,706.

Escaping a grade

The Ohio Department of Education produces no public report on who these companies are, how they performed or how they used tax dollars.

And so no letter grade will be given to Breakthrough Schools, a nonprofit company created by three of the state’s highest performing charter schools. No letter grade for United Schools Network, ICAN Schools or KIPP, all nonprofit organizations that support award-winning charter schools.

The state gives F’s to most city school districts where charter schools are largely located. But there is no letter grade given to for-profit companies such as Akron-based White Hat Management, which pioneered charter schools and last year operated 32 of the lowest performers, or Virginia-based Imagine Schools, which charges rent and fees that critics and school boards say drain classroom resources at its poorest performing charter schools, or online companies such as Altair Learning Management and K12, which collectively received $187.3 million last year to enroll 27,408 students who, relative to other students, made negligible academic growth. Is there a relationship between the company and performance?

“It hasn’t crossed my mind,” said Brandon Ford, school board president at Imagine Leadership Academy in Akron.

Ford said Imagine Schools, the company his school hired, interviewed him to serve on the school board after the state shut down another school located at the same location, also managed by Imagine Schools.

The previous school was academically failing. So why, after reopening, did it again perform lower than 98 percent of Ohio’s 3,725 public schools?

“I think it’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t have another measuring stick to say that this was completely an administration’s error or fault. I can only look at what I’m given by the administration or the sponsor or Imagine Schools,” said Ford, an attorney who is waiting for Imagine Schools to deliver on its promise to turn around the failed school.

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