More than a month after the Obama administration gave $32.5 million to Ohio to expand charter schools despite Ohio’s history of multiple scandals involving charters, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to state officials in which it said it did not realize the extent of concerns regarding Ohio’s charter schools.
As a result, federal officials said they would place a new restrictions on the way Ohio can use the federal money, including a temporary hold that requires explicit approval from Washington before any of the dollars can be spent.
In a letter to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross, the federal department explained that when the agency made the initial award in September, it had conducted “an expedited review” of Ohio’s record and believed the state could properly track the spending of federal funds.
Ohio was among seven states that won grants under the Obama administration’s program to expand public charter schools. The District also won a charter school grant.
But Ohio got the largest single award — $32.5 million — raising eyebrows because the state’s problems with charter schools are well-documented.
The state has had charter school scandals involving fraud, poor academic performance, oversight failures and the July resignation of a senior official at the state education department after it was discovered he manipulated performance statistics to favor some charters.
That official, David Hansen, was responsible for writing Ohio’s application for the federal grant.
Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost and several others questioned why the Obama administration was awarding millions in federal dollars to a state with multiple charter school problems. Yost’s staff had released a special audit that found a pattern of charter schools inflating enrollment to pocket taxpayer subsidies for students who don’t actually attend their schools.
Nadya Dabby, an assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Education, defended the decision in September. “Ohio has a pretty good mechanism in place to improve overall quality and oversight,” she said. “We believe Ohio has put practices in place, although there’s always room for them to grow.”
But in the Education Department letter released Wednesday, an official wrote that “the Department has received additional information that raises continuing concerns regarding (the Ohio Department of Education’s) ability to administer its CSP SEA grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability.”
As a result, the department is asking Ohio to provide answers to a string of questions, including whether the state’s application contained information that is “out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.”
Until the state satisfies questions from federal officials, Ohio cannot use any of the federal dollars without explicit federal approval, the department wrote.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who had asked Duncan to place “stringent restrictions” on the money flowing to his state, said Wednesday that he was relieved that the Obama administration is increasing its scrutiny.
“It is difficult to ask the federal government to withhold money that could — in theory — be put to good use, but the U.S. Department of Education did the right thing to slow down the process and ensure that these funds go to the children who need them the most,” Ryan said through a spokesman. “The State of Ohio will now see a new level of scrutiny that will make sure that these education dollars are spent properly, which is what our children deserve.”
Charter school operators in Ohio include some of the biggest Republican political donors in the state, and legislation to tighten oversight of charter schools had been pending for more than a year, even as scandals continued to mount. Lawmakers finally passed a bill to beef up regulation in October and was signed into law on Nov. 1 by Gov. John Kasich (R).
The law is aimed at eliminating conflicts of interest among for-profit companies that operate charter schools, prevents managers of poor-performing schools from opening new ones and requires that equipment purchased for public charter schools with tax dollars remains public property.