Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) had an unusual reaction to news that the U.S. Department of Education was giving his state a $32 million grant: He was alarmed.
The money is meant to expand public charter schools in Ohio, which have been rocked by recent scandals involving fraud, oversight failures and the resignation of a senior official at the state education department after it was discovered he manipulated performance statistics to favor some charters.
“The charter school system in Ohio is broken and dysfunctional,” said Ryan, who sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking him to “place stringent restrictions” on the federal dollars he is sending to Ohio. “My concern is that we work very hard down here (in Washington) on appropriations to fund and get money back to our state and the last thing we need is a black eye because the money went to a dysfunctional program that we knew was dysfunctional.”
Public charter schools are funded with tax dollars but privately operated and are usually not unionized. In Ohio, dozens of private entities are allowed to create charter schools and are permitted to sell them services and have other business relationships that would be considered a conflict in other states. Several for-profit managers of Ohio charter schools also are among the biggest GOP donors.
“There are people making a lot of money off schools,” he said. “Why would we send more money to schools now, when we know it’s going into the pockets of people?”
Ryan wants the U.S. Department of Education to delay the grant until Ohio officials change the way charters are overseen. Legislation to do that is pending in the State House.
Ryan, who represents Youngstown and part of Akron, has strong support from labor unions. But he said his concern about the charter schools in Ohio is non-partisan.
“You may not like charter schools, but if you’re sending this much money you have to make sure it’s going to be used properly — that’s what this is about,” he said. “Our system in Ohio is corrupted, and that’s a real red flag.”
Ryan isn’t alone.
Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost, a Republican, said he was “shocked” by Duncan’s decision to pump $32 million into Ohio charters. “Heck, my first thought when I saw the grant award was concern,” Yost said.
In a special audit this year, Yost found a pattern of charter schools inflating enrollment in order to pocket taxpayer subsidies for students who don’t actually attend their schools.
Yost, a supporter of charter schools, has called the state’s charter system “broken” and repeatedly urged lawmakers to pass reforms.
He said his staff planned to carefully monitor how the latest federal dollars are spent and is asking the state’s department of education to work cooperatively on a strategy to oversee the new federal dollars.
“We’re pulling out he microscope on this,” he said. “We’re going to watch every dime of this money.”
Twenty seven states applied for the federal charter school money; Duncan awarded grants to seven and the District of Columbia. Ohio got the largest single award.
Independent reviewers rated each state’s application and Ohio got high overall marks, although its reviewer noted that Ohio provided no data on academic results from its charter schools.
“The applicant does not provide overall academic performance data, specific results in reading or mathematics, nor graduation rates. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the performance of charter school students equals or exceeds the attainment of similar students in other public schools,” the review said. It also noted that Ohio had a tendency to emphasize quantity of charter schools and not quality.
Asked why Ohio won the large grant despite its problems, Nadya Dabby, an assistant deputy secretary at U.S. Department of Education, said Monday she believed Ohio has improved its oversight of charter schools.
“Ohio has a pretty good mechanism in place to improve overall quality and oversight,” Dabby said, though she did not provide details. “We believe Ohio has put practices in place, although there ‘s always room for them to grow.”