(Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg)

In October, the U.S. Education Department announced $157 million in charter school grants, including a recommended $71 million to Ohio, despite the fact that its charter sector has long been, at best, a mess.

At the time, many in the education world wondered why the department had given any money to Ohio, given that a newspaper had done an analysis revealing that the state’s charter sector had misspent tax dollars more than any other, including school districts, court systems, public universities, hospitals and local governments.

When asked, federal officials admitted that they hadn’t quite realized just how scandal-ridden Ohio’s charter sector was, and decided that it would investigate. In June, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D)  asked the Education Department to review its grant-making process and said that if the grant was to be given, tough restrictions should be put in place, including an independent monitor.

Then, on Sept. 14, the department said it would go ahead and release the grant with restrictions. According to a letter (see below) sent by the U.S. Education Department to  Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, federal officials have completed a 10-month review and have decided to place the grant on “high risk status” but release the money to the state with unprecedented “high risk special conditions”  in place.  Steps the Ohio Department of Education must take, according to the letter, include:

* Hire an independent monitor to oversee all of the conditions placed on the grant.
* Submit documentation to the U.S. Education Department for approval of all withdrawals from the grant account.
* Submit budgets to the federal department for approval a few times a year, as well as semiannual financial reports related to the grant’s use, with those reports being made public.
* Form an advisory committee of parents, teachers and community members to oversee the grant’s implementation.

The letter says in part:

We support innovative models in the public school sector, including public charter schools that meet the highest standards in quality, accountability and transparency. Charters that are serving students well should be supported, and, as with all schools, those that are not meeting their obligations to students should be held accountable.

Held accountable? By getting $71 million in federal funds and having to prove they aren’t misusing it?

You might think charter schools should be legally required to be completely transparent with the public about their financial operations as part of the deal in which they get public funds to operate, but alas, they aren’t.

A 2016 report titled “Belly Up: A Review of Federal Charter School Program Grants” to Ohio, found a dismal record. The report was done by the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, a joint venture of the Ohio Education Association and the policy think tank Innovation Ohio. It said in part:

These grants are geared toward the development and expansion of new charter schools, which can be a high-risk proposition. Since the 2006-07 school year, 292 Ohio charter schools have received federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants totaling $99.6 million in federal aid. However, the failure rate for these charter schools is staggering:

* At least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million.

* Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned.

* The charter schools that have received CSP funding and received State Report Card grades in the 2014-2015 school year had a median Performance Index score that was lower than all but 15 Ohio school districts and would have been graded as a D.

* A recent state audit of 44 Ohio charter schools found 15 percent attendance discrepancy. Of these 44 charters, 17 had received CSP grants totaling $6.6 million in federal funding and one of these schools — the London Academy — only had 10 of the 270 students in attendance.

And there’s this, from Steve Dyer, a lawyer who is the education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio and was once an Ohio state representative, from his blog:

To add insult to injury, a charter school chain that has some of the highest performing charters in Ohio was rejected for sponsorship in Mississippi — yes, THAT Mississippi — this week [for] not being high performing enough for that state to sponsor.

When the best performing schools in your state aren’t high performing enough for Mississippi, you’ve got problems.

While it’s easy to see why the U.S. Education Department put its latest charter grant to Ohio on “high risk” status, it remains an open question why a charter sector with this record deserves the grant at all.

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Here’s the letter from the U.S. Education Department to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria:




 

And here’s Brown’s June letter to the department: