by Félix Pérez
To say that a few eyebrows were raised when Ohio was awarded a $71 million charter school grant in September by the U.S. Department of Education would be a gross understatement. Ohio, after all, is widely recognized as having the nation’s worst charter school system, so much so that the official who oversaw the system and submitted the federal grant application was forced to resign in the summer for doctoring charter school scores.
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That all changed this month, when the federal education department notified Ohio that it must “refrain from drawing down any Charter School Program funds . . . or incurring any expenses or obligations” related to the first installment of the grant, or $32.7 million, until the state provides audited information about the accuracy of charter school performance, transparency and accountability. Ohio was informed that the new conditions will remain in place until the state is able to “verify the accuracy and completeness of its application.”
In a letter to Richard Ross, Ohio’s superintendent, Stefan Huh, director of the U.S. Charter School Program, stated, “Since awarding the grant to the Ohio Department of Education, the Department has received additional information that raises continuing concerns regarding ODE’s ability to administer its . . . grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability with respect to Ohio’s charter schools.”
More recently, Ross has sought to reassure federal regulators that the state is overcoming its dismal track record with charter school performance and accountability. Increasingly, questions are arising as to whether Ohio will be able to fulfill the new conditions and reporting requirements and ultimately lose the entire grant award.
The federal government’s decision to place restrictions on the grant was seen as vindication by educators and elected officials, who recommended the grant be rescinded because of Ohio’s scandal-plagued charter school system. Among those calling for the grant to be withdrawn was the Ohio Education Association. First-grade teacher Beck Higgins, OEA president, said, “It’s very hard to have confidence in ODE’s ability to serve as a fair and impartial evaluator of charter school operations in light of what happened in the effort to mask the poor performance of online schools. An independent investigation would help restore the public’s faith that ODE is capable of acting in the best interest of Ohio’s students.”
Ted Strickland, former Ohio governor, also questioned the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to award the grant. In a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Strickland stated;
Not only are these poor performing charter schools undeserving of millions of additional funds, this grant to charters comes at a time when many of Ohio’s traditional public schools are facing significant cuts and are being asked to do more with less.
The letter from the U.S. Department of Education to Ross referenced the circumstances surrounding the resignation of David Hansen, Ohio’s director of school choice and charters. Hansen, appointed by Gov. John Kasich, resigned in July after admitting he excluded poor grades for online and dropout-recovery schools on evaluations of their charter-school sponsors.
Ohio’s ability to meet the terms set by the federal government suffered a setback recently, when Superintendent Ross announced his resignation. Ross, a Kasich appointee, has been the subject of withering criticism for his department’s lax oversight of charter schools. Under Ross’ watch, the department left out the F grades of online schools – some of which were founded by large Republican donors.
Under tremendous pressure, Kasich signed a long-delayed charter school reform this month. The law, which requires greater transparency and accountability, is the result of problems plaguing the state’s charter schools for years, including shutting down abruptly and leaving students out in the cold, misspending funds by for-profit companies, and poor academic performance by students.