Photo by Elizabeth Albert
Talk about a rough week. Take a look at the news stories coming out about charter schools this week.
On Saturday, the Akron Beacon Journal (again) led the way on enterprise reporting on this topic by publishing an analysis of 4,263 audits done last year by the Auditor of State revealed that
"No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio."
Among the findings:
- While charters only accounted for 400 of 5,800 audits, they accounted for 70% of the misspent money
- $25 million in misspent money remains unpaid
- For every $1 misspent found by private auditors, public auditors found $102
The misspending is probably worse than what the audits turned up because so many charters were next to impossible to audit, according to the Beacon Journal.
Then came a Columbus Dispatch editorial (historically, no friend of the charter critic) that called out charter school sponsors for wanting to hide their expenditures to oversee the sector, except in limited cases -- an argument not much different from one I made about the same time.
Later that same day, the Dispatch revealed that the troubled North Side Imagine charter school might be shut down because its board just up and quit. This is the same school that was found last year toy be spending an exorbitant amount of money leasing the property from a subsidiary of Imagine Schools -- a practice that was found to be illegal in Missouri. Imagine Schools, Inc. run schools in 11 states and are no stranger to controversy.
Meanwhile, the same day, the Dayton Daily News reported that three former Dayton-area charter school officials were convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges in connection with their operation of the Arise! Academy.
They all face at least 15 years in federal prison for steering lucrative contracts to each other.
Yesterday, the Plain Dealer reported that 3 charters have been put on notice that the state's looking to close them, including another 2 Imagine schools. That's not all.
"All three are failing to manage their budgets properly, ODE also said in the letters, and the Villaview and Cleveland Community School partnership could face ethics charges."
As a follow-up, this morning, WKYC-TV in Cleveland reported that not 3, but 4 charters -- including another Imagine school in Canton -- would be suspended for failing to meet performance requirements.
And finally, yesterday, the Beacon Journal told the tale of how private auditors sent out by the State Auditor's office failed to catch more than $1.3 million that had been outright taken from one area charter school, calling into question whether private auditing firms should even be used as a substitute for public auditors.
What did the private firm miss? Try this:
"It was an abrupt turnabout: A private accounting firm had given the charter school a clean bill of financial health, finding “no material weakness” despite missing information later discovered by the state. Among the state’s discoveries were employee contracts that lacked signatures, a cruise boat company had charged the school for too many attendees for a training session (nothing in the audit suggested training on cruise boats might be inappropriate) and half of the receipts were missing."
These stories all have been told before, though not as rapid-fire and in as quick succession. What they indicate is pretty clear: We desperately need real, substantive charter school reform. Now. The Ohio Senate is currently considering SB 148, which would be a meaningful improvement on the current situation. However, it still doesn't make it easier for the state to shut down poor performing charters, nor does it fix a funding system that far too often forces local property taxpayers to subsidize the state funding losses to woefully underperforming charter schools.
To be clear, there are a few quite exemplary charter schools out there. And I want to see them thrive in more places around this state. So this is in no way directed at the Breakthrough Schools, or DECA or Columbus Prep, or the Toledo School for the Arts. This is about the more than 3 out of 4 charter schools that simply aren't cutting it.
Again, I am not anti-charter school. I am extremely concerned about the state of Ohio's overall charter school health.
So let's at least get this Senate bill done. Judging from this week's worth of news stories, I imagine that Ohio's lawmakers and education advocates will be dealing with charter school issues for many more moons. It is indeed a shame that Ohio's sector is such a mess, both academically and financially. But when you turn over the program to big campaign contributors whose greatest talent is making money, not educating kids, is this result really so surprising?
Let's do what we can to fix this now. Forget politics. This is about saving kids. And we've got tens of thousands who need to be rescued from this system that has -- in the vast majority of cases -- lost its way amid profits and power.
While some Ohio charter critics may rejoice at this awful spate of stories for the sector, I ache for the kids and parents who this is hurting. They deserve better. And so do the taxpayers who are seeing nearly $1 billion of their state money and hundreds of millions of their local tax money go to pay for and subsidize these operations.
It's a tragedy. An entire generation of kids has now gone through this utterly broken system.
I shudder to think of the consequences.