Largely run by for-profit corporations, Ohio’s charter schools misspend tax dollars—and lawmakers are letting it continue

By: - July 2, 2015 3:20 pm

Ohio’s charter schools—many of which are run by for-profit education management corporations—are notorious for misspending tax dollars and producing poor academic results. Lawmakers there had a chance to do something about it this summer by passing legislation that would strengthen charter school oversight—but that legislation ultimately failed.

From The Washington Post:

What happened? The bill — which, again, had the votes to pass — was tabled because, apparently, some lawmakers still want to make changes. The bill is supposed to come up again in September, but who really knows, given tepid efforts in the past to improve schools. Even if a bill passes later, implementation will be significantly delayed.

You’d think that the lousy state of Ohio’s charter system would have set a fire under everyone with even half a fingerprint on it. How bad is it? A June story in the Akron Beacon Journal started this way:

No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.

The newspaper had reviewed 4,263 audits released last year by the state and concluded that charter schools in the state appear to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It says that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.”

So what does the state of Ohio’s charter schools have to do with North Carolina?

It’s worth taking a closer look because, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, “only Michigan and Texas have a greater portion of charter schools [than Ohio] operated by private, for-profit companies, which are not compelled to disclose how they spend public money.

In North Carolina, lawmakers lifted the cap back in 2011 on the 100-charter school limit—and since then, more and more private, for-profit education management companies have been making their way into the state, some of which have sought to hide how they spend tax dollars.

This spring, the batch of 18 charter applications hoping to open up shop in 2016 faced an unusual amount of scrutiny and many of the applications were moved forward by reviewers with considerable reservations.

Notably, the majority of those charter school applications that made it to the final round of consideration this year were backed by national for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), rather than being run only by small, independent and locally-based nonprofit boards—unlike in years past when the opposite was the case.

Legislation moving through North Carolina’s General Assembly now that would make changes to how charter schools are regulated would make some improvements, such as forcing local charter boards to adopt anti-nepotism policies and be in financial compliance if they want to expand a grade level.

But the Senate bill (456) would also siphon tax dollars that are typically designated for traditional public schools away into charter schools, which some say is unfair and harmful especially to students with special needs who benefit from those funds.

And there’s no move on the part of lawmakers to limit how many charter schools can be operated by private, for-profit education management organizations.

In fact, that’s the end goal.

“The plan was to have [charter] operators come into the state like they did in Louisiana and other states and quickly affect the public school choice landscape for the better and in quantity,” said Charter School Advisory Board member Alan Hawkes in an email to fellow CSAB board members in late 2013, after Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) gave him an earful about too few charter schools getting the green light that year to open up in North Carolina.

To read more about how that sort of plan is working out in Ohio, head over to the Akron Beacon Journal.


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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]