Ohio could lose huge charter school grant

U.S. Department of Education puts hold on $32 million, pending investigation

The U.S. Department of Education has told Ohio not to spend any of its recent $71 million charter school grant, pending further investigation.

In a letter to the Ohio Department of Education, the federal agency said it 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.”

The grant was supposed to allow Ohio to open more charter schools, and $32.67 million of the money was made available to the state on Sept. 28, according to the U.S. DOE.

But in Wednesday’s letter, federal Charter Schools Program Director Stefan Huh told Ohio State Superintendent Richard Ross to “refrain from incurring any expenses … pending a determination from the Department that ODE has responded fully to the requests for information that are included in this letter.”

In addition to talks with the state auditor and inspector general, those requests included:

  • Within 14 days, Ohio must notify the U.S. DOE of any out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information in its grant application, and correct those problems.

  • Within 14 days, the state must explain all changes to its planned charter school evaluation system (an ongoing process), explain its ethics policies and personnel changes, and explain whether the state's new charter school reform law will impact the grant.
  • Within 30 days, the state must provide a summary of all state audit findings against Ohio charter schools in the past seven years and whether they've been resolved.

Ohio Department of Education officials said they will try to meet federal requirements to retain the money. If the grant remains, groups that want to start new charter schools would apply to ODE in a competitive grant process to get a piece of the money.

“We are in ongoing conversations with the U.S. DOE to ensure that our revised (charter) evaluation process and other accountability measures fully align with grant requirements and state laws,” said Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Kim Norris.

The grant originally surprised many educators, as well as Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost, because it came on the heels of several well-publicized problems with charter schools in Ohio. Those included poor academic performance, attendance and funding scandals, and a manipulated charter evaluation system that led to the resignation of Ohio’s director of school choice.

That evaluation system was a cornerstone of Ohio’s grant application, which was guided by resigned director David Hansen, just days before he admitted manipulating online charter school scores to make them look better.

Miamisburg’s Ron Adler, president of the pro-charter Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, argued some of the complaints about the charter grant were political, saying there wouldn’t be as much opposition if the money were allocated for struggling public schools.

“The state basically wants to expand high-quality charter schools and attract other high-quality charter operators into Ohio,” Adler said. “If the people sponsoring the school have to qualify as high-quality, I can’t imagine what the problem is.”

But others pointed to Hansen’s manipulated charter evaluations, questioning whether a high-quality rating could be trusted.

“The fraud that some Ohio charter schools and state officials have engaged in is unacceptable and it’s our students that have paid the price,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said Wednesday. “I’m grateful the U.S. Department of Education is taking steps to address this scandal and ensure that Ohio’s charter schools spend taxpayer dollars on students, not fraud and abuse.”

ODE officials assembled a three-member outside panel that currently is redoing the state’s charter evaluation structure. The U.S. DOE said it appreciates the state’s “cooperative spirit,” but warned that it will not decide next steps until it has reviewed the state’s response.

Yost’s office said Wednesday that the Auditor of State will fully cooperate with any requests from U.S. DOE, adding that he “thinks their request for additional assurances is appropriate.”

Norris said a passage in U.S. DOE’s letter gave Ohio reason for optimism, as the agency said it expects Ohio to meet the new federal conditions so that it “will be successful in creating high-quality public charter schools.”

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, agreed with Adler that some attacks on the charter grant may have been politically motivated. But she said the state must be prepared to answer U.S. DOE’s concerns.

“It’s important that if we accept $71 million, we’re in a position to administer it well, with a high level of accountability and transparency,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “What really matters are the students who are going to be impacted, potentially very positively impacted, by a high-performing school, which is what this grant is all about.”

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