State Treasurer Josh Mandel is cajoling thousands of local governments, public universities, the Ohio pension systems and others to post their expenditures on his government transparency website, OhioCheckbook.com, but until recently he had omitted Ohio’s 395 charter schools – an entire wing of public education that costs taxpayers nearly $1 billion in state funding each year – from his call list.
Following an inquiry from the Dayton Daily News about why charters had not been approached, Mandel’s office sent letters to 374 community school operators inviting them to post their daily expenditures on OhioCheckbook.com at no cost to the schools. “I look forward to partnering with you to shine sunlight on spending and help showcase your school as a leader in government transparency,” Mandel’s form letter concludes.
Eighteen bricks-and-mortar charter schools — 4.8 percent of the total — committed to posting their spending data on OhioCheckbook.com, according to Mandel press secretary Chris Berry. He noted the online schools had been inadvertently left off the list but letters later went out to them.
“We don’t plan on sending (the letter) to the (charter school) management companies as the online checkbook is not intended for private sector business expenditures,” Berry said.
In Ohio, each charter school has a sponsor, or authorizer, which monitors compliance with laws and regulations. The sponsor may operate the school or hire a for-profit or non-profit management company to hire personnel, lease property, pay utilities and handle day-to-day operations. That means that even if the online and site charter schools join, Ohioans won’t be able to see details on large swaths of community school spending.
Launched a year ago on Dec. 2, OhioCheckbook.com is a searchable website where the public can look up details on more than $490 billion in government spending over the past eight years. The “Google”-type interface makes it easy to search, sort and analyze big picture data as well as nitty-gritty detail on more than 134 million transactions. It has proven popular with the public — more than 395,000 searches have been logged.
Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jake Strassberger says Mandel dragged his feet on getting charter schools to post their data because operators have been his political supporters.
“Josh Mandel’s transparency standards apply to everyone but his donors which is why the biggest abusers of taxpayer money – charter schools – did not get the Mandel transparency treatment until a reporter asked why they were left out. It appears that if you shower Josh with $200,000 in campaign contributions he exempts you from the publicity stunt requests that Ohio’s cities, schools and libraries have been subjected to over the past eight months,” he said.
Donors with connections to charter schools have contributed more than $117,000 to Mandel’s state campaign account. The biggest chunk — $86,390 — came from Ann and David Brennan, who founded White Hat Management in 1998. The company is the largest for-profit charter school operator in the state.
In 1997, Ohio lawmakers authorized charter schools, which are taxpayer funded but operate independent of any school board. Nearly 20 years later, 120,000 of Ohio’s 1.7 million public school students attend 395 charter schools at a cost of almost $1 billion. Some 80,000 students attend site-based charter schools while 40,000 attend e-schools.
Ohio charter schools have been the focus on FBI investigations, state audits and media scrutiny over attendance scandals, test rigging and public corruption. On balance, charter schools academic performance is sub-par, with more than 60 percent of schools receiving a D or F, according to the Ohio Department of Education’s most recent report on community schools. A state audit of charter attendance that indicated inflated enrollment numbers at 16 of 30 schools visited by investigators. Enrollment numbers determine how much state money goes to each school.
An investigation published last year by the Akron Beacon Journal reported: “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.”
The problems led state lawmakers to pass significant reforms for the charter school industry. Ohio Gov. John Kasich just signed a bill into law that gives the state stronger oversight of charter school sponsors, makes charter governing boards more independent, prevents “sponsor hopping” by problematic schools and requires more financial transparency for those who actually operated schools on a daily basis.
Berry said Mandel has worked with government agencies of all sizes to participate in the online checkbook and improve government transparency.
“Today, taxpayers across Ohio can see exactly where their money is going and how it is being spent thanks to OhioCheckbook.com,” Berry said.