The federal Department of Education invited cackling when it awarded Ohio $71 million last fall to expand high-performing charter schools. The grant announcement followed word that a state education official doctored data to make poorly performing charter schools look better. His pencil work coincided with reports from the state auditor, this newspaper and others about misspending at charter schools.
The “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools, designed and delivered by Statehouse Republicans, rewarded for high-quality? The puzzlement filtered back to Washington. In a letter to the education secretary, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge and other Democrats from the Ohio congressional delegation urged the department to weigh the troubling reality and expand oversight to ensure the money is well spent.
The department put the grant on hold. Fortunately, the necessary oversight arrived this week.
Stefan Huh, the director of the federal Charter Schools Program, informed the state that the grant is deemed “high risk,” Ohio facing specific conditions to gain access to the funds. One condition — the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure accountability and compliance — reflects the advice of Sen. Brown, who sent his own letter to the education secretary in June.
In addition, the state must gain federal approval each time it wants to spend a portion of the grant. It must report on progress semiannually and form an advisory committee that will review funding decisions. Money aimed at problematic dropout recovery schools will receive greater scrutiny.
Federal officials noted the improved oversight built into legislation enacted last year. They stressed that now the state must follow through, especially in holding sponsors of charter schools accountable, creating a cascading effect to reinforce high quality. That not only was a first purpose of the reform package. It is the promise the state made in its application for the federal grant.
Ohio has a steep way to climb out of its embarrassing circumstances. Recall the recent work of the Charter School Accountability Project in revealing the sorry use of federal dollars in the past, more than one-third of the 292 charter schools that have received such funds now closed or never opened. That puts the tally at roughly $30 million in wasted public money.
Even this week, the Ohio-based I Can Schools failed in its bid to expand into Mississippi. Here, it passes as a pretty good performer. There, officials concluded the organization didn’t make the grade.
The controversy continues around the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the politically connected yet miserably performing online school operation in Ohio. ECOT still insists on a regimen that evades full accountability in delivering real learning. So, yes, the federal intervention is most warranted, and potentially a turning point for the much better.