Need for cash puts charter schools in questionable company
Ohio’s charter schools ...
Drawing state dollars from local school districts, charter schools presented a cheaper, market-driven alternative to government-run schools.
■ Ohio law allowed for the first charter schools in 1998.
■ Nearly 40 percent of the 595 charter schools that ever opened in Ohio have closed. Financial difficulty is cited three times as often as academic failure. More than half the time, closure is voluntary, according to a state directory of shuttered charter schools.
■ Ohio’s charter schools rank among the lowest in the nation in advancing student learning.
Between the future promise and the disappointing past of charter schools, there is Cambridge Education Group.
The Akron company and the 20 Ohio charter schools it manages are seeking to disentangle themselves from the likes of White Hat Management, a primordial force in Ohio’s charter school movement.
White Hat’s prominence is fading. The company has sold off its K-8 schools, downsizing amid competition from the state’s next generation of charter school companies, including Cambridge.
Cambridge has created a more autonomous environment for the publicly funded schools it runs. In an old Akron office building on West Market Street, the company’s second largest school, Towpath Trail High School, teaches the basics — plus art — to struggling students, some expelled from suburban public schools. About a third have children of their own. Most are poor. Many work or must balance school with raising younger siblings while their single parents work.
The dropout recovery charter school employs a family advocate who helps with everything from subsidized child care to transportation. A behavioral specialist treats the whole student. Refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Rwanda and Nepal learn grammar from an English tutor with a thick Polish accent.
The school embraces the struggles of urban youths. It’s more than its board members could have imagined when White Hat ran the school. But the past is hard to shake.
Most Cambridge employees — its founder, nearly every executive and many teachers — once worked for White Hat. Its schools are relics of White Hat’s free-market influence on public education. Today 236 of the state’s 373 charter schools are run by private firms.
Most, like Cambridge and White Hat, are tax structured to allow profits on taxpayer-funded education. Along with Summit Academy Management, which is headquartered on Mogadore Road, Akron companies now manage one in six Ohio charter schools.
But Cambridge claims to be different. It has no interest in owning school assets or signing property leases that make it hard for school boards to fire the management companies they hire.
For decades, White Hat controlled 95 percent of all its schools’ state and federal funding. Cambridge takes 18 percent, although processing payroll and steering its schools to vendors controlled by the company can double or triple Cambridge’s take.
Summit Academy, White Hat, Concept Schools of Illinois and Imagine Schools of Virginia have a tendency to buy the school buildings they manage, drawing revenue from rent and putting school boards at a disadvantage if they wish to shop around for a new operator. Cambridge school boards — starting with Towpath Trail High School on Market Street — are collecting property deeds, eliminating their use as bargaining chips.
But Cambridge, for all its promise, can’t shake a past rife with questionable business relationships.
How it spends
Through a public records request, the Beacon Journal reviewed hundreds of invoices, property lease and purchase agreements, vendor contracts, board minutes, court filings and other financial documents detailing how Cambridge spends much of the more than $30 million in state funding its managed schools will receive this academic year.