Hold charter schools to higher standards of accountability
Evidence continues to mount that the two-decade-long Ohio experiment in charter schooling has failed many students and hoodwinked most state taxpayers.
The latest compelling evidence came to light two weeks ago by a dogged and deft team of Northeast Ohio student journalists based out of Youngstown State University. The NewsOutlet’s three-part series, in professional partnership with The Vindicator and the Akron Beacon Journal, vigorously reinforced long-standing charges that the Buckeye State’s growing network of 400 quasi-public charter schools lacks adequate transparency, accountability and responsibility to the public.
It also served as a launching pad for encouraging state legislation that no longer would permit charter schools to escape some of the same taut standards of openness and integrity that their public-school counterparts must obey.
Among the most troubling findings of the group’s months-long investigation include:
Sadly inadequate responsiveness to a set of legitimate questions about charter schools’ programs and administration. Of about 300 charter schools contacted by NewsOutlet reporters, only about 80 came through with responses to all of the justifiable queries.
Lack of adequate state oversight of charter schools. The Ohio Department of Education has outsourced much direct oversight of charters to “sponsors,” usually private corporations that too often lack responsiveness. Charterschool boards, not publicly elected, also forfeit much of their limited financial and other oversight to the whims of these private companies.
Draining already strained public schools’ budgets with exorbitant transportation costs. Public-school buses carry charter children longer distances to reach their community schools. Indeed, charter schools often promote “free” transportation while districts such as Youngstown’s must pay the bill. As the Beacon Journal reported as part of its contribution to the series, Ohio’s bus fleet traveled 15,627 miles farther each day in 2012 because of longer routes for charter students, which adds up yearly to an astronomical $15.2 million of taxpayer money.
AN UNSAVORY HISTORY
Collectively, the findings further support institutional weaknesses that have plagued the community-school system since its inception in Ohio in 1997. Its intentions then were to provide urban students viable alternatives to deteriorating academic performance in public schools.
Over the past 17 years, however, the realities have revealed an unsavory trail of mismanagement, greed, illegal activity, instability, lack of public accountability and anemic academic performance. What’s more, a troubling side effect has been the systematic disintegration of public school systems, especially urban districts such as Youngstown.
Given the recent findings and the charters’ troubled past, we commend State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman and State Rep. John Carney of Columbus for their speedy legislative response.
The two Democrats’ legislation would require the state auditor to audit the public funds for charter operators and sponsors every year. Charter schools would also have to establish a public- records commission and records-retention schedule, as are required of public school districts, and comply with public-records requests about management or sponsorship of the school.
“The growing problem is we don’t know how most of these taxpayer dollars are being spent,” Schiavoni said. Such uncertainty and secrecy insult the public’s right to know.
In coming months, the Legislature must avoid capitulating to charter-school lobbyists whining about unfairness of the proposed standards. These schools have been operating far too long with far too little oversight of the taxpayers’ money, particularly considering the lackluster academic results many charters produce.
Charter schools must be held to the same standards as public schools in accountability, transparency and integrity. Schiavoni’s legislation offers a promising start toward those ends.