Republican State Auditor David Yost says unannounced attendance checks at 30 charter schools shows 25 percent of them have significant cases of under-attendance.
Yost is referring seven schools, and another nine with less severe attendance variations, to state education officials for review. In one case, none of the 95 enrolled students were in attendance during the visit. Six other schools with significant variations were missing between 34 percent and 83 percent of the students the state paid them to teach. Those schools are in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Youngstown. More from Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow.
Yost: “I frankly was shocked to find that 50% seems to be the average. I think most of the folks in the Legislature if you asked them without any backing they would be surprised by 50% attendance rate,” said Yost.
For example—the Life Skills Center of Cincinnati told the department it would have 180 students but the auditor’s team only saw 30 in class. The Academy for Urban Scholars in Youngstown had funding for 95 students, but the auditor’s investigators found zero students at the site.
The report found another nine schools with headcounts that differed by more than 10% of what was reported to the state.
Yost warns that there are variables to consider – for instance, that school with nobody around dismissed their students early after completing a practice test. Also, many schools are dropout recovery programs with students who already dropped out of school before. The auditor says he hopes his report can open the door for better standards.
“We should begin having a discussion about what these findings mean and what our expectations are,” Yost said.
One group welcoming that challenge is the Fordham Institute—a pro-charter school organization. Their vice president for policy and advocacy, Chad Aldis, believes it’s in their best interest to raise accountability. He says the stories about poor performing charters have become a distraction.
“If somebody on the streets was asked about charter schools—if they’ve just read headlines from the last three of four months they might think that charters schools are not a good educational option and as an advocate for charter schools I think there’s nothing further from the truth. Charter schools can really help kids. If you look at some of the highest performing schools in the urban areas—some of them are charter schools—a fair number of them,” said Aldis.
Charter school critics, including Sandy Theis with Progress Ohio, say the major barrier to tougher oversight is the for-profit charter sponsors who donate a lot of money to campaigns.
“David Brennen who runs the Life Skills schools that were on the big list of worst offenders here and Bill Lager who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow gave $6.4 million to Republican candidates and causes since 1998. That’s a lot of money—people listen to that kind of money,” claimed Theis.
Aldis doesn’t see the connection and calls that argument political.
“I actually think that questions like that are about finger pointing and blame when we really should be doing is trying to find solutions to ensure that charter schools do function well rather than retracing how we got there. That seems like more of a political debate than a debate that’s gonna help kids,” said Aldis.
A top leader in the effort to reform charter school regulations is Republican Senator Peggy Lehner of Kettering. She’s the chair of the Senate Education Committee and according to Theis has not accepted any campaign contributions from charter school sponsors or lobbyists in recent years.
Lehner has a message to taxpayers who find this report concerning.
“The Legislature is not going to drop it. We’re going to look into this further as I know the auditor’s office is and we will continue working until the taxpayers feel that they’re getting a value for their money and the students are getting the education they deserve,” said Lehner.
Lehner believes the new provisions will come through standalone bills but has not set a timeline. Gov. John Kasich has also made some public comments suggesting that some new rules on charter schools could be in his budget next month.
Yost is sending his report to the education department for more investigation.