An incomplete chronology of recent charter school scandals revealing a pattern of indifference and cover-ups at the highest levels of state government.
Early summer, 2013
Dayton teacher Matthew Blair calls and emails the Ohio Department of Education to tell them about test tampering and other irregularities at the Horizon Science Academy of Dayton. Blair said no one responded. Horizon schools are managed by the Chicago-based Concept schools and affiliated with the Gulen movement, named after Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
The Kasich Administration announces it is hiring David Hansen for the Ohio Department of Education’s newly created position of “executive director for the office of quality school choice and funding.’’ He will be paid $105,000 annually to improve state oversight of Ohio’s chronically embattled charter schools.
The Columbus Dispatch includes this in its piece on Hansen’s hiring:
Hansen, 56, has long been outspoken against teachers unions, and in 2007 he penned an op-ed for the Ashland Times-Gazette with the headline “Teacher unions hurt school competition.” In it, he said school districts should “fundamentally reform their teacher union contract policies to expand the reach of market accountability.”
Dec. 22, 2013
Under the headline “HOW CHARTER SCHOOLS BETRAY THEIR STUDENTS AND COMMUNITIES,’’ Matt Blair’s concerns are finally made public in a post he has written for Diane Ravitch’s blog. He tells of exposed wiring inside the school, test tampering by Turkish school administrators and unqualified teachers.
Jan 10, 2014
Bill Phillis sends Matt Blair’s blog post to every member of Ohio General Assembly
Jan 15, 2014 (ODE COVER-UP NO. 1 BEGINS)
Paul Preston from the ODE’s Office of Community Schools sends Matt Blair’s blog post to sponsors via an email that says Dr. Ross’ “office has asked us to solicit responses to the attached questions from their sponsors regarding allegations in the article. Please feel welcome to keep your responses brief and “positive….”
A series of soft-ball questions is attached. The answers to them are brief and positive.
June 10, 2014
Akron Beacon Journal reports that the Cleveland FBI is leading an investigation into the Concept Schools chain – the same chain that teacher Matt Blair has complained about.
July 14, 2014
Matt Blair and other former teachers from the Concept Schools’ Horizon Science Academy testify before the state school board about problems they personally witnessed that include cheating, unqualified teachers, race and sex discrimination and sexual harassment of students.
Teachers also told of an in-class game in which male students would touch the thighs and upper legs of female students, going increasingly higher, and asking the girls if they were nervous….
Members of the state school board said they were angry at the allegations and called for a full investigation of them.
In response to a tweet accusing ODE of tolerating charters “no matter what shenanigans take place,’’ ODE spokesman John Charleton tweets: “Take a break from muckraking and enjoy the weekend. Maybe you can get laid. Lol!”
July 17, 2014
ProgressOhio releases a 2014 memo from a top official at Dayton’s Horizon Science Academy that tells of “condoms in the hall,” sex in the in-school suspension room and teachers who “watch movies all the time.” The newly disclosed memo, handed out at a school staff meeting earlier in the year, reinforces the teachers’ explosive testimony and contradicts school supporters’ claims that the Academy is well run and professional.
The Ohio Department of Education says nothing and does nothing in response.
July 18, 2014
Gongwer News Service quotes a state education department spokesman as saying that Matt Blair and other teachers who testified might face sanctions for failing to come forward sooner. He said that the agency hoped the teachers “were not withholding information for this political event that they pulled at the board meeting.”
July 19, 2014
Under the headline, “Are They Serious,’’ an Akron Beacon Journal editorial says:
“Pulled”? As in a stunt?
Actually, his words were most revealing. They highlight the insufficient oversight and accountability for charter schools. They suggest that what has been a problem for years has deepened under the leadership of Richard Ross, the state school superintendent. The department appears to have a blind spot when it comes to charter schools.
And Charleton apologizes for his “get laid” tweet
July 27, 2014
An explosive investigation by the Dayton Daily News expands on the teacher testimony and offers newer, more detailed evidence of cheating at the Horizon Science Academy:
One former student says school officials paid him and a friend $20 each to fill in hundreds of standardized test forms. A parent of another former student says her daughter earned a stellar attendance record when she didn’t go to class for months.
Both of these claims echo concerns raised by a growing chorus of former teachers from the Dayton-area Horizon Science Academy charter schools who told the Dayton Daily News that school officials tampered with tests, fudged attendance records and cut corners in ways that compromised student education.
July 29, 2014
An analysis by Innovation Ohio compared Horizon students’ scores on state tests where cheating has been alleged with scores the same students receive on college entrance exams. The state tests are administered by the schools, while ACT tests are administered by an independent testing company. For most schools and school districts — including 3 of the 4 Horizon schools — ACT and state Performance Index scores are closely correlated. That is not the case at Horizon Columbus, however.
According to the latest State Report Card data, Horizon Columbus students scored 98.6 on the state Performance Index, slightly below the state public school district average of 98.9. But on the ACT test, Horizon Columbus students had an average score of just 17, which put them in the 28th percentile of all students taking the ACT.
In other words, 72% of all ACT test-takers scored higher than Horizon Columbus students — and just 16 of Ohio’s 612 school districts had ACT scores that were the same or worse. Yet Horizon Columbus students somehow managed to achieve a higher Performance Index score than 269 Ohio school districts.
The extent of the discrepancy at Horizon Columbus is dramatic. In the 60 Ohio school districts that scored, like Horizon Columbus, between 98 and 99 on the Performance Index, the average ACT score was 21.1 — and none of those 60 districts had average ACT scores below 19, let alone the 17 scored by Horizon Columbus students. Columbus City schools, for example, also had an average ACT score of 17. But their Performance Index score, at the height of the data manipulation scandal, was 79.2 — far below Horizon Columbus’ score of 98.6.
Sept. 16, 2014
Greg Harris, who heads the pro-charter school group StudentsFirst Ohio, tells the Dispatch that many Ohio charters “need to be closed, because they’re not doing a good job. We think charters have a role in the education base, but we also think most of the charters in Ohio stink.”
Oct. 12, 2014
Columbus Dispatch reports that charter schools managed by Imagine pay exorbitant rent to an Imagine subsidiary, leaving little money for classroom instruction.
From the Dispatch
Imagine Columbus Primary Academy projects building-lease payments of $700,000, making rent the school’s top expense, eating up more than half its annual state revenue, according to a school financial report. The school expects to pay $614,000 on salaries and benefits this year.
Similar arrangements are in place for the other five Imagine Schools in Franklin County.
And on top of the leases, Imagine is being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for “indirect costs” as operator of the schools, records show.
Oct. 16, 2014
Board members at the Imagine Columbus Primary Academy form a committee to try and work with Imagine to re-negotiate their $700,000 per-year lease. New Board President Melonia Bennett told The Columbus Dispatch that Imagine asked the board to sign the lease at the first board meeting last year, and she has since realized signing it was a mistake because more money is needed for teacher salaries and student supplies.
Rather that curb high teacher turnover by paying teachers more, an Imagine official suggests they could “celebrate” teachers by bringing a cake to the next board meeting.
Oct. 19, 2014
ProgressOhio releases an analysis that shows despite Imagine’s poor performance, Imagine and a subsidiary, SchoolHouse Finance, collected at least $14.4 million in public money last year for their 17 Ohio schools. More than half – $8.9 million – covered rent for long-term leases to SchoolHouse Finance. The $5.5 million balance went to pay “indirect costs’’ to Imagine to provide certain management services. All but one received a D or F on the Performance Index of the recent state report card.
According to the analysis
David Hansen used to sit on the board of an Imagine school in Columbus and even supported its closure two years ago because of its consistently poor academic record.
Since then, a new Imagine school has opened in the same building with a similar lease, and Kasich has tapped Hansen to lead Ohio’s new Office of Quality School Choice and Funding. In his new role, paid with tax dollars, Hansen has said virtually nothing about Imagine’s continued failing grades.
ProgressOhio urged the governor and Hansen to comment – and urged Hansen to stop down or be fired.
December 18, 2014
A federal judge in Missouri fines Imagine $1 million for forcing a school it manages to sign an excessive school building lease with an Imagine subsidiary.
“This clearly constituted self-dealing,” U.S. District Judge Judge Nanette K. Laughrey wrote in a blistering 29-page ruling.
Laughrey said that Imagine and its real estate arm really the same company, and she said it gets board members to go along with these abusive leases by recruiting inexperienced school board members and pressuring them to sign on the school’s behalf.
Jan. 21, 2015
KnowYouCharter.com publishes a new analysis that asks whether “policy” or “politics” will win in the on-going charter school reform debate.
“(T)here are serious questions about how far the overhaul will actually go, and whether the state’s current legion of low-performing charters will feel the pinch of those new “tough” rules. This is because operators of failing charter schools, led by David Brennan (and his wife, Ann) of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (see our ECOT: The Cost of Failure report) have been among the largest single donors to Ohio politicians – especially the Republicans who now dominate state government….’’
The report showed White Hat’s Brennan and ECOT’s Lager have given about $6.4 million to Ohio politicians since 1998, nearly all to Republicans.
March 2, 2015
Ohio’s $1 billion charter school system is the butt of jokes a national conference on charter schools.
From The Plain Dealer:
“One after another, panelists at the conference organized by the national Education Writers Association targeted Ohio’s poor charter school performance statewide, Ohio’s for-profit charter operators and how many organizations we hand over charter oversight keys to as the sponsors, or authorizers, of schools.
“Be very glad that you have Nevada, so you are not the worst,” Stanford University researcher Margaret “Macke” Raymond said of Ohio.
April 14, 2015 (ODE COVER UP No. 2)
A preliminary investigation by the Ohio Department of Education could not confirm cheating and other allegations first raised by Matt Blair and his colleagues.
ODE officials said they did not look into the DDN report that administrators at Dayton’s Horizon Science Academy paid students to cheat, did not look into the Innovation Ohio analysis showing very good high school performance tests but very bad college entrance exams at the Horizon high school in Columbus, and did not look into the 2014 memo from a Horizon official in Dayton that reported condoms in halls and sex in school-suspension labs? Why? ODE said it had no complaints about those allegations.
So ODE complained that many of the allegations from the teachers’ testimony were old and lacked detail, and then ignored newer, more detailed information that followed.
May 5, 2015
A whistleblower from the Ohio Virtual Academy forwards information to state lawmakers that suggests the online charter school failed to dis-enroll hundreds of chronically truant students in order to pad its rolls and collect more state money.
Reps. Bill Hayes and Teresa Fedor, the House Education Committee’s top Republican and Democrat, told The Associated Press they have forwarded the anonymous whistleblower’s email to state Auditor Dave Yost, whose office has made school attendance fraud a priority.
OVA calls the allegations “categorically false.”
Fedor says she wants to hear from state Superintendent Richard Ross; Hayes alerts the school, whose authorizer said it is conducting its own review.
May 7, 2015
The Toledo Blade receives information from a whistleblower it says “appears to contradict OVA’s public statements’’ that it withdraws all chronically truant students who have no legitimate excuse for being absent.
From The Blade
But both an email and audio recording provided to The Blade appear to show that OVA set a cutoff date of April 6 for truancy withdrawals, and that no students would be taken off their attendance rolls after that date, regardless of the reason.
The audio recording is of a conference call that appears to be led by Kathy Pine, instructional coordinator at the school. In the April 6 call, she tells staff members that the school would not be approving any truancy withdrawals after that day, so they needed to turn in their withdrawal requests. She followed up that call with an email to staff on April 21.
“Even if it is one that was posted prior to 4/6 or if it was approved previously. … If the child was not withdrawn by now they will not be,” Ms. Pine writes.
June 2, 2015
All members of the board at the Imagine Columbus Primary Academy quit and one former board member, Leon Sinoff, disclosed for the first time that the board hoped to close the school.
“I am disappointed we couldn’t close the school. We felt it was the right thing to do,” said Sinoff, who said he was “disenchanted” after learning that Imagine failed to disclose its financial interest in the lease arrangement.
June 3, 2015
The state education department finally puts three Cleveland charters on notice that they could be shut down for poor academic performance. Imagine Cleveland is one of the schools.
From The Plain Dealer
“The School’s performance has generally been a failure,” the Ohio Department of Education said in letters to each of the schools. “The school has completely failed to meet the student performance requirements of the contract and generally has a long history of poor academic performance.”
The letters from ODE do not discuss Imagine leases to an Imagine subsidiaries OR or any other particular financial concerns, beyond saying the schools do not meet fiscal management standards.
June 12, 2015 (ODE COVER-UP No. 3)
ODE announces that the Ohio Virtual Academy has been cleared of any wrongdoing in allegations that it failed to un-enroll chronically truant students in order to collect more money from the state.
According to the AP report
Findings of an investigation of the 11,000-student Ohio Virtual Academy were received by the Ohio Department of Education on Wednesday.
The Ohio Council of Community Schools, which oversees Ohio charter schools, launched the probe after a whistleblower emailed two state lawmakers a list of 398 students in May who appeared to be chronically truant yet were still enrolled in the school and therefore drawing state payments.
Missing from the article are facts that appear in a July 15 Plain Dealer article and show the Community Schools’ clear conflict of interest.
According to the PD: The Ohio Council of Community Schools collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees from more than 14,000 students who attend the Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by prolific GOP donors from White Hat Management.
June 14, 2015
Rather than properly rate charter school sponsors, ODE pulled punches by letting sponsors off the hook for years of not holding some schools to high standards.
The state this year has slammed two sponsors/authorizers with “ineffective” ratings so far. But it has given three others the top rating of “exemplary” by overlooking significant drawbacks for two of them and mixed results for the third.
From The Plain Dealer
We found that the state isn’t counting the performance of online charter schools — one of the most-controversial and lowest-performing charter sectors — in the calculations in this first year of ratings.
That means that many F-rated charter schools that serve thousands of students won’t be included when their oversight agencies are rated this year.
The Department of Education says recent drops in grades for online schools are “inexplicable” and that it has to develop a way to grade these “unique” schools.
June 15, 2015
Ohio Auditor David Yost, a Republican, releases findings showing that a recently closed Dayton charter defrauded taxpayers out of about $1.2 million by billing them for students who did not attend school. Some students had moved, gone to prison or never showed up in the first place.
“This illustrates the need for Ohio’s rickety system of oversight to be reformed,” Yost said.
July 15, 2015 (ODE COVER-UP No. 4)
State school board members confirm an earlier news report and accuse the Ohio Department of Education of breaking state law by throwing F grades for online schools out of a key charter school evaluation this year. Board members and Peggy Lehner, who chairs the state Senate’s education committee said ODE’s school choice director Hansen was required by law to include online schools and dropout recovery schools in evaluations of charter school oversight agencies.
From The Plain Dealer:
That deliberate omission boosted the rating of two oversight agencies, who could now be eligible for new state perks. Hansen …offered rushed and muddled explanations for that decision in his appearance before the board. He said he wanted to look at other, stronger schools instead, because online struggles “mask” successes elsewhere.
But school board President Tom Gunlock told The Plain Dealer that Hansen’s reasons don’t matter. State law says the schools should be counted in measuring the academic performance of the oversight agencies, he said, so they should have been. “If you don’t like the law, change it,” Gunlock said. “Until such time, you have to obey it.”
The key beneficiary of the exclusion – so far – was the Ohio Council of Community Schools, a non-profit agency which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from the more than 14,000 students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by White Hat Management.
Those schools received F grades on state report cards, which would have likely blocked the agency from receiving the state’s top oversight rating.
Hansen had done similar data scrubbing in the past while working for the Buckeye Institute, according to Plunderbund:
Hansen was President of the Buckeye Institute in 2009 when they put out a report on Ohio’s dropout recover schools. Similar to the current incident, Hansen’s group altered data to improve the apparent performance of the charter schools. The shady data changes resulted in “a dramatic overstatement of the graduation rates at the charters.”
Many of the schools in the 2009 report were owned and operated by White Hat Management. Meanwhile, White Hat owner David Brennan was quietly contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the Buckeye Institute through his Brennan Family Foundation.
Hansen followed the same recipe this year when he illegally scrubbed data for the sate report.
By excluding data about low performing charter schools from the official state report, Hansen improved the ranking of the Ohio Council of Community Schools, which authorizes a batch of the notoriously low-performing charters operated by for-profit companies White Hat Management and K-12.
Both K-12 and David Brennan, the owner of White Hat Management, are reliable Republican donors. Along with his wife and kids, Brennan has contributed nearly $100,000 to John Kasich’s campaign in Ohio. And they will likely be large contributors to his presidential run as well.