Why the Feds Gave Ohio a Grant, Then Said It Couldn't Be Spent

by | November 5, 2015

By Catherine Candisky

Federal regulators have placed a hold on a $71 million charter-school grant awarded to Ohio in September in response to concerns about the state Department of Education's rigging of charter-school evaluations.

The U.S. Department of Education slapped additional "safeguards" on the agency "to ensure that ODE will be able to carry out its proposed project in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements."

The Dispatch reported in September that Ohio's grant application included inaccuracies and questionable claims, including that the state had no "poor-performing" charters in the 2012-2013 school year, even though about a third didn't meet a single standard on state report cards that year.

The application also promised that only the "best-rated" charter-school sponsors would receive grant funding to create new schools. But former school-choice chief David Hansen, who drafted the state's application, failed to mention he had left off grades of failing online schools from sponsor evaluations, boosting their ratings.

Hansen resigned after admitting he scrubbed the data.

In a letter to Ohio Superintendent Richard Ross Wednesday, federal officials said Ohio will need specific approval before any grant money is spent and the education department must first adhere to a new list of requirements.

"Since awarding the grant to ODE, the department has received additional information that raises continuing concerns regarding ODE's ability to administer its...grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability with respect to Ohio's charter schools," wrote Stefan Huh, director of charter schools program for the U.S. Department of Education.

"For these reasons, the department is leaving in place the special conditions that originally were imposed...and is taking additional actions to safeguard public funds in order to enable the department to review these matters further. These safeguards will remain in place while the department is working with ODE to verify the accuracy and completeness of its application, and to ensure that ODE will be able to carry out its proposed project in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements and the terms of its approved application."

State officials reiterated on Wednesday that they had notified federal regulators about their decision to re-evaluate sponsor evaluations following Hansen's admission.

"Even before receiving word of the awarding of the grant, ODE reached out to the USDOE to provide information about the status of the charter school evaluation process in Ohio," said Kim Norris, spokeswoman for the state education department.

"We are in ongoing conversations with the USDOE to ensure that our revised evaluation process and other accountability measures fully align with grant requirements and state laws."

The state must verify and provide a list of information including:

--A report summarizing the findings in all audits performed by state auditors related to Ohio charter schools for the past seven years and whether any of the findings or recommendations remain open or unresolved

--A list of any information in its grant application that is out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading, along with the correct and complete information

--An explanation of changes to its process for reviewing charter-school authorizers and any additional systems to ensure the integrity of charter school and charter-school authorizer data and evaluations.

Ohio plans to use the federal aid to provide grants of up to $700,000 to applicants seeking to open new charter schools.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, among those urging the federal department to review Ohio's grant award, said he was "pleased" by the move.

"There has to be high accountability and transparency when it comes to how we educate our children," Ryan said.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)