By Bill Bush
In their bid to win millions in federal grant money for charter schools, Ohio Department of Education officials described the state as a beacon of oversight. But just days later, the official leading the effort resigned after he was caught scrubbing data to make school sponsors look better. On Monday, the grant application paid off: The U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio the largest "Charter School Program" grant -- $71 million -- of any of the eight states receiving a piece of the pie.
Among the 100,000 documents the state released earlier this month about the actions of David Hansen, the state's former charter chief, are those that show he led the effort to draft the grant application. Those draft documents described the state's oversight of charters in glowing -- and sometimes inaccurate -- terms.
The Dispatch asked the Ohio Department of Education for the state's final grant application, but it was not provided on Tuesday.
The federal grant program has a national goal to create 400 new high-quality charters; help pay for charter-school facilities; form collaborations between charters and nonchartered public schools; and "invest in national activities and initiatives that support charter schools."
"We are proud Ohio has been awarded this grant to expand high-quality community schools and will continue to work with the USDOE to move forward with implementation," Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said in an email.
But ProgressOhio, the liberal research and advocacy group, blasted the decision, noting Hansen's involvement at a time that he was manipulating evaluations of charter sponsors to hide the shoddy performances of some schools. Sponsors are the organizations that create charters and shut them down.
"Did they know about the Hansen stuff?" Sandy Theis, executive director of ProgressOhio, said of the federal Education Department on Tuesday. "It was clear to me that they didn't know how bad things are."
The grant will bring the state more charters, when "we don't have the capability to monitor the ones that we have right now, which is clear," Theis said.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that, in announcing the grant winners, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan "made a passing reference to oversight problems during a media call with reporters."
"Some have had to fold, some are struggling to find their way," Duncan said, according to The Post. "We know we have to strengthen oversight ... The good news is that the sector has proven it can improve."
The Post noted that Ohio, which "has also been at the center of several recent charter school scandals, from the Ohio state auditor finding some charters had inflated enrollment figures to evidence that some state officials inflated evaluations of charters," got the largest grant to create new charters.
An official at the U.S. Department of Education said she "believed Ohio has improved its oversight of charter schools," The Post said.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said earlier this month that Ohio had a "broken system" of charter sponsorship and that the state needed "real reform." Draft documents in which the state makes its case for the money include several questionable assertions:
- "Newly adopted legislation, designed to increase charter school and authorizer accountability while respecting school autonomy, has been described in media reports as the most sweeping reforms of Ohio charter school law since school choice was first introduced 15 years ago," a draft of the grant proposal said. However, those reforms stalled in the legislature last summer and still have not become law.
- The documents said an average of 19.5 charters "close annually" in Ohio, many "voluntarily," without noting that some schools were not forced to close because of poor academic performance, but went out of business, often after mismanaging state tax dollars. "As evidenced by this number of closures, charter schools in Ohio have long been held accountable for performance in this state," the proposal said.
- The draft says that Hansen's office started a section dedicated to the evaluation of charter sponsors, and rated three of the first five sponsors to be evaluated as exemplary, the highest rating. However, those ratings were rescinded in July after some members of the state Board of Education accused Hansen of illegally scrubbing data to make those sponsors look better. He resigned days later.
- The department spotlighted the Ohio Council of Community Schools for its exemplary rating as a sponsor. That group's executive director, Lenny Schafer, said in July that he "could infer that we probably don't shake out too well in the academic portion" that Hansen scrubbed out of the council's rating, and predicted that the revised rating would be "greatly impacted" by including the poor test results of thousands of Internet-charter students.
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