Last month, the US Department of Education handed out $157 million in charter school grants — but many in the world of education could not understand why Ohio received the largest award on the list. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) got $32.6 million for the first year and a recommended $71 million over several years.
Few could grasp why the Obama administration gave such a considerable amount to a state with a $1 billion charter school program that is plagued with scandal. Valerie Strauss, writing for The Washington Post, says the reason is, according to a letter sent to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross, that federal education officials did not understand the seriousness of Ohio's problems in the charter sector.
The letter said that after the DOE awarded the grant to the Ohio Department of Education, the Department received additional information that concerned the Department regarding ODE's ability to suitably administer the grant. The oversight and accountability of Ohio's charter schools were central concerns.
It was not until the state Legislature took action to fix the charter school scandal last month that a light at the end of the tunnel appeared. Lawmakers placed more mandates on charter operators to provide transparency. The mandates did not touch on funding issues.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) wanted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to stop the release of the award and to review the documentation on the grant application. David Hansen, a senior official at the Ohio Education Department, wrote the grant. Hansen resigned in July after the discovery of his manipulation of performance statistics to improve some charters' ratings.
When Hansen resigned from his post as Ohio School Choice Director, he acknowledged that he had buried some failing grades from charter sponsor evaluations. The state pulled Hansen's altered assessments, and the state auditor and inspector general received documentation about Hansen's actions.
Kim Norris, the spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, pointed out that the letter from the DOE declared that if the ODE meets all conditions, the agency is confident Ohio will create high-quality charters for the state's children, especially its most vulnerable students, says Hannah Sparling of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"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," she said in a statement. "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."
Federal Charter Schools Program Director Stefan Huh included several requests in his letter to Superintendent Ross. He was asked to notify the DOE within 14 days of any out-of-date or incorrect information on the grant proposal and to correct those errors. Within 14 days, Ross should explain all changes to the state's planned evaluation system and share ethics policies, personnel changes, and details about the new charter school reform law. Within 30 days, he is to provide a summary of all audit findings against state charter schools in the past seven years along with their resolutions.
According to Miamisburg's Ron Adler, president of the pro-charter Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, some of the discussion about the accuracy of the charter grant is political. If struggling public schools were receiving the award, he says, there would not be as much controversy, reports Jeremy P. Kelley of the Dayton Daily News.
But US Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Wednesday that he was thankful that the DOE was addressing the scandal. He is glad to see that Ohio's charter schools will be spending tax dollars on Ohio students, not on abuse and fraud.