When the Washington State supreme court ruled charters unconstitutional just before the school year started, charter fans were outraged. "How can you just toss those charter students into the street? How can you destabilize their educational life?" That's a legitimate complaint. But if charter boosters feel that way about the loss of Washington's modest charter school fleet, how must they feel about the charters of Ohio?
Ohio has worked hard to establish itself as the Nation's Bad Example when it comes to charter, providing ample examples of every possible way to do charters poorly.
Earlier in the month, we were reminded of the scandal that unrolled when David Hansen, Ohio's department of education charter czar and husband of John Kasich's campaign manager, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he was cooking the books to pretty up the charters operated by big GOP donors (his defense was something along the lines of "Well, the rules are confusing and I don't see where it says I can't do this").
But the new year is barely under way and we are reminded, again, that Ohio wants to lead the nation in the vast number of charter schools that go belly up.
In East Columbus, families who thought they were sending their children to FCI Academy received a phone message the day before school was to start "reminding" them not to send their children to the school on Wednesday. Sure enough-- on Wednesday the building was locked and no officials to be found. The school turned out to be a half million dollars in debt, though that took some figuring since they also weren't keeping proper records or paying taxes.
FCI Academy was part of one more trend in John Kasich's Ohio-- religious-based charter schools. The school was headed by Tracey Posey, wife of Bishop Edgar Allen Posey of Living Faith Apostolic Church, and co-located with the church itself. The school had a history of financial issues, probably not unrelated to their employment of Carly Shye who was previously convicted of embezzling from various charter schools. FCI is not alone in its church-charter school model, which is unsurprising given Kasich's belief in churches as a replacement for the social service arm of government. Remember his school mentor program that initially required schools to partner with a church?
But there are so many, many charter stories in Ohio-- stories of corruption and incompetence and failure and if it seems like there are more stories than I can tell, more stories than we remember, a recent story from the Akron Beacon Journal tells us why.
The Beacon Journal's education writer is Doug Livingston, who does yeoman's work. In last week's story, he covers the death of yet another charter-- this time its the Next Frontier Academy of Akron-- and while the school's story is one more example of charter shenanigans, it's the context that Livingston creates that really shows how big a charter mess Ohio has become.
Next Frontier was just one more charter opened by educational amateurs; one of the co-founders appeared to want a school that he could use as a case example to sell his book about How To Fix Students. Mismanaged and unable to attract enough students, the school floundered quickly and blew through a stack of money, though as yet nobody knows how much because, once again, nobody really kept any useful records that they will yet share with the state. Their sponsor wanted to get pull the plug; the state said they could not. And, a la New Orleans, nobody is really sure which students attended the school or what has become of them since.
Livingston says that Next Frontier was one of 43 charters that opened in 2013. Today only 8 of those are still open. That's an 82% failure rate. And consider this:
Among the nearly 6,000 publicly funded agencies in operation during Next
Frontier’s two-year lifetime, state audits found that three of every
four missing taxpayer dollars were in charter schools — $6.3 million —
among the 400 in operation.
Livingston marks 2013 as the peak year in Ohio, when the number of charters that had been opened crossed the 400 mark. And now Next Frontier has become the 200th charter school in Ohio to close. And that is a 50% failure rate.
It also represents 200 times that students, families, and communities have been tossed and turned, their stability whacked on the head, by some charter operator. It represents a whole lot of students who have been left to twist in the wind. And it represents a huge amount of tax dollars wasted.
One could argue that Ohio is particularly egregious in its lack of charter regulation and oversight, and to their credit, many charter advocates have called for better policing of charter schools (though when one operator asks the state to help clear out messy competitors, that opens another can of worms).
But it's not just that Ohio has tried to set itself up as a charter wild west; the problems in the state are not unique to Ohio, but are the same old charter school problems writ in a large, messy scribble. The modern charter industry invites people to get in the business for all the wrong reasons, so that from Day One, a new charter has priorities over and above educating students. That set of priorities (make money) in turn invites shenanigans, because like the health insurance biz, a successful charter school runs on NOT providing the service it contracted for-- the less you can get away with doing for the "customer," the more money you keep.
And while the churn and competition and winners and losers of the free market have a place in many businesses, they have no place in public education. A 50% failure rate is fine for some businesses; it is not remotely fine for public schools. You can close as many restaurants as you want, and people can still eat. But schools should be near-permanent stable institutions in a community, answerable to the community, and committed to serving them (you know-- like the public schools that charter students are dumped back into when the charters tank). Charter schools are not inclined toward any of those goals or standards. The modern business-style model of a charter school is fundamentally flawed, inherently a mismatch for the mission of public education. The scale and scope of charter failure in Ohio is spectacular, but it is not fundamentally different from the charter problem in any other state.