Ohio taxpayers should feel more optimistic than usual that their state leaders will finally begin reining in Ohio’s “charter debacle” now that Gov. John Kasich has announced that he will undertake an overhaul.
“We are going to fix the lack of regulation on charter schools,” he said in December. “There is no excuse for people coming in here and taking advantage of anything. So we will be putting some tough rules into our budget.”
However, there 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 challenge for those who are committed to achieving real reform is whether stronger charter policy will triumph over the charter politics that have made Ohio’s charter school sector notorious for its failings. While there are several Ohio charter schools that are doing a fine job providing meaningful options for parents and children, overall, charter schools received more Fs than As, Bs and Cs combined on the latest state report card. And Ohio’s local taxpayers end up subsidizing these mostly failing schools because the state pays them so much more per pupil than children receive in traditional public schools.
“This is a political, not an educational fight.”
In 1999, David Brennan – who masterminded the state’s charter school program in the last year of the George Voinovich administration – said of the discussion over charter schools in Ohio that “This is a political, not an educational fight.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why Ohio’s charter school laws have been characterized as the “Wild, Wild West” of the nation’s charter school laws, a phrase coined by the pro-charter National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
While many states have adopted tough new regulations to rein in the poorest performing schools in those jurisdictions, Ohio has seen the charter sector grow to a more than $900 million program, with the last three years constituting the largest three-year dollar increase in a decade.
Much of this laissez-faire approach to Ohio’s charter schools can be traced directly to two men – Brennan and William Lager, who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow – the nation’s single largest for-profit K-12 school.
Between the two of them, they have contributed about $6.4 million to Ohio politicians and committees since 1998. Of that, less than 3 percent went to Democrats.
Here are the Ohio politicians who have received the most from the Brennans (Brennan also makes contributions through his wife, Ann) and Lager, starting with those who received the largest amount. As can be seen, the charter school operators directed most of their money to the legislative leaders in both chambers, controlled by the Republicans.
Since charters were launched in Ohio in the 1998-1999 school year, taxpayers have sent charter schools $7.3 billion. Of that, $1.76 billion have gone to schools run by the Brennan and Lager. Schools run by these two men have collected 1 out of every 4 dollars ever spent in Ohio since charter schools first opened.
Dividing that haul by the $6.4 million they have donated to politicians since the charter school program began, that works out to a handsome 27,540% return on investment.
Looking at the two charts below, it is evident that the more money the charter school operators receive from the state, the more money politicians receive from these same operators. As Brennan’s giving has dropped, so has his state revenue. While as Lager’s giving increased, his state revenue too increased.
The obvious question is whether the state money follows the contributions, or the contributions work to increase the state money?
While Lager has closed the gap with the Brennans – he has surpassed them each year since 2011 – he has a ways to go to eclipse the Brennans’ overall political largesse.
To make matters worse, Brennan and Lager run some of the lowest performing schools in the state. One of Brennan’s schools graduated an appalling 2 of 155 children last year.
More than 70% of all of Brennan and Lager’s grades on the latest state report card, as reported at www.KnowYourCharter.com, were Ds and Fs. All of ECOT’s grades were Fs, with one D. Of the 81 grades Brennan schools received, the schools received only 1 A and 5 Bs. Brennan and Lager’s average Performance Index (PI) Score was 71.5. The average school district score was 99.1. To put this in perspective, the performance gap is the equivalent to the difference between the state’s highest scoring school district and the state’s 585th. There are 613 districts in Ohio. Brennan and Lager’s average PI score is significantly worse than even the state’s major urban districts at 80.7.
According to public data available at KnowYourCharter.com, the average amount per pupil that went to Brennan and Lager’s schools was $7,889. The average amount per pupil that went to traditional school districts, which do much better academically than the Brennan and Lager schools, was $3,974. That means that on average, a school district would have to use $3,914 in local taxpayer revenues to subsidize the additional cost of sending students to these men’s schools.
How Ohio’s Big Donors Have Weakened Charter School Accountability
There are many examples of Lager and Brennan using their political might to weaken an already tepid accountability system. Perhaps the most brazen example was in 2011 when House Republicans allowed Brennan’s lobbyist to sit down directly with the Ohio Legislative Service Commission and handcraft legislation that would have gotten his company out from under a series of lawsuits.
But it is in the less brazen, more subtle, and dark corners of lawmaking where Brennan and Lager’s influence is most felt. Such as the time eSchools like ECOT were suddenly allowed to collect revenue for students who are serving time in juvenile detention, or when the state quietly eliminated a provision that required eSchools like ECOT to spend a minimum amount of their state revenue on instruction, or when the state said that students enrolled in eSchools like ECOT are automatically re-enrolled the next school year, even if they’re really not.
But perhaps the most insidious example is one Brennan had the legislature institute for dropout recovery schools – of which his Life Skills centers constitute the state’s largest group. Life Skills had been consistently the worst-rated schools in the state, and by extension, the nation. However, the state couldn’t close them because they had been exempted from the state’s closure law since 2005.
A couple of years ago, the legislature decided to adopt new dropout recovery “standards.” These standards (which conveniently removed the Life Skills schools from the local report card, so they can no longer be compared in the same way) claim that a 7.2% graduation rate in four years meets the state standard. That means it’s OK, according to the state, if a dropout recovery school only has 11 out of 150 kids graduate in 4 years.
Amazingly, several of Brennan’s Life Skills centers graduate even fewer. In fact, Life Skills of Northeast Ohio graduated a mere 1.3% of its students last school year – 2 out of 155.
Brennan will have no difficulty living up to state standards. That’s because a loophole in the law allows a dropout recovery school to stay open even if it doesn’t meet state standards as long as the school improves its graduation rate by 10% a year for two consecutive years. However, that would mean Life Skills of Northeast Ohio would only need to improve to a 1.53% graduation rate, or graduate 2.4 students rather than 2 out of 155. In other words, Brennan doesn’t have to graduate even a single new student to meet this “standard”.
This tale is a reminder of the challenges ahead. With sufficient vigilance and oversight, delays and loopholes in reforming Ohio’s charter school laws can hopefully be averted. State lawmakers need to resist the temptation and influence that can come with campaign contributions and do the right thing for the state and our students.
 Rotherham, Andy. “Six National Takeaways from The Credo Ohio Charter Report.” Message to the author as part of Eduwonk.com daily update. 12 Dec. 2014. E-mail. Rotherham is a charter school proponent, but recognizes, as do most of the responsible proponents, that Ohio has a problem with its charter schools.
 Oplinger, Doug, and Dennis Willard. “In Education, Money Talks.” Akron Beacon Journal 13 Dec. 1999, A1 sec.: n. pag. Print.
 Ohio Rev. Code Section 3314.017(D)(3)