When charter schools emerged on the Ohio educational scene more than a decade ago, they were hailed by many, including this newspaper, as a potentially innovative and lower-cost alternative to the state's disturbingly mediocre public school system.
What was not envisioned is that charter schools - officially known as community schools - would become cash repositories to be siphoned of sponsorship and management fees, in some cases by politically connected individuals.
Take Sally Perz, the former Republican state representative from Toledo who wrote the legislation creating charter schools in the mid-1990s, and who now makes a handsome living monitoring charter schools and lobbying for the cause. She works for her daughter, Allison Perz, the $105,000 a year executive director of the Toledo-based Ohio Council of Community Schools, which oversees 45 charter schools around the state.
Charter school sponsors are permitted by law to charge the schools fees of up to 3 percent of their per-pupil allotments of state aid, $5,238 in the last fiscal year. Together, the Council of Community Schools and the Lucas County Educational Service Center, which sponsors 75 schools, collected $3.4 million in fees this year.
In addition, many of the schools shell out up to 12 percent of their income to private companies that manage them on a day-to-day basis. One such management firm, the state's largest, is White Hat, run by David L. Brennan, an Akron industrialist who is a major Republican campaign contributor. Ms. Perz formerly was a White Hat lobbyist.
According to an analysis by the Columbus Dispatch of audits conducted under a new law, White Hat makes about $1 million a year for each of the 34 charter schools it operates in Ohio. Altogether, the firm got $109 million in tax dollars, including 97 percent of the schools' state aid last year.
How much is profit is somewhat unclear, since charter schools typically refuse to divulge details of their management contracts. A new state law requires that some details be made public through audits but the state's position has been that the information is a private matter, even though the money - about $450 million in total state aid this year - comes from the public.
An argument could be made that the same amount of money charter schools spend on sponsorship and management fees would be paid out in administrative salaries if the charters were ordinary public schools, but that is only conjecture.
Moreover, the machinations of lobbyists like Sally Perz appear no less geared to self-interest than those of Ohio's teachers' unions, whose voracious appetite for taxpayer dollars in the form of higher salaries continues to drain the state treasury.
Ohioans reap no benefit from a commercial enterprise that diverts scarce public dollars from the intended goal- the education of Ohio's youth - and into the pockets of those with no direct connection to classroom learning but an abiding pecuniary interest in state funding.
Less attention might be paid to such political maneuverings if the result was a better educational outcome, but that isn't the case.
In the most recent state "report cards," issued last fall, 60 percent of 264 charter schools then in operation were ranked in "academic emergency," the lowest academic rating, compared to just 8 percent of public schools.In short, the unseemly scramble to stake a claim to public money leaves the promise of charter schools as an educational innovation still unfulfilled.
Ohio charter schools
A POLITICAL EDUCATION, July 10, 2006, Toledo Blade (OH)