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Newspaper Series Examines How Charter Schools Operate

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Monday, March 31, 2014 at 12:11 PM



A series of stories hit Ohio newspapers on Sunday that looks closer at the accountability and costs of charter schools in Ohio.

It’s part of a multi-year project launched by the Akron Beacon Journal and the NewsOutlet, a group of students from Youngstown State, the University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College.

The project began with the basics: Requests for information required by Ohio’s open meetings and public records laws to 300 of the nonprofit schools.


Some of the schools are run by for-profit companies and some are run in conjunction with traditional public schools. The requested information included the names of school board members, when the boards meet, names of top administrators and management companies.

About half of the schools actually supplied that information. The reactions of the others included ignoring the requests and hanging up on the students.

Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. says the requests are a first step in creating a database of the charter schools. Such a database exists nowhere else in Ohio, and he says it could be used by parents, researchers, policy makers and reporters to track the performance of the publicly financed, but privately run, schools statewide.

Some of that tracking will be done with a set of standards that already exists for nonprofits.

“The IRS has about 70 questions that they’re supposed to ask of a charter school applicant seeking tax-free, nonprofit status," Oplinger said. "There has to be a clear line of separation between the school board that is establishing the school and the management company that is often hired to manage the school."

"The students and one of our reporters went to some school board meetings and it was clear in the school board meeting that the school board was recruited by the for-profit management company and the for-profit management company takes 95 percent of the money. The board members said they have very little authority in terms of the administration of that money and the hiring of the employees," Oplinger said.

That includes one operation where the budget totaled $2 million and school board members said they have discretion over just $1,500.

The third part of the series looks at a major mandate that is an extra cost to traditional public schools that comes with charter schools: Transportation.

“One of the things that folks don’t understand is that charter schools have a tremendous advantage in that the legislature requires public school districts to provide transportation to kids that go to charter schools, while not providing the same level of transportation for kids that go to their own schools," Oplinger said.

"So this winter, for example, as kids are slogging through just miserable weather to go to their local traditional public school, the kid going to a charter school was catching the bus near their house and getting a free ride to the charter school," he said.

"Charter schools advertise this free transportation, and that is a huge advantage because if you don’t get kids to school, you can’t educate them. Your absentee rate goes way up. We’ve talked to parents who’ve said free transportation is huge because I don’t want my kids walking on messy sidewalks and past or through some neighborhoods where I know crimes have been committed.”

Oplinger says the next step in the series will include a examining who owns the property in which many charter schools operate. He also hopes to incorporate a series of focus groups, forums and polling to see what the public expects from the charter schools.

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