Auditor Finds Gap Between Reported Attendance, Headcount at Ohio Charters

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost explains the findings of his office's probe into charter school attendance. (Andy Chow)
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost explains the findings of his office's probe into charter school attendance. (Andy Chow)
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Investigators in the state auditor's office swept through 30 charter schools to answer a simple question: How many students are showing up for class?

Auditor Dave Yost said for seven of those schools, investigators found a big difference between the number of students officials reported to the Ohio Department of Education and the actual headcount.

"I frankly was shocked to find that 50 percent seems to be the average," Yost said. "I think most of the folks in the legislature, if you asked them, without any backing they would be surprised by 50 percent attendance rate."

For example, the Life Skills Center of Cincinnati told the department it would have 180 students but the auditor's team only saw 30 in class. The Academy for Urban Scholars in Youngstown had funding for 95 students, but the auditor's investigators found zero students at the site.

The report found another nine schools with headcounts that differed by more than 10 percent of what was reported to the state.

Yost warned that there are variables to consider -- for instance, that school with nobody around dismissed their students early after completing a practice test. Also, many schools are dropout recovery programs with students who already dropped out of school before. The auditor said he hopes his report can open the door for better standards.

"We should begin having a discussion about what these findings mean and what our expectations are," Yost said.

One group welcoming that challenge is the Fordham Institute, a pro-charter school organization. Their vice president for policy and advocacy, Chad Aldis, said it's in their best interest to raise accountability. He said the stories about poor performing charters have become a distraction.

"If somebody on the streets was asked about charter schools, if they've just read headlines from the last three of four months, they might think that charters schools are not a good educational option," Aldis said. "And as an advocate for charter schools I think there's nothing further from the truth. Charter schools can really help kids. If you look at some of the highest performing schools in the urban areas they are -- some of them are charter schools, a fair number of them."

Charter school critics, including Sandy Theis with Progress Ohio, say the major barrier to tougher oversight is the for-profit charter sponsors who donate a lot of money to campaigns.

"David Brennen who runs the Life Skills schools that were on the big list of worst offenders here and Bill Lager who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow gave $6.4 million to Republican candidates and causes since 1998," Theis said. "That's a lot of money. People listen to that kind of money."

Aldis said he doesn't see the connection and calls that argument political.

"I actually think that questions like that are about finger pointing and blame," Aldis said, "when we really should be doing is trying to find solutions to ensure that charter schools do function well rather than retracing how we got there. That seems like more of a political debate than a debate that's gonna help kids."

A top leader in the effort to reform charter school regulations is Republican State Sen. Peggy Lehner of Kettering. She's the chair of the Senate Education Committee and according to Theis has not accepted any campaign contributions from charter school sponsors or lobbyists in recent years.

Lehner has a message to taxpayers who find this report concerning.

"The legislature is not going to drop it," Lehner said. "We're going to look into this further, as I know the auditor's office is, and we will continue working until the taxpayers feel that they're getting a value for their money, and the students are getting the education they deserve."

Lehner believes the new provisions will come through standalone bills but has not set a timeline. Gov. John Kasich has also made some public comments suggesting that some new rules on charter schools could be in his budget next month.

Yost is sending his report to the education department for more investigation.

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