BREAKING NEWS: SHADOWS COLUMN LEADS TO FEDERAL PROBE OF CHARTERS: Newsnet5.com in Cleveland is reporting that a Turkish Islamist organization first reported on by Shadows on High, September 15, 2010 is now the subject of a federal probe of Ohio taxpayer money moving to Turkey. PO will report more as details become available.
SHADOWS ON HIGH: With Charters, the Greedy get Greedier
"No group should use political influence to run public policy in the state of Ohio," Gov. John Kasich recently told the Columbus Dispatch.
For Shadows readers, the sad intersection of Ohio's brand of profiteering politics and the availability of school funds has long been exposed as a toxic mix.
Back in the mid-1990s, when even Senate GOP members were balking at Ohio's first foray into voucher schools, then-Governor George V. Voinoivich made a rare appearance at his party's own club room on the north side of the Senate Building's 2nd floor.
Shortly after vouchers were passed, largely at the behest of Akron financier David Brennan. During the next General Assembly session, charter schools emerged. For Brennan, the crusade was based on claims of failing schools and the need to give desperate parents a "choice." But, the opponents of the legislation were able to see the truth: this legislation was about money, it was about allowing outside businesses to become rich from funds that should have gone into Ohio's classrooms.
There can be little surprise that Voinovich's son George F. Voinovich went on to work with Brennan's law firm or that senior Voinovich operative Tom Needles now is a lobbyist with charter schools for clients.
Brennan was helped along by the intellectuals of the Buckeye Institute and Fordham Institute. They provided valuable cover for free-market "education" plans, and eventually these institutions proliferated in Ohio more than in any other state in the union.
It was not enough though for David Brennan and fellow businessmen like Bill Lager, who is to Ohio charter schools what the University of Phoenix is to colleges and universities. This year, emboldened by the right-wing tea-party make-up of the Ohio House, they stripped away all pretenses and in the process got too greedy, even for Fordham.
Gone were oversight rules to require educational performance, along with any semblance of accountability and transparency with state tax dollars. A provision giving all assets purchased with state money to, you guessed it - the for-profit holding companies owned by folks like Brennan and Lager. And therein lies the dowry for the GOP's unholy marriage between the profiteers and ideologues.
When Gov. Kasich vowed to fight the influence of individual groups, his target wasn't the charters but Ohio's for-profit nursing homes. They think they should win every legislative battle, Kasich said. Their supporters contribute millions to political candidates and causes, he said. The money Ohio spends on nursing homes is "through the roof.''
Substitute "for-profit charter schools" for "for-profit nursing homes" and Kasich is eerily silent. Never mind that charter schools already have won virtually every legislative battle, their supporters give millions to political candidates and causes - and most are paid to deliver poor results.
The difference between Kasich's outcry over nursing homes but quiet encouragement of charter schools was the topic of the latest report by Innovation Ohio, a progressive think tank that believes Ohio's limited tax dollars should be spent wisely and reserved for programs that help move Ohio forward.
The study showed most charter schools waste money and set Ohio back.
The report focused mainly on electronic schools - known as "e-schools.'' These entities market themselves as on-line alternatives for students who want an education without walking through a school house door.
The study found:
· of Ohio's 7 state-wide e-schools (which account for 90% of all e-school enrollment), six are not even rated "effective" by the Ohio Department of Education.
· 5 of the 7 have graduation rates worse than Cleveland Municipal Schools, which has the lowest graduation rate of all traditional school districts.
· Far from "saving' money, e-schools actually cost the state twice as much per pupil as traditional public schools.
While the specific findings were new, charter school patrons David Brennan of Akron and William Lager of Columbus have been short-changing students - and making political donations, for years.
From 2001 to 2010, the two have single-handedly given nearly $4 million to Ohio politicians - with the lion's share to Kasich and other Republicans. When family members, employees and lobbyist donations are tallied, the amount nearly doubles.
As the money has flowed, Brennan and Lager have been winning legislative battle after battle - and the pending state budget promises some of the biggest wins yet.
The changes would allow for-profit corporations to operate charter schools by applying directly to the Ohio Department of Education, without the oversight of nonprofit sponsors. Critics say that could prevent state officials from determining how public money is spent, and place the schools outside state public meeting and open-records laws.
According to the Dayton Daily News, House Speaker William Batchelder "angrily denied mounting allegations from conservatives and liberals alike that campaign donations from large, for-profit charter school operators influenced House Republicans" to propose weaker oversight for poorly performing charters.
Batchelder has been among the leading recipients of charter school money.
But prominent supporters of charter schools -- including Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant education secretary during the Reagan administration -- joined Innovation Ohio in condemning House amendments to Gov. Kasich's two-year budget.
"I think they were accommodating some of their donors," Finn said of House Republicans. "I don't think they were trying to fix Ohio's broken charter school program."
One of the first signs the charter school system needed fixing came in 2001 when a special audit by then-State Auditor Jim Petro found that e-schools in the Toledo area had been paid $1.7 million for students it could not prove had enrolled.
Rather than improve oversight and accountability, State Rep. (and current Secretary of State) Jon Husted led a late night legislative effort in 2002 to punish the State Board of Education by limiting its oversight of charter schools.
Husted has been among the main recipients of charter school money.
As Shadows and ProgressOhio disclosed back in 2007, Mr. Brennan found a way to make his donations harder to track and skirt campaign limits. Starting with funneling of money through a Virginia PAC disclosed by Shadows and resulting in a record fine by the Ohio Elections Commission, subsequent increased scrutiny by then Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner led to increased spotlights on Brennans political checkwriting. The Columbus Dispatch explains what Brennan did:
In 2006, the Akron industrialist and his wife, Ann, each gave the maximum $10,000 to (Mary) Taylor, gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell and attorney general candidate Betty D. Montgomery. In 2007, each also gave $10,000 -- $670 under the maximum that year -- to Rep. William G. Batchelder, R-Medina.
State officials said Brennan then skirted campaign finance limits by using his Go-Go and Main Street PACs to give an additional $30,000 to those candidates. The problem: Brennan and his wife have been the sole contributors to the PACs since 2005, leaving little or no distinction between the PAC donations and the Brennans' personal donations.
As abuses mounted, 10 charter schools in the Akron and Cleveland areas filed suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court last summer seeking to void or renegotiate their contracts with White Hat. The case is still pending.
Newspapers across Ohio used the lawsuit to express frustration over the lack of accountability.
The Youngstown Vindicator likened the controversy to "a mad scientist (who) did an experiment that blew up in his face, and then continued to do the same experiment every day, suffering through the same explosion day after day.''
In an on-line column last month, Terry Ryan, vice-president for Fordham's Ohio Programs and Policy, said, "During the early and mid-2000s Ohio was known as the Wild West of charter school programs because the state encouraged dozens of charter schools to spring up overnight."
Ryan didn't stop there. Some who launched schools "were ill-prepared." Some had "eccentric views" of what a school should be. "Some operators turned out to be more interested in personal enrichment than in delivering high-quality instruction to poor kids.''
Ryan didn't name Brennan and Lager. He didn't have to. Ironically, the budget passed by the Ohio House and now in the Ohio Senate retains the Charter language today, that even conservative Fordham is aghast about.
No one claims responsibility for inserting the language. Gov. Kasich's operatives have made it clear it was not them. Speaker Batchelder claims he does not know the author of the "profiteer" amendments.
In the end, we as a public are left to believe that no one is responsible over the amendments, which continue to make Ohio's charters more about profit than performance. Perhaps these latest developments will cause even more ideologues to realize Ohio's charter system was never really about choice and performance; it was profit-making machine, born of Gov. Voinovich's "pay to play" culture.
Is it really any surprise that the greedy only got greedier?