When Leon Sinoff was asked to
sign off on a building lease for Imagine Columbus Primary Academy in Columbus,
Ohio, in the summer of 2013, he had little reason to be skeptical. Before Imagine Schools, one
of the nation's largest for-profit charter management companies, asked him to
join the new charter school's board, Sinoff, a public defender, had no
education background or experience. "I relied on their expertise and
thought to myself, 'Well, who am I to say no to this proposal?'"
But by the start of the second
school year, he was having doubts. The school received an F grade for achievement on the 2013-14
state report card. Only three teachers had returned after the first summer
break; within two years, two principals and one vice principal stepped
down. The school—which serves a
high-poverty, low-income community—lacked arts, music, and foreign language
classes, and whenever the board inquired about adding them, Imagine said there
wasn't enough money. Then Sinoff discovered that the $58,000-a-month lease—consuming nearly half the
school's operating budget, compared with the national standard of 8 to 15
percent—was for a building owned by a subsidiary of Imagine, Schoolhouse
"It clicked for me. Aha!
This is self-dealing. That's why we are massively overpaying for the
lease," says Sinoff, who resigned with
the other board members this summer. He adds, "Imagine is perfectly
happy cranking out low-quality schools and profiting off them. They don't care
particularly about the quality of the kids' education."
Before Imagine Columbus Primary
Academy opened, a different Imagine school operated in the building for
eight years. Its story was nearly identical: The struggling school was paying
enormous sums to Schoolhouse Finance while languishing on the state's
"academic emergency" list—a designation reserved for F-rated
schools—before its board voted to shut it down. One member of that board was
David Hansen, who shortly after the school's closing was appointed by Gov.
John Kasich to a newly created position: executive director of Ohio's Office of
Quality School Choice and Funding. Kasich tasked Hansen with overseeing the
expansion of the state's charter schools and virtual schools, which are online
charter schools typically used by homeschoolers.
In July, Hansen resigned after
admitting he had rigged evaluations of the state's charter school sponsors—the
nonprofits that authorize and oversee the schools in exchange for a fee—by
not including the failing grades of certain F-rated schools in his assessment.
Specifically, he omitted failing virtual schools operated by for-profit
management companies that are owned by major Republican donors in the state.
Kasich, now running for the
Republican presidential nomination, has waved off the
Hansen scandal. "I mean, the guy is gone. He's gone," Kasich told
reporters on the campaign trail. "We don't tolerate any sort of not open
and direct communication about charter schools, and everybody gets it. So
that's kind of the end of it."
But Kasich can't distance
himself from the problems so easily. He appointed Hansen to his role, and
Hansen's wife is Kasich's current presidential campaign manager and former
chief of staff. He presided over an expanded charter regime with loosened
oversight. Troubled charter schools like those operated by Imagine, which had
17 schools in Ohio at its apex in the 2013-14 school year and 14 schools last
year, have proliferated in this environment. Schools with D or F grades
receive an estimated 90 percent of the state's charter school funding. Virtual
schools, which have an even worse academic track
record and insufficient quality controls have been permitted to
In the four years that Kasich has been in office,
funding for traditional public schools has declined by
almost half a billion dollars, while charter schools have seen a funding
increase of more than 25 percent. Much of that funding appears to have been
misspent. When State Auditor David Yost visited 30
charter schools unannounced this past fall, he found that in more than
half of them, attendance was drastically lower than the schools had reported to
the Department of Education. Because the state typically dispenses funds based
on student enrollment, inflated classroom numbers can mean extra dollars
for a school.
It wasn't until this winter,
after Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a report
finding that achievement in Ohio's charter schools fell significantly below the
state's regular public schools, that Kasich began speaking about the need for
reforms. "We want to clean up these charter schools that are not doing a
good job," he said in
February. He laid out a plan to get serious about charter sponsor
evaluations—the same evaluations Hansen was overseeing and later rigged.
"Kasich's talked a good
game about it," says Stephen
Dyer, a former Democratic state legislator and current education policy analyst
at Innovation Ohio, a Columbus think tank. "He's done some public
posturing that's been positive, but when you look at the actual results under
his watch, our charter schools have become a national joke, and he hasn't been
able to get through any meaningful sort of broad-based reform."
Even Ohio organizations that
support school choice, such as the Fordham Institute and the state chapter of
StudentsFirst, founded by Michelle Rhee, have called for greater reforms. The
National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago-based
organization that coincidentally hired Hansen in 2009 to oversee external
affairs, referred to Ohio as the "Wild, Wild West" of charter
In his first year in office,
Kasich lifted the state's cap on the number of charter schools that could
operate, and the following year he signed a bill ending a decade-long moratorium on new virtual schools. That
same year, Kasich signed legislation that relieved virtual
schools of any responsibility to report how much they spend on classroom
instruction. The bill also stipulated that virtual-school
students would be automatically re-enrolled each year so that there would be
"no interruption in state funding." Given that virtual schools have
some of the highest attrition rates and funds are allocated on a per-pupil
basis, the measure gave funds to virtual schools before they even knew what
their true enrollment would be.
"It doesn't make sense
unless you look at it through a political prism," says Dyer.
When the national charter
school discussion began in the early 1990s, the conversation centered largely
on the idea of small, innovative schools that matched the specific needs of a
particular student demographic. Early advocates hoped charter schools would
become laboratories for innovative teaching methods that would one day be
integrated into traditional public schools. Terms like "competition"
and "portfolio model," associated today with charter schools,
were in many ways the antithesis of the original design. But the model began to
change in the late 1990s, when, according to National Education Policy Center
researcher Gary Miron, people from the business sector decided they wanted
to test market theories on education.
Ohio's charter law went into
effect in 1998, and corporate interests were all over the state's school-choice
blueprint. "It was a political movement, not an education movement,"
says Dyer. "You have big political contributors who have really driven the
school-choice movement in Ohio for a long time."
The two central figures in
Ohio's corporate charter movement, David Brennan and Bill Lager, have donated a
combined $6.4 million to state legislators and committees, more than 90
percent of which went to Republicans, who have dominated the state House and
Senate. Their donations have paid off. Since 1998, the state has given $1.76 billion to schools run by
Brennan's White Hat Management and Lager's Electronic Classrooms of Tomorrow,
accounting for one-quarter of all state charter funds.
F-rated virtual schools run by
White Hat Management were among the charters Hansen purposely omittedfrom sponsor evaluations this
summer, resulting in an "exemplary" grade for the Ohio Council
of Community Schools, which sponsors many White Hat virtual schools. Another
sponsor that benefited from Hansen's flawed math, Buckeye Community Hope
Foundation, oversees 51 charter schools, including another struggling Imagine school on whose board Hansen previously sat.
The majority of the Ohio
Department of Education's elected board members—other members are appointed by
the governor—have called for an investigation into Hansen's manipulated
evaluations and for the resignation of State Superintendent Richard Ross*. Kasich
has brushed off both requests, instead proposing a restructuring of the board
to provide greater gubernatorial control. "I don’t like the structure of
it," Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch.
"I don’t like the infighting."
Tim Pingle, a former Imagine
Columbus Primary Academy principal, is frustrated that schools like his old one
are allowed to remain open. "Why do we accept this for our kids?" he
asks, noting that Imagine Schools was kicked out of Missouri after years of
financial and academic concerns. "It's not good enough for the
kids in Missouri, but it's okay for kids in Ohio?"
In June, the Ohio Senate
approved bipartisan legislation to reform the state's charter schools,
but the measure stalled in the state House. And so last week, Imagine
Columbus Primary Academy opened its doors for its third year—with its third
principal and second school board.
"I'm sure [Imagine's new
board] is even more oblivious than we were, given that we caused a lot of
trouble in the end," says Sinoff, who resigned after Imagine refused to
re-negotiate the high-priced lease. "I think that they are not entirely
happy that we squeaked through the filter to make life difficult. I'm sure they
haven't made that mistake again, and they have folks even more oblivious than
Correction: This story
originally misidentified Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross
as "Robert Ross".