If it isn’t one kind of shortage it’s another. Right on the heels of a warning that single malt Scotch  might be in short supply, Ohio charter school watchers are worried that there may a future shortage of red flag cloth due to the growing number of hazard signals needed to alert state taxpayers about these privately operated but publicly funded schools.

The latest revelation that accompanied the deployment of more red flags cautioning about charter school problems and questionable practices was the news that Provost Academy, an online school that opened in 2013, was missing quite a number of students. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the true full-time equivalent (FTE) count for students enrolled at the school was calculated at 35, rather than the 162 students previously reported. The inflated count means that the school and its operator were overpaid nearly $800,000, and the state must be reimbursed for this accounting “error.”

With that kind of accounting error, people notice. “This isn’t one of those cases where you missed one, two, or even five students, and you say ‘OK, a mistake was made,’ but to this extent — this is criminal,” said Tom Gunlock, president of the state school board.

Voodoo economics (trickle down, supply side) begets voodoo public policy (charter schools, vouchers) begets which begets voodoo accounting (state school aid). From the looks of things and where this story may be headed, chances are that the ultimate icons of voodoo accounting may turn out to be e-schools, where students come and go, talking not of Michelangelo. (Apologies to T. S. Eliot).

At the very least, we have voodoo accounting here, perhaps as voodoo as the software that represents the teaching and learning aspects of the school, where the suitability of the instructional technology for special education students has been questioned.  EdisonLearning, which provides the school’s digital learning platform, was one of the earliest players in the for-profit charter school industry, and will be the subject of increased scrutiny as the result of the Provost Academy debacle – and perhaps the sponsor as well.

About that sponsor. The Ohio Council of Community Schools (OCCS), one of the three original charter school sponsors in Ohio, serves as the authorizer, or sponsor of the school, a term unique to the Buckeye State, along with the term community school. Of the more than 40 states that recognize and fund these privately operated entities, only Ohio uses the somewhat misleading terms sponsor, rather than authorizer, along with community school, when a public school – governed by elected board members and located within a board-approved public school district attendance zone – is the true community school.

Hmm, in thinking about the terms community school and sponsor, rather than charter school and authorizer, do we also have voodoo language to contend with here amidst all of the other voodoo? Though I digress, that’s another story, to be written in the near future. Sigh.

Provost Academy’s authorizer is one of the most politically connected organizations in the state charter school industry. Its long-time former executive director, Allison Perz, is the daughter of Sally Perz, one of the authors of the original charter school legislation. Another former OCCS executive, Darlene Chambers, who was head of the organization at the time Provost Academy was opened, now runs the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a leading promoter of the industry. OCCS was established soon after the legislation passed the Ohio General Assembly and remains one of the largest and influential charter school authorizers in the state.

An interesting wrinkle in the Provost Academy-OCCS relationship is the fact that the authorizer lists this achievement on its website:

National Authorizer Group Gives OCCS Top Rating

Posted: February 3, 2016

OCCS receives top rating from national authorizer group

Though largely unseen, and too often misunderstood, the work of charter school authorizers (aka sponsors) is a key factor in the ultimate success of charter schools. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers promotes “12 Essential Practices” that are critical for authorizers, based on the group’s highly regarded Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. According to NACSA, these fundamental practices establish a foundation of practice that pave the way for great educational options for children.

OCCS is pleased to announce it recently received a perfect 12-of-12 score on NACSA’s Index of Essential Practices. This top rating puts OCCS in the same league with just 31 other sponsors nationwide.

While the Dispatch story says that “Edison officials made an effort to keep certain issues away from Provost’s school board and its sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools,” other sources have raised questions about the effort of the authorizer to provide the necessary due diligence required. The question that will soon need to be clarified in the Provost Academy mess is how much did the sponsor organization know about the school’s practices with attendance data, when did they know it, and who in OCCS had knowledge about the new school’s rather artful calculation methods. On the other hand, if the authorizer did not know about any of the matters uncovered in the state attendance review conducted in 2014, then the organization’s top rating, a perfect 12-of-12 score on “NACSA’s Index of Essential Practices,” may need further review, to say the least.

As we wait for more developments in the Provost Academy matter as well as any word regarding the extent of OCCS’s responsibility in providing more effective oversight, there are others who are worried about a chronic shortage of red flag cloth that may be urgently needed to provide a hazard warning about charter school issues. Remember that in spite of all the publicity generated by Edison’s artful accounting, Provost consists of only 35 students.

If ODE’s Office of School Finance looks closer at e-school FTE data, what might we discover soon about the true enrollment of other, larger e-schools, including the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), sponsored by another original authorizer, the ESC of Lake Erie West (formerly Lucas County ESC), and Ohio Virtual Academy, also sponsored by OCCS? And what if we find out that, viola, these virtual schools also just happen to have, um, virtual enrollment?

Virtual? Voodoo? Choose your new V-word. In the end, you’ll also discover the F-word: fuzzy math.

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.

 

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