Drip, drip, drip.

The steady stream of critical stories about the charter school Goliath named ECOT now is approaching a critical level, ready to create a flood in the GOP Statehouse and in the offices of the mega-giant’s lobbyists well before this year’s elections. If a Richard Nixon-type was somehow in command at this stage of the game and dealing with the proliferating ECOT mess, he would have called in the Plumbers and the renowned Haldeman and Erlichman firm to deal with the debacle.

No, the ECOT flood is not attributable to global warming, which Republicans don’t believe in, but nevertheless the water level around the Goliath is rising. Rapidly.

But wait. If there is a Goliath-type creature on the loose, doesn’t John Q. Public need a David to slay this foraging creature that feasts on more than $100 million from the state treasury, in addition to the other low-performing, politically connected charters that siphon off additional hundreds of millions annually in scarce public funds?

Interestingly enough, Ohio has not one but two public servants named David who could have made a difference in wounding the menacing ECOT, exposing other low-performing charters and their sponsors (or is the better word choice enablers) and otherwise protecting citizens from further harm.

It’s been a year since we saw the first David, Hansen by surname, who directed the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office, leave under fire for data rigging. In administering his department, Hansen was responsible for generating the legally required sponsor evaluation system, but neglected to include all of the performance data of certain failing charter schools.

Even the right-wing Breitbart blog had some stinging observations about Hansen and his conflicted background as the head of the Office of Quality School Choice:

“Hansen, whose position was created in 2013 by (Gov. John) Kasich to oversee the expansion of charter schools in the state, told the Associated Press that the state law pertaining to the evaluation of Ohio’s charter schools was “not a model of clarity.”

 The controversy came at a time when Ohio’s charter schools were under significant scrutiny, with problems of attendance and accountability surrounding the schools that were billed as an alternative to public schools.

 And Hansen himself was not new to data rigging.

As Ohio Political blog Plunderbund reported, in 2009 — while Hansen was president of the Buckeye Institute — he was also caught manipulating data regarding Ohio’s charter schools, yet was still chosen to be school choice director in 2013. Many of the schools involved were owned and operated by for-profit company White Hat Management, which itself is owned by David Brennan, a big donor — through his family’s foundation — to the Buckeye Institute, to the Republican Party, and to Kasich’s campaign in Ohio.”

So the first David failed to protect the public from charter Goliaths and was apparently conflicted by his relationship to long-time benefactors in the charter industry. In addition, there is the matter of his wife, Beth Hansen, who served as Kasich’s chief-of-staff and campaign manager when the governor thought he could be a viable candidate for president. Could David Hansen’s problems be both self-inflicted and also conflicted due to the duality of family and Buckeye Institute donor considerations? We await additional findings on his legal status.

Then there is the matter of the second David.

David Yost, Ohio Auditor of State, is charged with assuring that state funds are expended properly and that government entities report such expenditures in a manner that can be supported in any subsequent audit.  Yet just six months ago, Yost awarded ECOT the Auditor of State Award with Distinction, an honor that implies some sort of endorsement for best practices by Ohio’s fiscal watchdog.

Recall that in May, the Ohio Auditor identified the Ohio Department of Education as one of the “worst-run” state agencies and suggested that some regulatory responsibilities be taken away from the state education agency.  Advice to the auditor’s office. Be careful what you wish for – or recommend. There is, after all, something called karma.

In the meantime, charter watchdogs, immune from distraction by any smoke and mirrors emanating from the auditor’s office regarding these privately operated but publicly funded schools, remain incredulous as to how an organization, recognized for alleged “best practices,” could devolve in such a short period to being the subject of stories on page one above the fold.

The August 4 edition of the Columbus Dispatch revealed that ECOT has been reimbursed by the state without additional documentation that would establish the complete engagement of students which would then affirm the eligibility for state payments based on student enrollment:

“… ECOT has consistently told the state auditor that log books and teacher grade books that would document offline student work don’t exist. State auditors have had to rely on signed certification forms from teachers that say students have been offered at least 920 hours of “educational opportunities.”

That’s the standard that a 13-year-old contract between ECOT and the Education Department required, state Auditor Dave Yost said in an interview on Wednesday.

“No, this doesn’t tell us that we’re getting what we’re paying for,” Yost said.” [Emphasis Mine.]

Does the above sentence require repeating? The Auditor of State says that $100 million-plus in state funds are sent annually to a Goliath-type politically-connected, politically-protected entity called ECOT, even though there is incomplete documentation to justify the payments, or to know with certainty that “we’re getting what we’re paying for.”

When thousands of readers of the Columbus Dispatch read this quote, there is no doubt that the appropriateness of the Auditor of State Award with Distinction was subject not only to legitimate question, but to public rebuke.

While Yost was quick to issue an award to an organization that has supplied robust campaign contributions to Ohio Republican Party candidates, his office is nevertheless slow to respond to concerns about charter school corruption. Here are some particulars.

Nearly a year ago, this writer, a former consultant in the ODE charter school office, sent a detailed letter to the second David, i.e., Auditor Yost, encouraging him to fully examine the role of the first David, charter school Director Hansen, in scrubbing performance data from the sponsor report card.  The Columbus Dispatch, in an editorial on October 21, 2015, quoted from my letter to the Auditor and said:

“In an Oct. 11 letter urging Yost to vigorously investigate “chartergate,” Denis Smith, a former consultant with ODE’s charter school office, wrote: “The assertion that Hansen acted alone, amplified by the president of the State Board of Education (Gunlock), is counter to what employees know about the culture of the state education agency.”

While the Columbus Dispatch was decent enough to react to my letter to Yost, I am still awaiting a response from the Auditor, whose hair was on fire for nearly two years in his zeal to discover wrongdoing of similar data rigging in his protracted investigation of Columbus City Schools.

In February, the Auditor made this observation about those involved in the Columbus data rigging investigation:

“Here’s the most important thing you do to make sure this never happens again: You make the people responsible pay,” Yost said. “It’s about what we want to set as the expectation for people who are being paid by us, the people, to do a particular job.”

Expectation for people who are being paid by “us, the people”? What about a response to a letter that was sent nearly a year ago? At this point, I might even be somewhat happy with a canned or formulaic letter from Yost’s new communications director, Ben Marrison, former editor of the Dispatch, who never responded to me (except once) over a three-year period when I sent him detailed emails suggesting news stories about charter school corruption in the state. This 2014 article gives a bit more detail about some of the content that was sent to Yost’s new communications director that makes the point about the Sphinx-like state in the Auditor’s office that sees some evil but investigates selectively.

Make the people responsible pay? Has anyone heard lately of any action or the progress made in the “investigation” of David Hansen for rigging data in seeming violation of state law?  Was he in fact responsible for a data rigging scandal in the state education agency? If so, has he paid for any alleged wrongdoing?  As Auditor Yost himself suggested, it’s about us, the people. And we have a right to know.

On August 5, House Education Committee member Teresa Fedor, frustrated by the lack of action by the Auditor and concerned about seeming conflicts Yost might have in dealing decisively with the charter industry and a “failure to investigate,” said this:

“Instead of standing up to speak at ECOT’s graduation ceremony, Auditor Yost should be standing up for Ohio parents and taxpayers.”

These questions about the two Davids are raised on the eve of the Auditor’s Charter School Summit that is scheduled for August 11-12 in Columbus. This summary of the meeting is found on the Auditor’s website:

“The genesis of the summit is the charter school fiscal officer training provided annually by Auditor of State staff. The summit will also provide training on compliance with Ohio’s recently reformed charter school laws; best practices on record keeping and enrollment; teacher development and retention; cultivating public-private partnerships; board governance; and hearing stories of success.”

It sounds like the Auditor will be quite busy the week of August 10 in Columbus. In the meantime, after reading this summary about the Charter Summit, I do hope that the second David will find time to explain to the folks he identified as being most important in his February commentary about data rigging and address the following questions:

  1. What has happened to the investigation of David Hansen, the first David mentioned in this article, who also rigged state education data? It seems that it has totally dropped off the radar. Can you provide us an update?
  2. You are spending a lot of time, energy and resources on promoting an Ohio Charter Summit, bringing in several experts, when recognized and accomplished Ohio public school district administrators, treasurers and school business officials are available to assist charter people with needed fiscal and administrative training. This observation is made because charters are constantly referred to as “public” charter schools, yet you may not have asked for any assistance from genuine public school state associations and public school districts for training on the subject of recognized accounting procedures and fiscal controls. In light of recurring charter school scandals and the ECOT investigation, couldn’t you use some homegrown help in best practices through utilizing accomplished and experienced Ohio school business officials to augment state auditor trainings?
  3. You recently identified ECOT as a recipient of the Auditor of State Award with Distinction. How does that award square with the current ODE investigation of ECOT by ODE with regard to Full Time Equivalent (FTE) student attendance calculation for state education aid reimbursement?
  4. When can I expect a response from you (or Ben Marrison) regarding my October 11, 2015 letter regarding recommendations to pursue alleged wrongdoing in the Ohio Department of Education? After all, it’s been nearly a year. Here is the last paragraph of that letter.

“It is our further hope that your initiative and leadership in investigating this scandal will help to reassure the public that wrongdoing will be investigated and dealt with, wherever the trail of evidence might lead.”

Any announcement on the progress of the chartergate investigation? Which agency of government has taken the lead? Auditor of State? Inspector General? Ohio Attorney General? Franklin County Prosecutor? Anyone?

Uh, oh. Maybe all of this might be wrapped around the presence of a third David, as in Brennan. We have seen that he was the patron of the first David. Maybe we might discover in the continuing soap opera called chartergate that all of these Davids, denizens of charterworld, are not really emblematic of the David exemplar of yore, not really protectors of the realm, but instead Goliaths of the Dark Side, where sunlight hardly penetrates the netherworld of privately operated schools like ECOT, which engorge themselves on public funds and use them to hire legions of PR folks, lobbyists, attorneys, and then shamelessly produce commercials attacking the regulators (aka public servants) at ODE.

Only a Goliath would choose to bite the very hand that feeds and maintains.

If this is a fair representation of charterdom or charterworld, We the People have been co-opted, and with no righteous Davids to protect us.

Yes, there are no Davids to protect us from the charter Goliaths. We are in trouble. Where is the outrage?

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.

 
  • Mark J. Slutz

    This is precisely why I refused to vote for Kasich for President. I live in Ohio and have been a registered Republican for 30+ years; I didn’t even consider voting for Kasich in the March Primary. Despite the obvious issues with all Charter Schools, not just ECOT, Kasich remains a huge cheerleader for this misguided idea. The whole David Brennan kickback affair reminds me a lot of the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Hillary show.

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