The New York Times outed one of Columbus consultant Mark Weaver’s shady pro-charter school groups more than five years ago.

Like so many of the online charter chains, The Times found that K12 Schools did a terrible job of educating kids — but a magnificent job of enriching investors. It also found a pattern of smarmy tactics employed to try and discredit champions of charter school reform.

One such champion: Ohio legislator Stephen Dyer.

The Times has the details:

Former State Representative Stephen Dyer became suspicious when members of the benignly named organization My School, My Choice paraded through his northeastern Ohio district carrying signs attacking him: “Why Won’t Rep. Stephen Dyer let parents choose the best education for their kids?”

The protest was prompted by questions Mr. Dyer had raised over the state’s financing formula for charter and online schools. The group describes itself as a coalition of parents, teachers and employees of the schools. But Mr. Dyer said that his wife questioned the people carrying the signs and found out they were paid temp agency workers.

The Times traced My School, My Choice to Mark Weaver.

Steve Dyer lost a tough re-election, and Ohio taxpayers lost a tough champion. To this day, Steve believes that Weaver and his fake group played a big role in his defeat.

My School, My Choice re-appeared this week. ProgressOhio is its latest target.

The group falsely claimed that ProgressOhio investigated the chronically failing Concept Schools because it received money “from an oppressive foreign government’’ paid through “a shadowy overseas conduit.’’ (It came from a law firm that disclosed the payments in a required, public filing.)

I run ProgressOhio. Our Concept investigation began more than two years before the law firm began its own examination of the schools and hired ProgressOhio to help.

ProgressOhio began looking into Concept Schools after reading a blog post from Matthew Blair, a teacher who tried and failed to get state officials to even listen to serious concerns he had about the Concept School in Dayton where he once worked.

I located Matt and with his help, we lined up a panel of teachers who testified before the State School Board about problems they witnessed: Widespread test-tampering; a teacher who encouraged an in-class groping game; teachers who openly referred to African-American students as “dogs;’’ schools officials who chose not to tell parents that surveillance cameras caught 6th grade girls performing oral sex on 8th grade boys at a school function.
An Ohio Department of Education spokesman responded to the explosive testimony in a tweet that urged departmental critics to “take a break from muckraking’’ and “get laid.” He later apologized for it.

Eventually, the state ordered an investigation – but it was a sham. It concluded that all of the teacher testimony was too old or too vague to confirm, then ignored newer, more specific information, much of it unearthed by Ohio journalists.

The Dayton Daily News, for example, corroborated the test-tampering reports by locating a gifted student who said – on the record – that he was paid cash and pizza to answer questions that his peers had left blank on standardized tests. State investigators never contacted him.

The school’s own Dean of Students wrote a memo describing a place so out of control that it had “condoms in the halls’’ and students having sex in the in-school suspension lab. No state investigators contacted him either.
Rather that rebut all the lies that My School, My Choice told about ProgressOhio this week, here are two of the bigger ones:

  • ProgressOhio is “essentially running a mud-slinging campaign using false allegations that have been repeatedly found to be untrue.’’

They were not “repeatedly found to be untrue.’’ Newspapers confirmed many of the them. The state never concluded they were false, choosing to determine they were too stale to properly investigate.

  • “The Turkish government sought to discredit Concept Schools because of an alleged yet false connection to Turkish exile Fethullah Gulan.’’

Despite repeated denials that the schools are affiliated with Gulen – that denial was shot down by The New York Times five years ago and by many others since.

The Times’ 2011 story about Weaver’s shady group centered on the poor performance of the K12 schools, which operate in Ohio under the name Ohio Virtual Academy.

In 2015, the Ohio schools faced criticisms similar to those reported earlier by The Times. A whistleblower sent Virtual Academy internal documents to top members of the Ohio House Education Committee, and the records appeared to show the school illegally continued to receive state money for students long after they should have been booted for truancy. The panel’s top Republican and top Democrat called for an investigation.

Toledo Rep. Teresa Fedor – the top Democrat – soon found herself under attack by Weaver’s firm. Once again, he used a benignly named group, “The Ohio eSchool Friends and Families Coalition,’’ to attack a charter school critic.
In a comically over-the-top news release, Weaver’s firm announced the hiring of “former Prosecutor and Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Peterson to investigate how State Representative Teresa Fedor came into possession of potentially stolen documents, made false claims against the Ohio Virtual Academy and to hold her to account for her actions.’’

Translation: A public official who received information in her official capacity from an anonymous whistleblower sought to have the information properly investigated. So Weaver tried to suggest she’s the subject of a criminal probe. Needless to say, nothing came of it.

In keeping with Ohio’s tradition of cover-ups, attendance padding charges at the Ohio Virtual Academy were investigated by the Academy itself and by the Academy’s sponsor – which has a financial stake in keeping the school operating. Both found minor problems only.

Despite all the scare tactics and false accusations, this tale has somewhat of a happy ending.

Steve Dyer works for Innovation Ohio, which partners with ProgressOhio on an on-going effort to reform charter schools. Our work has helped pass a new law that improves charter school accountability and makes it easier to close down the bad ones. Plunderbund and many mainstream Ohio-based journalists have done some ground-breaking reporting that also helped inspire the reformers.

What we have not seen is Weaver and his allies putting forth a system of delivering the quality education promised when Ohio opened its doors to charter schools many years ago. Instead, we’re likely to see another benignly named group that uses lies and public resources to defend an indefensible system that – for too long – has hurt too many Ohio kids


Sandy Theis
Executive Director