Ohio Is Trying to Clean Up Its Sketchy Charter Schools. Has It Done Enough?

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on June 13 in Cleveland.

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Ohio has long been an embarrassment to charter-school supporters nationwide, with its trail of scandal and graft and abysmal student performance. So it seemed like a good development when, in late 2015, the state passed a big charter-school reform bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The new law was an attempt to add “transparency and accountability” to Ohio’s massive (and in the past, massively mismanaged) $1 billion charter-school sector: a series of small changes, like more detailed financial reporting requirements and fewer big-money conflicts of interest, that, taken all together, would produce a more tightly regulated charter industry and better schools.

Are the reforms working? There are definite signs of progress: The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on June 14 that 11 low-performing charter schools in the state have lost their financial backing as a result of the new restrictions.

But apparently Ohio isn’t out of the woods yet, at least not according to senior U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who also happens to be a shortlister for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s VP slot. (On Tuesday, Brown called Donald Trump a “factory of bad ideas.”)

On Monday, Brown sent a letter to Education Secretary John King in which he asked the feds to keep monitoring Ohio’s troubled charter sector closely. Making no mention of Ohio’s new charter law, Brown writes:

Ohio’s current lack of oversight wastes taxpayer’s money and undermines the ostensible goal of charters: providing more high-quality education opportunities for children. There exists a pattern of waste, fraud and abuse that is far too common and requires extra scrutiny.

The letter’s ostensible pretext was the disbursement of a $71 million Charter School Program (or CSP) grant that the U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio in September—funds that were frozen when it emerged that Ohio’s charter chief at the time (who happened to be married to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s former chief of staff and then–presidential campaign manager) had greatly understated the number of failing charters in the state.

To make his case that the feds should do some more fact-checking before doling out the cash, Brown cites a May report that, in the 20 years that the Department of Education has been handing out CSP grants, Ohio has received nearly $100 million, more than any other state except Florida and California. Nearly one-third of that money went to schools that have since closed; $4 million went to schools that never opened at all. (Ouch.) Brown cited another May report on attendance issues, particularly at “drop-out recovery prevention charter schools, some of which had attendance rates of less than fifty percent during the surprise inspections.”

All legit concerns—and, unlike his potential future boss Hillary Clinton, who has a muddy record on school reform, Brown has earned his right to ask these questions. Last year he introduced the Charter School Accountability Act, parts of which were incorporated into the Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress in December. Brown has also been a longtime crusader against for-profit colleges. But asking questions is one thing; getting answers, not to mention realizing actual improvements, is quite another.