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The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. (Provided via Ohio Department of Development)

Athens Schools spend more than $500,000 a year funding local charter schools

Amid discussions of job creation, fracking and affordable education, another controversial issue underscores the local 94th district state representative race: charter schools.

A report released this month from the Ohio Department of Education revealed nearly a third of the state’s charter school sponsors might be on the verge of going out of business, adding fuel to the ongoing political firestorm surrounding Ohio’s charter system. Charter schools receive public funding but fall out of the jurisdiction of local school districts.

In August, Ohio’s charter schools were the subject of ridicule on HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Host John Oliver took aim at the system’s lack of oversight, citing a state audit that found Ohio’s charters misspend public money at a rate nearly four times higher than any other taxpayer-funded agency.

With approximately 400 authorized for-profit charter schools in operation, Ohio has been accused of having some of the country’s most lax regulatory laws.

As of last year, only 66 students in the Athens City School District were enrolled in charter schools — all, or “nearly all” of which are online, District Treasurer Bryan Bunting said.

“$566,300 was deducted from (the district's) state school funding and sent to those schools," he said in an email. "Our district received approximately $194,120 in state school funding for those students. Meaning, we had $373,000 more deducted than we received from the state. The only place this difference can come from is our local tax revenue paid by our taxpayers.”

Encompassing Athens High School, Athens Middle School, four local elementary schools and a preschool, the Athens City School District holds an average performance index grade of C, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The district spends just over $3,000 per student at those schools.

Charter schools serving the City of Athens, however, hold a D average, though each school allocates nearly double what Athens Schools spends on individual students, at an average of $7,455 per student.

“(The charter schools didn't receive) state funding. It was local tax dollars that members of the community pay to go to our schools,” Sarah Grace, Democratic candidate for 94th district state representative said. “And instead, those tax dollars are going to charter schools that are even resisting requests from the Department of Education to report their attendance records. They only want to report enrollment and not attendance.”

Collectively, Athens City schools provide funding to eight Ohio charter academies, seven of which are exclusively online. Within the 2013-14 financial year, the Athens City School District transferred approximately $515,324 to charter schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Recent reports, however, have indicated certain online charter schools have been providing false attendance information to the Department of Education.

A 2014 Department of Education audit found that The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which receives $180,496.58 from the Athens School District, was paid millions for nearly 9,000 students who were not enrolled in the school.

Though the charter school debate tends to be divided along party lines, with Republicans advocating for more of the institutions while Democrats are often in support of more regulation, the issue has been a point of agreement in the local state representative race. In a September town hall forum, Republican candidate Jay Edwards noted the issue was an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

“I think that charter schools are an issue,” Edwards said. “The funding model for funding charter schools is not on par. At the same time, they’re not being held to the same standards.”

Both candidates also agreed Ohio House Bill 2, which came into effect earlier this year and addresses “transparency and accountability” for charter schools, is a step in the direction toward proper reform.

The bill requires charter schools to publish more comprehensive reports on the quality of the education they provide, and prevents administrators of charter schools from serving in many public offices. It passed with bipartisan support in October, though the House did not pass the Senate version of the bill that was on the floor in September.

Grace, however, said the bill does not go far enough.

“I and many current members of the House and the Senate are merely asking that they are held to the same standards as our brick-and-mortar public schools, where they have to report their attendance and be financially responsible,” Grace said. “Tell us where the tax dollars are being spent, and what we are getting for our tax dollars.”

@lauren__fisher

lf966614@ohio.edu

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