Questions About Transparency Lead To “Rogue” Charter Schools

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The break room at Towpath Trail High School allows students to hang out before, between, or after classes.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio)
The break room at Towpath Trail High School allows students to hang out before, between, or after classes.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio)

When Ohio’s charter school movement began one company came to symbolize the change – White Hat Management, a for-profit firm based in Akron. White Hat ran more than a dozen charter schools, giving parents of kids in struggling public schools a choice. But some of those schools came to dislike White Hat’s practices, and they chose a different path.

Deb Howell wanted to stay involved in education after she retired as a public school teacher. So she joined the boards of two charter schools run by White Hat Management, the large for-profit charter school operator.

But soon after arriving in 2008, things started falling apart.

You know in a regular public school setting we have issues but they weren’t like this.

Howell’s board sponsored two Life Skills charter high schools in Akron and Cleveland. Howell says the dispute basically came down to questions about who owns what at the schools.

Charter school funding basically works like this: the state gives money to a private organization with a governing board. The board then hires and pays a management company to run the charter schools’ day-to-day operations.

In this case, the boards handed over 96 percent of whatever they got from the state to White Hat.

Deb Howell and other board members wanted to see how that money was spent.

White Hat declined comment, but the company has maintained that although the funds are public, the company is private and therefore does not have to open its books to anyone, not even the boards that hired it.

That argument doesn’t make much sense to John Stack. He used to run one of the Life Skill’s schools for White Hat.

You know you would think that tax dollars going for education in a public school, it would be more transparent. I mean I think that’s the common sense response to it.

Deb Howell’s board and nine others sued White Hat in 2010, demanding financial and student records.

The case is still pending. And the boards that asked to break their contracts had to be patient.

“The only way we were ever going to be able to break away from them was when we were signing a new contract,” Howell says.

So last summer when the contract with White Hat expired, Howell and her boards hired a new management company, changed the schools’ names, and moved to new buildings.

John Stack – the former Life Skills principal – was asked to run one of the new schools. He tried to recruit some of his old students to move with them.

Stack and board members sent letters, emails, called students, visited their homes, tweeted and facebooked them.

But they faced competition – White Hat was doing the same thing – trying to get students to stay.

“White Hat had the advantage of actually coming in to the schools and talking to the students. Where as any of the schools leaders who were staying with the schools were removed and any of the staff members were scared to death to talk of anything because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.”

Several students did switch to the new schools.

Joey Carr: “We actually had a lot of problems with White Hat.”

Brandi Ascher: “The teachers really didn’t pay attention to what you did there.”

Joey Carr: “They made everything so much more complicated than it needed to be.”

Brandi Ascher: “The cubicles sucked. The stairs. And the location wasn’t the greatest.”

That was Joey Carr and Brandi Ascher, students who had formerly studied at White Hat but are now at Towpath Trail High School in Akron, Stack’s new school.

They all say things are better now. No more cubicles. Tastier food. Safer neighborhood. Nicer building.

Clifton Glass is another student who switched.

I like this school better because it’s more of a relaxed environment. There’s less chaos. It’s more of a work-valued environment.

Board members say they’re pleased with the new management company, Cambridge Education Group. For starters, all the books are open.

David Stiles is in charge of operations and development for Cambridge , and he’s a former White Hat employee himself. He says in the early days of White Hat, it seemed to have a purpose. One that it has since lost in an ironic twist.

“Back in the early days of White Hat the big rallying cry was that the school district is a monopoly and they’re in charge of education, they think they’re entitled to students and funds and other stuff and they battled charters and other advocates of choice. And it seems like what we’re doing here in trying to support the boards that White Hat it seems like here they appear to act like the charter monopoly and the thing they were fighting against in ’99-2000 is what they’ve become today.”

This summer, several more White Hat operated schools hope to make similar moves.

As for the on-going lawsuit, the nationwide charter community is watching, waiting to see what happens when a charter school board challenges its own operator.

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