State rejects White Hat applications

White Hat Management
has been the Goliath of Ohio’s charter school operators since its first schools
opened in 1999. The company currently operates 33 schools in the Buckeye State.
White Hat’s CEO David Brennan was a pioneer in Ohio’s school-choice movement
and his efforts in this realm have long faced criticism– some deserved and some
not. In recent years White Hat’s schools have faced a series of legal and
academic problems. Among them, the fact that none of White Hat’s schools are
rated above a C on the state report card, increased competition resulting in
lower enrollment, legal action brought against the company by the governing
boards of some of the schools it operates, and a related fight over the
disclosure of certain financial records.

These
issues have made White Hat a fixture in the press, most recently with a report
that the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) rejected four of six White Hat
applications to the department to authorize new schools that were slated to
open in the fall of 2012. (ODE is allowed to sponsor up to five new charter
schools a year as part of a compromise in the biennial budget that made the
department a charter authorizer almost a decade after being forced from that
role by an earlier General Assembly.)

The
rejection of the White Hat applications will come as a surprise to many
observers because ODE has rarely challenged large, not to mention politically
well-connected, operators. It appears, however, that the department has
committed itself to quality and performance. Its rejection of the White Hat
applications appears to be based on merit – they simply weren’t very good
applications and lacked basic clarity on matters of separation of authority
between the operator and the schools’ governing authorities

This
decision by the state department comes on the heels of the biennial budget
passed last June that put in place several measures to advance the charter
quality agenda in Ohio. These changes included stricter rules on the opening of new
charter schools via stronger parameters around sponsor accountability, with the
law now prohibiting sponsors from opening any new schools if their portfolio of
schools (dropout recovery and special needs schools excepted) is ranked among
the lowest 20 percent of community school sponsors based on student
achievement.

While
the Ohio Department of Education botched sponsorship in the early 2000s, this
new focus on accountability and performance is to be commended. Ohio’s charter
school program will be stronger and better if decisions around schools, and the
opening of new schools, are based on merit and performance rather than politics
and influence. ODE’s “sponsorship 2.0” is off to a very good start.

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