Feds release, but restrict, Ohio’s $71M charter school grant




COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The U.S. Department of Education is releasing a disputed $71 million grant to Ohio to aid high-performing charter schools, but with strings attached.

The federal agency on Wednesday said it is imposing a series of restrictions on release of the money to prevent fraud inside Ohio's troubled charter school system. The grant has been designated high-risk.

The state will be required to hire an independent monitor and create a database of charter schools' academic, operational and financial performance. The Ohio Department of Education also must comply with a series of new reporting requirements.

In a letter to Ohio Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Charter Schools Program Director Stefan Huh said federal education officials found no significant inaccuracies in Ohio's latest application but were imposing added scrutiny due to earlier concerns.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown had led members of Ohio's congressional delegation in calling for the special conditions in June, urging Education Secretary John King to assure close monitoring of the new infusion of cash.

"Too many Ohio charter schools have a record of waste, fraud, and abuse — they take in taxpayer money and shortchange our students," Brown said in a statement Wednesday. "The safeguards the U.S. Department of Education has put in place to monitor how Ohio spends this grant will greatly increase oversight, accountability, and transparency, so students receive the education they deserve."

Federal regulators postponed disbursement of the money last year amid concerns over the state Education Department's alleged rigging of charter school evaluations and revelations of omissions from its grant application.

Its spokeswoman, Brittany Halpin, said the Ohio Education Department is committed to meeting the federal government's requirements and "following through on the grant's purpose of creating high-quality public charter schools, especially for Ohio's most vulnerable students."

State lawmakers have since passed a law to help put pressure on poor-performing schools and increase public access to information about how charter schools use taxpayer dollars.

Halpin said Ohio's accountability system is stronger because of those reforms and the department now has greater authority to ensure the quality of sponsors. She said Ohio's sponsor evaluation system is now "clear, transparent and consistent with rule and law" and on track to release updated evaluation Oct. 15.

Wednesday's agreement requires the Ohio Department of Education to hire the independent monitor to oversee creation of the charter-school database; to assure submission of spending information on grant withdrawals, semi-annual budgets and semi-annual financial reports; and to help form an advisory board of parents, teachers and community members.

The added requirements come as the state Education Department is fighting Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, in an effort to force release of student login information it wants to use to determine future state funding.

The school has sued, arguing the state requirements are unfair and that they violate its contract with the state.
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