Ohio

Eye on Education

What Happens When Charter Schools Rebel Against White Hat

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Joey Carr used to attend a White Hat operated Life Skills Center. Now he's at Towpath Trail High School, where he says things are much better.

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.

The Funding Dispute

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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.

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,” she says.

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.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Deb Howell sits on the board of two schools formerly operated by White Hat.

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.

“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,” says John Stack. He used to run one of the Life Skills schools for White Hat, and his former school operator’s argument doesn’t make much sense to him.

In the end, ten school boards 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, partly because Ohio law makes it very difficult for a board to fire the operator it hired, though that operator can dismiss the board.

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

Breaking Away from White Hat

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.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Towpath Trail High School Director John Stack says he was largely left out of the dispute until he was offered a job at one of the new schools. Shortly after that, he was let go by White Hat.

Stack was asked to run one of the new schools, and he tried to recruit some of his old students to move with them.

Stack, Howell, and the rest of the folks at the new school sent letters, emails, called students, visited their homes, Tweeted and Facebooked them.

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

“White Hat had the advantage of actually coming in to the schools and talking to the students,” Stack says. “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 Stack’s new school, Towpath Trail High School in Akron.

“We actually had a lot of problems with White Hat,” says Joey Carr. His classmate, Brandi Ascher says at the old Life Skills center, “the teachers really didn’t pay attention to what you did.”

But things are better now. Among the highlights: the building nicer, students no longer have to sit in cubicles, the food is better, and the neighborhood is safe.

“I like this school better because it’s more of a relaxed environment,” says Clifton Glass. He spent three years at the Life Skills Center, and is now getting ready to graduate from Towpath Trail High School. “There’s less chaos. It’s more of a work-valued environment.”

Now The Books Are Open

Board members say they’re pleased with the new management company, Cambridge Education Group.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Many of the students at Towpath Trail High School used to attend a White Hat operated Life Skills Center. They say things are better at the new school.

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 this whole situation, the schools rebelling against White Hat, is a bit ironic.

“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,” he says.

This summer, several more White Hat operated schools hope to make similar moves once their contracts expire and they find new buildings to move into.

As for the ongoing 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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