New Yet Unimproved

Charter schools were a nice idea . . . if the goal was poor results.

Principal Ervin Mitchell faces "an impossible - situation," according to a former Cleveland - Alternative teacher. - Walter  Novak
Principal Ervin Mitchell faces "an impossible situation," according to a former Cleveland Alternative teacher.
Students are supposed to bring the fruit, but it was Stephanie Gooch, the teacher, who emptied a sack of lemons in her science classroom.

In September, when she bought the lemons at the West Side Market, Gooch taught at Cleveland Alternative Learning Academy, a two-year-old charter school. Her classroom had nary a Bunsen burner nor dissected frog. Lemons, she thought, would at least give her class something to poke and pry. "I was just trying to pull things out of my head that would be low-cost things to do," she says.

Gooch lasted a week at Cleveland Alternative. It wasn't the students who drove her to anxiety attacks; it was the school's poor conditions. Her teaching materials consisted of textbooks, chalk, and a stapler (no staples). Some eighth-grade students sat in chairs built for second-graders. A pair of scissors had to be borrowed. The copy machine quit after 40 pages. Teachers scoured the Web for curricula. There is no library.

"I really feel bad for the people who are there," Gooch says. "It's just an impossible situation."

Gooch is not a disgruntled ex-employee. She holds Cleveland Alternative's principal and teachers in the highest regard and describes the kids as curious and well behaved. But the scrambling left no time for her husband and three-year-old son. "I still kind of kick myself, but I feel it was the right decision for my family," says Gooch, who now writes for an engineering trade magazine in Solon. "I still feel guilty about not teaching those kids."

At East 55th Street and Superior Avenue, children clamber through the hallways, their voices reverberating against metal lockers. The building (formerly a Lutheran school) is old, and the paint is thinning, but it's not a hovel. As he offers praise and warnings to passing students, grades 2-8, Cleveland Alternative Principal Ervin Mitchell seems the type to engender the respect of students and admiration of parents. A veteran of public schools in Atlanta and Baltimore, Mitchell says 90 percent of Cleveland Alternative students would be suspended by other schools, public or private. He justifies his school's existence by its tough love for at-risk kids. Families who want the latest educational gizmos should look elsewhere.

"You'll never have enough resources," Mitchell says, "but in order to educate a child, we have enough. To meet the wishes of every parent and teacher, we'll never have that." As for Gooch's ill-equipped science room, Mitchell says, "We advocate teaching the kid, not sticking something in their face."

Cleveland Alternative is one of Ohio's 70 charter schools, which are taxpayer-supported but privately operated. State lawmakers created charters in 1997 to sprinkle free-market juice into education. The schools, they said, would answer to students and parents, not bureaucrats and teachers' unions.

But three years after this miracle of free enterprise began, it might be argued that Ohio has merely recreated the troubles found in public schools -- only with much worse results. By and large, charter schools are poorly equipped, offer the lowest of teaching salaries, and have produced hideous results on proficiency tests.

Last year city inspectors found Cleveland Alternative lacking fire sprinklers or alarms. (It's now up to code.) The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school, has been accused of faking enrollment levels and is now being audited. In Columbus, state officials shut down the Riser Academy, a military-style school fashioned out of an old Sun TV store, because it didn't have textbooks or provide meals. Another Columbus charter school closed November 29, still owing teachers 10 weeks of pay.

The state encouraged such slipshod entities, even the well-meaning ones, when it hurried charters into law. Then-Governor George Voinovich and his Republican pals envisioned concerned parents and community leaders banding together to create progressive schools. As it turns out, the law has best provided for private businesses to spade public school dollars. While charters must be incorporated as nonprofits, HMO-like private companies run many schools. Alternatives Unlimited, a for-profit company in Baltimore, operates Cleveland Alternative through a nonprofit tentacle. "When we're dealing with a nonprofit, we're a nonprofit company," Vice President Nicholas Spinnato says, explaining the distinction.

Akron businessman David Brennan, the godfather of Ohio's "school choice" movement, is a generous benefactor of the Republican Party. Brennan was Voinovich's unofficial education czar, leading the charge to rescue families from public education with vouchers and charter schools. Once "choice" was passed into law, Brennan was positioned to rake in the money sprung from public schools.

Brennan's for-profit White Hat Management company contracts with the Hope academies and Life Skills schools he's founded. According to a state auditor's report, the Hope Academy Cathedral Campus on Cleveland's East Side paid White Hat $349,000 during the last school year for leases, consulting, advertising, and interest (at a sweet 10 percent). White Hat was projected to collect $16 million from its 11 schools over the same period.

The cozy arrangement raised eyebrows at the IRS, which would not grant the Cathedral Campus tax-exempt status as a charitable organization. To the IRS, the schools and the business appear to be the same operation.

White Hat CEO John C. Morris defended the relationship between the company and Youngstown's Eagle Heights Academy in an October letter to the Akron Beacon Journal. "It is true White Hat Management provided valuable services to the academy and was paid a fair market value for those services . . . no different from [what] an accounting, legal, or technical consulting firm would," Morris wrote.

But the value of such expertise remains something of a mystery. "Our curriculum has been developed to meet the needs of the children of the parents who have chosen us," Alternatives Unlimited's Spinnato says. Asked to elaborate, Spinnato mentions smaller classes, computers, and a behavior modification component. "It's a different approach for youngsters who need a different approach," he says.

However, a former client doesn't think much of the company's "different" approach. Alternatives Unlimited had a contract to run East Cleveland's charter school, which Elvin Jones discontinued when he became superintendent. "We were paying Alternatives Unlimited $1 million to do nothing," Jones says.

Charter schools are potentially profitable, because they are exempt from dozens of state laws that govern public schools. Charters, for instance, don't have to provide transportation, furnish needy or gifted students with extra materials, meet minimum curriculum standards, or pay state-mandated teacher salaries. Gooch says her salary was $23,500, far less than what she would have made at a public school.

And Mitchell admits that Cleveland Alternative isn't skimming the cream from the veteran educator ranks. His staff is young and inexperienced. "This is a good training ground for teachers who may or may not know what they want to do."

With little authority to reject charter-school proposals, the Department of Education acts more as a consultant to these training grounds than as a watchdog. One Riser Academy teacher was a self-described bounty hunter, and another had a criminal record. In Cincinnati, an English teacher quit a public junior high when he learned police were investigating him for inviting students to join in Internet sexcapades. He found work a month later at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy, a charter school. Unsuspecting school administrators performed the criminal background check required by law, which failed to turn up the police probe. In September he resigned after he was indicted on 34 counts.

"These schools are all considered like private businesses," Department of Education spokesman J.C. Benton says. "That's the whole kind of uniqueness to them. Some will succeed, some will fail."

They succeed or fail with taxpayer money. The state pays start-up grants of $150,000 and a minimum of $4,300 a year for every child enrolled. Benton calls it "backpack" money, because it follows the student from his or her public school to the charter. Cleveland schools lost just under $11 million to charters last year.

If proficiency tests are any indication, charter schools haven't loosened the intellectual chains of public schools. Statewide, only 5 percent of charter-school kids passed the fourth-grade test. (The state average is 31 percent; in Cleveland, 17 percent.) No Cleveland Alternative students passed the fourth- or sixth-grade tests last year.

Charter-school operators may bray about the challenges of educating disadvantaged youth, but they win no sympathy from public schools. Teachers' unions, bashed by conservatives as obstructionist commies, watch charters struggle with a measure of glee. "People often find it's more difficult than they expect," says Liz Arnett, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association.

Standing in Cleveland Alternative's front lobby, Principal Mitchell presents his school as a cradle between a productive life and one spent on the streets. "These kids need it; otherwise, they don't have an equal education. We've got to give them every advantage we can."

Mitchell worries that his school will be judged not by the citizens it nurtures, but by the bottom-line performance standards it meets. "It's not a business at all," he continues. "We deal with human beings, not products."

Funny, because that's what public schools have been saying all along.