"Parental Rights"

Are Cleveland Voucher Schools Accountable to the Public

Incidents of corruption, mismanagement and poor planning have spurred not only voucher opponents, but some supporters as well, to call for voucher schools to ensure greater accountability for their academic and fiscal performance. An overwhelming majority of taxpayers polled in Cleveland—whether or not they support vouchers—believe voucher schools should be required to report the results of annual audits, budget decisions and status, teacher qualifications, curriculum, standardized test scores, teaching methods and more.33

However, voucher advocates and legislators continue to block accountability measures for private schools participating in Cleveland’s voucher program. In the 2000 legislative session, state Senator C. J. Prentiss (D-Cleveland) sponsored a bill that would have required the Ohio Department of Education to make at least one on-site inspection of participating schools each year. While the bill passed the Senate, the House Education Committee did not vote on it.34 Similarly, a loophole in the voucher law gives the state superintendent of public instruction the authority to exempt schools in the voucher program from meeting state standards for nonpublic schools. From the start of the program, five voucher schools were granted an exemption from standards that include: open records provisions, requirements that teachers be certified and subject to background checks, and compliance with fire, health and safety inspection laws. Legislation has not closed this loophole. As a result, these schools have been afflicted with fire code and safety violations, inadequate instruction, classroom health hazards, a lack of faculty background checks, falsified report cards and more.35

These same five schools collected about $1 million in vouchers prior to completing their application processes; three of the five schools were still in the voucher program as of December 1999.36 That year, one of the two schools that ceased to participate in the program was the Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences (IASAS). This school was allowed to operate for two years despite the fact that its 110-year old building had no fire alarm or sprinkler system and was under a "fire watch," requiring staff to check for fires every 30 minutes. Lead-based paint, which can cause brain damage in children, was found at a level eight times greater than generally accepted as safe. Eight of the 12 instructors at IASAS lacked state teaching licenses, and one had been convicted of first-degree murder in a 1964 shooting. State officials acknowledged oversight problems only after learning about school conditions from a Cleveland Plain Dealer article.37

Safety was only one of the major problems at the Academy. The state auditor subsequently released an audit of IASAS, ordering the voucher school to repay nearly $70,000 in tax dollars because IASAS accepted voucher payments for students who were not attending the school, or who had only attended for part of the year. In 1999 alone, over half (32 of 56) of the students for whom the school received voucher payments did not attend the Academy at all or did so for only part of the school year. Many of these students actually attended Cleveland public schools for some or all of that year. The audit also reported that the school would not initially provide student files to the state, and, when IASAS finally did comply, student files had been deliberately falsified to mask the fact that some voucher students had never attended the school: "[I]t appeared that report cards provided for students who we had identified as having attended the Cleveland Municipal School District were duplicates of other report cards for students who did attend the IASAS, the difference being the names were altered."38

The IASAS officially closed its operations at the end of the 1998-99 school year.39 State Auditor Jim Petro indicated that the state had been unable to locate the school owners and hold them accountable for restitution. However, by early 2000, a group of anonymous voucher supporters repaid the nearly $70,000 of tax dollars—plus an additional $11,000 in unpaid utility bills incurred by IASAS—to the Ohio Department of Education.40

Similar problems at the Golden State Christian Academy were compounded by inadequate classroom instruction. Led by an unpaid director, the school is a parent-run "video school." Students sit in front of a television and watch recorded lessons given by an on-screen teacher. The video lessons and workbooks are produced by the Pensacola Christian Academy, which features "a faculty of master [video] teachers that are dedicated to serving the Lord through Christian education." After receiving nearly $150,000 in public funds, it was discovered that the school had no fire safety or health certificate, lacked immunization records for any of its students, and had failed to post emergency procedures. Furthermore, the school’s gym was found to have exposed electrical wiring. Golden State’s voucher privileges were finally revoked for gross non-compliance as the school was beginning its third year in the voucher program.41

Additionally, accounting problems and lack of financial controls have plagued the program from the start. An independent auditor contracted by the state to evaluate the program found almost $2 million in questionable expenses for the first year. Of this figure, $1.4 million was spent on transportation, predominantly for taxis to transport voucher students at a cost of $15-$18 per student per day. This compares to the average cost of a school bus at $3.33 per day.42 The January 1999 audit found that $419,000 in over-billing by taxi companies since 1997 was largely due to billing for absent students.43

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