February 25, 2002

Ohio Group Calls Home School Plan Illegal
Akron businessman's company would put charter school money in parents' hands. Firm defends self.
By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard
Beacon Journal staff writers

Parents who enroll their children in David Brennan's new home schooling operation will get tax money to buy equipment and supplies at their own discretion.

An anti-charter school group fears parents will use that money to pay themselves for teaching their children.

The Coalition for Public Education said yesterday that its lawyers examined contracts for a home charter school that Brennan's White Hat Ventures will open next month and found practices that they believe are illegal.

Mark Thimmig, chief executive of White Hat Ventures, said his company has worked closely with regulators to see that everything is legal.

Paying parents to teach their children is among several charges leveled by the group.

"We're looking at the most egregious violations of state law to date in the initial design of a charter school," said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

His union has joined with other school employee unions, the Ohio Association of PTAs, the League of Women Voters and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of charter schools.

Mooney said the coalition has asked the state auditor and the Ohio Department of Education to block any payments to the school. If there is no response from the state, the allegations will be added to the suit filed in Franklin County in May.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said she had no comment because the charter-school issue is in court.

A spokesperson for Ohio Auditor James Petro could not be reached for comment.

White Hat's Thimmig said its charter schools have gone through three years of audits by Petro's office, so there is a record of attempting to comply with the law.

White Hat operates elementary schools, vocational computer-based high schools and now the Internet home school.

For every student enrolled in the home-school operation, known as the Alternative Education Academy, the school receives about $5,000 a year in state tax money and local property tax revenues.

Other states show that such operations can cost from $900 per student per year to about $3,000.

Thimmig said parents in the White Hat school receive $2,100 a year to buy a computer and software, connect to the Internet and provide other educational services for their children. If there is money left over, the parents can decide how to spend it.

"We see no problem with the parent having a direct opportunity to come in and recommend how that money might be sent for the benefit of their child," Thimmig said.

In the past, parents who chose to educate their children at home gave up the right to a free public education. They received little more than some educational materials from their local school district.

Home-school advocates say there are as many as 60,000 home-schooled children in the state, so if many of them enroll in Brennan's school -at $5,000 per student -the cost to taxpayers could be significant.

The Alternative Education Academy estimates it can enroll 500 students in kindergarten through grade 12 in the first year and 5,000 by the fifth year, drawing at least $25 million in taxpayer support.

The school has a contract to immediately pass 97 percent of the tax dollars to White Hat Distance Learning, which provides all of its teachers and management.

The coalition argues that because the teachers are employed by White Hat, they are not public employees and may not be paying into the state pension fund, which is required by law.

Thimmig said he thinks the employees are members of the proper pension funds, in compliance with the law.

The coalition's lawyers also questioned the legality of the school's giving a portion of its income to the University of Toledo, which wanted the charter to allow the school to open.

The legislature and former Gov. George Voinovich in 1997 gave the University of Toledo the power to issue contracts to charter schools based in the Toledo area and to oversee their operation.

With payments made to the university - based on the school's enrollment - the university has an interest in seeing the enrollment remain high, Mooney said.

He said the university had no incentive to make sure the charter school didn't pad its enrollment.

Thimmig said the payments to the university help cover the costs of overseeing the charter schools.

Home schooling as a part of charter schools has been a controversial issue in other states because it has the potential for high profit for the operators and high expenses for taxpayers.

California has tried to limit home charter schools because of their rapid growth.

From the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, January 29, 2002, page A1: Reprinted with permission.
Dennis Willard can be contacted at 614.224.1613 or e-mailed at dwillard@qn.net
Doug Oplinger can be contacted at 330.996.3750 or e-mailed at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com