Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. In this article, he reveals what we long suspected about for-profit charter schools. They make money by cutting corners.

He writes:

It didn’t take long for Tasha Stiles to realize there was something very wrong with the school where she had just started teaching.

First, there was her rushed orientation to the school, Toledo Preparatory Academy, an early kindergarten through eighth grade charter school in Toledo, Ohio, operated by for-profit charter chain Accel Schools. She told Our Schools that her training during orientation in August 2020 consisted mostly of one workshop on “basics,” which included how to record attendance and enter grades. There was no school handbook or written guidelines about student discipline practices or instructional protocols.

She said that the school had the appearance of a bare-bones operation, with very little decoration on the walls, empty classroom shelves with no books or instructional materials, heavily worn flooring and furniture, a rickety staircase that students and staff had to use daily, and drafty classrooms with insufficient radiator heating, which, on cold days, kept students shivering even in their coats.

Although Stiles had mostly taught social studies in her career, she told Our Schools that at Toledo Prep, she was told to teach math in grades five through eight. To help with lesson planning, she was given binders that contained the Ohio math standards and some student math workbooks, for which there was no teacher’s edition for grade eight.

She was told that students were expected to spend most of their instructional time on their Chromebooks, which the school supplied for in-school use only, and that students needed to be working on i-Ready, a digital software program for reading and mathematics, for at least 30 minutes per class period. The school didn’t seem to have any other curriculum materials available.

Administrative staff made promises of books and supplies that never arrived or, if they came, were never dispersed to classrooms. Stiles eventually resorted to using online learning tools like Khan Academy videos, which were free online, but school administrators disapproved of her using them.

“I had eighth graders who were reading at kindergarten level,” she told Our Schools. She also observed that there were students at Toledo Prep who struggled with English but had no consistent help from specialized support staff. What few support staff there were came from outside agencies that provided services, such as counseling and mental health, mostly online. A lone special education teacher with responsibility for all exceptional students in the building was “stretched very thin,” Stiles said.

The most reliable support staff in the building proved to be the tech support service from a company called Pansophic Learning, which happens to be the parent company of Accel Schools.

There was no school nurse, Stiles recalled, adding that, as COVID-19 raged across Ohio, students generally didn’t wear masks, and the school did no contact tracing when students or staff got sick with the virus. One day, a student came to her with bloodied knuckles, and Stiles went in search of the school’s first-aid kit, which turned out to be empty. The next day, Stiles came to school with Band-Aids that she’d purchased with her own money. Word about this got around, and students would come to her whenever they needed Band-Aids.

The few student clubs and after-school activities the charter school offered were all canceled after a student, following a TikTok trend, damaged a bathroom.

Students were frequently suspended by the school’s administrative staff, often for reasons that weren’t clear to her. “Rules were made up on the fly,” she said. One week she counted and realized that 20 students had been suspended by the school staff.

The school also enforced a rigid student ranking system, placing students in hierarchies based on their academic performance and discipline issues. Students at the top of the hierarchy were called “eagles,” students in the next rank below were labeled “doves,” and students called “larks” included those who were struggling with learning or behavioral issues. Students in the bottom rank, who were currently serving in-school suspensions, were called “turkeys,” until complaints by parents of students prompted the school to change the label to “phoenix.”

What substituted for a rich academic program at the charter school was its near-constant emphasis on test prep. “Everything was focused on testing,” Stiles said. “I had never taught in a school where there was so much emphasis on testing. While I was there, there were three whole days devoted to nothing but mock testing.”

Stiles quit after working only three months at the school, but the experience left her very frustrated and deeply concerned about the students. “I can’t pretend to not see what I saw there,” she said.

What Stiles didn’t know when she took the job at Toledo Prep was that she had stepped into a school that emulates what has become a growing practice in the charter school industry.

As an ongoing investigation by Our Schools has revealed, a substantial sector of charter schools, particularly those operated by for-profit operators like Accel Schools, are at the forefront of a wave of charter operations that follow an investor-driven business model borrowed from retail, health care, and manufacturing sectors.

In the charter school application of this business model, struggling schools are cycled through a series of private entities that, in turn, strip the schools of resources, run them at bare-bones costs, and reap whatever assets that remain before handing the schools off to the next private operator, or shutting them down completely.

In business and investment circles, the model is often defended as “an important economic function” to either “revive” struggling enterprises, or “reallocate” resources that have been invested in failed enterprises to more productive endeavors.

But in the case of Toledo Prep, and other charter schools practicing this business model, although the business consequences might be fine for the charter operators and their investors, the children caught up in this investor-driven enterprise often have their education significantly disrupted, or even permanently impaired, perhaps with lifelong impact.

Portfolios of Failed Charters

Stiles, who earned her master’s degree in education at the University of Kentucky, had been teaching since 1998, mostly at schools outside the United States. When she returned to the United States in 2020, she started looking for work in Ohio.

She was attracted to charter schools because she wanted the challenge of teaching academically challenged students, and Ohio state law generally guides charters to locate in urban or “challenged” districts.

Stiles, who identifies as white, had previously taught mostly in private Islamic schools—she practices the Islamic faith and wears a hijab—where students were often more affluent and better supported than most of their peers. She believed she could have a bigger impact on students who were more disadvantaged.

What Stiles only later came to learn is that Toledo Prep had a previous life, with a different name, a different operator, and a different authorizing agency that held the permit allowing the school to operate—which, in Ohio, is called a sponsor.

According to two leading business registration services, the building at the address now occupied by Toledo Preparatory Academy—824 6th St. in Toledo, Ohio 43605—had previously been occupied by Aurora Academy, a charter school sponsored by, according to state records, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (BCHF), an Ohio nonprofit that has long sponsored a number of charter schools in the state.

It’s not clear who operated Aurora Academy before it became Toledo Prep, but according to a 2018 report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the school was acquired by Accel Schools around the same time Accel was buying up charter schools that had previously been operated by White Hat Management, a for-profit charter management organization (often called a CMO).

White Hat was one of a number of CMOs, according to a 2013 analysis by Policy Matters Ohio (PMO), that had a history of using a loophole in state charter school laws to open new charter schools in the same locations where a previous charter had been closed due to poor academic results. A case study that was part of the analysis by PMO showed that White Hat opened a “new” charter school, Southside Academy in Youngstown, “within days” of a school at the same street address being closed due to poor academic performance.

Both BCHF and White Hat had earned high ratings in the Ohio Department of Education’s 2015 evaluation of charter school sponsors and management firms, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. However, the article also noted that the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, an alliance of local businesses and organizations that advocate for high-quality schools in Cleveland, wasn’t “convinced” with those ratings, finding flaws with BCHF’s “school quality issues” and the “track record” of its associated management companies, which included White Hat.

Whether or not BCHF took this criticism to heart is difficult to assess, but it certainly made a turnabout in its performance evaluation of Aurora Academy.

In its 2016-2017 annual report, the foundation rated Aurora Academy as meeting or exceeding performance levels in all its evaluation categories but one—academic. However, the foundation’s performance report for 2018-2019 lists the school as falling short of the foundation’s acceptable academic and fiscal performance levels, and the report indicated the school was among five of its charter schools that would be closed at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

As the Akron Beacon Journal reported in 2018, White Hat Management started closing its schools, beginning in 2014, as families of students opted for other schools for their children as a result of “years of low test scores and soaring high school dropout rates.” Charter schools run by White Hat Management, the report further noted, were “among the lowest performers in the state” and “were plagued from the start with allegations of padded enrollment and skirting accountability.”

Although the exact date that Accel bought Aurora Academy is unclear, a state registry of charter schools (which are called “community schools” in Ohio) in 2017 indicates Aurora Academy was being operated by Accel Schools, with BCHF continuing as the school’s sponsor…

Toledo Prep is not the only Accel school that’s been similarly rebranded to cover up its troubled past.

Open the link and learn more about how a for-profit charter operator makes a profit while running a chaotic school.