As a native Ohioan, I decided to spend the summer working for Policy Matters Ohio (PMO), an organization dedicated to improving the lives of working-class families in the state. Though I still have yet to master the art of waking up before 9am, or figure out why each and every route in Cleveland seems to be slow either because of traffic or covered in speed cameras, my internship more than made up for these problems and opened my eyes to a slew of issues.
Immediately prior to my arrival, Piet van Lier, one of the PMO researchers, had published an important report on a for-profit charter school management company in the state that managed the trifecta of running several failing schools, bilking the state out of much needed education dollars through shady real estate deals, and avoiding punishment. As one of the only groups in Ohio doing any work on these companies, PMO fulfilled an important watchdog role in which I got to play a part. This project set part of my work agenda throughout the summer. I began by researching charter school management finances, education results, and student demographics compared to nearby public schools. Eventually I made some calls to a few charters with such bad records the state had ordered them closed, though Piet suspected they may try and continue operations. Lo and behold, my calls led to the discovery of two such schools that officially “closed” and then immediately reopened under a new name with the same management and even the same phone number.
The work on charter schools showed me how Freedom of Information Act requests worked and the games opposing sides play with one another. The law allows interested parties to request otherwise inaccessible information from the state and groups receiving state money “at cost” and “in a reasonable amount of time.” Of course, a “reasonable amount of time” with some of the charter management companies generally meant three weeks or more and “at cost” once meant a company copying every document they could locate at double the standard black and white copy rate and then sending all of it through overnight mail for over $700. To avoid this, PMO located a provision in the law allowing individuals who show up at the place of operation to obtain the documents right then and there. I volunteered for this task and, highlighted copy of the law in hand, traveled to a local charter school management company headquarters. Already nervous when I arrived, I soon faced an obstinate manager who initially refused my request. I pressed on and read the pertinent provision of the law out loud and, after several waits, eventually emerged successful with the documents in hand. The PMO staff greeted me with congratulations upon my return. It was truly an exhilarating adventure.
For one of my other primary projects I analyzed Department of Labor data on a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which helps workers who have lost their jobs because of outsourcing. The TAA program was expanded as part of the stimulus and PMO wanted to analyze the results in Ohio. This long project, involving several calls back and forth between PMO and the Department of Labor to clear up data issues and a significant amount of time manipulating the data, eventually led to a report which I co-authored with Zach Schiller, the head researcher at PMO. At the time it was the only thorough report analyzing the effects of the expanded program. Though I didn’t think much would come of the report, it was later cited by Governor Strickland during his campaign, which was pretty awesome.
Beyond these projects, my internship at PMO provided an opportunity to help understand the internal workings of a small non-profit. Besides the day-to-day work in the office, the interns had the opportunity to attend the PMO board meeting and see the organization’s operations from another perspective. I later organized luncheon meetings with two of the board members, who came to the office and talked informally with me and the other interns. Both had led fascinating lives—one was the former executive director of the reputable Gund Foundation—and provided explanations of nonprofits from multiple experiences across time, even giving some thoughts on where the sector was heading.
Other than learning about nonprofits, PMO provided many opportunities to get out of the office. We networked with other interns in the area, from meet and greets with the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland to a social gathering with interns working on a summer-long weatherization project in the Cleveland area. We also attended a plethora of events in the area, from a local speech by Senator Sherrod Brown to speaking events at the ACLU and a forum at CSU on wind energy. Besides hearing people talk about wind energy, several of us from the office also journeyed to a local manufacturing company called Fastenal that builds parts for wind turbines to hear presentations and then we toured the factory and observed how the parts were created. Additionally, I attended an Ohio House subcommittee meeting on the foreclosure crisis to hear a report by David Rothstein from PMO.
Thanks to the Wellman Hill I spent this last summer learning about contemporary social issues and contributing to solutions at Policy Matters Ohio, an opportunity that truly would have been impossible without the grant.