Audit Spurs Drive to Revamp Ohio's Charter School System
Following a scathing report on the state's role in overseeing charter schools, the Ohio state board of education has asked the legislature to overhaul the state's charter school law.
In an audit released this month, State Auditor Jim Petro wrote that the Ohio Department of Education has done an inadequate job of overseeing the state's 92 charter schools, and he recommended that it be required to improve its performance within two months or risk losing oversight of the independent public schools.
He recommended that the department streamline payments to charter schools and more closely scrutinize their enrollments, encourage more innovative financing mechanisms for charter school facilities, and mediate transportation disputes between the school districts in which charter students reside.
"We would have appreciated the tone to be different," David Varda, the associate state superintendent of school finance and accountability, said of the auditor's report. "But the bottom line for us is that we take the recommendations seriously and are going to move forward on them."
Mr. Petro initiated the review in response to significant problems in Ohio's community schools, as charter schools there are called, including the closure of eight community schools whose financial mismanagement cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
A 208-page operational review released Feb. 7 found that most problems involving charter schools were rooted in a lack of monitoring and assistance from the state education department, in part because state law does not clearly define its oversight role.
Because the department of education has shown limited ability to monitor charter schools, the state auditor recommended that the legislature allow the department to broaden the pool of charter school sponsors and delegate more authority to them.
If the department does not substantially improve its management within 60 days, Mr. Petro said, the legislature should establish a new commission to manage Ohio's charter schools, which enroll some 23,000 students.
In response to the auditor's strongly worded report, the state board of education voted unanimously on Feb. 12 to implement some of Mr. Petro's recommendations that did not require legislative approval. It also asked Rep. Jon Husted to include many of the other recommendations in a bill he has sponsored to overhaul the charter school system.
According to Jennifer Sheets, the president of the state board, it was the panel's first unanimous vote on a charter school issue. "It underscores the importance of establishing a new community school program," she said.
The board welcomes the audit's recommendations and acknowledges the weaknesses in the current system, she added. The growing pains of the 4-year-old charter school system, Ms. Sheets said, would be eased by clarifying state law.
Last May, a coalition of public school advocates filed a lawsuit claiming that the state education department is violating state law by allowing for-profit companies to run charter schools. Preliminary pretrial motions in that case have been set for May 14. ("Challenges to Charter Laws Mount," May 2, 2001.)
In a Feb. 12 letter to Rep. Husted, a Republican, Ms. Sheets said the education department had restructured the office of community schools, hired a new executive director to head that office, and begun to implement a new management plan. She said the board of education would review the first phase of a management plan incorporating the auditor's recommendations in April.
Ms. Sheets frowned on the idea of a separate commission overseeing charters. "We have been on record for some time as being opposed to a separate commission," she said. "You would be creating two separate systems of education in Ohio."
Rep. Husted said he has considered eliminating the provision in his bill that would create a separate commission. He said his primary concern is not who has authority over charter schools, but fostering better oversight, improved student performance, and more respect for the integrity of the charter school system. He contends that charter schools don't get the guidance that they need from the department of education.
"We have set up a law that is inadequate in Ohio," Mr. Husted said. "We have a lot of good charter schools, and in the end these changes will strengthen those schools and reduce some of the animosity between community schools and traditional public schools."
Vol. 21, Issue 24, Page 14