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Published in Print: September 18, 2002, as Ohio Charters Targeted In Election Politics

Ohio Charters Targeted In Election Politics

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A union-led coalition of local and national groups has launched a campaign against Ohio's charter school program, hoping to stir up enough controversy to make charter schools an election issue.

Elections 2002The coalition, led by the Ohio Federation of Teachers, blasts the state's charter schools as a waste of taxpayer funds and as bogged down by mismanagement and abuse. The group recently mailed 70,000 copies of a brochure making its case, and plans another mass mailing this fall.

The group wants voters to put pressure on state lawmakers who support charter schools, particularly those who want to expand the program, and it plans to target at least six legislative races this fall.

Charter school backers, meanwhile, are countering with their own public- awareness effort that faults the coalition for spreading what they see as misinformation.

A state audit released earlier this year criticized the state as doing an inadequate job of overseeing charter schools. The audit, however, did not go into detail on the performance of charter school students. ("Audit Spurs Drive to Revamp Ohio's Charter School System," Feb. 27, 2002.)

The coalition is using that report, as well as other examples of what it regards as financial mismanagement, as ammunition.

"We think the public doesn't understand all this," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, the OFT's parent union. "What we want to do is raise this as an issue in the campaigns, and make people answerable to the kind of legislation they're backing."

This is the first time, but may not be the last time, that the AFT has taken on such a state campaign against charters, he added. It is also one of the most politicized stands against charters by the union, which in the past has expressed support for the concept of the largely independent public schools.

This summer, the AFT released a report saying that, nationally, charter schools have not lived up to expectations, and called for a moratorium on new charters until more accountability measures can be put in place. ("AFT Study Denounces Charters," July 17, 2002.)

So far, Ohio appears to be the only state where charters could become a top election issue this year, said Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst for the Denver- based Education Commission of the States.

The coalition's members include the state PTA, the Ohio School Boards Association, and the Ohio chapter of the AFL- CIO. The OFT affiliates in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo have joined, as has the independent Akron Education Association.

Ohio passed its charter school law in 1997, and now has more than 90 charter schools serving a total of nearly 24,000 students. Currently, charter schools can be created only in the 21 urban districts where schools have been labeled as low-performing. Districts can also convert existing schools to charter status, but so far that option has not been used.

The state legislature is considering a bill that would allow charters to be opened in any of the state's more than 600 districts. Nonprofit foundations also could open and operate their own charter schools under the plan. The coalition warns that the legislation would dramatically expand the number of charters and further open the system to abuse from disreputable groups.

Heated Debate

The coalition's pamphlet pulls no punches, contending that the majority of Ohio's charter schools are "academic disasters" with little accountability.

"Sadly, few of the state's charter school operators have shown more than a marginal interest in our children's education," the flier states. "They run the gamut from aggressive profiteers ... to outright scam artists and a few well-meaning idealists who know little about running schools."

One of the coalition's top concerns is that the number of "virtual," largely Internet-based charter schools will grow and cut into traditional public schools' enrollments and budgets, said Tom Mooney, the president of the OFT.

In response, the Ohio Charter School Association released a facts-and-myths paper earlier this month. The organization maintains that the vast majority of charters are well-run. It points out that charters are held to most state and federal accountability laws and must undergo regular state audits.

"[The OFT] has really perpetuated a lot of misinformation over the past few years," said Stephen J. Ramsey, the president of the Columbus-based charter school group. "They're ignoring that our program is increasing every year because parents want these schools. They're focusing on killing the program rather than focusing on improving their own."

Meanwhile, others doubt that the campaign will have much, if any, effect on the elections.

"I don't think it will get high on the radar screen in terms of the election, as Ohio faces other issues overall, including the budget, that make it difficult to push this issue," said Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

He added that the unions, which are traditionally aligned with Democratic positions, are facing an uphill battle in this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections because the Republican candidates have much larger war chests.

If the anti-charter campaign takes hold, he said, Republicans could easily fight back.

Mr. Mooney estimated that the anti-charter efforts have cost some $40,000 so far.

Later this fall, the coalition will produce more localized material to be distributed to voters in districts where incumbent legislators have been supportive of the current charter system.

"We want to make sure constituents are aware of what's going on, what's coming next and what's proposed," he said.

Vol. 22, Issue 3, Pages 17,20

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