Ohio Poised to Reorganize Charter School Oversight
After a bitter fight in a state that has become a major battleground in the national debate over charter schools, the Ohio legislature adopted far-reaching changes last week in the ground rules for how the independent public schools operate.
House Bill 364, which Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, is expected to sign, would carve out an unusual new role for state education officials in overseeing Ohio's fast-growing charter school sector. As for charter schools, the bill would ease some restrictions—such as a rule limiting them from borrowing money for more than a year—while imposing a raft of new regulations on matters ranging from remedial education to Internet filtering.
The votes marked the end of a protracted battle in a fierce political and legal war over charter schools in Ohio. Lawmakers acted while a state trial judge is considering arguments in a 2001 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's 5-year- old charter law. The suit was filed by a coalition led by the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio Schools Boards Association, and the state chapter of the PTA.
Rewritten a dozen times this year, the bill approved by both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature deals with a range of issues that have been fodder for an anti-charter campaign spearheaded by the OFT this fall. Those issues include the role of for-profit education management companies, computer-based "e-schools," and the oversight of Ohio's 127 charter schools. ("Ohio Charters Targeted in Election Politics," Sept. 18, 2002.)
Rep. Jon A. Husted, the Republican who sponsored the bill, called it proof that policymakers are addressing shortcomings of the original 1997 law that led to abuses. Representatives of the state's charter schools echoed his praise.
"A majority of charter schools in the state are doing what I feel is a good job of providing choice, but we have had a handful of disreputable operators that have tarnished the good work that has been done," Mr. Husted said.
Leaders of the coalition trying to overturn Ohio's charter law said in a statement last week that the group's goal was "to reform, not abolish, charter schools." Yet they deplored the passage of the legislation, which they had lobbied hard to defeat.
"The bill does little to rein in the abuses we've seen ... and creates new opportunities for mischief,"said Tom Mooney, the coalition's chairman and the OFT president.
Audit Spurs Changes
The final compromise, which was approved by the Senate 19-12 on Dec. 4 and by the House 56-41 the next day, incorporates recommendations from a state audit released last winter that sharply criticized lapses in charter school oversight. ("Audit Spurs Drive to Revamp Ohio's Charter School System," Feb. 27, 2002.)
Chief among those changes would be a shift in who can grant charters.
The bill would add a new layer to the process of chartering schools: It would remove the authority of the state board of education to grant charters. Instead, the legislation would put the state department of education in charge of approving nonprofit groups that in turn could charter schools.
Charter experts say such an arrangement, which effectively would turn the state education agency into an authorizer of authorizers, stands apart from systems in other states because the power to issue charters is usually granted by state law.
"This is something that is going to be watched very closely around the country," said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, a nonprofit group based in St. Paul, Minn.
Under the bill, nonprofit organizations wishing to sponsor charter schools would need to be education-oriented, have $500,000 in assets, and have been operating for at least five years. Until July 2005, those groups would be limited to sponsoring existing schools. After that point, they could charter new schools, and the existing statewide cap of 225 start-up charter schools would be lifted.
Existing schools authorized by the state board would have two years to find new sponsors.
In addition to letting nonprofit groups seek chartering authority, the bill would allow the state's 13 four- year public universities and its 58 county or multicounty "educational service centers" to grant charters. Currently, only the University of Toledo and the Lucas County Educational Service Center in Toledo have that power, along with the state board and local school districts.
Supporters argue that the changes would free state officials from directly overseeing schools, allowing them to focus on supervising charter authorizers and providing technical assistance.
Members of the coalition fighting the state in court contend that local school boards should be given exclusive authority to grant charters, on the grounds that those board members are directly accountable to local voters.
The measure also would ease the geographic restrictions on charter schools. Currently, new charter schools may open in 21 urban districts, as well as other districts that the state considers to be in "academic emergency," the lowest of five categories under Ohio's accountability system.
Districts in the second-lowest category, "academic watch," would also be fair game for new charter schools under HB 364.
Fifty of Ohio's 600-plus school districts fell into one of those two categories this year.
Vol. 22, Issue 15, Pages 13,16