Ohio Carves Out Funding for Charter School Pilot Program

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Ohio has joined the charter school club that now counts 28 states and the District of Columbia, all of which have charter school laws on their books.

On June 30, Gov. George V. Voinovich signed a biennial budget bill that creates a pilot charter school program for Lucas County, which includes Toledo, Ohio's fourth-largest city. The budget also permits an unlimited number of existing public schools statewide to convert to charter status, although most observers said they did not expect large numbers of districts to exercise that option.

This year's budget negotiations were complicated by an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in the spring that found the state's school finance system unconstitutional. State officials have until March 1998 to come up with a new finance formula. Lawmakers approved $4.9 billion in school funding for fiscal 1998. They set aside $5.13 billion for the fiscal 1999 K-12 budget, but left the money in a lump sum to be divided up after the state comes up with a response to the court's mandate.

As a big, densely populated state with a strong history of organized labor, Ohio is a particularly noteworthy addition to the charter state ranks, said Eric Premack, the charter school project director for the Institute for Education Reform at California State University-Sacramento. In some parts of the nation, teachers' unions have fought charter schools because the schools are seen as a mechanism to circumvent union contracts, rules, and regulations.

"New York and Ohio are big targets right now," Mr. Premack said before Ohio's charter school plan became law. "If those state break ... it will elevate this discussion to a whole new ballgame."

Gov. Voinovich, a Republican who has championed school choice, including private school vouchers, had included the Lucas County pilot plan in his own budget proposal. For two years, Ohio's charter school proponents had tried--and failed--to rally enough support within the state to pass a charter law.

In concept, charter schools--typically created and run by parents, teachers, community groups, or others outside school districts--receive public funding but operate free of many state and local regulations. Nationwide, the tally of such schools is fast approaching 500. (See Education Week, June 25,1997.)

Mixed Response

For now, the charter school ballgame in Ohio is smaller than some would like. After watching statewide charter plans founder, Rep. Sally A. Perz worked with Gov. Voinovich to push for a pilot program within her Lucas County district. In essence, the state's charter school boosters are following the lead of its private-school-voucher proponents, who have used a Cleveland pilot to advance their cause.

As passed, the biennial budget would grant $3.5 million in planning and start-up money for up to 20 Lucas County charter schools that could be sponsored by the county's eight local school boards, the county service center, or the University of Toledo's college of education. But lawmakers are likely to seek some changes--such as lifting the 20-school cap--when they return at the end of the month from a legislative break.

"If we can't get a statewide, bona fide, strong charter school bill, then we need in this state a good pilot," said Ms. Perz, a Republican who serves on the House education committee. "There's a whole chunk of kids who just aren't making it in the regular system. We owe them something."

The limited pilot won the support of the 110,250-member Ohio Education Association. But the plan appears to have mixed support from officials within Lucas County itself, with the Lucas County educational service center and some local districts heartily in favor, and others more subdued.

"We did not lobby for or against this," said Toledo schools spokeswoman Jane Bruss.

"The push has not come from within the school district," said Francine Lawrence, the president of the 3,400-member Toledo Federation of Teachers. "We don't need charter schools until we can find out if regular public schools can operate with adequate dollars."

Vol. 16, Issue 40, Page 17

Published in Print: July 9, 1997, as Ohio Carves Out Funding for Charter School Pilot Program
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