More Oversight Sought For Ohio School Choice

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Ohio's school choice initiatives are under heavy attack, following charges that a voucher school received payments for students it didn't have and the discovery that a charter school lacks basic instructional materials and may have physically abused students.

Last week alone, a coalition of education groups called for the state school board to stop approving new charter schools, the state Senate passed a bill requiring more intense monitoring of voucher schools, and one lawmaker proposed stripping administration of the voucher program from the state education department.

"It boils down to we've moved too much, too fast," said George Boas, a legislative aide to state Sen. C. J. Prentiss, the Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill.

The state's school choice programs have suffered a series of blows in recent weeks. First, the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper published several stories last month that, among other criticisms, charged the state with "rubber stamping" charter school contracts "as fast as it can without thoroughly reviewing the written proposals."

The state subsequently announced it was revoking the charter of the Riser Military Academy in Columbus, citing the nonexistence of textbooks and computers and the school's failure to carry out needed facilities improvements.

Around the same time, a state audit charged that the now-defunct Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences had taken $70,000 from the Cleveland voucher program for students who did not attend the school. The private academy, which once claimed to serve about 100 elementary and secondary students, closed last year after news reports of numerous problems there, including allegations that it employed a convicted murderer as a teacher.

With the release of this month's audit, the state is seeking to recover the money from the Islamic Academy's founders and has referred the case to prosecutors. The constitutionality of the voucher plan is being contested in an ongoing legal challenge in the federal courts

'They Would Punch Kids'

The mounting woes have prompted strong reaction. The legislation proposed by Ms. Prentiss would require that all voucher schools undergo site visits by Ohio education department personnel. Although state schools Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman has had her department carry out such inspections since she took office last spring, the new bill would make them law.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 10 education groups last week demanded a moratorium on new charter schools until oversight of such schools is stepped up. Under current statute, for example, the education department must give a charter school 180 days' notice before shutting it down. The group says the legislature should give the department authority to pull the plug on schools immediately if needed.

"We're not calling for an end to charter schools," said John M. Brandt, the executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association. "But the procedures for creating charter schools and monitoring them need to be tightened."

Joining Mr. Brandt's organization in appealing to the state board was the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio PTA, and representatives of school administrators.

Mr. Brandt said he was particularly concerned about school founder Darryl Riser's descriptions of physical mistreatment that teachers may have committed against students at his military charter school. Recounting those incidents in an interview last week, Mr. Riser said: "They would punch kids. One of them punched a couple kids in the face with his fist; another would throw students into a wall. Another, who was a male, busted a female's lips."

A 15-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves, Mr. Riser said he has suspended three of the teachers. His 5-month-old school employs a military-style organization in which its 220 students, in what traditionally would be grades 5-8, wear uniforms, are assigned ranks instead of grade levels, and address adults as "ma'am" or "sir."

Though the school receives $120,000 in state funds monthly, Superintendent Zelman said it not only has no textbooks and computers, but also does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Riser does not deny those charges, but blames the education department for failing to provide enough support. "I've sought technical assistance for various things, and they take those inquiries as weakness," he said.

'On the Right Track'

State officials agree with the education groups that they need the authority to close schools sooner. "We're concerned about the health and safety of students, and that money is being handled appropriately. And to have to wait to take action when you're really concerned about that immediacy is problematic," said Stephen J. Ramsey, the assistant director of the education department's office of school options.

But state Rep. James P. Trakas, a Republican, last week introduced a bill that would remove the voucher program from the agency and place it under the state auditor's office. Along with the recent report on the Islamic Academy, Auditor of State Jim Petro has issued a number of reports over the past three years accusing the state education department of failing to monitor properly the Cleveland program. ("Voucher Ruling Has Ohio Legislature on Spot," June 9, 1999.)

But in an interview last week, Mr. Petro said Ms. Zelman's department had moved recently to tighten many of its procedures. "I think they are moving on the right track," he said.

State officials also said it was important to note that most of the recent furor centered on two schools.

In all, Ohio has 47 charter schools and 55 private schools that participate in the Cleveland voucher program.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Page 5

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as More Oversight Sought For Ohio School Choice
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