Ohio Supreme Court Narrowly Upholds State Charter Law

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In a 4-3 ruling handed down last week, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s charter school law.

The law authorizing charter schools, called “community schools” in Ohio, was challenged by a coalition that was led by teachers’ unions and included school boards, parents, and others. With 305 charters serving some 72,000 students, Ohio has more of the independent but publicly funded schools than every state except Arizona, California, and Florida.

The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the state charter law and the method of financing charter schools violated the state constitution. But the court rejected those claims in Ohio Congress of Parents and Teachers v. State Board of Education, which was filed in 2001.

Charter students and their families “can rest more easily tonight, knowing that their schools won’t be shut down tomorrow,” said Stephen P. Carney, a state solicitor who represented Ohio in the case.

“The decision also, I think, reaffirms that education policy is best set by the legislature, not the courts,” added Chad A. Readler, a lawyer who represented charter schools that were defendants in the case.

Courts in several other states—including California, Michigan, New Jersey, and Utah—have rebuffed legal challenges to charters, Mr. Readler said.

The high court held oral arguments in the case in November of last year.

Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, one of the plaintiff organizations, criticized the ruling. “They seem to be almost abandoning the idea of a system of common schools,” he said.

Mr. Mooney said his union doesn’t oppose charter schools as such, but rather the design of Ohio’s law.

“We never argued that you can’t have charters, only that you’ve got to have them in a way that the public doesn’t lose control over its tax dollars and standards of education,” he said.

Charter advocates say the schools are subject to the same state standards as regular public schools, and if anything, face greater accountability. Still, advocates acknowledge serious shortcomings in the quality of many Ohio charters.

Three Dissents Issued

Writing for the majority in the Oct. 25 ruling, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger rejected all the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments.

“In enacting community school legislation, the General Assembly added to the traditional school system by providing for statewide schools that have more flexibility in their operation,” she wrote.

“Community schools were designed to give parents a choice and give educators ‘the opportunity to establish limited experimental educational programs in a deregulated setting,’ ” she added, quoting the state law, first passed in 1997 and later amended.

In one of three dissents, Justice Alice Robie Resnick argued that the charter law violates Ohio’s constitution “because it produces a hodgepodge of uncommon schools financed by the state.”

The law, she said, creates a “schismatic educational program under which an assemblage of divergent and deregulated privately owned and managed community schools competes against public schools for public funds.”

The court did not rule on certain nonconstitutional questions. For one, the plaintiffs claim that particular schools are operating in violation of state law. Teachers’ unions have been especially critical of having for-profit companies run some schools.

Mr. Mooney said no decisions had been made about continued legal action at the lower-court level. “This ruling makes it clear that we have to redouble our efforts to persuade the legislature to … overhaul this program,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 10, Page 22

Published in Print: November 1, 2006, as Ohio Supreme Court Narrowly Upholds State Charter Law
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