Parents to Decide Fate of District's Low-Rated Schools

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Columbus City Schools will become the testing ground for a new program allowing parents to initiate a takeover of the state's worst-performing school buildings, under the latest changes yesterday to the two-year budget.

Gov. John Kasich's initial budget allowed parents to take over schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide in academics for three consecutive years. Lawmakers limited it to make Columbus City Schools a pilot program, after Superintendent Gene Harris told lawmakers in April that she was willing to set it up in the district.

Columbus, which has a handful of schools that would qualify for the "parent trigger," has overhauled several struggling schools by swapping out most of the staff. Harris has said parent involvement is powerful, but it's not clear that this strategy would improve schools.

"My question is, do we have enough evidence to say this is the strategy to bring the kind of acceleration we need?" Harris told The Dispatch in April.

Rep. W. Carlton Weddington, D-Columbus, a former Columbus school board member, criticized the plan. "It seems like Columbus City Schools has taken the bullet for the rest of the state on this."

The Department of Education would help set up the program and later recommend how to implement it statewide.

If a school meets the "parent trigger" for academics and a majority of the school's parents sign a petition demanding change, the school must accept what parents propose. That includes converting into a charter school, replacing at least 70 percent of the staff or contracting with another school district or group to operate the school.

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The amendment was one of about 80 approved last night before the Finance Committee passed the two-year, $55.6 billion budget along party lines, setting up a full House vote on Thursday.

Lawmakers did not remove language that would apply the state commercial-activities tax to all money wagered at Ohio's four new casinos. House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, said the language would be pulled out of the budget, but after lengthy debate among members and discussions with Kasich's office, it remained.

Casino operators, including Penn National, which is building in Columbus and Toledo, have said that applying the tax to all wagers is unfair and would lead to construction delays, potential scaling-down of projects and lawsuits.

Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he agrees with Batchelder that the budget language is not necessary because current law already says that the CAT tax applies to gross receipts—not wagers minus winnings. "The speaker's predictions may very well come true, maybe not as early as he thought," he said.

Kasich wanted the language to stay in the bill, Amstutz said.

Other amendments somewhat curtailed the expansion of charterschool-operator power that House Republicans granted last week and sparked outcry from a number of school-choice supporters who said they went too far.

"I think there were some oopses and some things that were reconsidered," Amstutz said, adding the intent was not to "create a new class of Wild West charter schools."

The changes ensure that in instances where the Department of Education serves as a charter-school sponsor, it gets all the powers of a traditional sponsor. But some school-choice supporters have noted the department did a poor job of oversight 10 years ago. "I think the charter-school community is in a different place than it was back then," Amstutz said.

The changes also: say that money received by a charter school is public money; remove a proposed limit on charter-school cash reserves; remove the creation of new hybrid online/brick-and-mortar charter schools; and eliminate the requirement that every student enrolled in an e-school gets a computer.

Other amendments yesterday:
• Eliminate a provision that would allow for privatizing county jails.
• Provide a new path for township mergers.
• Add $6 million per year for Ohio College Opportunity Grant funding.
• Remove the requirement that the state fine a nursing home if an audit finds misspending.

House Democrats offered 22 amendments. Most were defeated, including efforts to block prison and turnpike privatization, offset some losses by local governments and schools, and eliminate changes to teacher performance pay in the budget that are similar to provisions in Senate Bill 5.

The Senate also started budget hearings yesterday.

"People are overwhelmingly in support of what we are doing because we made changes involving reform and better management, not based on who somebody knows, but based on the right policy," Kasich yesterday told the Northwest Ohio Regional Economic Development Association in Perrysburg Township.

Asked later to clarify, given numerous outcries of opposition to several components of his agenda, Kasich noted the legislative movement. "I am not talking about where the general public is. I am saying it's pretty amazing, isn't it, that we were able to wipe out an $8 billion deficit without having to raise taxes?"

Vol. 30, Issue 30

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