Charter Debates Could Be Coming to State Legislatures

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reacts after taking the oath of office alongside his wife Fran at the Ohio Statehouse. A controversy over the state’s largest full-time online charter school last year put a sharp focus on charter school oversight and accountability, an issue that may resonate with lawmakers elsewhere in this year’s legislative sessions.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reacts after taking the oath of office alongside his wife Fran at the Ohio Statehouse. A controversy over the state’s largest full-time online charter school last year put a sharp focus on charter school oversight and accountability, an issue that may resonate with lawmakers elsewhere in this year’s legislative sessions.
—John Minchillo, Pool/AP

State policy debate now at 'granular level'

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While funding, teacher pay and shortages, and school safety are prime K-12 issues in the state legislative sessions that get underway this month, charter schools are also likely to be hot topics on lawmakers' agendas.

Among the potential flash points: how to make sure funding for charter schools is equitable and how to hold online charter schools accountable.

Last year, 86 bills concerning charters were enacted in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Michelle Exstrom, the education group director at NCSL, points to the fact that charter schools are the law of the land in 44 states and the District of Columbia as proof that legislation around charters, in particular, is shifting.

"The debate about [their existence] is over in most states," said Exstrom. "It's not really a should-we-shouldn't-we thing anymore. They're starting to really get more to the granular level of now that we have choice in place, how do we make sure it's actually working and doing what we intended for it to do?"

And some charter supporters, such as Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, see potential changes on the horizon they find worrisome. They're not as convinced that laws permitting charters are so firmly established that they can't be changed in ways that would hurt the movement.

For example, in Illinois, charter opponents are backing a measure that would either limit the power of the state Charter School Commission or get rid of it altogether. One of the commission's main responsibilities is to hear appeals when school boards deny charter applications.

New Governors, New Landscapes

Former Illinois Gov. Republican Bruce Rauner, a Republican, last spring vetoed a bill that would have curbed the commission's authority. Rauner was a reliable supporter of charter schools and even has one named for him in Chicago. But he lost his re-election bid last year to Democrat J.B. Pritzker, who has expressed concerns about charters in the state.

"Charter advocates in Illinois have their hands full to either prevent the legislature from enacting that bill this time around or somehow persuading the new governor to veto it," said Ziebarth. "You could lose that check and balance on local school districts there, and if you do, that could empower districts to reject charter school applications whether it's a good application or not, just because there's no recourse for applicants."

Unsurprisingly, the Illinois Education Association, which represents more than 135,000 current, retired, and future teachers, professors, and support staff, sees the issue very differently. Sean Denney, a political consultant and lobbyist for the association, frames the issue as one about local control.

"The state charter school commission, really their job is to overturn and overrule the decisions of locally elected school boards," said Denney. "We don't think that charter schools operate best when they're forced upon a community."

Adam Peshek, the vice president of advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, or ExcelinEd, a nonprofit founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008 that supports school reform efforts including school choice, said that while charters are well-established in many states, supporters intend to be vigilant to safeguard those gains.

"Opponents try to do this 'death by a thousand cuts,' so regulation here, regulation there, requirement here, requirement there," said Peshek. "So we always make sure that those that are being proposed that they're being done with the right intentions and not just to disrupt the families that are already participating and hope to participate in these programs."

Virtual-Charter Backlash

One of the biggest disrupters to charters in 2018 was self-inflicted. Ohio's largest full-time online charter school closed abruptly in the middle of the school year amid a scandal involving attendance records.

The Ohio Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to force the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, to repay tens of millions of dollars to the state. The problem arose from the school overstating its enrollment and thus receiving substantial overpayment from the state.

That situation highlights a potential problem with online charter schools when the state lacks proper oversight. Exstrom called it a "concern across all states" with online charters that goes beyond this one high-profile example.

"Everyone is really trying to figure out a way to hold them more accountable because the research and information and reporting that's coming out on the student achievement and graduation rates for those students is pretty abysmal," said Exstrom. "So what do you do if you have an authorized online charter school that is only graduating 10 percent of its students? How do you handle that?"

Ziebarth of the charter school alliance said the push for more charters was affected by scandals involving online charter schools.

"Absolutely," he said. "Particularly in places like Ohio, where these were big, front-page, high-level stories touching everybody from legislators, to the attorney general, to the governor. In a number of states, the problems with full-time, virtual charter schools have definitely damaged the credibility of the charter school movement overall in those states."

Overcoming Setbacks

Despite the setback, charter supporters are encouraged by the election of pro-school-choice governors in several states, including Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.

"We're feeling very optimistic because coming off 2018's election cycle we invested in about 375 state legislative races and we saw victory in 77 percent of those races," said Tommy Schultz, the national communications director for the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit that lobbies for policies allowing school choice. "So we're feeling really bullish going into this upcoming legislative session."

Florida charter supporters are feeling especially heartened by the election of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who campaigned on support for school choice. His choice for state education commissioner was unanimously appointed by the state board of education, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is the former speaker of the state House and is known as a big supporter of charter schools and voucher programs. His wife started a charter school in an area about 40 miles north of Tampa.

Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram will be watching Corcoran closely, along with the actions of the state legislature. Florida lawmakers don't go into session until March.

He blames Corcoran for ushering in a bill while House speaker that he views as helping charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools by forcing school boards to share construction funds raised through property taxes with charters and by allowing a new category of charters to open, with state support, near traditional schools that have struggled under the state's accountability system with substantial financial support from the state.

"It created a pathway and got rid of a lot of the regulatory statutes that we had in place that allowed or disallowed charter schools to engage public funds," said Ingram. "These charter schools, some of which are run by private entities, some of which are run by religious entities, are now reaping the benefits of public dollars."

Florida Divide

Florida State. Rep. Margaret Good, a Democrat, goes a step further in talking about the impact of the bill, which was signed into law in 2017.

"What we have seen over the last several years is a systematic movement by our state legislature to essentially privatize our public education system," said Good. "We are underfunding our public education system and then siphoning all of this money into for-profit corporations."

She doesn't expect to see much change under DeSantis' leadership.

"This is not a Gov. DeSantis issue," said Good. "This has been happening over at least the past six years. This is a systematic move that way goes beyond who our governor is at the time."

But Good is quick to add that she is not against charters as a whole.

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"At least in Florida when you're talking about charter schools, you really have to differentiate between these corporate charter schools and the community-based charter schools because there are some really strong, long-term community-based charter schools that a lot of students depend on."

Some charter backers argue it's simply too early to say how all these issues will play out in the coming year.

Ziebarth said the challenge now is, "just figuring out the lay of the land with the new governors and new state legislators and trying to separate rhetoric from reality."

For his part, Ingram is optimistic that in time lawmakers will see things his way.

"I believe that the momentum around this country is on the side of people who believe in public education and our public schools," he said.

Vol. 38, Issue 19, Pages 14, 16

Published in Print: January 23, 2019, as Charter School Issues on Legislative Horizon
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