A cosmic tussle in Ohio around charter-school quality

Ohio is in the midst of a cosmic tussle around the future of its charter school program. Fordham's Checker Finn has been drawn into this in recent days (see here and here), and the New York Times even picked up on this yesterday with a great quote from Bill Sims of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The issue, in short, is whether for-profit charter operators should be allowed to operate free of any oversight beyond market forces. The proposed legislation from the Ohio House would neuter both non-profit governing boards and authorizers of their oversight responsibilities and authority, and give school operators carte blanche authority over virtually all school decisions. Let's be clear, we understand that oversight and accountability are things few people or organizations like if they can avoid them. Further, in Ohio charters have to pay their authorizers a fee of up to three percent of their per-pupil funding for this oversight, and that's money that could be spent on programs or in support of the bottom line.

But, consider the alternative. Let us imagine an Ohio without authorizers (aka sponsors in Ohio) or governing boards, which is what the House changes would allow. School operators would police themselves in key areas such as:

Test administration. Absent external oversight, operators would be solely responsible for administering and monitoring state tests. Should an allegation of testing impropriety arise (i.e., teachers cheated), the operator would be responsible for conducting an investigation into the allegations and forwarding the results to the Ohio Department of Education. This situation would be especially troubling for schools that are on the state's automatic closure list for poor performance, where the incentive to cheat to stay alive and keep revenue from kids flowing to the operator is present.

Student safety. Without authorizers or governing boards, there is no system of checks and balances for student safety. Operators would be responsible for policing themselves in critical aspects of school operations related to student safety: transportation, building maintenance, building security and classroom environment. One can easily imagine myriad scenarios where an operator might be inclined to turn a blind eye to costly but necessary repairs/action if it would affect its bottom line, at the expense of students in the building.

Parent complaints. Minus outside oversight, a parent that is having problems with teachers or staff in the school would have no recourse for issues (minus the state department in certain circumstances) other than to the organization causing the problems in the first place.

Teacher complaints. Without oversight, is it reasonable to expect that teachers with legitimate concerns will report them to the operator, the same company that signs their paychecks? Test improprieties, inappropriate conduct, fiscal shenanigans, etc.

Fiscal health. With nobody responsible for checking the books except the operator it would be close to impossible to determine how public dollars are being spent.

Special education. Special education is a very highly regulated area, and also an expensive budget category for schools. Minus oversight, operators would find it very tempting to skirt the IDEA. One could envision scenarios where services are sub-par, kids aren't evaluated, IDEA deadlines aren't met, appropriate supports aren't secured, etc. If no one is watching if these services are provided would all schools actually provide the services?

Everyone benefits from having others oversee what they do. This is especially true when public tax dollars are involved. Is there a better way to do this than what is currently in state law in Ohio? Surely, but the direction the House wants to go isn't it.

-by Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton ??

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