Ohio's charter program risks becoming a laughing stock

Budget language presented yesterday by the Ohio House, run by Republicans, risks making the Buckeye State the nation's laughing stock when it comes to charter school programs. During the early and mid-2000s Ohio was known as the Wild West of charter school programs because the state encouraged dozens of charter schools to spring up over night.

Ohio early on hewed to a laissez-faire approach to school growth and quality. As a result some of the people and organizations that launched schools were ill-prepared. Some had eccentric views of what a school should be. Some operators turned out to be more interested in personal enrichment than in delivering high-quality instruction to poor kids.

As a result, headlines such as ???Charters Fail to Deliver,??? ???State Audit Says Charter School Company Owes Thousands,??? and ???Wild Experiment??? were ubiquitous. Things were so bad that the then Republican State Auditor Jim Petro issued a report blasting the Ohio Department of Education for being such a weak and non-selective charter school authorizer. Less than a year later the Republican-controlled General Assembly had passed HB364 which required the Ohio Department of Education to get out of the business of sponsoring charter schools entirely.

This was the first effort at cleaning up Ohio's troubled charter school program and it would be followed up in subsequent years by further reforms to the program by Republicans that included the implementation of one of the nation's toughest automatic charter school closure laws.. As a result of seeking a better balance between choice and accountability Ohio's charter school program has seen far fewer school blow-ups in recent years and the overall quality of the program has improved as really atrocious schools have been forced out of the market for poor performance.

Yesterday the Ohio House decided the Buckeye State should go back in time and instead of seeking a balance between choice and accountability, its plan focuses exclusively on how more schools can open, especially those by for-profit companies with less-than -stellar track records of success in the state.?? Some of the more troubling parts of the bill include:

??????????????? Allowing charter school operators to apply directly to the Ohio Department of Education for direct authorization to establish a school and upon approval of the application operate the school without a sponsor (the same Department of Education that was banned from the job in 2005).

??????????????? Allow charter school operators the right of first refusal for future management services and that an operator's consent should also be required for renewal of any existing contract between a governing board and a sponsor (giving operators veto power over their regulator).

??????????????? Allow a charter school sponsor ??? no matter how bad its current crop of schools ??? to open many more new schools.

??????????????? Permits an individual aged 22-29 who does not have a diploma or certificate of equivalence to enroll for up to two years in a dropout recovery program free of tuition and earmarks $1M per year from economic development program funds for this purpose (this during a time when all schools are facing cuts to their funding).

In late January I wrote an op-ed for the Cleveland Plain Dealer that warned:

???For too long, charter school education has been a political battlefield on which powerful political interests have waged war. As such, charter quality has suffered and children who badly needed better educational options have all too often bounced from troubled school to troubled school. Gov. Kasich and Republican lawmakers should break the cycle of political acrimony around school choice. This means resisting the temptation ??? and the encouragement they will surely receive from some in the charter sector ??? to push for more charter schools while also scaling back on school accountability. This would be a grave mistake.???

So much for the power of the pen, but the message is still true. Ohio needs to take the lessons of the past seriously and not return to the days of charter schools run amok.

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