Judgment day

This October, the Halloween treats came early for supporters of Ohio's 300 charter schools. In a 4-3 decision handed down Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state's charter school program, much maligned by critics, is indeed constitutional. The ruling is consistent with decisions by other state courts across the nation. And what had served as a five-year distraction is now a victory that paves the way for serious--and long overdue--reforms to the state's charter school program.

Charter school advocates are jubilant-most notably the families of the 70,000-plus students that attend the state's "community" schools, as state statute calls charters. The case of Ohio Congress of Parents and Teachers v. the State of Ohio Board of Education not only firmly ensconces the charter program as a lawful alternative to troubled district schools, but also guarantees parents' right to select the best education options for their children.

Meanwhile, state teacher unions, the Ohio School Boards Association and other opponents are fuming about the court's decision. Understandably so. The ruling nullifies all of the appellants' constitutional objections and leaves little room for future litigation--at least in Ohio.

Central to the opponents' case was the claim that charters were not part of the system of "common schools" largely because they do not have to meet the same standards as traditional district schools. In the majority opinion, Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote that the charter school program meets the constitutional definition of public education--thereby reaffirming the General Assembly's prerogative to structure the state's education system and making it clear that the definition of "common schools" needn't be limited to historical structures (such as the traditional district system)--and allows for innovation and customization. (Too bad Floridians weren't so lucky earlier this year.)

The court discredited the argument that charter schools do not meet the same standards as traditional public schools, noting that charter schools are required to administer state assessments, maintain adequate facilities and meet all health and safety standards as their district counterparts. Justice Lanzinger indicated that there are some requirements from which community schools are exempt, but "upon closer examination, many of these exemptions are picayune in nature."

Another major part of the suit against charters was that these schools siphon precious local dollars from traditional school districts and thus hamper their ability to provide a "thorough and efficient" system of education. The court rightly recognized that charter schools are funded separately from traditional districts. When a student moves from a district school to a charter school, he or she actually leaves the local share of education dollars with the district. Thus the district is left to educate the remaining students with more money per pupil.

In gross terms, the ruling was a shellacking for charter school opponents. Many will no doubt tend to their wounds and retake the field freshly armed to continue battle against charter schools, both in Ohio and elsewhere. Yet one can hope that the stakeholders in both camps can get back to the more important task of educating children. Certainly, the legislature can return to the equally noble task of reforming the state's education system, charters included. After all, many charter laws do need to be changed-or in some cases completely rewritten (see here). Poor schools need to be shuttered, effective ones supported and replicated, and charter school sponsors more closely evaluated.

With the Ohio Supreme Court decision, the state's charters-public schools all-have fought and won their legitimacy to educate Ohio's youngsters. Now we must help them succeed.

"Ruling backs Ohio charter schools plan," by Jim Provance, Toledo Blade, October 26, 2006

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