Senate bill could boost charter schools' effectiveness, but opponents prefer killing charters altogether

Improvements have been made to Ohio's charter-school law over the past several years and some in the Senate are considering further changes to strengthen charter accountability. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives legislators are seeking to kill charters completely. 

As currently drafted, Sub. S.B. 141 would tighten rules about who can serve on and work for charter-school governing authorities and sponsors, prevent schools from paying sponsors more than the maximum 3-percent sponsorship fee, and give the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) oversight of all charter-school sponsors. These proposals may sound familiar to Gadfly readers as they were also recommended in late 2006 by the Fordham Institute, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) in our joint report, Turning the Corner to Quality (see here).

Fordham, NACSA, and NAPCS offered support for Sub. S.B. 141-and additional recommendations for strengthening Ohio's charter program-to the bill's sponsors in a letter they requested last month (see here). Our support has some strange bedfellows, including the Ohio Education Association (OEA) and League of Women Voters of Ohio. Both groups are also supporting the legislation.

Unfortunately, the OEA wants to go further and has sought changes to the bill that would add costs and bureaucracy without doing anything to ensure improved school performance and accountability. The OEA's recommendations are largely about decreasing the freedom of charters while increasing the influence of traditional school districts over charters. For example, the OEA wants board members and school-district employees to be permitted to serve on the governing boards of charter schools, which would, in effect, ensure that charters do nothing that would be counter to the interests of the district or the union.

The OEA's legislative recommendations show a serious lack of understanding about the crux of charter schools-that charters receive greater operational freedom in exchange for increased accountability, which is enforced by the sponsor/authorizer. If board members or employees have their hands in both the oversight and operations of a charter school-be it a start-up or conversion charter-the accountability chain is largely meaningless. A school district, operating as a sponsor, would be hard-pressed to hold a school accountable for poor performance when its own board members and employees are effectively running the school.

The political shenanigans are even more pronounced in H.B. 454 which would place an iron-clad moratorium on new brick-and-mortar charters, require all charter-school operators to be nonprofits, and remove provisions in statute that encourage districts to partner with decent charter schools by offering suitable, unused classroom space to these schools. This bill flies in the face of the real estate dilemmas facing urban districts that find themselves with a glut of unused buildings paid for by the state and local taxpayers. Given the changes to charter-school law in the past few years, these recommended changes are largely punitive and appear self-serving on the part of district officials and teacher unions who have been opposed to charters since the first ones opened in 1998.

Charter school accountability has steadily improved over the last decade. New limits are now in place about who can open a charter school, with only proven models able to open new schools. The academic "death penalty" will start closing persistently failing charters at the end of next school year (note, traditional district schools can limp along broken forever). And the legislation encouraging districts to offer empty classrooms to charter schools has helped Ohio land the gold-standard of new school models, KIPP (see here and here)-though some would rather see buildings sit empty in already-blighted neighborhoods than be used for this purpose (see here and here). 

Ohio's charter-school program has room for improvement, but many of the recommendations now being proposed by the OEA and others for S.B. 141, and even more so H.B. 454, are not improvements but rather daggers aimed at the heart of the charter-school program. This is a shame. Stealing a line from Barack Obama, when it comes to school choice we should focus on what works for children and encourage it (see here).

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