Is there an Act II for David Brennan the Revolutionary?

Recent news that White Hat, the big,
Ohio-based, profit-seeking charter school operator, faces financial problems
was surely received as an early Christmas present by many long-time charter
opponents, particularly within the Buckeye State. The company’s founder and
leader, Akron industrialist David Brennan, has been a larger-than-life-target
for school choice foes since Governor George Voinovich appointed him in 1992 to
head a commission intended to advance choice in Ohio k-12 education.

That commission’s work led to the Cleveland Scholarship Program – the nation’s
first publicly- funded voucher program. Its constitutionality would be debated
and litigated until being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, a decision
that has reverberated across the country.

David Brennan’s vision, doggedness and
political connectedness in the education-policy sector have not been limited to
vouchers. Without him, Ohio’s charter-school program might have been
still-born, or strangled in its crib, by the outraged forces of the
public-school establishment. From day one, the teacher unions teamed up with
the League of Women Voters, the PTA, the Ohio School Boards Association, the
Ohio AFL-CIO and others to savage charters at the statehouse, to challenge them
in the courthouse—all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court—and to denounce them in
every sort of public forum.

The vitriol of these attacks was illustrated in 2003 by then Cleveland Teachers
Union president Richard DeColibus, who announced his union’s $70,000 “truth”
campaign by declaring that “these bad [charter] schools are like 700-pound hogs
at the dinner table eating everything in sight, and the longer they’re there,
the harder it’s going to be to move them out and away from the table.”

Such attacks were obviously self-interested. They were as clumsy as they were
mean-spirited. But they weren’t all that hard to rebut by school choice
supporters who noted that Cleveland’s public schools, for example, were among
the worst in the nation, not just in Ohio. Regrettably, hundreds of schools in
other Ohio cities, attended mainly by poor and minority youngsters, were almost
as woeful.

Brennan fought the critics and enemies of choice on multiple fronts, and
thousands of Buckeye state youngsters owe him thanks for brightening their
educational prospects and rebutting those who would keep them trapped in crummy
district schools. As the current school year opened, almost 100,000 children
were enrolled in some 350 charter schools across the state and a further 22,000
attended private schools with help from Ohio’s three public voucher programs.

School choice, however, has not fully delivered on its promise. Too many
schools of choice have turned out to be no better than the district schools to
which they are meant to be alternatives. Too few are really first rate. That
goes for Brennan’s own schools, too. White Hat runs 33 of them in Ohio and none
is rated higher than a C on state report cards. Most get D’s and F’s. Brennan
contends, as do some other choice supporters, that such results don’t matter
and that the marketplace is the only real accountability mechanism that does.
He colorfully summed up this view for the Columbus Dispatch in 2005: “I trust
parents, I’ve learned to trust the unemployed, prostitute, minority mother more
than any educrat I’ve met in my life.”

Experience, alas, suggests otherwise.
When it comes to education quality, the marketplace alone has proven
ineffective. Schools need both to satisfy parents and to deliver solid
academic results—and when taxpayer dollars are involved, those paying the bills
have every right, even obligation, to ensure that such results are delivered.
Parents are often unfussy about academic quality, keeping their children in a
school that doesn’t deliver much learning so long as they feel it is safer than
their other options, that its staff is welcoming, or that it is convenient to
their home or workplace.

Without demeaning such considerations – what parent doesn’t put safety first
when it comes to his or her kids? – charters are public schools and too many of
Ohio’s children who attend them are still at academic risk. Buckeye taxpayers
deserve to invest their hard-earned dollars in schools that deliver results –
gauged both by parent satisfaction and by student performance.

David Brennan (and George Voinovich and a few brave legislators) can fairly be
said to have brought school choice to Ohio, and that has been a boon to
thousands of families, many of them desperately needy and otherwise powerless
to seek better education options for their children. But much more needs to be
done. Today’s struggle is to ensure that all schools deliver a solid academic
R.O.I. That’s how Ohio will be able to turn its own economic fortunes around,
and make the state a great place for children and families.

Thanks for part one, Mr. Brennan. Will you now tackle part two?

This article also appeared in a slightly different version in today’s Columbus Dispatch.

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