Like Captain Renault, the fabled Prefect of Police in Casablanca, Ohio citizens were shocked, shocked to learn that several charter school sponsors gambled recently when they opened a parade of new schools that quickly failed. But unlike the character played in the classic film by Claude Rains, these sponsors have few winnings to collect. Instead, they can anticipate increased scrutiny from the Ohio Auditor as well as new skepticism from the state’s taxpayers.

For those who are all too familiar, there is no shock that comes with the latest revelations of failure in the charter school industry. Instead, here’s what those who are informed about these schools already know:

  • State law does not require charter school administrators to hold any professional licenses or meet even minimal educational requirements.
  • Charter school board members aren’t elected by and responsible to the voters but are hand-picked mostly by the for-profit management companies who run them and to do their bidding, not that of the public.
  • With hand-picked, unelected boards, charter school administrators can often pay themselves exorbitant salaries that in some cases match those of local school district superintendents responsible for the education of thousands of students in multiple locations.
  • Many charter schools are run as profit-centered enterprises employing highly paid administrators and teachers compensated well below colleagues in school districts, causing constant turnover among the staff.
  • The for-profit management companies that operate many charter schools think that their mission and vision (read: profit) supersedes the legitimate interests and aspirations of the public.
  • Charter schools are exempt from more than 150 provisions of state law that otherwise are applicable to school districts, including a requirement to annually report the names, salaries, and credentials of licensed employees to the State Board.

So if the general public was shocked, shocked by the record number of closings this year, they also need to know that charter schools are all too often mere products of formulaic thinking, the result of developers who peruse checklists to make sure that the required buzzwords are in the contract to demonstrate legal sufficiency. When you think and act from a checklist, as too many in the charter industry do, the product and result is an exercise in minimalism, or legal sufficiency, as the phrase is used in state government.

The recent Columbus Dispatch editorial on charter schools (Scrutiny is Needed, February 17) says the Auditor will focus on the practices of three sponsors in looking at how so many schools have failed.  I beg to differ. These failures are not so much a result of the shortcomings of some sponsors but a byproduct of the very sketchy nature of current charter school law.

Charter schools fail because the entire section of the Ohio Revised Code that defines them determines how they are created in minimalist terms. Need some concrete examples? Again, let us look at fatal legal flaws.

No licensing or educational requirements for administrators. No reporting of teachers and their qualifications. No registration of board members with the Secretary of State. No citizenship requirement for board members. No clear statement that anything purchased with public funds constitutes public property, not that of the management company. No restriction on the payment of public funds for recruitment of students, advertising, or payment for celebrity endorsements. No prohibition on the use of public funds earmarked for charter schools to be used for political campaign donations.

Are we shocked, shocked about how we have, through accident or design, allowed Ohio charter schools to resemble what officials in other states have characterized as The Wild West? Or does the situation also resemble the title of Cole Porter’s classic song, Anything Goes?

Investigating the authorizing practices of three sponsors is an exercise in tweaking. Tightening of a few sections of the code by the legislature will be an exercise in tweaking. That would be legal insufficiency and still allow for an atmosphere of Anything Goes.

If we are to have charter schools in Ohio, their legal basis must be that they exist in similar fashion with public schools, be subject to the same requirements, and not be favored by so many questionable exemptions as have been illustrated here. In simple terms, Chapter 3314 of the Ohio Revised Code must be scrapped in its entirety.

So the issue confronting us is not the actions or inadequacies of three sponsors. The real issue is the legislature has created an unregulated, incoherent nightmare that is allowing for-profit management companies, entrepreneurs, national charter school chains, ill-prepared developers and more than three sponsors to operate in a murky charter industry that ill-serves young people in an age when we need to ensure that every child must be properly educated and become a skilled, thoughtful and ethical citizen.

If we truly want schools of choice, we must first choose to build the legal structure and accompanying regulatory system that guarantees that excellence -not profit- will be the result.  There is no other choice.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator who also served four years as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools. While at ODE, he performed various roles in providing oversight and technical assistance for both charter schools and their authorizers.