“Welcome to the dark side,” was the strange greeting conveyed to me at a conference by a well-connected person eight years ago. After delivering that unforgettable remark, the operative (a word chosen carefully) laughed and extended his hand in greeting.
“Thanks,” I replied with a nervous laugh, perplexed about what was behind that curious choice of words.
No, the greeting wasn’t delivered at a meeting of CIA types in a mysterious, remote setting. After all, I was in downtown Columbus, The Heart of It All, but it spooked me just the same. (Is there a pun here?)
Sure, famed spook James Jesus Angleton was very dead at the time of this meeting in 2007, as were other inhabitants of the storied dark side. And yes, there were also no other apparent CIA, KGB or MI-6 types at the meeting – at least I didn’t think so.
So what other murky dark side was this?
The greeting was delivered by one of the leaders of the Ohio charter school authorizer group attending an Ohio Department of Education-sponsored charter school meeting. I had just joined the ODE staff, and this was how I was greeted at my first meeting by the operative, one of the leaders of the charter school industry.
Hmm, the dark side. What was this new job going to be about, and were these folks in fact a different breed of cat – er, spook?
The hidden meaning behind the dark side remark remained with me during my years at ODE and beyond. But if I was clueless in 2007 and seeking a Rosetta Stone to help me interpret the meaning of the dark side, it took just a while longer. In fact, after being in the state charter school office for about a month, I realized that when things are dark, they’re really, really dark.
This retelling, gentle reader, is prompted by the recent actions of the Ohio legislature, where long-promised and anticipated charter school “reform” (another word chosen carefully) measures disappeared in the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour of the legislative session. Into the dark side.
Poof. Now you see it, now you don’t. Downright spooky, eh?
More transparency and more accountability, the pols promised about charter schools. Meaningful reform on the horizon, the headlines hinted. The reality check, however, is to be aware of the strange vortex that forms at Broad and High Sts. and extends outward to encompass Buckeye charterdom, that being defined as the area that extends from the lake to the river.
It’s now abundantly clear that the dark side the charter school operative hinted about is generated by a Bermuda-type Triangle centered in downtown Columbus, a nearly-invisible force field that swallows every good-faith effort to apply some fresh air and a beam of sunlight-as-disinfectant at the mysterious and – here I go again – spooky black hole called the charter school industry.
At a national charter school conference in Indianapolis several years ago, two attendees saw my registration badge at a reception and approached me. “Ohio, huh? So you’re from the Wild, Wild West!”
They, of course, were talking about a state that allows two charter school operators to direct several million dollars in GOP campaign donations during the last decade in return for favorable treatment (read: weak oversight) and the receipt of hundreds of millions of dollars from state funds. Finance types and Wharton School profs would marvel about such a robust return on investment.
They were also talking about a state that does not require charter school board members to be American citizens and doesn’t have a problem with non-citizens serving on charter boards, and where one of the members of the House Education Committee advocates burdensome Voter ID requirements for citizens trying to vote.
Those conference attendees were talking about a state that recognizes more than 60 charter school authorizers, many of whom do not have the capacity to provide the necessary oversight and technical assistance for these schools to operate properly and meet minimal statutory requirements.
They were talking about a state where long-anticipated charter school reform legislation died a quiet death at the end of the legislative session at the hands of House legislative leaders, where the Speaker himself enjoyed an expense-paid trip to Turkey, compliments of a charter school management company.
The true depth of the charter school swamp became known to me in July 2014, when I attended a rally at the State House sponsored by a public school advocacy group. While I was talking to a friend in front of the capitol, I noticed just behind me a prominent charter school lobbyist and enabler surreptitiously taking photographs of me.
I turned and walked a few steps over to where he was standing. “Why are you taking photos of me,” I asked? “Why aren’t you taking pictures of the important people here, the speakers up there on the steps?”
“Oh, no,” he replied. “I wasn’t taking pictures of you, I was getting some shots of those trees over there.”
Just like the dark side lobbyist sneaking photos and denying it, Ohio citizens also can’t get straight answers as to why nearly $1 billion of state funds are being transferred annually to, among others, a few wealthy charter schools operators and Republican donors, while needed reform legislation designed to repair woefully inadequate schools disappears near midnight in a vortex surrounded by a Bermuda-type Triangle enveloped by a black hole. Even the Columbus Dispatch was perplexed enough to weigh in on the sudden disappearance of charter school reform measures.
So what are we left with? Speak, memory.
The fault, dear Buckeyes, is not in our stars – er pols, but in ourselves.
For our leaders are the finest men. So we elect them again and again, Tom Paxton told us once.
After all, it’s all about the dark side. Welcome to it. Even Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper is starting to notice.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.
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