“Oh it’s a long, long while from May to December,” Maxwell Anderson’s great lyric tells us, “But the days go short when you reach September.” And with the Ohio legislature’s inaction on anticipated charter school reform, the classic tune also reminds us that “One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”
We already knew that while its citizens waited, the Ohio legislature left town as one festering charter school scandal after another went unaddressed. In particular, a long-awaited piece of “reform” legislation, HB 2, proposed to address “governance, sponsorship, and management of community schools,” languishes in the wind tunnel located at Broad and High.
But maybe the Cincinnati Enquirer headline “Did dollars or details slow Ohio charter reform”? spoke volumes about the wind tunnel, calm now until September.
The proposed reform legislation would, according to the Enquirer, “prevent failing charter schools from swapping sponsors to avoid closure, require that attendance and financial records be available for inspection, force online schools to track how many hours a student is learning and eliminate conflicts of interest between those who run the schools and the groups policing them.”
The Enquirer article also points out that perhaps $91,726 in timely donations in June and July by charter school leader William Lager might have distracted Republican lawmakers from doing the right thing. After all, isn’t the devil – or is it the dollar – in the details when the subject is Ohio charter schools?
In the meantime, a close look at HB 2 – which is subject to further dissection when the legislature returns – shows that there are many other areas of governance, sponsorship, and charter school management that cry out for reform. So it should come as no surprise that, in reaction to legislative inaction, a group of concerned citizens assembled recently to assist lawmakers in doing the right thing.
In the hope (snicker) of getting some action from our legislators in September, our citizen panel decided to channel the spirit of David Letterman and compile a list of the Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms. Here are the results of our deliberative body.
#10: Cut legal exemptions
Charter schools are exempt from 150 sections of the Ohio Revised Code.
The legislature needs to eliminate at least half of these exemptions by the end of the current session. After all, if proponents like to call them “publiccharter schools,” they should be more aligned to our system of public education and therefore not need so many exemptions from laws which public schools must comply with due to their public nature. If the charter industry objects, we should not let them have it both ways. Charter proponents should stop using the term public charter schools due to their resistance to increased regulation and fewer legal exemptions. In turn, the public should start using the term corporate charter schools to better define their nature.
#9: Management companies subject to full review by state auditor
Here’s another classic example of the charter industry having it both ways. If you receive public funds, the public has a right to see how their money is spent or misspent. Add to that the requirement that any furniture, equipment, and real estate purchased with public funds is public property, subject to liquidation at auction upon closure of the school, with the proceeds returned to the state treasury. Recall that White Hat Management took the position that such assets were corporate and not public property. JobsOhio is another example of the principle of having it both ways. Public money and the assets purchased with such funds should not be convertible to private assets through a management arrangement.
#8: Eliminate Non-Profit Sponsors
The charter industry is replete with example after example of someone or some entity having it both ways. Non-Profit charter school sponsors follow that tradition. They accept public funds for serving as charter school sponsors or authorizers but tell individuals and organizations seeking information that as non-profits, they are exempt from public records requests. As with Nos. 10 and 9, if a non-profit organization accepts public funds, it should be responsive to such requests and the same scrutiny that other types of sponsors (school district, educational service center, vocational school district, university) accept as a player in the charter industry. The public is tired of the charter world having it both ways.
#7: Celebrity endorsements and cap on advertising
This charter school reform measure is tied in with Nos. 9 and 8. Public funds should not be used to pay for endorsements to promote charter schools. Worse yet, we’ll probably never find out how much ECOT endorser Jack Hanna or anyone else might have been paid because the management companies maintain they are private entities and resist audits and requests for financial information from state regulators.
#6: Accuracy in advertising
If a rose is a rose, a charter school should be called just that. Ohio is the only one of forty states authorizing charter schools that uses the term community school rather than charter. That term by itself – used in the original legislation – is purposefully misleading. My recent article on charter names pointed out that only a handful have the word charter or community school in their official title. The same is true for television ads, where the name charter isn’t used. As the school year begins and you see and hear ads for charters, listen carefully for what you might not hear in the commercial.
The local public school is a community school and a charter is a charter.
#5: School treasurers. There is a continuing concern about the ability of charter school treasurers to adequately perform their duties when many serve multiple schools. One former charter treasurer , sentenced to two years in prison, was said to have served as the chief financial officer of at least nine charter schools at the same time, though other treasurers have served more than that number in the past. New legislation is needed to cap the total number of schools a treasurer can serve simultaneously.
#4: Governance reform. With more than a billion dollars in state education funds being diverted to charter schools, it’s time to require greater transparency and accountability for the use of scarce public dollars, and governance reform is one place to start. In a previous article, I wrote this statement: “The public school district that has the largest number of its resident students enrolled should be entitled to a seat on the board. Since state funds are deducted from the foundation payments for the district’s resident students and sent to the charter school where the student is enrolled, the district is entitled to monitor the performance and operation of the school, particularly when many of these students return to the district at some point.” In addition, lawmakers should require authorizer and parent representatives to be members of the board, with the parent seat filled by an individual selected at an annual meeting of the school parents. An additional part of governance reform would be to require all board members to be registered with the Office of Secretary of State, as is the case with other public school board members.
#3: Administrative qualifications. Incredibly, there are no minimum educational or professional licensure requirements for charter school administrators. This situation needs to be addressed immediately if all charter reform efforts are to be viewed as substantive. After all, school is about education.
#2: Citizenship requirement. In traditional school districts, board members have to be qualified voters – citizens – in order to serve as overseers of public funds. News reports in the last year have focused on one charter school chain where some of the board members and administrators may not be American citizens. If charter proponents want to emphasize the word public in the term public charter school, they should also agree that requiring American citizenship for board members is a no-brainer for the charter industry.
And the Number One Needed Charter School Reform –
Get the money out!
The influence of charter moguls David Brennan an William Lager on the Ohio Republican party are well-known. Money talks, and in charter world, money speaks loudly. Public funds – the profits gained from running privately operated schools with public money – should not be allowed to unduly influence legislators. The fact that HB 2 stalled at the very time that another $91,726 arrived to replenish state Republican campaign coffers is no coincidence.
If Mark Twain was correct when he observed that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” the absence of lawmakers at Broad and High compounds the inaction on charter reform. But if at least two of these Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms wound up being included in this year’s reform package, that would be a small victory for the life, liberty and property of Ohioans.
What, then? Are these Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms merely pipedreams?
In the meantime, time’s a wasting. The days grow short when you reach September.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.