Readers might want to label this tale of Statehouse antics as just more of the same. On second thought, maybe it could be a reminder for being careful about what you wish for in life.
A state senator known for his aggressive style in questioning individuals at hearings acted as the “hired gun” for Republicans in a meeting on August 22 to review new charter school administrative rules prepared by the Ohio Department of Education. He was not shy in flexing his muscles in the fight between Republicans and ODE over reforming the state’s scandal-ridden and poorly performing charters.
“I’m a trial lawyer. Don’t do that to me,” said Sen. Bill Coley to Diane Lease, ODE’s chief legal counsel, who was representing the department in the hearing.
Before his admonition to the other counsel, Coley saw fit to transfer blame for some of the charter school administrative rule mess to the state education agency. Here is how the Akron Beacon Journal, in an editorial aptly called Scandalous at the Statehouse, described the low drama:
“At one point, Coley scolded the department for showing the “height of arrogance.” Yet, in a feat of irony, he left his charter friends off the hook, arguing: “I don’t see in there where the school sponsor has to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ on every school they sponsor.”
Is it arrogance when an attempt is made to develop some rules for the Wild Wild West, trying to clean up the hazardous but fabled Long Branch Saloon which is synonymous with the Ohio charter school system? We’re all not trial lawyers like the self-assured Coley, but a lot of us feel that charter authorizers, as they are called in the 43 other states that have legal provisions for these privately operated and publicly funded schools, should be held responsible for the schools they authorize. You can’t have it both ways.
Since authorizers collect 3% of the school’s gross state revenue, they need to be held accountable for every charter school under their purview. In fact, when public money is involved, the public needs to demand that every “i” and every “t” is dotted. If a sponsor doesn’t want to be held responsible, they need to get out of the authorizer business. In a world of no-excuses operations, trial lawyers of all people don’t need to make excuses for those who otherwise might want to soft-pedal the importance of accountability in the education of young people.
Here is one example. When I worked in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office, I was shocked, shocked by the poor quality of many of the contracts submitted for approval by the charter school sponsors. In my nearly four years there, I reviewed more than 100 charter contracts – a number probably higher than most trial lawyers in the legislature. After reading the first few pages, I found that many charter contracts were mere templates, cut and pasted together, and dumped in our offices by sponsors days or even hours before the annual deadline for new school agreements.
Incredibly, dozens were submitted devoid of page numbers and even footers at the bottom of the page to denote the authorizer, school, and date of submission.
Several contracts, bearing evidence of being the archetype of template production by national charter school chains, contained page after page with this detail:
The _______ School will offer a program that contains…… It will be the purpose of the ________ School to …
As you might have guessed, I sent the mindlessly copied and pasted template monstrosity back to the sponsor, unapproved, and asked “does anyone read the stuff you submit? Does anyone care about aiming for more than minimal sufficiency”?
You can also imagine that the sponsor representative was not pleased with me. A few weeks later, although I was not a trial lawyer, I nevertheless put together a PowerPoint presentation suggesting how contracts could be improved, including the addition of no-brainer features such as page numbers and a footer containing the sponsor name, school name and the submission date of the contract.
A day after my presentation, I was contacted by another sponsor representative who pointedly asked me “where does it say that we are to put a footer and the other information you are asking for in the contract?” The joke some of us will recall in dealing with sponsor representatives was the constant refrain, “where does it say…”
Not being a trial lawyer, I explained to him that 200+ page contracts being submitted might need to be scanned and occasionally copied to fulfill public records requests. If one of these contracts happened to fall on the ODE copy room floor with a big thud – a half-ream of paper scattered with no page numbers – we wouldn’t know which page followed the other in trying to reassemble the pile.
Not being a trial lawyer, I didn’t think that this small request – including the addition of page numbers to what would become a legal document – was asking a school sponsor to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” But oh, was I mistaken!
This week, as I viewed John Oliver’s brilliant critique of charter schools on HBO’s Last Week Tonight show, I remembered the pushback from several charter school sponsors, as they did not like my view about essential charter components.
At 5:25 in this incredible critique of charters and their practices, Oliver reads from some charter documents as he discusses the topic of plagiarism. The thick documents he holds up look very similar to the super-size, template laden charter contracts I remember with the blanks, those slugs or placeholders meant to be filled in by someone else to personalize so much verbiage containing so little substance.
This is what we get when we allow the existence of giant, national for-profit charter school chains. Fill in the blanks in the template and, viola, the money will soon flow.
Now trial lawyers might not appreciate a “faceless, humorless bureaucrat” getting all worked up and insisting that sponsors dot every “i” and cross every “t” in putting page numbers on contracts, but it was one small way to demonstrate that the charterites needed to put some effort into preparing a legal document that would form the basis of establishing what is essentially a separate, unique school district with its own governing authority, according to Ohio law.
The pushback led by the trial attorney Coley against new rules for charters was merely a continuation of Republican efforts to derail efforts for systemic charter school reform. (See this June article, Welcome to Ohio: Expect Delays).
The editorial in the Beacon Journal mentioned earlier put the issue in a straightforward fashion:
“… Coley reflected what long has been disturbing about the loose Republican approach to charter schools. Which gets to the question: Are Republican legislative leaders serious about strong oversight?”
In fact, a week before the rules hearings, the Columbus Dispatch carried an article about the continuing saga of ECOT and its war against rules, regulations, and requirements that might better document its worthiness to receive more than $100 million per year in public funds. The Dispatch article was important because it featured some history about ECOT’s earlier efforts to avoid being subject to any kind of rules.
According to the Dispatch article, Steve Burigana, who served admirably as ODE’s chief operating officer and oversaw the charter school office from 2001-2008, saw the need to develop state oversight for the newly emerging e-schools. In doing so, Burigana had a conversation with William Lager, the ECOT founder and executive.
This passage from the Dispatch ECOT article provides great insight for what is going on in today’s charter wars as they are being waged in the Ohio legislature by trial lawyer Coley, Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, Rep. Andrew Brenner, Chair of the House Education Committee, and other vocal supporters of the state’s failing charter schools.
“In 2002, while the legislature debated a major charter school bill, Burigana said he met with charter school advocates and others in public education and reached consensus on new rules for online schools.
The department asked the Senate to insert the language into House Bill 364. But as the bill neared a vote, Burigana was told that charter school advocates “panicked and pulled their support.” GOP leaders declined to add it to the bill.
Burigana said charter supporters told him there was talk that the department was trying to add regulations that weren’t agreed on. That wasn’t true, Burigana said, and he wanted to know who was spreading false information.
The groups said ECOT was behind it.
So he called Lager directly. After some conversation, he said, Lager got to the crux of it: “He told me, ‘The bottom line is why would we agree to rules if we don’t have to have rules?’”
Lager didn’t recall the conversation, a spokesman said.
Burigana said the legislature asked the department to submit online rules in 2003, which he did. But “there was never anything done.”
The proposed regulations collected dust as ECOT’s enrollment and state payments steadily grew — as did Lager’s campaign contributions.”
As we ponder Lager’s comments made nearly 15 years ago that “we don’t have to have rules” and think about the present, we are inevitably back to considering trial lawyer Coley’s actions that have blocked the enactment of new administrative rules for charter schools. And the learning for him, and for his colleagues in the Long Branch Saloon, er Wild Wild West, er I mean Ohio Statehouse, is that like it or not, rules are required.
Therein lies the problem, in spite of the obstruction of Lager, Coley, Rosenberger, Brenner and others who want the Long Branch and Wild Wild West Ohio era to continue.
In a page one Columbus Dispatch story on August 24, it was reported that the long-delayed grant award of $71 million in U.S. Department of Education Public Charter Schools Program funds to Ohio might be in further jeopardy because, well, even the federal government, which likes to hand over charter money freely, is put off by the lack of rules in the Wild Wild West, as they are consistently torpedoed at Broad and High in downtown Columbus. The feds, who make such funds available as start-up grants to establish new charter schools in the states which authorize them, may not be willing to release the funds to people in Ohio who believe that “we don’t have to have rules.”
Be careful what you ask for. Maybe we do have to have rules after all. Even in the Long Branch Saloon in the Wild Wild West. Trial lawyers should understand that.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.