by Denis Smith

On October 7, the Columbus Dispatch, in collaboration with the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus, published a Voter Information Bulletin for Franklin County residents. As you might expect, the guide is crammed with an abundance of useful information about candidates for federal, state, and local offices.

In one case, however, it seems that what is not found in the guide might prove to be more interesting than what is contained within 12 pages of small type for presidential, congressional, state, and county posts.

The section that lists candidates for State Board of Education in the 6th District is a contest that features six candidates running for a single seat. Two of the candidates did not respond to the questionnaire used to compile the information, while two others are a study in contrasts.

Antoinette Miranda lists her occupation as a professor and her employer as The Ohio State University. With the employer identification and the accompanying answers, Miranda’s agenda and the basis for her candidacy are detailed. Immediately below Professor Miranda’s information, another candidate for the 6th District State Board of Education seat, Jamie O’Leary, lists her occupation as a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst and her experience as a teacher in New Jersey.

Unlike Miranda, the Voter Information Bulletin does not list an employer for O’Leary. That missing detail should be of interest to central Ohio voters.

In fact, O’Leary’s employer is the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Fordham has been described by some as an “education think-tank” while others view it as an ultra-conservative organization whose partners include ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is famous for creating templates that are filled in by state legislators who then submit boiler-plate legislation to advance an agenda that, among other things, is hostile to government in general and public education in particular.

But Fordham is much more than a “think tank.” It also happens to be an Ohio charter school sponsor. A look at Fordham’s website shows 11 charter schools that are under authorization by the organization. Fordham is deeply involved in the school privatization movement and provides research to bolster its mission as a recognized force among organizations that advocate a dismantling of some of our current social structure, including, of course public education.

The website listed on page seven of the guide, http://www.electjamieoleary.com/about, has this brief introduction for Jamie O’Leary:

“Jamie has worked in research, advocacy, and communications related to Ohio education for the last seven years. She currently works as a senior policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she advocates for high-quality education for all students, no matter their background.”

The absence of information in the Voter Information Bulletin regarding O’Leary’s employer raises questions about the nature of her campaign for the State Board of Education. Here are some points to consider.

• If O’Leary holds the same views as her employer with regard to charter school law and regulation, and if she is in fact an advocate for school privatization while running for a seat on the state board of education, that is important for voters to know prior to the election.

• Similarly, if her campaign is funded by ALEC and various Fordham partner organizations, including other state charter organizations, O’Leary should disclose that so state voters will have an informed choice on the nature of her candidacy.

These concerns are raised because the Ohio State Board of Education will be increasingly involved in developing policies that provide needed transparency and accountability to Ohio’s compromised and conflicted charter school industry. The industry is compromised because of its affinity to the Ohio Republican Party and conflicted due to a loose governance structure that allows non-citizens, cronies of the management companies, and others with no emotional connections to schools to otherwise serve on public boards that are charged with providing meaningful governance and oversight.

The Ohio charter school landscape, as described in the above paragraph, is not a pretty picture. As such, the voting public should be particularly sensitive to the fact that a member of the charter school industry is seeking public office while her professional employment connections have not been disclosed in a voter publication hundreds of thousands of people rely on for making informed choices in an election, the basis of our self-governance.

If Fordham employee and candidate O’Leary is successful in gaining a seat on the state board, it will be essential for her to fully disclose, under Ohio’s ethics law , her relationship to the charter school industry and then consider recusing herself from participation in all future charter school discussions of the state board. Such disclosure is crucial, based on the sheer scale of contending issues facing the board, including sponsor performance, past data rigging, diversion of public funds for campaign contributions, systemic governance problems more fully detailed above, the abject failure of online charters, lack of full transparency by for-profit management companies, and of course, inbreeding and conflict-of-interest issues that are innate to the industry.

If anything, this is but a partial list of problems within the charter school industry that might engage the attention of the state board as it deals with the legislature in assuring needed charter industry reform. The fact that what is presented here as a partial list of current charter school issues is indeed scary.

In the meantime, knowing as we do that the charter wars will not only continue but intensify, we should all join Jamie O’Leary and other candidates in reviewing Ohio’s ethics law so that we will all be better informed in ensuring that there is proper disclosure by all who serve on public boards, including charters.

With the charter industry, critics have long decried the lack of transparency and accountability in that culture, a state of affairs that has led to incessant scandals caused in part by conflict-of-interest situations. In that regard, it is troubling that a candidate for a seat on the state board of education, whether through individual choice or editorial constraints, did not have employer information included in voter guide biographical information. Such information might serve to more fully identify anyone employed in an area under increasing scrutiny by policymakers, including the state board of education. The recent imbroglio over the charter school sponsor review process and the shakeout among both sponsors and schools under authorization is a case in point. If a person is currently employed, particularly by a charter school sponsor, that information should be included in voter information so that the public can exercise its judgment in evaluating a candidate.

One last item. Since we have been talking about disclosure, see the bottom note to be informed about who I am, my previous employer, and other background information. I hope that future voter guides will contain such information, including current and past employment, which is deemed necessary to serve the interests of ensuring an informed and alert citizenry.
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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.

 

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