Money Talks, Reform Walks: Ohio Fails to Fix Its Nationally Ridiculed Charter School System
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, center, participates in a round table discussion on school choice with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, at Carpe Diem-Aiken, a tuition-free public charter school, Friday, May 16, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
It wasn’t long ago when I wrote here that while there was much hope for reforming Ohio’s nationally ridiculed charter school system, there remained major hurdles – specifically the politically powerful for-profit, poor performing charter school lobby.
Well, it appears that the poor-performing charter school sector has again won the day. A substantive, meaningful reform package that passed unanimously out of the Ohio Senate late last month wasn’t even taken up by the Ohio House in time for the summer recess, even though there were the votes to pass it.
This means the bipartisan, well-thought out Senate package won’t be taken up again (if at all) until the fall, delaying many of the reforms until the 2016-2017 school year at the earliest.
This is a bad setback for the national charter school quality movement. While other states have successfully tightened their laws, Ohio – the “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools – remains the same national embarrassment it’s always been. The hope had been that if Ohio can become a quality-based state, any state could do it.
But instead, Ohio’s story serves as a warning to those who care about quality school choice: If the forces pushing choice over quality are allowed unchallenged political access, as it has been in Ohio, then quality will lose. Always.
Don’t believe me?
Ohio had its largest teachers unions, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Students First, more conservative advocates, more liberal advocates like mine, Innovation Ohio, and editorial pages all agreeing that charter school reform had to happen. Yet it didn’t.
The Real Politick of Ohio charter school reform stems from big campaign contributors William Lager, who runs the nation’s largest for-profit school – the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow – and David Brennan, who runs White Hat Management, which also has an E-School – OHDELA. Between them, they’ve given about $6 million to politicians since the charter school program began. In return, they’ve collected one out of every four state charter school dollars ever spent.
I’ve seen these guys’ legislative influence firsthand when I served two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. No lobby in Ohio is more powerful, especially considering how poorly their schools perform.
The Ohio bill would have done several positive things. It would have had the state (for the first time) keep track of operators and have them account for how they spend money running charter schools. It would have prevented failing charter schools from seeking new authorizers without the authorizer vouching for the school at the state’s Department of Education. It would have prevented charter school board members from sitting on the board if they ran companies that had business dealings with the school. It would have ensured far better transparency.
The bill would fixed much of what is widely acknowledged as a failed charter school system where failing schools thrive and excellent schools languish. More than half the money sent to Ohio charter schools comes from the same or higher performing school districts. And charter schools received more Fs on the last state report card than As, Bs and Cs combined.
CREDO studied Ohio’s system and found that children in charters are significantly behind their local public school peers. Meanwhile, a recent examination of state audits found that no sector misspends money like charter schools.
Despite all this effort, we must work harder to bring needed change to Ohio’s charter school system.
We need to continue forcefully making the public case for reform, as well as talking beyond the current bill. I outlined in my earlier post a way for the state to create a charter school market that financially rewards success and punishes failure, as well as shortening the time failing schools can operate here.
But more than anything, we in the quality-based charter school movement need someone, or a group of someones, willing to invest in political candidates who care about quality school choices.
For in Ohio, the lesson is simple: Without campaign money, even the best, most common sense charter school policies won’t pass. It is a hard lesson in Real Politick. To many of us in education policy, it’s anathema to how we work. For to us, ideas always trump money.
But in Ohio and other places where quality means less to legislatures and governors than choice, we must remove the weeds so our garden and – most importantly – our children can bloom.
And in politics, the best weed killer is money.
I’ll never forget one of my mentor’s favorite sayings: “If they’re getting away with it, it’s your fault.”