Thursday, October 26, 2006

Coalition Disappointed by Supreme Court Ruling on Ohio’s Charter School Program

The Coalition for Public Education is obviously disappointed in the state Supreme Court’s 4-3 ruling today on the constitutionality of Ohio’s charter school program. The case was filed in 2001 by the Ohio PTA, and other Coalition organizations, against the state Board of Education.

While we are disappointed with the ruling, we acknowledge that the court did not give a cloak of legitimacy to failed academic performance by Ohio’s charter schools, or the lack of accountability for their use of public funds. The ruling does not exonerate, for example, the founder of the W.E.B. Dubois charter school in Cincinnati who was indicted Monday on charges that he stole money from the school and inflated student enrollment in order to receive undue taxpayer funding.

The majority opinion overlooked the historic meaning of the terms “common schools.” As Justice Alice Robie Resnick indicated in her dissent, the phrase does not mean whatever the legislature wants it to mean, but a uniform statewide system subject to common statewide standards.

Ohio’s version of charter schools allows private groups to authorize other private entities, including for-profit companies, to operate schools using our tax dollars without any meaningful oversight by elected or other public officials. The majority opinion in the 4-3 ruling recapitulates the theory that was presented to the Ohio General Assembly and the public when the program was established, but doesn’t take note of facts on the ground about how the program operates.

The majority may have misunderstood our claims. Plaintiffs have never argued that the concept of charter schools is inherently unconstitutional. Other states operate charter programs that include oversight by elected school boards or other public officials. Rather, we have argued that the design of Ohio’s charter school program violates our state’s Constitution because they are not overseen by elected boards, local property taxes are diverted without a popular vote, and the ability of public school districts to offer a quality education has been harmed.

In our view, Justice Resnick got it right in her dissent when she wrote that “…R.C. Chapter 3314 (the statute authorizing charter schools) recreates much of the mischief that the (common schools) clause was intended to avoid.”

“Moreover, in choosing to mandate the creation of a system of common schools, the constitutional framers rejected the idea of simply subsidizing the existing diverse, parent-initiated and tuition-based schooling arrangements in favor of creating state organization and oversight…They also rejected the idea of competition among school districts and a variety of sectarian schools, viewing competition as inefficient, divisive, and ineffective.”

Justice Resnick’s dissent suggests that the current charter school program takes us back to an inconsistent and divisive system of education, and the Coalition agrees.

We also believe, contrary to the majority decision, that local property taxes are diverted to charter schools in many districts, particularly for things like special education. Clearly, charter schools receive far more per pupil funding than many school districts receive in state aid. Although the state may be writing the checks to charter schools, we believe it is clear that they dip into local property taxes that citizens voted to send to their public school district, governed by elected officials.

We also continue to believe that the negative impact on many public school districts is evident and that, while the composition of the court has changed since the initial DeRolph ruling that found Ohio’s education funding system unconstitutional, this ruling moves the state further away from compliance with that ruling.

There are several issues that remain alive in the case including whether many privately owned schools managed by private for-profit companies are really non-profit entities as required by state law. We contend that management companies like White Hat so dominate and control the schools they manage that the state is in fact funding private corporations. This and other issues remain before the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.

The Coalition for Public Education will have more to say about the future of the litigation after reviewing this decision with legal counsel.

Despite this ruling, there appears to be a growing consensus that Ohio’s charter school program has fundamental flaws, has failed to educate or even assess the learning of many students, lacks financial accountability, undermines traditional public schools and misuses scarce education tax dollars. The court’s decision places even greater emphasis on the need for a governor, legislature and other elected officials to address these problems through new legislation and much better enforcement. The Coalition will continue to strive for policies that improve the quality of public education in Ohio.

The Coalition for Public Education is a statewide alliance of education, parent and civic organizations interested in improving public education for Ohio’s children and increasing accountability to taxpayers.

Member organizations include: Ohio PTA, League of Women Voters of Ohio, Ohio Association of School Business Officials, Ohio School Boards Association, Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, Ohio Association of Public School Employees, Cleveland Teachers Union, Akron Education Association, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, Columbus Education Association, Ohio AFL-CIO, Ohio Federation of Teachers, Toledo Federation of Teachers, Ohio Education Association, Ohio Retired Teachers Association.

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