Checker Finn and charter lobbyist go head-to-head on proposed changes to Ohio charter law

Today in the Columbus Dispatch is a must-read point-counterpoint set of op-eds about proposed changes to Ohio charter school law, including one by Fordham president and Ohio native Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The debate happening in the Buckeye State over the Ohio House's charter-related changes to the governor's budget, which would dramatically undermine accountability of charter schools as well as the separate groups that authorize and operate them, is an important one ? not just to Ohioans but to choice advocates nationally. As Checker argues, ?if the Ohio's House's version of the biennial budget makes its way into law, the state's mish-mash of a community-school? program will become a full-fledged contender for America's worst.? But with so many state capitols and legislatures run by charter-friendly Republicans, the debacle unfolding in Ohio should serve as a warning to other states, especially those with a smaller charter sector and less familiar with crafting policies and laws to ensure not only growth but smart growth and accountability.

The article by Tom Needles, lobbyist for the for-profit White Hat Management group and other charter groups, is misleading even in its title, ?Yes: Many states have similar laws that promote greater accountability? (this, in response to ?Are charter-school reforms on right track??). Needles goes on to lift only one significant change to Ohio law that would ?promote greater accountability?: allowing the Ohio Department of Education authorize (aka sponsor) charter schools. He's right that ?this governance model currently exists in one form or another in nearly two dozen states? (setting aside for a moment the fact that ODE already had the chance to authorize charter schools, and blew it). Further, ODE doesn't even want the job.

Needles is misleading when he argues ?some individuals and organizations? suggest? are unprecedented, even outlandish, and will result in a complete lapse in accountability.? What's outlandish and radical, and conveniently left out of Needles' piece, is every other egregious provision proposed by the Ohio House ? you know, the ones that garnered headlines over the last two weeks such as ?Charter school amendments in Ohio House would favor for-profit operators,? ?Ohio's botched charter school reforms reintroduced. Will we ever learn?? and ?Wrong direction: Changes proposed for charter-school law would do harm to school choice.?

In his piece, Checker outlines the charter landscape in Ohio and addresses the full set of proposed reforms in the House version, which would: ?invite creation of more schools by charter operators with abysmal track records; encourage ?authorizing' of more schools by sponsors whose existing portfolios are riddled with failing schools; renew the monopoly enjoyed by current ?cyber schools,'? (among other outlandish language that would exempt charter schools from any education laws or rules ?unless those laws also apply to the state's private schools?). Needles argues that those opposing these provisions ?are not without their own special-interest agendas,? which may be true inasmuch as Checker and Fordham have lived through Ohio's Wild West days where charter schools grew unabated, and led Fordham to have a strong interest in preserving quality in the sector and protecting students from abysmal schools. Checker describes it thusly:

Ohio's law has been out of whack for years, partly because of provisions inserted on behalf of special interests, partly because both legislators and the executive branch have failed to grasp which kinds of freedom and accountability benefit kids, and partly because too many school operators and authorizers either haven't known what they're doing or have placed other interests ahead of students.

The result is overregulation where autonomy is needed, slackness where results-based accountability is essential, restrictions on the growth of quality programs and skimpy funding of worthy schools combined with a whopping waste of tax dollars on poor performers. That's why almost no top-notch national charter operator wants to come to Ohio. That's also why so many Buckeye charters post dismal scores on state tests every year.

A thorough overhaul is needed, freeing schools from silly rules while holding everyone's feet to the fire for academic results. But the budget passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday would push the state's charter program from mediocre to awful.

But, this is not a fight between White Hat and Fordham. Fordham's position is the same as that taken by the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools and by the Greater Cleveland Partnership. It is also the position taken by leading editorial boards across the state.

Fordham would agree with Needles that the charter sector in Ohio needs to be more ?innovative, quality-focused and responsive to diverse alternatives,? but the provisions currently on the table would set Ohio back and this is obvious to everyone who isn't invested in the changes advocated by Needles and his sponsor David Brennan.

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