Charters' Day in Court

On November 29th, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in State Ex Rel. Ohio Congress of Parents & Teachers v. State Bd. of Education, a case that may ultimately determine the fate of Ohio's charter school program. Issues of school oversight and funding dominated the session. Regarding oversight, the plaintiffs - who yearn to kill all charters - insisted that Ohio's Constitution requires a single system of common schools administered by elected officials. They contend that charter schools are privately owned, privately managed, and not subject to the same academic and regulatory requirements faced by traditional public schools.

Because charter schools do not have publicly elected boards, plaintiffs say they're unconstitutional. If the court concurs with the plantiffs, Ohio's charter schools would undergo drastic changes, perhaps insisting that they be sponsored only by school districts, funded through alternative methods, or obliged to have elected boards of their own.   

Defendants answered with a one-two punch, first dispelling the myth that charter schools are private and then explaining that the Ohio Constitution doesn't require all public schools - district or charter - to have publicly elected boards. Counsel noted that charter schools are legislatively created, do not discriminate, hire state-certified teachers, do not charge tuition, do not require entrance exams, are non-sectarian, and are governed by the same standards as public schools. They are required to administer the state's proficiency and graduation tests, they receive a state report card, and they are subject to public audit. Additionally, charter schools are accountable to parents who can withdraw their children at any time, and to their sponsors, which hold schools accountable for their results. Just last week, two charter schools in Ohio were closed for failure to perform. (See "Charter school shut down" and "Cincinnati charter school closed".)

Much of the rest of the 70-minute Supreme Court session revolved around funding, a hotly debated issue in Ohio that actually precedes the creation of charter schools. Several justices sought clarification on the flow of dollars when a district school student transfers to a charter school. According to the defense, the bottom line is that, if it is unconstitutional for public funding to follow a student into a charter school, it must also be unconstitutional for money to follow that student into a different school district or (as under the newly enacted voucher program) into a private school. This, counsel argued, cannot be what the state constitution intends. Surely, it does not expect a child to be held hostage by the district where he or she happens to live.   

Advocates on both sides await the court's decision, expected in the spring. Based on the arguments and the number of facts in dispute - especially where funding is concerned - it would be no surprise if some of the claims were returned to lower courts for examination.

There is every reason to expect charter schools will prevail at the end of this litigation. The Dayton Daily News observed in an editorial on December 3rd that plaintiffs are "throwing the kitchen sink at the justices, hoping one of their objections will stick." It is likely that charter opponents don't even expect judicial victory, but see this as a war of attrition designed to wear down, fragment, disrupt, confuse, bankrupt and exhaust charter operators, teachers, parents and supporters alike. (Charter foes already have two other cases pending, one in state court, one in federal court. These lawsuits will be around for years to come--precisely the aim of the forces arrayed against charter schools. 

 "Ohio justices hear charter school arguments," by Jim Provance, Toledo Blade, November 30, 2005

"Justices consider charter schools' constitutionality," by Catherine Candisky, Columbus Dispatch, November 30, 2005

"A false anti-charter argument," Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 5, 2005

"Charter school opponents grasp in court," Dayton Daily News, December 3, 2005

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