Democracy on Display in Columbus

Speaker of the House Jon Husted (R-Dayton) and Senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) recently squared off in Columbus, engaging in a 90-minute debate on school choice in Ohio. The debate was hosted by the Columbus Rotary Club.

While Speaker Husted defended charter schools and Ohio's new voucher program as integral to the state's school reform efforts, Senator Fedor argued they have undermined public education in Ohio. And though no one left bruised or bloody, the debate was informative and entertaining political theater.

Speaker Husted led with a four-pronged argument:

First, wealthy and middle class families in the Buckeye State have always had school choice. Less fortunate families should, too.

Second, school choice--and in particular charter schools--has played a significant role in reducing the state's high school drop-out rate. Case in point is Montgomery County's hugely successful ISUS charter school, which has helped the county lower its dropout rate from 25.6 percent in 2000 to just over 12 percent in 2005.

Third, charter schools, and now vouchers, provide space for innovation in education, from single gender education and drop-out recovery programs, to schools with extended days and academic calendars. Cyber-schools now serve about 15,000 students in Ohio, and this figure is growing significantly each year.

Fourth, school choice has forced traditional district schools to get better through competition. For example, Dayton Public Schools, long mired in Academic Emergency--the state's lowest rating--will be rated in Continuous Improvement when the state issues report cards next week. While district leaders, teachers and students deserve credit for their hard work, competition from charters no doubt focused their efforts.

Senator Fedor countered with a three-point attack:

One, charter schools are potentially a good thing, but Ohio's charter school program has been poorly implemented. 71 percent of the state's charters were rated in either Academic Watch or Academic Emergency in 2004-05.

Two, charter schools hurt traditional district schools by draining resources from them and their students. In fact, Fedor argues, the state's unconstitutional education funding system short-changes traditional school districts while charters have been financed at an exorbitant cost of $1.5 billion.

Three, charter schools should be returned to the public (in lieu of "corporate" entities that are "making profits on the backs of our children."). All charters should be sponsored and operated by elected school boards.

Who emerged the winner?

Just about everyone (Gadfly still gives Husted the nod). Audience members were unanimous in considering the event important and worthwhile. Both Speaker Husted and Senator Fedor should be commended for performing a tremendous public service--putting democracy on display in Columbus.

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