AG's office may be too busy to carry the OEA's water
May 20, 2008
We take no joy in the Marc Dann scandal, but the Attorney General's resignation does raise the possibility of a more level-headed approach to the charter-school debate in Ohio. In 2007, Dann launched lawsuits aiming to close four charter schools (see here). He cited the state's charitable trust laws and alleged that the schools had violated their "charitable" missions as 501(c)3 organizations because they were underperforming academically and, as such, were misusing state funds. This last claim is painfully ironic in light of this week's Columbus Dispatch headline that noted "Scandal may rain lawsuits on state." The Dispatch wrote that the Dann scandals open the state up to sexual harassment lawsuits that could cost Ohio over $1 million.
The charter lawsuits, as it turned out, were the idea of the Ohio Education Association (OEA), which crafted the legal theory on which the suits are based. It's possible Dann's interim replacement and his eventual successor will have a different philosophy toward these lawsuits and seek to have them tossed out.
As Gadfly readers likely recall, the OEA's novel theory of trust law would effectively turn the state attorney general into a charter-school prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. Under the theory, the AG would determine whether a school is successful or not, thereby usurping the regulatory authority of the General Assembly, the Ohio Department of Education, and individual charter school sponsors. If the attorney general gets this authority, observers wonder what would prevent an AG from determining that nonprofit colleges and universities aren't up to snuff and should be closed? Or any other nonprofit unloved by political supporters of the attorney general, whoever that might be? And why not then in other states, too?
It's far too early to tell how Dann's resignation will affect these cases. But one can hope that the days of a crusading attorney general carrying the water of special interests is past. Ohio's troubled charter schools need to be held accountable (as do traditional district schools), and the truly troubled should indeed close. Current state law is starting to get at this. Any more work on this front should be done through General Assembly debate. Let's hope that the charter-school debate, sans AG Dann, can be conducted with more bipartisanship and less power politics, and actually in the interest of what works for children.