Charters fight against constant guerilla warfare to survive

Charter-school supporters are calling a Toledo effort to require every new school to have a cafeteria, gym, and other facilities the latest skirmish in an on-going guerrilla war against charters.

Faced with strong opposition to the measure, the city plan commission tabled the proposal until Dec. 4 (see here). It would not only require a cafeteria and gym but also a media lab, library, and outdoor play area in every new school or any school that is expanded by 10 percent.

Unlike public district schools, charters don't receive any state building money from the Ohio School Facilities Commission (which has provided over $5 billion to local districts for new school construction since 2002), said Jennifer Dillion, who is the sponsor representative for the Madison Avenue School of Arts in Toledo. She called the proposal unfair.

A finance officer for another charter school said adding a cafeteria could easily cost $130,000 using an estimated construction cost of $100 per square foot. A 50-foot-by-50-foot gym could run $250,000.

"Toledo has been very resistant every time a charter school comes in and (they) keep finding more and more reasons to prevent us coming in," said Ron Adler, president of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, a Dayton-based pro-charter group. He said the proposal, if adopted, would amount to a de facto moratorium on new charters in Toledo.

Adler said the proposal doesn't take into account that some charter-schools, such as drop-out recovery schools, aren't required to provide lunch or physical education. The idea as originally proposed to the city was to also require field and track facilities and well as appropriate parking. Academics are the reason charter schools exist. "A lot of our schools don't offer sports," he said.

The facilities requirement would severely hurt plans to expand the rapidly growing Autism Model School in Toledo, said school director Mary Walters. A cafeteria or gymnasium also would be inappropriate for children with autism.

"They have a lot of sensory issues. The noise of a lunch room can over-sensitize them and can cause a lot of severe behaviors among students," said Walters, who testified before the Toledo Plan Commission.

Members of the plan commission and Toledo City Council concerned about charter schools operating in former commercial buildings have pushed the proposal, commission Chairman Rey Boezi told the Toledo Blade (see here). The idea may be the brainchild of State Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, a former teacher who enjoys strong support from the Toledo teachers union. The Gadfly was unable to reach Fedor, who spoke in favor of the proposal before the plan commission. A spokesperson for Fedor confirmed that Fedor broached the issue with the city and said she likely would introduce the idea in the Ohio General Assembly. Prospects for a bill would seem dim since Republicans are likely to retain a Senate majority, even if Democrats take control of the House.

Still Adler is afraid the idea will spread. "I can see this popping up in every city-Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati. It's a moratorium, city by city."

Adler said the Toledo fight is part of a larger battle. In Ohio, charter opponents have been unable to close charter schools by having them declared unconstitutional so they have set upon a campaign of harassment. The lawsuits filed by the state attorney general against several charter schools in Dayton and Cincinnati are examples (see editorial above), he said. Gov. Ted Strickland also has been a constant critic, most recently this week in Toledo where he, again, threatened part of the program (see here).

Other sniping efforts attempt to keep charters from buying empty school buildings by setting ridiculously high prices on the real estate. Akron voters will decide Nov. 4 on an initiative to lease its sewer system to a private contractor and use the proceeds to fund college and technical-school scholarships-but only for the city's district and parochial-school students (see here). Graduates of the district-sponsored charter high school would be eligible but not graduates of the drop-out recovery high school charter program (see here).

The idea, dubbed by wits as "stools for schools," is to arrest the brain drain in which the city's educated young people are fleeing the city for better opportunities. Mayor Don Plusquellic has estimated Akron, eventually, could realize $200 million from the lease (see here).The scholarships would be for students attending the University of Akron or an Akron trade or technical school, with the requirement that they would remain in town to work (see here).

Charters are Ohio public schools, however, and excluding non-school-district-sponsored charters from publicly funded scholarships may be illegal, said the executive director of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS). "This somewhat mystifies me. There really is no such thing as a private charter school," Bill Sims told The Gadfly in September after the Akron idea was revealed. "There are district-run charter schools and there are charter schools that are run by non-profit boards. To discriminate among public schools, I would suggest, is unconstitutional."

Maybe, although the state has been able to get away with allowing local tax dollars and state building money to be withheld from charters. But at the very least, what's happening in Ohio is out of step with the current swing in Democratic politics. Joe Williams, who heads up Democrats for Educational Reform, told attendees at the OAPCS annual meeting in Columbus last week that the union lock on the Democratic Party is weakening. The party has a strong pro-charter plank and presidential nominee Barack Obama is for charters. Teachers unions are increasingly out of touch with younger members, he said. Finally, the unions that represent low-wage workers support charters, Williams said, because their members know that poor public district schools are not helping their children.

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