The saga of - and the lessons from - VLT Academy

This is a tricky story, but stay with me.

A 10-year-old charter school in the Cincinnati area ended up in court against the Ohio Department of Education back in July in an effort to find a sponsor (after being dropped) and to reopen as usual for the 2014-15 school year. The tussling ended in a court-ordered limbo, but the legal questions remained an active concern.

A July 29 piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer summarized the story to that point and quoted Fordham’s Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives Kathryn Mullen Upton laying out the legal issues under consideration: "(1) The accountability system and an authorizer's judgment about the quality of a school are meaningless; (2) if you're a school that is non-renewed by any authorizer, not just ODE, you can simply go to court and up your chances of finding a new sponsor; and (3) despite recent actions to try to improve school and authorizer quality, ODE in reality has scant enforcement ability/authority… In a nutshell, it's a huge step backward for Ohio."

The limbo dragged on with no resolution but on August 12 the school announced it would not reopen due to financial distress. This is probably the end of the VLT saga.

Two lawmakers seem to think the foregoing is a desperate cry for reform of charter school law in Ohio. Honestly, it seems that – absent the court-induced time drag – the process has actually worked just like it should. The good folks at Bellwether agree. Sponsor drops school, no other sponsor is forthcoming, school closes. There are issues with charter law in Ohio, no question, but this isn’t one of them.

While lawmakers try to make hay out of this situation, the first day of school in Cincinnati is August 25, leaving the parents of approximately 600 students about 10 days to find schools for their children. Options abound within the Cincinnati district, via the EdChoice Scholarship program (whose deadline was recently extended to September 5 for eligible families), via open-enrollment to neighboring districts, and via other established and high-quality charter schools. But who is first to ride to the rescue of the families? A new charter school with a narrow media focus whose own sponsor contract is in question.

How about instead of pontificating, the state finds the wherewithal to help those families first, then talk about proper charter law reform – from the ground up, with an eye on fostering quality and access, and with the best interests of parents and students foremost in their minds.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,