Education in Ohio is full of irony, and nothing is more ironic than the connection of charter schools to the state's school funding debate that was triggered by the DeRolph Supreme Court decisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Charter schools were born, in large part, out of the frustration of suburban and rural Republican lawmakers who, in 1997, were being ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court to pump more state money into urban school districts that were badly broken. In 1995, for example, the Cleveland Municipal School District faced $160 million in debt - about one-third of its operating budget. Things were so bad that then-state Auditor Jim Petro declared, "I think by any definition of bankruptcy as we know it with a private business, they've got some serious problems." He said, "They would be deemed bankrupt."

Fast forward to 2009, and Ohioans are still debating school funding and charter schools. The Ohio House's updated version of the governor's school funding plan proposes the creation of four classes of charter schools when it comes to funding. All of these levels of funding are less than what traditional district schools would receive-some charters would be shorted less than others:

  1. District-sponsored brick-and-mortar charter schools. These schools, regardless of their academic rating, receive the base charter funding plus the "Ohio educational challenge factor." This factor is an index ranging from 0.75 to 1.65 that is intended to adjust funding for each school to account for student and community property wealth and socioeconomic factors. Charter schools that are sponsored by the district from which the majority of their students hail will be assigned the educational challenge factor of that sponsor district. This is a significant bump in school revenue - for example, in Dayton the educational challenge factor is 1.448 while in Cleveland it is 1.59. There were 47 charter schools serving 5,800 children in this category in 2007-08 (only 15 were rated Continuous Improvement or higher).
  2. Non-district-sponsored brick-and-mortar charter schools rated Continuous Improvement or higher by the state. These schools get the same funding as district-sponsored brick-and-mortar charters except they are assigned the statewide average educational challenge factor (1.22 in FY2010 and 2011). There were 65 schools serving 15,000 children in this category in 2007-08.
  3. Non-district-sponsored brick-and-mortar charter schools rated Academic Watch or Academic Emergency by the state, or not rated at all. These schools get less funding than either of the two categories above. They are not assigned an educational challenge factor so will operate with the base funding only. A charter school in Dayton in this category could receive about 31 percent less funding than a district-sponsored school, a charter in Cleveland could receive nearly 40 percent less, and a charter in Columbus more than 20 percent less. There were 180 schools serving 37,800 children in this category in 2007-08.
  4. Cybercharter schools, regardless of sponsor. These schools get dramatically reduced funding - at least half of what a poor performing district school would receive. There were 34 virtual schools serving 24,000 children in this category in 2007-08.

Here is the irony. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state funding of public education unconstitutional: "Due to glaring discrepancies in school buildings, facilities, access to technology and curriculum, some students within the state are being deprived of educational opportunity." Yet, in 2009, the governor and House Democrats, in seeking to make the state's system of school funding "constitutional" are in fact proposing the creation of a statutorily sanctioned class of underfunded public schools. Students in these schools are predominately needy and children of color - 65 percent of charter-school students are economically disadvantaged while 57 percent are minority. The irony here would be funny if it weren't for the fact that we are talking about real children, which makes it tragic.

The governor and the House Democrats are right to focus on performance and school quality, but underfunding thousands of children intentionally isn't the way to get there. A better solution is to fund charters at the same level as district schools while increasing academic performance expectations and sanctions on all underperforming charters (the latter notion is included in the House bill). And, as a matter of fairness, on underperforming district schools as well.

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