Charter school panel agrees on need for reform

This school year will be a busy one for Ohio charter school reform, as Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner expects an existing charter oversight bill to pass and a second proposal dealing with charter funding to be debated.

Lehner, R-Kettering, said she has already drafted a new bill that would have the state directly fund charter schools, rather than using traditional public schools as middlemen.

But she said she wants to put together a study group before introducing the bill, after hearing concerns from some traditional district schools about unintended consequences.

“I think what we need to do before we rush into this is really take the time to listen to districts across the state and experts in school financing, who can help us figure out if this actually is a better way, or in the end, is it going to cost districts more money?” Lehner said at a League of Women Voters panel discussion in Dayton last week.

Lehner took that same approachcreating a broad group of experts to hash out detailsto build an amended charter school reform bill that was unanimously passed by the state Senate in June.

League of Women Voters panel members — a mix of Democrats and Republicans, as well as charter school and district school backers — all agreed that the bill was a needed step to improve charter oversight and accountability. The House delayed voting on it in June, but Lehner said she’s confident the bill will become law this fall.

Among other things, the bill would increase transparency and power of charter school boards, ban nepotism in charter operations, require that sponsor fees be used on school oversight, and forbid certain conflicts of interest in contracting.

Those changes would address some of the concerns that traditional district school supporters have raised.

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice Now cited difficulties connecting with charter school boards that are appointed rather than elected. The reform bill would require all charters to post contact information for board members.

Dayton teachers union president David Romick and state school board member A.J. Wagner called for charter schools to have the same accountability provisions as traditional public schools.

The reform bill would take steps in that direction, but some charter advocates said the bill is right in stopping short of making the two systems the same. Dayton Early College Academy Superintendent Judy Hennessey said having fewer layers of management without union contracts allows her school to act more quickly and fluidly in some cases.

“I think (the bill) tried not to impinge on charter schools’ autonomy and their ability to be flexible and nimble — some of those very benefits that we think are inherent in the charter school model,” said Aaron Churchill, Ohio Research Director for the Fordham Institute, which oversees 11 charter schools in Ohio, including DECA.

New funding proposal

Lehner said people from both the charter and district school sectors have advocated for the state to directly fund charter schools, but she warned that the issue is complex.

State foundation funding currently is $5,900 per pupil, but school districts actually get less than that from the state — a smaller fraction in richer districts and a larger fraction in poorer districts. The balance is made up via local property taxes and other sources.

But when a student who lives within district boundaries goes to a charter school, the full $5,900 is deducted from the district’s funding — a process many district school supporters say is unfair. Charter backers say the full $5,900 should follow the student, since charters have not been allowed to raise money via levies, as public districts can.

Romick said the problem goes beyond that. He pointed to a case 10 years ago in which the state withheld $5 million in funding from Dayton Public Schools based on charter schools’ reported enrollment, leading to layoffs at DPS. But Romick said the enrollment figures turned out to be faulty, meaning the charters should have gotten less money from DPS.

That issue has not gone away in 10 years. In June, state auditor Dave Yost reported that the recently closed Chappie James charter school near the Dayton/Jefferson Twp. border billed the state, and therefore district schools, for $1.2 million worth of students who did not attend the charter.

The issue is not just one for urban schools. Kettering City Schools reported this summer that more than 200 students within its boundaries are attending charter schools, at a cost to Kettering of $1.47 million.

Lehner said that directly funding charter schools would cost the state a lot more if the charters still get $5,900 per student while the district schools keep their existing per-pupil amount without a charter deduction.

“I don’t know how many people have looked at it with a microscope to realize just what we’re getting into,” she said. “I think it is a discussion that we will open up, and I have put it on the list of things I’ve told my caucus that I want to work on. I don’t know where that will lead in the end.”

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