State Sen. Peggy Lehner made a point worth emphasizing as a legislative conference committee completed work this week on a much-debated bill to repair governance and oversight of charter schools across Ohio. The chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee reminded that “the effort here was to improve the charter school sector. Not to demolish it or diminish it in any way. ... ”
Charter schools are part of the educational landscape. The concept is here to stay, and there are success stories among charter schools. The problem is, taken as a whole they have been poor performers, academically and financially. That has been due largely to the rush to expand, driven by Republicans at the Statehouse, who in their hurry failed to apply necessary accountability and transparency.
Finally, with help from Democrats, they have begun to clean up the mess, though not before the state became the target of national ridicule for the state of its charter schools. On Wednesday, the Ohio House and Senate gave overwhelming approval to legislation that promises, as Sen. Lehner put it, to improve charter schools.
If past is prologue, those eager to see such legislation had ample reason to worry. The House waited three months before taking up the measure that unanimously cleared the Senate in June. At earlier turns, House leaders bowed to the interests of private operators of charter schools, who have a record of giving generously of political money to Republicans. Would those lawmakers prove pliant again and seek to weaken the sound bill advanced by the Senate?
The good news is, the bill got stronger in the conference committee. Notably, the legislation responds to a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling. The bill establishes that the supplies and equipment purchased by a private operator with public money belong to the school.
With this legislation, the state has moved smartly to strengthen its oversight of charter school sponsors. The evaluation of sponsors has been upgraded, narrowing the opportunity for the misdeeds that lately have embarrassed the state Department of Education. “Sponsor hopping” has been barred. No longer will poor performing schools have the option of jumping to a new sponsor to evade accountability.
Governing boards will gain greater independence from sponsors and operators. Those private operators will face enhanced scrutiny of their spending and performance. All of this is about bringing a higher level of quality to charter schools as a whole, currently serving more than 120,000 students. It involves doing a better job ensuring that the $1 billion a year in public money for charter schools is well spent.
What deserves emphasis is that as welcome as the legislation is, the words alone are not enough. Once Gov. John Kasich signs the measure into law, and he deserves credit for his part in pressing for improvement, the task of implementation begins, requiring a vigilance from lawmakers and state officials that hardly has been evident.
If one thing has been learned the past 17 years, it is that private operators, especially, are resourceful in finding loopholes, cracks and other imperfections to exploit. So, yes, applaud state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, for championing student success. Now the state must turn words into reality.