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How Ohio School Choice Moved from Vouchers to Charters

Students at E Prep and Village Prep Academy in Cleveland.

The state legislature this spring has been updating rules for how charter schools operate in Ohio.It’s the latest in the evolution of charters here.The legislature has been tweaking the rules and regulations on charters every year or two since they began here in 1997.The first proposal for charter schools goes back 40 years when a University of Massachusetts professor suggested it. 

The state legislature this spring has been updating rules for how charter schools operate in Ohio.  It’s the latest in the evolution of charters here.  Mark Urycki of State Impact Ohio begins our series on charter schools with this look at how they gained a foothold in the Buckeye State.The first proposal for charter schools goes back 40 years when a University of Massachusetts professor suggested it.  Then in 1988 the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, argued: let a small group of teachers innovate.“We’ve got a way of doing something very different.  We’ve got a way of reaching kids that are not being reached by what the school is doing.  That group of teachers could set up a school within that school which ultimately, if the procedure works and if it’s accepted, would be a totally autonomous school within that district.”This liberal idea of experimental schools slowly became popular among conservatives.  Vice President Dan Quayle brought up “school choice” in the 1992 campaign. That same year Ohio Governor George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor,  created a Commission of Educational Choice and put businessman David Brennan in charge.  They created a pilot voucher program just for Cleveland, whose schools were famously bad.  Brennan told a Chicago audience in 2006 that school choice should be a right.“We believed deeply in individual rights but we said to parents ‘you can’t decide where your child goes to school.’   Isn’t that crazy?  It’s a free country- like heck it is-  not if you’re poor! ”By 1997, members of the Ohio legislature got on board and established a trial program of charter schools in Lucas County.  They were partly motivated by court mandates to put more money into education and figured charters would be cheaper.   The former policy chief at an education think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,  Terry Ryan.“What some of the Republicans were saying is ‘If we’re going to be forced to invest more money into public education, we don’t want to invest it just in doing more of the same because they pointed out: ‘Look at what’s happening in Cleveland, look at what’s happening in Dayton.’  A lot of kids weren’t learning in those communities and those schools were struggling to deliver for families.”Republicans pushed to expand charters to the state’s 8 large urban districts. Teacher unions feared that was an attack on them. It began a partisan divide over choice.   Longtime statehouse reporter Tom Suddes.“A skeptic would say school choice was designed in some respects to shake up education bureaucracy.  And you could make the case it was designed to perhaps offer some alternatives to unionized public schools to parents who wanted to have more choices to send their kids to school.”Democrats largely opposed charters but minority families in Ohio cities were eager for any help.   State Senator Tom Sawyer, a Democrat on the education committee and a former teacher, says low income kids became a new business opportunity.“The pursuit of disadvantaged students may have come from a profit motive in that the hunger for improved education may have been greatest among those who felt most underserved.   And the opportunity to realize a market there was strongest.”David Brennan’s for-profit company White Hat Management became a major player by selling management services.  Terry Ryan says Ohio’s laws on charters were so wide open that non-educators jumped in.“They were a young, up and coming entrepreneur who had big ideas about education or a couple of community people or church people who had ideas about education or big business like David Brennan who had business ideas about education but it was driven by more of a business perspective than an education perspective .”Democratic Governor Ted Strickland tried to clamp down on charters when he was in office with a mechanism to close very low performing schools.  But some that were closed simply reopened under new names.Now the Senate Education Committee is proposing new restrictions, at least on charter sponsors, but Tom Suddes says the schools are here to stay.“I think school choice is going to be there in some form for everybody because people have been acclimated, including Republicans and Democrats alike, to the idea that citizens should have all kinds of choices about all kinds of things including very personal matters.   And it’s not going to be going back to a single one size fits all school system.  That’s just not going to happen, I think.”Earlier this year Governor John Kasich, a fan of school choice, said that he is looking for a way to guarantee that charter schools operate freely in Ohio after he’s left office. Next week we look at how the state funds charter schools.