It’s time for a new installment in the tale of the Ohio Legislature’s efforts to block even the most minimal oversight of its out-of-control charter school sector. You may remember that Ohio is a super-majority, one-party-dominated state. Its governor, legislature and supreme court are all dominated by Republicans, and in the legislature those majorities are huge.
The problems for public schools are compounded by the fact that Andrew Brenner, now chair of the House Education Committee, has declared that public schools are examples of socialism and should be privatized. Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, has been more amenable to listening to the leaders of Ohio’s public schools, though we’ll see that she is carefully watched by those in control of the Ohio Senate. The governor, John Kasich, supported minimal regulation of charter schools after Ohio became a national laughing stock and after he was hounded by the press and especially the editorial boards of every one of the state’s major newspapers. But once weak regulations were passed, Kasich began running for President. It is being suggested these days that he has not been minding the store.
Here is where we left this story in early March. Ohio has been asking the notorious online charter schools to document that the students—for which the state is reimbursing charter schools $6,000 per pupil—are actually sitting at their computers using the online curricula to do their lessons. The most notorious of the online charters, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), has protested, trying to put off the requirement that it document that students are “attending school”—not merely signing up and then disappearing. ECOT has also asked to have that regulation softened so that the school would not have to document that students are actually attending school. Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch report that ECOT, with 18,000 students was to have been reviewed in February, but the school rescheduled the review for March. At the same time, “School officials from ECOT reportedly crafted a softened attendance-tracking amendment—floated recently in the Ohio House—which would require online schools only to offer the statewide minimum 920 hours of instruction per school year but not require students to actually participate in these hours.”
Then, on March 22, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown introduced a bill to try to stop the watering down of charter school oversight. In a press release he declared: “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.” If passed, Schiavoni’s bill would require e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It would require the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days. It would require that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation.
It is hard to imagine that such requirements would seem overly punitive, unless one understands how money works in the Ohio legislature. William Lager who founded ECOT and who privately owns the two lucrative companies that create its curriculum and manage its operation, is among the largest donors of political contributions in Ohio. Candisky and Siegel explain: “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”
Yesterday morning, Brent Larkin, the retired editorial page director of the Plain Dealer, did his best to warn the public and put a stop to the destruction by the Ohio Legislature of even barely minimal oversight of charter schools: “Call Crime Stoppers. Better yet, alert the FBI. May is the month state legislators want to rob you blind. It’s the month they want to make sure your hard-earned money keeps being funneled to operators of perhaps the worst online charter schools in the United States. We’re talking serious money—like $275 million—transferred from your pocket to theirs. Every single year. May is the target month for fleecing taxpayers, because legislators want to get this dirty business done before they adjourn for the summer….”
Larkin explains what is happening in the Ohio Senate to kill Senator Schiavoni’s bill to make online charter operators report their attendance more accurately: “(W)hen State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown-area Democrat, designed a bill to create stronger attendance reporting requirements, Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said she’d gladly hold hearings. All Lehner promised was fairness…. What gets Lehner, a Dayton-area Republican, in trouble with her party’s leaders is that she actually cares more about children than about who funds her campaigns. So instead of allowing Lehner’s education committee to hold hearings on a Democrat-sponsored bill related to education, (Ohio Senate President Keith) Faber assigned it to the Senate Finance Committee. Where it will probably die….”
A recent Columbus Dispatch editorial describes Senator Schiavoni’s response to the diversion of his education bill to be heard in the finance, not the education, committee: “This is the second time in six months, Schiavoni said, that one of his bills has been placed in the Finance Committee after Lehner agreed to hold hearings; the earlier bill, to help Youngstown’s troubled school district, has yet to have a hearing.”
The Plain Dealer‘s Brent Larkin castigates Faber’s leadership of the Ohio Senate: “A key element of their May agenda is to dismantle many of the charter-school reforms they grudgingly approved late last year—reforms passed only because pressure from good-government groups, newspapers and other media outlets throughout the state left them little choice… Under pressure from contributors, Republican legislators now want to delay implementation of attendance requirements, (and) determine funding based on who enrolls in a charter school and not who attends classes….”