Ohio Teachers Union Sues Over Charter Schools
By Bill Cohen, Special to Stateline
These mold-breaking institutions are the latest attempt to get the nation's public schools back on track. Thirty nine states have charter school laws. More than 2,000 have popped up across the country since 1992. Supporters insist they combine the best aspects of public and private education.
Several education groups, though, have filed a court suit, charging that Ohio's experiment with 63 charter schools has gone awry. The groups include the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio AFL-CIO, the Ohio School Boards Association and the Ohio P.T.A.
"The notion was supposed to be small, autonomous public schools with some unique educational program to offer," says OFT President Tom Mooney. "Instead, the concept has been hijacked by people whose goal is to privatize education."
Like public schools, charter schools receive government money, but they operate with fewer governmental rules and red tape, an effort to spark creativity in the classroom. Instead of adhering to strict rules on what kinds of textbooks must be used and how many hours arithmetic must be taught, charter schools are told - use any method you want, just get the job done.
Ohio's charter school law envisions non-profit groups setting up the new schools, but the OFT court suit charges profiteers are getting into the act, attracted by the lure of tuition money from the government.
"The state has allowed private schools to convert in three cases to charter schools," says Mooney. "The law specifically says you can't do that. Otherwise, every private school could close down tomorrow and re-open as a charter school."
The court suit also claims Ohio's charter school law is unconstitutional because the new schools operate with little oversight by local school boards and taxpayers. Ohio's Constitution sets up only one system of "common schools," and the critics maintain the charter schools operate outside that system.
"Abysmal" is the word critics use to describe the academic achievement of students at the new charter schools. Mooney points to last year's 6th grade proficiency tests. 35% of public school students passed the whole exam, but only 3% of charter students did.
Advocates for the new schools insist that's not an indictment of their schools. They say it's actually an indictment of the public schools the students came from. Jeannie Allen, Director of the national Center for Education Reform, notes that many of Ohio's charter school students recently attended the very worst inner city public schools, and she says the one or two years they've spent at the new charter schools haven't been enough toun-do the damage.
Allen says this challenge against charter schools in Ohio is nothing new because teacher unions and school boards have challenged charter school laws in 12 other states and have lost every time.
"The unions' real concern is they are losing control," says Allen. "They're not about education per se. They're about labor."
Responding to the union's accusation that profiteers have taken over Ohio's charter schools, Allen says if charter schools can be more innovative and children are learning, it's okay for some charter schools to hire for-profit companies to run them. She notes that public schools buy textbooks and pencils from private corporations, and no one complains.
"Everything around our kids comes from a private, for-profit company, so it's not an issue of whether someone is making a profit. The issue should be: regardless of who you are, can you get results?" she says.
Charter schools are so new and often take in such large numbers of students from low-income families, it's not been easy to show results, says Allen. Still, she points to an Arizona study, showing charter school students with test scores higher than public schoolstudents, and a California rating that showed 5 charter schools in the state's "top 10."