Ohio lawmakers OK bill overhauling charter school oversight

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – After years of emotional public debate, Ohio lawmakers passed an overhaul of the embattled charter-school system with new performance, accountability and reporting requirements, which supporters say should assure federal officials that millions of dollars in charter funding headed to the state will be wisely spent.

The sweeping reform legislation received overwhelming support in the state House on Wednesday and unanimously cleared the Senate. Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign it.

Lawmakers have come under increasing pressure to take action as reports of attendance irregularities, fiscal mismanagement and staff improprieties at some charter schools have piled up in recent years. The schools are intended as an alternative to traditional public schools, particularly those in academic distress.

But recent studies found that students at Ohio charter schools were lagging behind their public school counterparts, even as charter schools in other parts of the country have thrived.

The bill is intended to make it easier for high performing charters to expand while labeling the worst charter schools “poor,” and it will forbid “sponsor-hopping” by under-performing charter operators, among other changes.

It also requires more frequent, thorough and accessible public reporting on charter schools’ performance and requires charter governing boards to be trained in public-records and open-meetings laws.

The measure also clarifies that equipment purchased with taxpayer money belongs to the charter schools, not to the organizations that operate them.

Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Warren), who voted in favor of the reform bill, said the reforms should strengthen oversight of the industry, which has been repeatedly plagued by fraud, scandal and failing report cards.

“Treating teachers in charter schools differently than their public school counterparts will surely have unintended consequences. The reforms to charter school accountability and transparency are undoubtedly a positive for students across Ohio, but I hope the legislature addresses this outstanding issue immediately,” he said in an issued statement to WKBN.

Adding to the charter sector’s other woes, Ohio’s charter schools director was forced to resign this summer after revelations that he omitted failing grades from certain state evaluations that might have been used to determine public aid. Former School Choice Director David Hansen, the husband of Kasich’s chief of staff-turned-presidential campaign manager, said he didn’t want to “mask” successes elsewhere.

Tens of thousands of pages of documents related to the Hansen flap have been turned over to the state auditor and inspector general. Some members of the state school board have also pushed for an independent review.

Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said the governor is pleased that lawmakers are giving the state new enforcement tools to hold charter schools accountable and to crack down on bad actors.

“Strengthening our K-12 education system means putting our children first, and this legislation goes a long way towards ensuring that students in all schools have a chance to achieve their full potential,” he said.

In a statement, the Ohio Department of Education said it was glad to have strengthened enforcement powers but that Superintendent Dick Ross “has been tough on charters over the past several years.”

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, a sponsor of key elements of the reform bill, said she expects action by the General Assembly to influence meetings set for next week on a federal grant of $71 million over the next five years that Ohio has received from the U.S. Department of Education’s charter office. The sum represented the largest single share of the national pot.

Michele Lepore-Hagan (D-Youngstown), who voted in favor of the reforms, said the legislation is “the best hope for meaningful charter reform in a state moving toward the privatization of our public education system.”

“With the passage of HB 2, charter schools across the state will finally be held accountable to parents, students, and taxpayers,” she said via a news release.

Politicians of both parties had questioned Ohio’s ability to responsibly oversee implementation of the grant in the current climate. The federal Education Department said it has placed conditions on the money as a result of happenings in the state and Lehner said how those conditions will be the subject of next week’s discussions.

“The test of how well those dollars are used may be the first challenge this legislation faces in its actual real-world application,” said Sen. Frank Sawyer, a co-sponsor of Senate portions of the bill.

House Bill 2: http://1usa.gov/1LgsFth

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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