Charter schools: Ohio’s embarrassment


As Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger touted on the editorial page of this newspaper last Saturday, the Ohio House and Senate have approved a charter school reform bill, which the governor was expected to sign.

Good for them. But what on earth took them so long?

Since 1998, Ohio has funneled billions of dollars of taxpayer money, intended for public education, into corrupt and failed charter schools, making our state the butt of national ridicule, even among fans of charter schools. Yet our governor, legislature, and state education officials have shown little will to acknowledge, let alone rectify, the financial malfeasance and abysmal academic results of the charters, up until now.

I believe to my bones that Ohio’s recent charter school reform bill never would have seen the light of day were it not for the dogged perseverance of public school superintendents, boards of education, teachers, parents, riled up taxpayers, the state’s major newspapers, and organizations like the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, led by William Phillis, who sums it up like this, “The charter school industry does not exist to ‘fix’ public schools; its ultimate goal is to privatize public education.” (For more about Ohio E&A, go to

Our national education budget is exceeded only by the U.S. military budget, so while it’s all well and good to celebrate that Ohio (finally) has a bill with the potential to rein in some of the for-profit corporate schools’ worst abuses, don’t think you can take your eyes off them for a minute. With a racket this lucrative, these carnies aren’t about to fold up their taxpayer-funded tents and leave town.

Speaker Rosenberger opened his “Their View” column by saying he believes “in families and parents having a broad range of options when it comes to choosing the right educational setting for their sons and daughters,” and continued, “A major part of that equation is charter schools, which offer alternative learning environments for students and families all over the state.”

Our ears should crackle with static whenever a politician calls public schools “government schools” and couches charter schools as “educational setting options” and “school choice.” According to Denis Smith, a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office, these “emotional trigger words” are carefully scripted and promoted by the charter school industry to denigrate local public schools and define their own corporate schools as not just desirable, but preferable to the education system for which our investment of tax money is actually intended.

To be fair, when it comes to fiduciary and ethical pratfalls, let’s also give Washington the discredit it deserves. We should all be able to relate to Ohio Auditor David Yost’s shock (his word) that the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a $71 million federal grant for Ohio’s charter schools. (Yost didn’t pull his misgivings out of thin air: It was his audit that uncovered some of the multi-million dollar shenanigans of Ohio charter schools.)

“I figured we would be a couple of years away from being able to get back into contention for federal money,” Yost, a Republican, told the Columbus Dispatch. “My concern is that it is well-spent with proper monitoring. We’re going to haul out the microscope on this.” Good thing, because the Washington Post reported that an audit of the U.S. Department of Education, by its own inspector general, found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charters.”

Every July for the past five years, two retired Memphis, Tenn., high school teachers, an Ohio elementary school teacher, and I have spent a long weekend in Southern Kentucky with my sister, who moved back to our hometown after a 36-year teaching career in the Memphis City Schools. Their stories about students and colleagues tend to be funny and touching, but the mood darkens when talk turns to high stakes testing, charter schools, and politicians who align themselves with those forces, in return for campaign contributions and exotic junkets.

Those teachers — three retired and one still deployed — bear witness to the need of our public schools for the support and advocacy of people, institutions, and organizations outside the field, if we are to prevail against the private and political enemies of public education.

For-profit charter schools have been called “a closed circuit of people making a whole lot of money on so-called ‘reform.’”

Breaking that circuit should be of foremost concern to every Ohio taxpayer.

Mary Thomas Watts, a veteran journalist and writer for “The Gary Burbank Show,” lives and writes in Wilmington.

Mary Thomas Watts

Guest Columnist

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