Saturday, November 26, 2005

Article: Charters face supreme test

Sides will debate the constitutionality of schools in front of state’s top court
Saturday, November 26, 2005

In the state’s most significant education lawsuit since the long-running school-funding case, the Ohio Supreme Court is to hear arguments Tuesday in a dispute over the constitutionality of charter schools.

The court’s decision could affect the education of 66,000 students attending the 297 publicly funded, privately operated schools across Ohio.

A coalition of teachers unions, parents and school districts says that charter schools violate Ohio’s constitution by draining money from public schools while failing to meet academic standards.

Supporters say charter schools give a tuition-free option to students struggling in traditional public schools and provide competition that encourages districts to improve.

"They’ve created this shadow system of privately owned and privately administered schools the public pays for," said Donald J. Mooney, a Cincinnati attorney representing the coalition that filed the lawsuit in 2001.

"This case will decide whether legitimate public schools will have enough money to do their jobs and will say a lot about how far the state can go to privatize public schools."

The Ohio Department of Education projects that charter schools will receive $444 million in aid from the state this year.

The General Assembly in 1997 passed a law allowing the creation of charter schools. Supporters say the schools are merely another alternative in Ohio’s public-school system, much like magnet or alternative schools.

"These public schools don’t charge tuition, they are open to everybody and they aren’t religious schools, just like other public schools," said Deputy State Solicitor Stephen P. Carney, who is representing the Ohio Department of Education and other defendants. "The only thing that’s different is that they are run by a board that is not elected by voters.

"The issue in the case is whether the Ohio Constitution allows our legislature to give parents a choice within the public-school system."

A Franklin County Common Pleas judge threw out the constitutional issues raised by the coalition. The Franklin County Court of Appeals later ruled that the trial court failed to consider several issues.

The constitution, Mooney said, "requires a single ‘thorough and efficient system of common schools.’

"Such a system requires that strict academic guidelines must be developed and rigorously followed throughout all of Ohio’s public school districts."

Yet, three-quarters of the charter schools rated by the state were found to be academically deficient, Mooney said.

Carney said charter schools are held every bit as accountable.

"These schools face the strongest form of accountability there is: They have to keep a parent and student happy" enough to keep the student in school or they’ll lose the state aid, he said.

Charter schools also are subject to state audits and Ohio’s public-records law.

Supporters say opponents have raised valid concerns, many of which have led state lawmakers and education officials to change charter-school regulations. For example, poorperforming schools that fail to show improvement on student testing will be shut down. In 2002, the legislature imposed academic-testing requirements on charter schools that more closely mirror those of traditional public schools.

The source of charter-school funding is another disputed issue.

Mooney said that diverting scarce resources from "legitimate" public schools has exacerbated Ohio’s school-funding problems — the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled the system unconstitutional four times but lawmakers have yet to fix it — and makes it harder for public schools to do their job.

Critics say that charter schools get a portion of local property-tax revenue in addition to money the state provides. This means that voters who approved the tax have no say on how it is spent because local school boards don’t run charter schools.

Carney said the assertion is untrue. "Every single dollar that goes to a community school comes from the state general revenue fund."

Last week, a Democratic state senator from Toledo called on Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and other justices of the Ohio Supreme Court who have received campaign contributions from one of the state’s largest charter-school operators to back out of the case.

Sen. Teresa Fedor said David Brennan, of Akron, and his family have contributed $130,000 since 1992 to Supreme Court campaigns, including $11,500 to Moyer.

"A responsible jurist would recuse him or herself from a case where questions could be raised about his or her alliances," Fedor said.

Court spokesman Chris Davey said Moyer is not stepping down and, as far as he knows, none of the other justices plan to, either.

"The court hears oral arguments in about 100 cases a year and it’s not unusual for a party to a case or counsel to a party in a case to have donated to one or more of the justices," he said, adding that, "A campaign contribution is not a basis for recusing themselves from a case."

Dispatch reporter James Nash contributed to this story.

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