Ohio Justices Tilt to Charter Schools

Published December 1, 2006

Ohio’s network of publicly funded, privately operated charter schools is constitutional, a sharply split Ohio Supreme Court ruled on October 25.

The 4-3 ruling was a big win for charter school operators and removes the uncertainty that dogged the state’s 305 charter schools and the 72,000 students who attend them.

“This decision lifts a cloud that was hanging over the program,” said Chad Readler, the lawyer who defended against the suit on behalf of about 100 charter school operators. “This decision allows all schools to return their focus to education, not litigation.”

Official Oversight

But the justices left the door open for a challenge to the way the $475 million program is operated–especially the practice of allowing for-profit firms to run every aspect of the school, from hiring teachers to choosing a curriculum. Those issues would have to be decided where the case was originally filed, in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

“The fundamental problem is the lack of oversight by public officials,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which was part of the coalition that filed the lawsuit in 2001. “Taxpayers have lost control of their education tax dollars.”

At the heart of the majority opinion was the belief that the legislature can create and fund alternative schools such as charter schools–called community schools in Ohio–without violating the state’s charge to operate a common education system for all children.

“In enacting community school legislation, the General Assembly added to the traditional school system by providing for statewide schools that have more flexibility in their operation,” Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote for the majority.

‘Fragmented System’

In her dissent, Justice Alice Robie Resnick sharply disagreed with that view, essentially concluding that her colleagues were misreading history. The framers of Ohio’s Constitution, she said, specifically rejected the idea of a fragmented public school system.

They “rejected the proliferation of diverse schools in favor of a single system,” Resnick wrote. “They also rejected the idea of competition among school districts and a variety of sectarian schools, viewing competition as inefficient, divisive, and ineffective.”

The court took an unusually long time–11 months–to issue the ruling. With the November 7 election approaching, most observers believed the court would further delay a ruling until voters choose a new governor and State Board of Education.

Federal Case

With the ruling, attention shifted to a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the charter school system. That suit was filed in Dayton in June by the Ohio Education Association.

Gary Allen, the union’s president, said he did not expect the ruling to affect his group’s lawsuit.

Readler disagreed. “I think this case will play a very informative role in settling the federal case,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the October 26, 2006 edition of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. © 2006 The Plain Dealer. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

For more information …

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in State ex rel. Ohio Congress of Parents & Teachers v. State Bd. of Edn., October 25, 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20149.