NEWS: Gov. Kasich's Ohio Budget Benefits Vouchers, Charters

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

CLEVELAND, Ohio — While suburban districts like Solon and Rocky River are wailing over proposed cuts in their state funding, supporters of “school choice” are pleased with Gov. John Kasich’s budget — and hopeful that they’ll get even more of what they want down the road.

Kasich plans to use state money to:

• Raise the maximum number of EdChoice vouchers for private-school tuition from the current 14,000 to 60,000 within two years.

• Allow more independently operated charter schools to join the 339 that are authorized now.

His point man for education, Robert Sommers, says the administration has a consistent message: It will promote schools that deliver student success, whether or not they’re the traditional district model.

“When adults compete to educate our children, the children win,” Sommers, who used to run charter schools in Detroit, said earlier this month.

But skeptics like Miesha Headen question whether the state is demanding accountability from those who use public money to provide all the new choices, such as charter schools that work only with dropouts.

“Choice is fully engrained in our big-city districts as well as inner-ring suburbs right now,” said Headen, a Richmond Heights council member and head of the Ohio chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

“It falls on our lawmakers to make sure in this universe of choice that parents are getting the best options available and that we’re appropriately using our dwindling pie of state money.”

Headen and Democratic legislators from the area have been closely watching subcommittee hearings on the budget that finished up last week. She said lobbyists from the choice side have been busy behind the scenes, trying to get legislators to add amendments before a House vote.

One likely amendment is key to how many new charter schools will open in the next couple years.

Kasich’s proposal has been billed as lifting a cap on charters, though in reality, the cap isn’t as snug as you might assume. Current law does restrict who can start a charter school and where it can be located, but as many as 43 are poised to open next school year — even without help from the budget.

Surprisingly, Kasich’s original budget language would make it difficult for new charters to open — probably an unintentional result of his trying to make charter school sponsors more accountable.

In Ohio, a charter school must have a contract with one of 77 approved sponsors (also known as authorizers) who are responsible for overseeing academics and finances. Many are school districts or county educational service centers that sponsor only one or two charter schools, but a few are nonprofit organizations that sponsor dozens.

As introduced, Kasich’s budget pins more responsibility on sponsors by forbidding them from adding schools if any of their current schools are in academic watch or academic emergency, the state’s two lowest rankings.

That disqualifies just about everyone who’s a sponsor now because almost all have at least one low-performing school, said Terry Ryan, who heads the Ohio offices of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Its sister foundation sponsors seven charter schools in Ohio, one of which is in academic emergency.

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