Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch Charter schools use tax dollars to provide public education, thus their spending should be transparent to the public. That’s true whether they’re doing a good job or a lousy one.
This principle has been ignored for the dozen years or so of Ohio’s charter-school history. Weak laws imposed few quality controls or guardrails against financial abuse and conflicts of interest. But the General Assembly at last is on the verge of significant reform of charter-school law, and members who support it should not allow it to be hijacked by the same old self-interested players.
Each of three separate charter-school-reform proposals in the Statehouse calls for sponsors — those who authorize and oversee charter schools — and school-operating companies to disclose at least a modicum of detail about how they spend the tax dollars turned over to them.
Sponsors are entitled to keep up to 3 percent of a charter school’s state grant. Ethically, that money should be spent only on things related to overseeing and helping the sponsor’s schools, but current state law doesn’t restrict its use and doesn’t even require sponsors to report how they spend it. Some have been criticized for using charter-school money for purposes unrelated to their schools.
Proposed legislation would restrict the use of sponsors’ fees and require disclosure. Both requirements are long overdue, but Peggy Young, president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers, argued before lawmakers Wednesday that the reporting requirement shouldn’t apply to higher-rated sponsors.
Young also argued in testimony before a Senate subcommittee that sponsors shouldn’t have to restrict their use of tax dollars to school-related spending, declaring, “It’s not how a sponsor spends its funds, but the outcomes they get.”
But if a school is performing at a high level, it should be happy to show how it is achieving such results. And more fundamentally, any program funded by taxpayers must be open to scrutiny by taxpayers. The concept behind charter schools is to free them from the educational mandates that restrict conventional public schools so that charters can employ innovative approaches to teaching. But this concept does not include shielding charter-school operators from financial accountability.
That’s why charter-reform legislation should require companies paid to operate charter schools to disclose how they spend the tax dollars they’re given. To date, some large companies have been paid millions of tax dollars and made no accounting to the public or, in some cases, even to the charter-school boards that hired them.
Three proposals for reform are in the works: Gov. John Kasich’s budget and separate bills in the House and Senate. The House passed House Bill 2 earlier; it and Senate Bill 148 likely will be merged after discussion in the Senate.
S.B. 148 is the stronger of the two bills, requiring both operators and sponsors to spell out their spending. The Senate bill also would prohibit “sponsor-hopping,” closing a loophole that many badly run schools have used to evade Ohio’s tough school-closure rule.
Lawmakers should end the era of charter-school mediocrity in Ohio by keeping the strongest elements among the three proposals and allowing real school choice to blossom.