Dispatch editorial: Open the shades on charter spending

Editorial from the Columbus Dispatch No function of state government is more important than its constitutional obligation to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” Education is the bedrock of democracy. That is why the Ohio Constitution, since 1851, has obligated the state to provide an education to each of its citizens.

How thoroughly and how efficiently the state fulfills this mandate should concern every Ohioan, every year, every generation.

But Ohioans’ ability to judge the state’s performance is threatened by state lawmakers’ willingness to hide from public view how the charter-school industry spends a sizable portion of taxpayer dollars.

In an era of privatization of much of primary and secondary education, taxpayers should insist that state lawmakers provide complete transparency of the expenditure of public funds for education.

State Rep. David J. Leland, D-Columbus, has introduced legislation to accomplish this goal. In fewer than 100 words, the bill declares “funds that the department of education pays to a community (charter) school or nonpublic school . . . are public funds and shall be subject to the same requirements related to permissible expenditures and audit by the auditor of state as public funds allocated to school districts.

“If a community school uses public funds to pay for services of an entity to manage the daily operations of that school or to provide programmatic oversight and support of that school, those funds maintain their status as public funds upon transfer.”

In recent years, Ohio earned an unwelcome reputation for having the nation’s worst oversight of the charter-school industry. No surprise, then, that Ohio has had some of the nation’s worst-performing charter schools.

Responding to an avalanche of criticism, including from the operators of good charters, in October 2015 the General Assembly passed legislation (House Bill 2) to address some of the problems.

That legislation requires management companies receiving more than 20 percent of a school’s annual revenues to provide an accounting of expenses in 19 categories, such as aggregate wages, school supplies and transportation.

However, the bill didn’t go far enough. Why allow expenditures falling below a 20 percent threshold to escape scrutiny? There is no legitimate reason to prevent the taxpaying public from tracking each and every dollar it spends for education.

Upon introducing his bill, Leland correctly stated: “Ohio taxpayers deserve a full and complete accounting for every one of their hard-earned dollars invested in education, whether the money is directed to public school districts or charter schools.

“Charter schools and their management companies shouldn’t be able to hide their spending of public funds behind closed doors. This bill will close a loophole in state law and help ensure charter schools in Ohio operate in a transparent, accountable manner.”

Honest, well-performing charters and nonpublic schools have nothing to fear from transparent bookkeeping. In fact, operators of many of Ohio’s best-performing charters have urged state lawmakers to insist on full transparency. Failure to do so creates a cloud of suspicion over all of Ohio’s charter schools.

Ohio was a pioneer in adopting a constitutional mandate guaranteeing an education to each of its citizens. Many states followed Ohio’s lead, adopting similar language in their constitutions.

In the 21st century, unfortunately, Ohio has been the opposite — a laggard — in guaranteeing that its citizens get a full and complete accounting for that education.