Charter, public schools targeted in Ohio courts

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Both charter and public schools in Ohio have been tossed around like footballs this fall, leaving parents to wonder whether any variety of education is actually working for their children.

First, Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann announced a legal assault on charter schools that are missing state academic and financial targets. He filed the latest in his expected string of suits Friday against the privately run, publicly funded operations.

Within days, public schools in Columbus were targeted in a lawsuit by attorney and mayoral candidate Bill Todd. He argued that schools are spending way more money on some students than others — and not just from one district to another, but from building to building in the same district.

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Whether either man, one Democrat and one Republican, has a valid legal argument is yet to be seen. But the political motives of each is clear.

Dann was drawing attention to poor performance by some charter schools, a form of competition to traditional public schools — and their unionized teaching staffs — that many in his party oppose. He brushed off suggestions that his effort overstepped the authority of the Legislature in which he recently served.

‘‘How many more millions of dollars are we going to waste and how many more kids are going to be waiting for an education while we wait for the (accountability) laws to take effect?’’ his spokesman Leo Jennings said when announcing the office’s legal intentions.

Todd used his campaign to unseat incumbent Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman as an excuse for his lawsuit, but his target was clearly broader. He cast his legal argument in a way that forced both Dann and Gov. Ted Strickland to explain why inequities in Columbus don’t fall into the same category as charter school insufficiencies.

Both suits catch parents, teachers and children squarely in the middle.

Bill Sims, chief executive officer of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said Dann’s lawsuits have served to unsettle families.

‘‘You can only imagine that the parents and the kids of the schools that he’s identified have some real concerns right now about what’s going to happen to them between now and the end of the school year,’’ Sims said. ‘‘It creates a sense of instability that’s not good for the entire charter school movement.’’

That same instability has plagued public school educators for years, said Tim Hutton, state attorney for the National School Boards Association.

‘‘I think it’s very fair to say that the prospect of litigation — the hyperlegalization of all things educational, really — is demoralizing for people in education,’’ Hutton said. ‘‘Surveys have shown that the threat of lawsuits keeps teachers and administrators up at night.’’

For parents, political attacks on their children’s individual school system or style of schooling can have an energizing effect, said James Martinez of the National Parent Teacher Association.

‘‘Any time there’s some sort of uncertainty with what’s going on politically, it’s only natural that parents will get concerned about what’s happening with the schools,’’ he said. ‘‘That, we’ve seen, is a big reason why parents get involved in their children’s education.’’

That explains, to some extent, why principals and teachers are so stressed, Hutton said: Politicians argue, parents scream, and schools are left sorting out the differences.

‘‘Let’s be fair. We the people adopt laws because we have goals in mind for our society and there are few things more central to the goals of our society than our education system,’’ Hutton said. ‘‘All schools, but public schools in particular, are ground zero for the culture wars — on both sides.’’

National Education Association President Reg Weaver believes the way to end all the legal wrangling is to provide equal opportunities for all kids.

If everyone agreed that it’s no longer acceptable for wealthy suburban kids to have what kids in urban areas don’t have, then ‘‘the question wouldn’t have to be whether to start a charter school or to sue,’’ he said.

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press’ Columbus Bureau.