This Letter to the Editor was originally published in The Columbus Dispatch
At a State Board of Education meeting this week, four former charter-school teachers testified on alleged unlawful conduct at Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School, including what The Dispatch described as “test cheating, attendance tampering, sexual misconduct and other misdeeds” (article, Wednesday).
The testimony of the four teachers proved to be so graphic that board member Debra Cain said: "Inside, my blood is boiling. It is to me almost incomprehensible. We have got to get to the bottom of this, and every single allegation needs to be investigated to the fullest.”
What the State Board heard from the teachers helped to shed light on a chain of 19 schools in Ohio managed by an out-of-state operation that staffs these buildings in part by employing Turkish citizens holding H-1B visas.
But what the board didn’t hear is that these same schools are governed by a group of individuals, nearly all men, who may not be “qualified voters” — in other words, American citizens. Or that some of the schools were raided by the FBI last month. Or that the inspiration for these schools is a mysterious exiled Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and leads a religious and political movement that seeks to destabilize the government of his native land.
As bizarre as this situation is, the very idea that the Gulen chain are public schools is illustrative of what ails the charter-school industry in Ohio.
Consider these glaring legal loopholes:
- Charter-school administrators are not required to hold any professional licenses or meet even minimal educational requirements.
- Charter-school board members aren't elected by or responsible to the voters. Some are hand-picked by for-profit management companies runing schools.
- Charter-school board members do not have to be “qualified voters” (citizens) who are registered with the secretary of state’s office in recognition of their status as members of a public board.
- With hand-picked, unelected boards, charter-school administrators can pay themselves exorbitant salaries that can match those of local superintendents responsible for the education of thousands of students in multiple locations.
- Many charter schools employ highly paid administrators but compensate their teachers well below those in other public schools, leading to constant staff turnover.
- The for-profit management companies that operate many charter schools think that their mission and vision (read: profit) supersede the legitimate interests and aspirations of the public.
- Charter schools are exempt from more than 150 provisions of state law that otherwise are applicable to school districts, including a requirement to annually report the names, salaries and credentials of licensed employees to the State Board.
- There are no restrictions on the payment of public funds for recruitment of students, advertising or payment for celebrity endorsements; there is no ban on using public funds earmarked for charter schools for political campaign donations.
The issue confronting this state is not about any individual charter-school chain. It’s that the legislature has created an unregulated, incoherent nightmare that allows for-profit management companies, entrepreneurs, national charter-school chains and ill-prepared developers to operate in a murky industry that ill-serves young people.
If we are to have charter schools in Ohio, their legal basis must be that they exist in similar fashion with public schools, be subject to the same requirements and not be favored by so many questionable exemptions. Chapter 3314 of the Ohio Revised Code that governs the creation and operation of these schools must be scrapped in its entirety.
For these “schools of choice,” we have no other choice.
DENIS D. SMITH