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Friday, October 9, 2015

A Great Day for Ohio's Kids

A little more than two years ago, I listened to a presentation in the bowels of the Ohio Statehouse. It was being given by a school funding expert from Students First -- the then-notorious education reform group spearheaded by education policy lightning rod Michelle Rhee.

Except what I heard didn't match the preconceptions I had of the group. She talked about how Ohio's proposed school funding fix was flawed. It needed more funding to accommodate poverty. It shorted kids whose second language was English. It needed overhauled.

In the audience was Ohio's Executive Director of Students First -- Greg Harris. Greg and I knew each other briefly when I was in the Ohio House and he was at KnowledgeWorks -- a Cincinnati-based think tank on whom I relied during my time in the legislature.

Students First and I had been snarking each other a bit on Twitter prior to this hearing. But after the presentation, Greg and I walked out in the hallway and started talking. Soon, there were a few other folks. We we all talking about the same thing: How can we change the dialogue in Ohio around charter schools to focus on quality rather than quantity of choices?

I didn't know it then, but ... that's how.

By listening and being willing in engage folks as peers rather than enemies.

Within a few days, that conversation in the dank, marble basement of the Ohio Statehouse turned into a 2-hour lunch meeting, followed by conference calls and dialogue and planning. Soon, we had formed a working group about which we all knew we had to keep quiet and behind the scenes. After all, this was all about the same time the Ohio legislature had voted to send more money to poor performing charters and eliminate a $100,000 provision to reward high-quality charters.

That move resulted in this article in the Akron Beacon Journal where Greg finally said what many on my side of the argument had been saying for years: 
"We need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on [low-performing schools] and, more importantly, we need to stop wasting kids’ lives ... A lot of times it has to do not with how well your school is performing but how well your lobbyist is paid."
Having Harris say that in a newspaper was the first time I could remember that an Ohio charter advocate had so forcefully stated what has been so clear for so long: Ohio's charter school system was a mess and politics made it that way.

After convening several meetings over the next several months, we developed a working document of meaningful charter school reforms. Our work paralleled work being done here and nationally to reform Ohio's broken system led by legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle.

KnowYourCharter.com was started and showed the funding and performance issues charters pose to the state's education system all in one place. Greg's initial clarion call to quality was hailed by other pro-charter advocates whose boldness grew with each passing moment and, frankly, each outrageous charter school scandal.

On Wednesday, everybody's hard work paid off with the most sweeping, comprehensive and meaningful reform of Ohio's charter school system since the program began in the late 1990s. It will keep track of Ohio's operators, letting the public know where they operate and how they perform. It will force sponsors to do their job and hold schools to account, or else they won't be able to sponsor schools. It will open up the mostly opaque world of charter schools so the public can better track the now $1 billion a year in state money that goes to charter schools.

It is not perfect. It doesn't directly close poor performing charters, choosing instead to force sponsors to do that. It doesn't address the funding issues that force districts to have to backfill the lost state money with local money. And it relies on an Ohio Department of Education in disarray.

But man, it does a lot. As a first step, this one is a Lulu (apologies to B. Bunny).

At a time when Ohio's under heavy scrutiny for its recent federal award of $71 million to supplement its charter schools and the former school choice head at the Ohio Department of Education had to resign because he illegally fudged data on the very sponsor evaluations that are the key to HB 2's success, we needed this bill to pass.

And did it ever. Of the 99 House members and 33 Senators, only 6 House members voted No, and that was in response to a curious, last minute addition that changed public pensions.

Two years ago, as Greg and I chatted in the Statehouse basement, I never would have dreamed that within a matter of months, Ohio would have passed a charter reform package that could potentially turn around our state's charter woes so dramatically. I never would have thought that such a bill would essentially pass without objection through the most conservative, Republican legislature in recent memory.

But it did.

There aren't many times in the past 16 years I've been proud of our state and its legislature on this issue. Until Wednesday. Is the bill perfect? No. But no bill is.

But man, we didn't just turn a corner. We drifted through it. Vin Diesel would be proud.

This is a turning point for our state's education system. When the quality of students' experiences is considered more important than the shear number of them. When big political donors don't get everything they want. When our state's leaders decided to rise up and finally address our national embarrassment of a charter school system.

I'm proud to have played whatever role I did to make this happen. But I'm most proud that for the first time in a generation, children of Ohio may have the quality school options they deserve.

And for that, I'm not only proud, but grateful.