Charter schools are constitutional, high court rules
Those on both sides of the charter school fight say legal issues remain unresolved.
COLUMBUS -- A divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that publicly funded, privately operated charter schools are constitutional -- delivering a blow to a coalition of parent groups, teachers unions, and school boards that had joined to challenge Ohio's creation of the alternative schools.
In a 4-3 decision, the court upheld the state Legislature's ability to create and to give money to common institutions of learning -- even if those public schools are not subject to the same reporting and operational requirements.
"As the statewide body, the General Assembly has the legislative authority and latitude to set the standards and requirements for common schools, including different standards for community schools," Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote for the majority.
Teachers unions sued Ohio in 2001 over the state's 1998 charter school law, under which the alternative schools have grown from 15 in 1998 to 250 last year. As the movement has grown, criticism has intensified, particularly over charter school pupils' lagging standardized test scores.
But Justice Lanzinger wrote that Ohio's public school system before charter schools was also controversial at first.
"Throughout time, new educational movements have faced opponents and detractors. But just as the common-school movement of the 1800s increasingly gained supporters throughout the United States, so too has the charter-school movement," she wrote.
In her dissent, Justice Alice Robie Resnick argued that the Ohio Community Schools Act violates the Ohio Constitution because it "produces a hodgepodge of uncommon schools financed by the state."
She said that rather than adding to the traditional school system, the charter school legislation has created a situation in which "an assemblage of divergent and deregulated privately owned and managed community schools competes against public schools for public funds."
"This court's function is to determine the constitutionality of charter schools as established by statute in Ohio, not to promote their cause," she wrote. "Whether the 'charter-school movement' has truly gained supporters or opponents, nationally or in Ohio, is a subject of social discourse for the political branches of our government."
William Madison, chief administrative officer of the Youngstown Academy of Excellence, a charter school on Rigby Street, said he is "thrilled to death" with the ruling, pointing out that it legitimizes the work that charter schools are doing.
His school's most important offering is a "multiple intelligence curriculum" that provides an individualized teaching method for each pupil. Some children learn better by reading and visuals while others might do best with a hands-on approach, he said.
Eric Ritz, director of Summit Academy's elementary charter school on North Schenley Avenue in Youngstown, was likewise pleased with the ruling. Summit Academy also operates a middle school and a high school in Youngstown, and all three schools focus on enrolling pupils who have been struggling in the traditional school setting, Ritz said. These are kids who have special needs and haven't been able to succeed elsewhere, he said.
Madison said he expects the legal battles over charter schools won't end here.
Tom Mooney, chairman of the Coalition for Public Education, which includes some teacher unions and was involved in the lawsuit, said that's true.
Several issues remain alive in the case, including whether privately owned schools managed by private for-profit companies are really nonprofit entities as state law requires, Mooney said. This and other issues remain before the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
The Supreme Court majority may have misunderstood plaintiffs' claims in the lawsuit, he said. The plaintiffs never said the concept of charter schools is inherently unconstitutional. Rather, they argued that the design of Ohio's particular charter school program violates the state's Constitution because they aren't overseen by elected boards, local property taxes are diverted without a popular vote, and the ability of public school districts to offer a quality education has been harmed, he said.
Gary Allen, president of the Ohio Education Association, a teachers union, said that although the OEA is disappointed in the ruling, it doesn't adversely affect other lawsuits filed by the OEA that question the operational issues of charter schools.
"We will continue to object to flawed practices of the majority of Ohio's charter schools," he said, adding that study after study point to a flawed system regarding fiscal oversight, testing, sponsorship, academic accountability and other failed experiments.