State Stifles Innovation and Progress

The Bastardization and Destruction of Charter Schools in Ohio

by Scott A. Pullins


            Ohio’s charter schools were first formed in order to give parents and students new choices, free from many of the regulations, mandates, and restrictions that hinder different, even radically experimental types of learning.  The point of experimentation is to find and develop new ways of learning, with the understanding that failure is expected, even welcomed in the learning process. 


            In developing the first commercially viable and practical, long lasting, incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison spent over ten years and arguably failed hundreds, even thousands of times in finding a solution.   In his later work in devising a new type of storage battery, he was quoted as saying, “Results!  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work.”


            Ken Braun from the Mackinac Institute wrote of creative destruction as a situation where “outdated technology, businesses and jobs are encouraged to die off swiftly so that workers and capital can be reallocated to more efficient and innovative tasks.”  Others have argued that “the future of innovation is in learning how to fail.”


            But that is not what is happening in today’s charter school environment in Ohio.  And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.  But before I explain in more detail, a brief history.


            Ohio’s first charter school law was enacted in 1997 and the first charter schools were located in Lucas County.  The initial growth in charter schools was limited.  This is because for many years charters were only permitted in the Big 8 school districts.  Currently, new start up brick and mortar schools may only be started in “challenged districts”, which are those districts rated in the lowest 5 percent in the state’s performance index.  For the 2013-2014 school year those districts encompassed less than 10 percent of the over 600 school districts in Ohio.


             Much of the early history of the Ohio charter movement was also spent in costly litigation from charter school opponents.  In 2006 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s charter school program was constitutional.  In 2009, a state appeals court upheld a dismissal of a lawsuit filed by charter school opponent and then Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, who argued that charter schools should be stripped of public funding because of poor academic performance.


            Layers of new legislation and regulation have also been added over the years, not envisioned at all by the early advocates who purposely allowed for private sector style limited regulation to counter the noticed failures of the heavily regulated traditional schools. They sought to model successful parochial education, not the regulated stale approach of the traditional school.  Most recently, H.B. 2, 131st G.A., has been utilized by the Ohio Department of Education to greatly expand its authority.  This has resulted in some significant slowing in the growth of new schools.


            In a recent interview, Ron Adler, president of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, blamed this slowdown on the high handed tactics of the Ohio Department of Education.  “They have set a sense of fear and intimidation in sponsors — unwarranted, unnecessary,” Adler said. “Sponsors today are feeling very compromised. If they bring in new schools, they’re afraid to because they don’t know what the Department is going to do. It’s hard to look at it any other way than this is intentional.”


            When sponsors, operators, and board members feel under attack by regulators, the media, and opponents they may become stuck in a ‘play it safe’ environment that is far from conducive to innovation.  It makes it more difficult to attract new board members, students, investments, and donations.



            In today’s charter school world in Ohio, the movement is being bastardized and destroyed.  Startup charter schools are expected to not only succeed immediately, but outperform entrenched public schools, under measurements devised by charter school opponents, with less funding


            Charter schools in Ohio need the freedom to experiment, to fail, to try again and again, to even pivot.  In the business world, many of America’s most successful brands and businesses first started with a different model in mind.  Wrigley certainly didn’t start out as a chewing gum company and Starbucks didn’t start out as a neighborhood coffee shop.  And what was also different with these companies is that their every stumble wasn’t utilized by their competitors and their opponents as yet another excuse to outlaw their very existence. 


            Instead of more and more layers of new legislation and regulation, maybe what is needed in Ohio is some old fashioned deregulation and freedom? 


            Maybe it is time for Ohio to throw out its entire regulatory and legislative scheme on charter schools and start over with a blank slate and a new law.  Let’s take a look at model legislation, such as the Student Centered Funding Act proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or examples from other states like California.


            Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly have their largest majorities in modern history.  If not now, when?  If not them, then who?  Its long past time to start this conversation.