Ohio Senate Has Been Stifling School Choice for over 15 Years

By Scott Pullins


We’ve written a lot here at 3rd Rail Politics about powerful State Senator Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), the Upper Chamber’s Education Chair and her efforts to destroy school choice in Ohio.  But it’s important to understand that these efforts didn’t start with Lehner.  In fact, efforts to destroy school choice in Ohio go back at least fifteen years or more in the Ohio Senate.


On February 7, 2002, then State Auditor Jim Petro issued a scathing 208 page operational review that eviscerated the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and its horrible oversight of Ohio’s then 92 charter schools.  Petro’s criticism and recommendations for the department were harsh.  


At this period in time, many charter schools were sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and the Petro report concluded that the charter school problems were caused by a lack of monitoring and assistance from ODE.  As a result, Petro recommended that other groups, nonprofit organizations, be designated as sponsors and be given more authority to oversee these schools.


More significantly, the Petro report recommended that the ODE and the state school board be taken entirely out of the charter school operation.  He recommended that the Ohio General Assembly establish a new statewide commission to oversee charter schools only.  


Most of these recommendations were included in legislation proposed by then Ohio House Member Jon Husted, a prominent supporter of school choice, in his House Bill 364. Husted’s proposals were widely cheered by charter school supporters and included permitting the establishment of charter schools in any of Ohio’s 611 school districts, something that is still not permitted today.  As introduced, his bill would also have created a new state commission, with members appointed by the Governor, to oversee the operations of Ohio’s charter schools, effectively taking the ODE and the State Board of Education entirely out of the charter school process.


The reaction from the government school blob was predictable and far reaching.  Like hippies at a Trump rally, they went a little crazy, filing lawsuits, and spending tens of thousands of dollars of member dues money in campaigns targeting supporters of school choice in Ohio.  These efforts included the mailing of 173,000 brochures attacking charter school supporters and a $70,000 paid media truth campaign of commercials, mailings, and brochures.


While their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, House Bill 364 passed both houses of the General Assembly and was signed by the Governor, it was watered down significantly, primarily in the Ohio Senate.  Gone was the provision to allow charter schools in every school district in Ohio.  Instead, charter schools would also be permitted to operate in any school district under “Academic Watch”.  At that time, approximately 50 of Ohio’s 611 school districts would have been eligible.  Gone also was the provision to appoint a new commission to oversee charter schools in Ohio.


Also, added in the Ohio Senate were new provisions to highly regulate what were then new entities, online schools like ECOT.  Charter school supporters, including the sponsor of the House Bill Jon Husted, opposed the changes strongly.  


The goal was to free the publicly funded but privately run schools from state regulations and allow them to experiment with innovative approaches. The Senate bill would do just the opposite, Husted said. “One of the things that makes charter schools appealing is the freedom they have to operate,” he said. “If we do too much nickel-and-dime regulation of them, we undermine the purpose of having them to begin with.”


In fact, Husted considered opposing his own bill when it came back from the Senate.  In hindsight, perhaps he should have.