Charter school reform tops GOP agenda

Lawmakers say they want more transparency, better accountability.

House and Senate legislative leaders on Wednesday previewed their priorities in dual press conferences. Both chambers said they plan to work on charter school reforms, college affordability, water quality and Medicaid improvements.

State Reps. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea, and Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, are sponsoring a charter school reform bill that they say will eliminate potential conflicts of interest and bring more transparency and accountability to charter school managers and sponsors. They called it a starting point for charter school reforms.

“I think it is important to note, look, this is not a witch hunt on charter schools. This is something I think we need to do to kind of make it a little more fair and balanced and make sure there is transparency and accountability but we do have really good charter schools that are out there and doing really good things,” said House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville.

Roughly 115,000 students attend 367 charter schools statewide at a cost of $825 million in state funds. While charter schools receive taxpayer money, they have been subject to less regulation than traditional public schools to give them more flexibility to innovate.

But the charter school system has come under fire recently over inaccurate attendance records, pricey rental agreements between schools and companies related to the schools’ management companies, questions over test scores and staffing, and the most recent report cards from the Ohio Department of Education showing 64 percent of charters received D or Fs for performance.

Dovilla and Roegner said their bill will prohibit charter sponsors from selling services to schools they sponsor, provide better accounting for sponsor oversight and eliminate “sponsor hopping” where poor performing schools simply switch sponsors. Additionally, transparency will be improved by requiring public reporting of: sponsors expenditures, schools and management companies contracts, operator performance reports, any potential conflict of interests of board members and vendors. School employees and vendors would not be allowed to serve on the school board and school treasurers will be independent of the sponsors and management companies.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said she hopes the House, Senate and Gov. John Kasich can agree on a comprehensive package of charter school reforms.

“We are not going to rush it. This is too important to try to set a deadline by a certain date,” Lehner said. “We’re going to do it right and we’re going to do it well.”

Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said his caucus wants to “deregulate” K-12 education by relieving high performing school districts from adhering to burdensome regulations. He also pitched a plan to pressure Ohio’s public colleges and universities to cut student costs by 5 percent over the next two years.

State Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, outlined his plan for a new grant program designed to help students studying for certification or degrees in fields that lead to in-demand jobs. The state will put up $50 million a year to fund grants of up to $5,000 per person per year if the student hits certain benchmarks, such as working an internship or job for three months each year.

Schuring said the Ohio Board of Regents would develop the criteria and run the program.

Another element to it will be a state tax credit of up to 25 percent of the student’s college debt, provided he or she stays in Ohio and works in an in-demand job. The state has identified nearly 200 in-demand jobs — everything from aerospace engineer to bus mechanic to special education teachers.

Lawmakers plan to cut business filing fees paid to the Secretary of State to $99, down from $125; extend statute of limitations on rape if DNA evidence surfaces later; and look for ways to help people get off of entitlement programs such as Medicaid.

Both the House and Senate leaders said they have accepted that Kasich expanded eligibility rules for Medicaid, which extended coverage to 430,000 additional low-income Ohioans. Now lawmakers are focused on ways to cut Medicaid costs and make the program more efficient, they said.

On the problem of algae blooms, which have occurred in Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and other inland lakes, state Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said he plans to pass a clean water bill in February, adding that it’ll cover issues that have already been vetted.

“At the end of the day, we must have a strong agriculture economy and we must have a healthier Lake Erie. And there is no question and no excuses that we can’t achieve both,” Gardner said.

GOP House leaders, meanwhile, said they would travel the state to gather information from interested parties about potential solutions to the algae problems.

Faber also called for establishing a “drug prison” where inmates with drug abuse issues would receive treatment services. He did not have a price tag of such a facility but said it would pay for itself eventually.

“I anticipate that there would be an increase in the cost up front but I think in the long run we’re going to save money,” Faber said.

Roughly 80 percent Ohio’s 50,000 inmates have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

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