By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
An independent panel created to find common ground between school districts and charter schools made four recommendations to the Ohio legislature Tuesday that both sides of the contentious debate support.
First on the panel's list of recommendations: Charter schools should receive funding directly from the state instead of collecting their money from the home school districts of their students.
Charter schools are privately operated schools that receive state funding based on enrollment and other factors.
They first appeared in Ohio in 1998 as part of a school choice movement promoted by nonprofit organizations and for-profit operators. The state now has 336 charter schools that enroll almost 88,000 students, according to the panel's report, and are on track this school year to re
ceive nearly $659 million from the taxpayers.
Two other recommendations ease enrollment count requirements for charter schools and boost the adjusted amount of money they receive for special education students to the same amount districts receive.
A fourth recommendation suggests another subcommittee tackle the contentious issue of busing. Districts must offer the same busing to charter school students it provides for its own students, although school schedules may differ and districts aren't compensated 100 percent by the state.
If a student enrolls in a charter school (also called a community school), the state aid that would have gone to the student's home district is deducted from the district's state money and transferred to the charter school.
The panel recommends eliminating the middle man and paying districts and charter schools separately.
''We think that it will reduce some of the animosity between community schools and public schools,'' said Akron schools Treasurer Jack Pierson, who was on the panel. ''We won't be seeing that money being taken away from us and we won't be fighting over students as much, or we shouldn't be, anyway.''
Barbara Shaner, chairwoman of the Coalition for Public Education, said she would be happy to see the legislature at least adopt the recommendation for direct funding.
''It's hard to make big changes, but I think that would be a good one that we would all feel like we made some good progress,'' said Shaner, who also is the associate executive director for the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.
Bill Sims, president and CEO of Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he was hesitant about the proposal to directly fund charter schools.
He said he didn't want to see funding for charters isolated in the budget and vulnerable.
''In tight budget times, we didn't want there to be a circumstance where, for example, they could cut funding for charter schools but not traditional districts,'' Sims said. ''If we're all on the same line, what they do for one they do for all.''
However, Sims said, he was assured funding would remain on the same budget line for districts and charter schools.
''With that being the circumstance, we are fine with that and in fact, it's probably a win-win for both the districts and the charters,'' he said.
Both sides were disappointed the panel didn't delve deeper into the many issues dividing traditional districts and charter schools.
''The committee punted on a lot of stuff,'' Sims said. ''They stuck with four recommendations that they felt were uncontroversial enough that the subcommittee could agree to propose these rather than seizing on the opportunity to break some new ground.''
For example, the new ''evidence-based'' funding model the state uses to allocate money to districts doesn't apply to charter schools.
One factor, for example, takes into account a district's poverty and other demographic measures in deciding how much a district needs to pay highly qualified teachers.
Because charter schools aren't considered in the model, they can't get the extra money for teachers, although they face the same challenges an issue that Sims wished the panel had taken on.
''In a district that's got a lot of poor kids and urban kids who are theoretically further behind, it's a way of pushing more money in so that you can pay high-quality teachers to be in those districts and to stay in those districts,'' Sims said. ''Virtually 98 percent of charter schools are in these big eight urban districts, but we've never had the ability to pay teachers the way districts are.''
Public school advocates would have liked to see more attention spent on the differences between districts and charter schools when it comes to teacher quality requirements.
''The teachers in the charter schools are not required to be certified in the subject area in which they teach, like the teachers in the public schools are,'' said Lisa Zellner, spokesperson for the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
That makes collaboration between districts and charter schools more difficult.
State Rep. Stephen Dyer, D-Green, described the panel's report, which will be considered by the legislature when it returns to session, a ''first step to encouraging a collaborative relationship between our schools.''
Dyer said he recommended creating the panel as part of the Ohio School Funding Advisory Council, which was created with the passage of the governor's budget last year.
''What we can see is that major progress can be made when we focus on providing equal access to excellence for students regardless of whether they attend traditional public or community schools,'' Dyer said.