06/24/2011 06:26 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2011

Ohio Senate Bill Seeks To Incentivize Charter-School Quality

The fight over the future of charter schools found a new battleground in Ohio this week with the hearing of a new kind of bill.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni's (D-Canfield) Senate Bill 175 would prohibit public school students from transferring to charter schools within their district that are lower-performing than the public school they attended in the first place.

"I've been to almost every public and charter school in my district," Schiovani told The Huffington Post. "I see good public schools, I see bad public schools. I see good charter schools, I see bad charter schools. I want to give students the best opportunity to learn."

The bill makes two exceptions: Students with disabilities or those who have obtained the permission of their principals would be allowed to move to lower-performing charter schools.

Schiovani says the measure would make charter schools more accountable. The bill's opponents call it an attack on school choice.

"It's designed to limit school choice and parent and student access to charter schools," said William Sims, director of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools "It's that simple."

Charter schools are publicly funded but can be privately run. Independent groups start charter schools with public money that would otherwise fund traditional public schools. While lauded for the flexibility these schools allow in areas such as curriculum development and teacher hiring, critics say they siphon resources away from traditional public schools -- and that they're not necessarily more effective overall.

"People were sold on the idea that charter schools could educate people better and more cheaply than traditional public schools," said Dale Butland, who works for Innovation Ohio, the think tank whose research Schiovani's staff relied on. "They are educating children worse or more expensively."

Charter schools are gaining national momentum, with strong support from the Obama administration and laws that expand them in various states -- including Ohio -- surging this legislative session. A new data set the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools released this week shows that 1.8 million students attended 5,277 charter schools in the 2010-2011 school year -- an increase of 11.8 percent over the previous year.

Supporters of charter schools say their continued expansion is a fundamental component of school choice, a family's right to send its children to whichever school is best regardless of its zip code. The idea of school choice rests upon the assumption that allowing public funds to sponsor independently run schools forces traditional public schools to compete to stay on their toes.

Schiovani's bill, he said, aims to keep charters competing back. He developed it after discussing the issue with superintendents from his school district who complained they were losing resources after students left to attend charter schools deemed to be performing at lower levels.

"The charter schools students are leaving for are usually worse-off academically," he said. "With what we saw in the budget, some of the maneuvers to open the doors to more charter schools, a lot of the public schools are worried about losing more money," he said.

He's not against supporting charter schools in general, he said. "Charters can be used as a good alternative for educating young people," he said. "When a charter school is performing at a lower level, it doesn’t make more sense for that student to go to that charter school because they're not going to receive a better education."

Parents, he said, could be duped by marketing by charter schools that make them seem like better alternatives, even when in reality they might be performing at lower levels. "They're not learning and they end up switching back to the public schools, which isn’t good for the child at all," he added.

"If a charter school is not doing well, why should we reward them with taxpayer money when they're not educating our kids?" he asked.

But Sims said the bill restricts school choice because parents care about more than performance. "Parents could choose charter schools for academic quality," he said. "But in all the surveys I have seen done on this, that's not the first reason they choose charter schools. They're looking for a safer environment, an environment that because of its smaller scale is more parent-friendly and an environment that's a better fit for their parents' learning style." Basing charter school selection on achievement only, Sims said, neglects these reasons for parental choice.

For the most part, Schiovani's approach is new. "In light of the push for accountability on the national scene, this proposed bill adds a new, reasonable wrinkle to the debate on charter schools," said Charlie Russo, a professor at the University of Dayton. "This bill seeks to make charter schools more accountable for student success by tying their funding to how well their students are doing academically."

Schiovani introduced the bill on May 24, and held a hearing this Tuesday. The Republican-controlled state Senate will consider testimony for and against the bill. But Sims said his group will lobby against it.

"We plan to make our feelings known to the chair of the Senate's education committee," he said.