In 2001, when the Ohio charter school movement was still in its infancy, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, along with 17 other education organizations covering teachers, principals, superintendents, elected school boards, treasurers, and custodians filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of our schools—threatening the very existence of the program. For three years, we battled this juggernaut all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, ultimately vindicating the program. Charter schools were preserved as an important educational option for Ohio’s students and families, allowing kids to attend a quality, tuition free school where they were otherwise trapped in a failing school because of their zip code.
While the State of Ohio did its part in defending the Department of Education, Ohio’s charter schools themselves stepped up and did what was necessary to protect their interests. My husband, Clint, and I led the effort to rally our young movement in our own defense—both in the courts and in the public. Clint, then director of the Ohio Community School Center, coordinated the legal defense project and was its fiscal agent. I, then the Executive Director of the Education Resource Center in Dayton, helped rally the Southern Ohio area charter schools to the cause and helped fundraise. With long-time charter school attorney Amy Borman, Constellation Schools president Rick Lukich, and others, Clint and I directed the legal effort, brilliantly led by Jones Day partner and Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) Chairman, Chad Readler.
Back in 2001, Ohio had 96 charter schools with barely 25,000 students enrolled. Yet we were able to raise $650,000 in project support from several charter operators. Constellation, White Hat, Horizon, Summit Academies and independent schools alike supported the effort. Together with other fundraising efforts, the project accumulated over $1 million dollars.
While much of this fund paid the costs related to the legal battle, some was used to support PR efforts that included:
- Relevant research highlighting performance and funding issues
- Brochures and pamphlets supporting the program
- Radio spots and direct mail pieces
- Grassroots support for then State Rep. Jon Husted’s charter improvement bill, HB 364
- Coordination of legislative testimony, statehouse events, and public rallies
Ultimately, the case was won. HB 364 passed (barely). In Ohio, we still operate under the rules established by that landmark bill. And since then, for more than a decade, many of us have attended many more school choice and charter school rallies, legislative hearings, and more. Many have battled in newspapers and most have worked hard to keep staff, families, and the students we serve informed of the real truths about charter schooling. One might argue on some levels that the existential threats to our program have been kept at bay. But they have not. Those threats have not been kept at bay, not at all.
In fact, the opponents of charter schools have not given up. Today, charter opponents have been working harder than ever to cripple the program through other means—and they are succeeding. While we have, at best, been dabbling at a 1970’s PR campaign, our opponents have rolled out a 21st century campaign against charter schools, heavily funded, well organized, and with a strong purpose—to end charter schooling in Ohio.
Let’s review the current Ohio charter landscape:
- First, charter school opponents have created a new and grossly misleading website devoted to highlighting charter schools’ supposed performance failures and supposed excessive funding. They are spending thousands to push this website tool into parents’ Facebook pages, to other social media connections and more. The inaccuracies on this site are deplorable. We checked our 10 Ohio schools on their site, and I can tell you nearly every one of our school’s data are grossly inaccurate. Charter schools must define themselves. We must tell our own story.
- Second, legislative reforms are underway behind closed doors to “revamp” Ohio’s charter school law. Major “reforms” will indeed happen this spring. While we might all agree that the law could stand some improvement, and though we have a few friends on the working group, gone are the days of Sally Perz or Jon Husted. Gone are the days of having powerful charter school champions in the Statehouse, and many who used to be friends of choice and charters and are now more interested in reforming the program instead of supporting it. Charters, for better and worse, have been lumped into the accountability and reform movement while at the same time much of the intent and heart of parent initiated school choice is being threatened. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
- Third, the press now in Ohio falls into two camps: 1) those openly hostile to charter schools who simultaneously release carefully orchestrated charter school propaganda on the same day and, 2) those who are eager to pounce on the latest self-proclaimed “scandal.” Media understanding of, and sympathy to, charter schools is at an all time low. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
- Fourth, charter opponents are quietly working to have charter school operators, board members, teachers and principals declared “public officers,” subject to open records, audits, and ethics laws. A case dealing with this issue for charter school operators currently sits before the Ohio Supreme Court. Several efforts have been made to fix this issue legislatively, though without success. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
- Fifth, Ohio’s new accountability system is creating new challenges for charter schools (and traditional public schools alike). No longer do reporters or legislators look at passage rates or index scores. Instead, they focus on the D’s and F’s in a single subgroup or another. This misleads the public and fuels inaccurate claims that the charter program is either failing or in need of reform. In our case, 6 of our schools received an A or a B in the value added category. No one published that story or frankly any other of our charter schools’ success stories. These report cards are emboldening enemies and turning supporters into reformers. With new tests on the horizon, I am fearful of what the media spin on those results will be. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
- And lastly, after years of working to overcome the image, Ohio is once again viewed as the “Wild West” of the national charter school movement, in need of reform, in need of more closures, and in need of more oversight. Closing bad charter schools should happen, but it won’t stop the opponents, and it won’t make failing traditional public schools suddenly accountable for their academic disasters. Failing districts will sally forth with few or no consequences. Truly, every academically “lackluster” charter school could be closed tomorrow and the opponents will continuously and relentlessly pursue a soft underbelly and surely seek something new to attack. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
These examples highlight three important aspects of our current situation. First, these are all things that are happening to us right now. Second, the response from the charter school community in Ohio has been uncoordinated and inadequate. And third, if we do nothing things are going to get much, much, worse. This needs to change.
So here’s what Ohio charter schools need to preserve the program for tomorrow’s families:
1. We need an organized response to those who seek to stamp out the movement.
2. We need to give those supporters that we have real time data they can use in their efforts.
3. We need positive press releases, social media campaigns, meetings with editorial boards, and more. If the program is to have reform, we need as many seats at the table as possible.
4. We need research that provides true apples-to-apple comparisons between charter schools and demographically similar district schools.
5. We need to promote our successes while having a strong, consistent response to negative news stories—both real and fabricated.
The best way we can do that right now is to support the efforts of this organization under the leadership of its new CEO and President, Dr. Darlene Chambers. Many of you know, Clint and I began an initiative last year to create a viable PR campaign. Some of you attended initial meetings and shared your thoughts and helped us vet PR firms. But, the proper place for this really is with OAPCS. As such, with a new leader at the helm, OAPCS is taking immediate steps to address the public relations crisis in Ohio. I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to support this effort. I know that we each engage in our own advertising efforts as we recruit students. Those efforts, however, do not help us in the press, nor in the Statehouse, nor in the Governor’s Office.
Once again, we need to step up as a community to share our success stories, promote our data, and have a voice in our own destiny. We need to tell our story. If some of us continue to fly under the radar, if this is our PR strategy, if this is our plan, we will fail. Charters have nothing to gain by flying under the radar. As for me, I’m not afraid. It’s funny, once you’ve been knocked around a little bit, it’s quite empowering. I hope you’ll agree.