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Published: Wednesday, 6/26/2002

UT wants to cut tie to charter schools

BY RYAN E. SMITH AND SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

The University of Toledo is looking to get out of the business of sponsoring charter schools.

Since 1998 the university's charter school council has authorized seven schools, four of which are expected to open this fall.

But the board of trustees yesterday approved exploring ways to shift that power to another entity and agreed to hold off on sponsoring any new schools until the issue is resolved.

The action came at the request of UT President Daniel Johnson, who said overseeing charter schools falls outside the university's core activities. “Our mission is teaching, research, engagement,” he said. “In some ways the special role as a sponsoring agent is outside the mission of the university.”

Dr. Johnson suggested exploring the establishment of a research center to monitor the performance of Ohio's charter schools and student outcomes. The university also could establish an endowed position to develop and maintain a research program on different modes of education. Under state law, charter, or community, schools are public schools that operate without many of the regulations of typical public schools. The schools can be authorized by UT, the Lucas County Educational Service Center, the Ohio Department of Education, and school boards in the eight largest urban school districts, along with districts with the lowest proficiency test scores. Charter schools get per-pupil state funding based on enrollment.

Eight trustees favored Dr. Johnson's plan with Robert Redmond voting against it. He said the charter school movement is young and could offer positive alternatives to inner-city students.

Correspondence obtained by The Blade to Dr. Johnson from public school educators, alumni, and university administrators revealed their concerns about the university's involvement with charter schools.

One of Dr. Johnson's advisers warned of financial and other liabilities the university could have with charter schools. Anthony Wayne Superintendent Randy Hardy, upset with UT for supporting “cyberspace” schools, said in a May letter his district no longer desired to host student teachers from UT.

“This sounds like a move in the right direction,” he said of yesterday's board action. “We really felt that the university ought to be directing more of their efforts into working with public schools and existing education programs.”

The university this year was added to a year-old lawsuit filed by the Ohio Federation of Teachers and other education groups alleging the state's charter school system violates the Ohio Constitution and state law. OFT President Tom Mooney said UT was included in part because of contracts with for-profit school operators that included parents who received an educational stipend.

Mr. Mooney hailed the UT board action yesterday as good news but not a total surprise.

“I've been wondering how long they would let this charter school council run amok. It didn't seem to reflect well on the University of Toledo well at all,” he said. “They haven't followed the law. They've granted charters that are in our view clearly in violation of the law. They haven't shown any concern for taxpayers.”

UT would remain a defendant in the lawsuit, Mr. Mooney said, unless terms of the current charters changed.

Dr. Johnson said his recommendation was the result of a study that began soon after he arrived as president in July.

Allison Perz, spokeswoman for the seven-member charter school council, said the group plans to keep all its schools operating, including the four scheduled to open in the fall.

The council would reorganize as a nonprofit organization in anticipation of proposed legislation that would allow such agencies to authorize charter schools, Ms. Perz said. The measure passed the Ohio House in March and is in the Senate Education Committee.

Stephen Ramsey, president of the Ohio Charter School Association, said he would be concerned if UT decides to stop being a sponsor. “It would be disconcerting if we lost someone who has been as positive about the movement, as proactive about things as the University of Toledo,” he said.

Susan Newell, director of the Eagle and Toledo Accelerated Academies, called the board's move a shock. Both schools are authorized by UT and managed by the Leona Group of East Lansing, Mich., which also received charters from UT for two additional schools to open in the fall.

“Until we get some more definitive information, I don't see any issues. We'll continue business as usual,” she said. “I trust them not to leave us out there hanging.”

Advocates of charter schools say they offer educational alternatives to students and parents. Detractors have charged that charter schools have little accountability, few proven successes, and too much self-governance.



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