COLUMBUS - "I love my school!" a crowd of some 3,200 charter school advocates shouted yesterday as it turned in unison on the Statehouse lawn toward Gov. Ted Strickland's office.
The throng should have shouted a bit louder. Mr. Strickland wasn't in his office or within earshot at the time.
Students, parents, and teachers arrived in Columbus by the busloads to oppose the state budget proposed by the governor and reworked by fellow Democrats in the House. The budget would disconnect charter, or community, school funding from the formula that distributes money to other public schools.
Some 80,000 students attend Ohio's 330 bricks-and-mortar and Internet-based charter schools, taxpayer-funded schools that are freed from some of the regulations that govern more traditional public schools.
Abbie Soltis, a 17-year-old junior from Luckey who was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, transferred from Eastwood High School to the online Ohio Virtual Academy charter school at the midpoint of this school year.
"It's a lot more flexible and convenient for me, and it's a lot easier for me to learn," she said above the din of the crowd. "I can go at my own pace and read the curriculum myself. My grades are 50 percent better than they were at my district school."
The House and Strickland budgets instead would set aside a separate pot of money that charter school advocates argue could translate into cuts of about 20 percent from current funding. The cuts would be even deeper - as much as 70 percent - for the 36 Internet-based classrooms such as the Ohio Virtual Academy and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
The budget also differentiates between charter schools run by private, for-profit managers and those sponsored by school districts.
"The governor supports all schools, including charter schools that are high-quality, transparent, and accountable to taxpayers," Strickland spokesman Amanda Wurst said. "The governor's budget does change how charter schools are funded, based on what they do and how they operate."
Ms. Wurst, who said the governor was aware that the rally was taking place, cited the example that the current school funding formula provides funding related to bricks-and-mortar infrastructure that would not be appropriate for a so-called "e-school" that had no building.
Despite a potential budget shortfall that could reach as high as $900 million for the current fiscal year, a problem likely to extend into the next two-year budget, Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) told the crowd the Republican-controlled chamber will undo the House cuts.
"You are an example of what can happen when students are given the opportunity to go to a school that meets their needs," he told the crowd. "The key thing is that we continue to have choice for parents in this great state of ours."
Sara Facer of Bowling Green said the Ohio Virtual Academy is a "good marriage" between the home-schooling they'd previously given their children and the public school system.
Three of their four children study at home through the Internet school. The fourth will join them once she's old enough.
Ms. Facer said the family would survive if funding cuts forced the online school to shut down. "We would go back to traditional home-schooling, and we'd be OK, truthfully," she said.
"We would have to pay for all our own curriculum and materials, and we'd find a way to do that," she said. "It seems fair that, because all of the other students in Ohio have their education paid for, this should be provided as well."
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