The concept of charter schools is popular enough that even most liberals won't attack them openly. Yet the national political assault continues behind-the-scenes, most recently in Ohio, where unions have now been caught giving orders to Attorney General Marc Dann, who has duly saluted.
Last week the Columbus Dispatch published emails showing that Mr. Dann and the Ohio Education Association are in cahoots to close down certain charter schools in the state. Mr. Dann was elected last November in a Democratic sweep that included Governor Ted Strickland and was helped by Big Labor. As a token of his appreciation, Mr. Strickland earlier this year proposed placing a moratorium on new charter schools and restrictions on private-school vouchers, only to be rebuffed by the Legislature. Now it's Mr. Dann's turn to send a thank-you.
In March, the teachers union sued the state, alleging that low-performing charters should be closed because officials had failed to monitor them properly. The Ohio Supreme Court had ruled against the union in a similar case last year. Yet Mr. Dann offered to settle the case, and the union dropped the suit after the AG's office agreed to go after charter schools on its own.
The union even advised a legal strategy for Mr. Dann, which was to use the charitable trust status of the schools to argue that they were failing in their mission to educate kids. "I know this is a long shot, but by any chance, are community schools registered as charitable trusts?" said a union lawyer in an email to the AG's office. "If not, are they exempt from registration by regulation?"
"Not that I'm aware of, to either," came the reply from Mr. Dann's office. It's no secret that politicians and teachers unions often collaborate to deny school choice to poor and minority students, but rarely are their tactics laid this bare.
The emails show that Mr. Dann and the union also conspired to decide which charters to sue, carefully selecting schools that were too poor to fight back on their own. So far, the AG has targeted just three charter schools in Dayton, which happens to be the district of Jon Husted, the Republican Speaker of the House and the Legislature's most vocal proponent of school choice. But Mr. Dann told the Dispatch that "certainly there are 30 or more that scream out for this kind of attention."
Failing charter schools, which are independently run public schools that function outside of the normal education bureaucracy, should and do close. That's one advantage they have over lousy traditional public schools that stay open indefinitely without ever being held accountable. In Dayton alone, 80% of public school students attend schools that have been graded "D" or "F" by the state. No wonder Dayton currently has more students per capita in charters than any city other than New Orleans.
In December Ohio's Legislature put in place stronger quality controls, requiring chronically underperforming charters to shutter if they receive a failing grade from the state for three consecutive years. Mr. Dann is thus trying to pre-empt a legislative process already in place. And his decision to use the charitable trust status of these schools sets a dangerous precedent. If he's successful, any nonprofit that the AG's office considers a safe political target -- from hospitals to the United Way -- could be similarly vulnerable.
What's really animating Mr. Dann and the teachers union is a desire to tarnish the reputation of charters and limit parental choice. Congratulations to the Dispatch for exposing their power play.
Copyright 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved