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Whose Choice? An Introduction

by Dennis J. Willard & Doug Oplinger - September 13, 2000

In an effort to determine the effectiveness of charter schools and vouchers, education researchers are mired in arguments about "normal curve equivalents" and "methodological limitations."

Meanwhile, as reporters for the Akron Beacon Journal, we visited schools, combed through records and did some simple data analyses to raise serious and potentially damaging questions about the Buckeye State’s aggressive effort to out pace the country in school reform.

In our four-day investigative report, called "Whose Choice?" we expose charter schools where children are physically endangered. We detail clearly the state’s failure to assure academic and financial accountability. We show that voters are losing control, their public schools are hurt, and Catholic schools are receiving favored treatment.

The series, published Dec. 12-15, 1999, in the Akron Beacon Journal, offers a startling, well documented history of money and political influence that is behind the school reform movement.

In the five weeks following publication, the paper conservatively logged more than 250 phone calls, letters and emails. Most responses lauded the courage of the paper in questioning some of the state’s most powerful politicians and lawyers.

There was a call for an investigation by the Ohio Inspector General, the creation of an 11-member coalition of statewide organizations calling for a moratorium on new charter schools and the closing of two charter schools.

Among the major findings were:

  • Ohio went from having no charter school laws on the books in 1997 to being one of the top five states this year.
  • Charter schools were billed as a way for parents, teachers and the community to take control of education on the local level. But next year, for-profit education management companies, or EMOs, will control most of Ohio’s charter school enrollment.
  • Three months into the 1999-2000 school year, two-thirds of the charter schools had yet to secure background checks for all their teachers and a third didn’t have proper fire or building inspections.
  • One charter school had no indoor plumbing, textbooks or a telephone. Police had been called to the school nearly a dozen times and 12-year-old children were suspended and sent into the busy street with no way home.
  • There were memos confirming that handicapped and special needs children were actively counseled away from the state-funded Cleveland voucher program. Other memos indicated an intention to do the same with charter schools.
  • A prominent Republican campaign fundraiser played a prominent role in creation of Ohio’s Cleveland voucher program. He opened two of his own private schools -- filled almost exclusively with voucher students -- intervened in management of the voucher program and then played a similar role in creating Ohio’s charter schools. His involvement has allowed him to establish one of the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management companies.
  • Former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich struck deals with bishops of the Catholic Conference of Ohio to facilitate creation of the Cleveland voucher program.
  • Billed as a way to help children escape the failing public schools, the program instead became a $3.2 million subsidy to the participating Catholic schools.
  • Memos show that Voinovich boasted of helping Catholic schools more than many public schools. Among the favors was the installation of classroom technology in Catholic schools ahead of public schools.
  • Meanwhile, Ohio’s public school system was in one of its worst financial periods since the Depression, with one in six school districts falling into insolvency.

As a part of the series, we explored the dynamics of democracy in the school choice debate. All sides have resorted to name calling, eliminating hopes of an atmosphere for constructive discussion.

One newspaper editorial writer aptly summarized the debate over school choice: "We’re at war here."

The entire series, by reporters Dennis J. Willard and Doug Oplinger, can be found at:

Oplinger and Willard have been investigating school issues in Ohio since 1995 and have published a number of articles resulting in substantive public policy changes. Willard is the newspaper’s statehouse bureau chief. Oplinger was an editor in two Pulitzer Prizes won by the staff of the Akron Beacon Journal and now is doing investigative reporting for the paper.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10496, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:32:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Dennis Willard
    Akron Beacon Journal
    Dennis J. Willard is the statehouse bureau chief of the Akron Beacon Journal. He has been investigating school issues in Ohio since 1995.
  • Doug Oplinger
    Akron Beacon Journal
    Doug Oplinger is an investigative reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal. He was an editor in two Pulitzer Prizes won by the staff of the Akron Beacon Journal.
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