The Ohio Pioneering Charter School Story

I’ve led a lot of breakout sessions at various conferences over the past few years. But none were as fun as the session I co-led last month at the Ohio Charter School Conference with Ohio’s Sally Perz and Moderator Lyman Millard.

Former State Representative Sally Perz is the “mother” of Ohio charter schools. The Ohio Republican toiled for years to pass Ohio’s 1997 charter school law. I first met her when she came to Minnesota in the mid-1990s for a legislative conference and she was, by chance, a guest in my home. We stayed up most of the night talking. She later called it like attending “charter school university.”

She went back to Ohio and encountered as many obstacles, if not more, than those we faced in Minnesota passing the first charter school law. As a representative in the minority, her efforts were blocked by leadership of the majority party. She convinced her governor, also a Republican, to insert chartering into the governor’s bill, and somehow it survived.

But compromise occurred, of course, and chartering started only as a “pilot” project in certain areas of the state. They were known as “community schools.” That, of course, took even longer for the public to learn and access chartering, which may be one reason why chartering is still not well understood in Ohio.

With Lyman’s policy sense as VP Communications of Breakthrough Schools of Cleveland, one of the highest-performing charter networks in Ohio, the war stories flew. Passing legislation like chartering is NOT Civics 101. But the bottom line is the same: it takes a few champions willing to take an extraordinary stand for change. Sally was that champion. Her colleague, Rep. Jamie Callender, joined her in this work.  Both are still active in supporting chartering today.

This unusual legislative start (every state has its unique story!) may be why even today, new start-up “brick and mortar” charter schools are allowed to develop only in the eight urban areas of Ohio. That’s about 80% of Ohio’s charter schools. Twenty percent are “conversion” charters or virtual schools, which can occur anywhere in the state.

I hope that chartering in Ohio can revert to its original origins—an opportunity for a group of passionate parents and teachers to create a school new where students and families need and want one, regardless of their zip code.