“Whose Choice?” An excellent backgrounder on Ohio’s school choice movement

Anyone interested in Ohio’s school choice movement is encouraged to read this fascinating and highly relevant series of articles, originally published in 1999, by the Akron Beacon Journal.

Using memos and documents from Gov. George Voinovich’s administration, the newspaper was able to piece together the creation of Ohio’s school choice movement, focusing primarily on the extraordinary political influence exerted by Akron’s David Brennan and others. Many of the same players who helped create the program behind closed doors in the late 1990s are at work again today as Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio House seek to loosen accountabiliy and oversight of the choice programs, which will total more than $1 billion by the time the biennium is over. And since the money for these programs are all deducted from school districts’ money, it will mean that districts will have to raise more than 4 mills locally on average to replace these deductions.

What Whose Choice? brings to light is that at the height of the DeRolph school funding case, where Ohio’s system of funding public schools was declared unconstitutional four times, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers were spending an inordinate amount of time creating programs for big political donors that would increase the property tax burden on local taxpayers at the exact time the Ohio Supreme Court was ordering the state to decrease that burden. The series details how Ohio’s School Choice movement’s infancy was spent in smokey political backrooms, not in the idealistic realm of creating better choices for parents and children.

Day One: Charter School Experiment Goes AwryParents have freedom of choice, but not freedom of information

The series begins by detailing the overall lack of success and oversight the charter schools had in the early days in Ohio, describing the Wild West atmosphere inherent in the program’s inception. For example, some charters schools were being approved even though they did not have bathrooms for the kids. The second story of this day’s installment details how charter schools, billed as the epitome of parental choice, denies access to records by parents.

Day Two: David Brennan’s White Hat Management changes the way business, politics and school vouchers mix; Did former aide’s role cross lines?; Brennan foundation funds school business

This installment details the political maneuvering it took to eventually create the Charter School system in Ohio, and how one man—Akron’s David Brennan—was the force of will (and money) behind the program’s inception. The story relies on the Voinovich administration’s own letters, which were archived at Ohio University. The second story of the installment details the cozy relationship Brennan had with Thomas Needles, who was Gov. George Voinovich’s education czar, and who took a job with Brennan days after leaving the Voinovich administration, raising many eyebrows.

Day Three: Voucher system falls far short of goals; Voucher plan leaves long list of broken vows

This installment details the failings of the Cleveland Voucher Program, and explains how it was as much politics as it was choice that led to its creation, including the prominent role current House Speaker William Batchelder played. The second story of the installment explains how the Voucher program cost public schools precious money, left special education kids behind and didn’t end up increasing private school enrollment. This story was written about the time the U.S. Supreme Court was considering Ohio’s voucher system.

Day Four: School battle eludes voters, takes its cues from coalitions; Campaign organizer pushes hard for changes

This final installment details the political machinations behind the school choice movement and outlines the array of interest groups that aligned to help push the idea upon Ohio’s voters. The day’s second story outlines the importance of David Zanotti — a political organizer tied closely to Voinovich and Brennan — and his coalition building to help further the choice movement in Ohio. The series concludes with a list of important interest groups in the school choice battles being waged in the program’s early days.