Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Charter School Supreme Court Ruling Raises Anger At Industry

State of Ohio

The Ohio Supreme Court decision that nearly a hundred million dollars in equipment bought by charter school operators with tax money belongs to those operators and not to the schools has raised more anger against the industry. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.  

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by 10 Northeast Ohio charter schools against the for-profit management company they had contracted with, Akron-based White Hat Management. Seven of the 10 schools had serious academic problems during White Hat’s time in charge.

But five Ohio Supreme Court justices said that didn’t matter. They agreed that the contracts between the charter schools and White Hat were enforceable, so the charters were obliged to buy back school equipment that White Hat bought with state money.  And the court didn’t rule at all on the use of public money, on transparency or on academic performance involving charter schools or operators.

Republican strategist Mark Weaver teaches law at Ohio State and the University of Akron, and also represents some charter schools, though not the ones in this case. He says the justices were correct in dealing just with the contractual issues and kicking the other questions back to state lawmakers. “The Legislature has created the community or charter school system which allows operators to make a profit,” Weaver said. “And for those who get upset about that, remember Uber – they make a profit, but they wind up helping consumers along the way. Apple makes a profit but all of us have benefitted from that. And lawmakers have said, ‘Let’s experiment with charter schools and see if we can give parents more choices.’” 

While many were hoping the decision would more clearly define laws on charter schools and operators, others say this is what they expected. Sandy Theis is the executive director of ProgressOhio, which has long been critical of Ohio’s charter-school industry. “I wasn’t surprised at all by the ruling, and I think it just confirms what we’ve known all along. And that is that the worst performing charter schools own all three branches of state government.” 

Theis says Gov. John Kasich has taken no leadership to clean up charter schools, and state lawmakers have been sitting on a charter-school reform bill. “And now we have the judicial branch that basically says one of the worst performing charter school operator gets to keep $90 million worth of desks and computers and other things that the taxpayers paid for, and that if the school wants that equipment back they need to buy it back from White Hat,” Theis said. “That’s insane.” 

And Catherine Turcer with the government watchdog group Common Cause Ohio says it’s interesting to look at the political donations made by White Hat’s owner David Brennan. Together with his wife Ann, Turcer says over the last five years the Brennans gave $750,000 to elected officials and other candidates, and more than half a million dollars to Ohio Republican Party committees – some of which makes its way to candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court. “It’s always important to follow the money, and to see if there are connections. We need to be really alert to corruption in government and to alert to changes in regulations that benefit donors,” Turcer said. “Folks like the Brennans do not give campaign contributions just because they like candidates. They want something in return.” 

But one conservative legal expert says donations don’t buy decisions. “It’s quite scurrilous to suggest that judges or other public officials have based their decisions on something other than the law as they interpreted it without evidence of that,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Adler said allegations that the Brennans’ political donations have influenced this ruling are unfair. “There’s no evidence that anyone on this court is going to get rich or not get rich because of their decision in a heated contract dispute like this. Unless and until there is such evidence, we should assume that the judges had a good faith disagreement over how to apply contract on a case like this.” 

Though Ohio Supreme Court justices run on a non-partisan ballot, the five justices who signed onto the final decision in the White Hat case are all Republicans. There were two dissents, which were notable in their strong language blasting both White Hat and the Court’s judgment. One of the dissenters, Paul Pfeifer, is also a Republican, while the other, William O’Neill, is the court’s lone Democrat.

The Statehouse News Bureau was founded in 1980 to provide educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations. To this day, the Bureau remains the only broadcast outlet dedicated to in-depth coverage of state government news and topics of statewide interest. The Bureau is funded througheTech Ohio, and is managed by ideastream. The reporters at the Bureau follow the concerns of the citizens and voters of Ohio, as well as the actions of the Governor, the Ohio General Assembly, the Ohio Supreme Court, and other elected officials. We strive to cover statehouse news, government issues, Ohio politics, and concerns of business, culture and the arts with balance and fairness, and work to present diverse voices and points of view from the Statehouse and throughout Ohio. The three award-winning journalists at the bureau have more than 60 combined years of radio and television experience. They can be heard on National Public Radio and are regular contributors to Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace. Every weekday, the Statehouse News Bureau produces in-depth news reports forOhio's public radio stations. Those stories are also available on this website, either on the front page or in our archives. Weekly, the Statehouse News Bureau produces a television show from our studios in the Statehouse. The State of Ohio is an unique blend of news, interviews, talk and analysis, and is broadcast on Ohio's public television stations. The Statehouse News Bureau also produces special programming throughout the year, including the Governor's annual State of the State address to the Ohio General Assembly and a five-part year-end review.
Related Content