Monday, February 10, 2014

Should Ohio Charter Schools Get Big Casino Pay Day?

I have to admit it when I'm surprised. And today, I got a big surprise when I saw how much casino revenue is going to Ohio Charter Schools -- a testament to just how substantial that sector of Ohio's Public Education landscape has become.

Under the Ohio Constitution, there is no mention of the money being distributed to Charter Schools. In fact, the Constitutional provision specifically says the revenue is to be distributed to "public school districts", using that phrase 4 times in the pertinent section.

Yet 6.6% of the revenue distributed this school year went to Charter Schools. This is apparently because it's distributed on a per pupil basis to school districts, and now that "money follows the child," so it follows the child outside of the Constitutionally required "public school district."

And some Charters get lots of that money. Take the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. According to the Ohio Department of Taxation, for the semiannual payments schools received in August and January, ECOT received $744,083 -- more money from casino revenues than Canton, Dayton and Lorain. And while much of this can be explained by the fact that ECOT now has more than 14,000 students, Dayton has about 8,000 more than ECOT, so it's not just because ECOT's big.

What ECOT's $744,000 pay day is the result of is, yes, its large student population, but also a large mixture of that population coming from districts that receive a large share of the Casino money.

But regardless of how ECOT gets the money, the fact is, only 10 public school districts in the state get more casino revenue than ECOT. And the state's big online Charter Schools (ECOT, Ohio Virtual Academy, OHDELA, Buckeye Online School of Success, Ohio Connections Academy, Treca Digital Academy, and Virtual Community School) receive $1.88 million from casinos. That's more than any district not named Cleveland or Columbus, in whose jurisdictions two of the state's four casinos reside.

But that $1.88 million is still more than Cincinnati and Toledo, whose districts also contain casinos. And that represents 30% of the $6.4 million in casino revenues that go to Charter Schools statewide.

I'm just curious about a few things:

1) Did anyone who voted for the casino issue know that so much money would be going to Charter Schools?

2) Does this distribution to Charter Schools conform with the Constitutional provision that refers only to "public school districts"?

3) Does the fact another approximately $4 million went to Join Vocational Districts have a similar Constitutional issue?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but they certainly need to be asked. Because while $92 million was distributed to "public school districts" this year, between Charter Schools and other educational entities (joint vocational districts), "public school districts" -- in the strictest sense -- got 89% of that.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that Charter Schools shouldn't get Casino money, in theory. I get the argument that if casino money were slated to go to a child in Columbus, but that child is in a Charter School or a JVS program, the money should follow that child to the Charter School or JVS.

Regardless of the merits of that argument, though, I wonder whether Ohio's Constitution permits it.

And, oh, by the way, before anyone thinks casino money is a panacea for Ohio School Funding (which I've heard for years), the median amount received by an Ohio "public school district" was $87,100 -- not much help when facing a $515 million biennial budget cut. Or as one school superintendent said recently about his district's casino payment:
"Lisbon School Superintendent Don Thompson said any additional income is welcome, but the nearly $20,000 they are scheduled to receive is not enough to offset state funding cuts the district has undergone in recent years."