Columbus - A mystery amendment tucked into the House-passed state budget bill (House Bill 49) would let some online charter schools avoid having their poor academic scores drive down a sponsor’s performance rating. State Rep. Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson) opposed the bill for that reason, among others.
Even Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell), chairman of the House Education Committee, who sponsored the amendment, says he doesn’t know how or why controversial language was added to the proposal — one that appeared to be trying to benefit Ohio e-schools, including, potentially, ECOT. And the Senate already is eyeing how to kill it.
"If it indeed does create some kind of staggering loophole, I think we need to deal with it," said Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said Wednesday, adding she already was drafting an amendment to strip it out of the bill.
Chad Aldis, the Fordham Institute’s vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy, said the change "basically makes academic accountability for any school that transfers under this provision nonexistent. Given the House’s strong support of charter school accountability, I can’t believe this would have been intentional."
Roegner sponsored House Bill 2 in 2015 to reform charter schools and encourage transparency, accountability and responsibility for the sponsors of charter schools.
"I cared about them undoing the policy," Roegner said May 4. "They [Brenner’s amendments] appeared they would water down the charter school reforms made through HB2."
"Names are not attached [to amendments] but my understanding is it was Rep. Andrew Brenner whose changes were put into the budget two weeks ago," Roegner said. "Last Thursday I came across the new revisions, and I had one day to add amendments."
Roegner said she proposed an amendment which could have removed the revisions from the budget, but her proposal wasn't accepted.
"There was no good reason for not allowing it [her amendment]," Roegner said.
Roegner voted against the 4,675-page budget bill, but the charter amendment was only one of the reasons.
"This happens every single budget with 30 reasons to vote for it and 30 reasons to vote against it," she said.
Another reason for her no vote was education-related and proposed serious cuts to school funding, including Hudson. She had opposed that in the past with an amendment to hold schools harmless and maintain funding but it was not accepted this time.
"So all our schools are losing money," Roegner said. "I don't think that's fair or right."
The budget begins with the governor and then goes to the House before it is sent to the Senate.
"It's in their court now," Roegner said.
The budget is a "pet peeve" of Roegner.
"The budget has way too much stuff in it," she said. "It should be about numbers. It's impossible to properly vet it and be familiar with it in such a short time."
Roegner says the culture [of government] is to jam things through and mistakes are made.
"I want to do the due diligence on the bills and get answers before I vote," Roegner said. "Controversial issues can be hidden in the budget. There's the temptation to insert these provisions that would have a harder time [to pass] if property vetted."
Suspicions grew when the full amendment was not included in the Legislative Service Commission comparison document that summarizes changes to the budget bill — appearing only after the full House voted on the bill Tuesday. It also was not part of the shorter, bullet-point amendment summary that House Republicans distributed to the public.
The Legislative Service Commission mistakenly omitted the amendment from its summary, said director Mark Flanders.
On occasion, an amendment will not function as the author hoped, requiring a redrafting. But in this case, Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, said the controversial portion of his proposal was essentially produced out of thin air by the Legislative Service Commission, which drafts legislation for the House and Senate.
"It wasn’t in anything we submitted to have drafted," Faber said. "I don’t know where that came from."
Faber said he has talked to the commission’s supervisor but has not gotten a good answer, because the drafter was out of the office.
Faber said he wanted a simple amendment to allow the Auglaize County Education Service Center to hire the Jefferson County ESC to run its online dropout-recovery school.
However, the language drafted included a paragraph that would allow an e-school to change sponsors without having its academic scores negatively impact the new sponsor’s ability to continue overseeing charter schools.
That would be a big change to current law, where sponsors rated "ineffective" for three consecutive years, or rated "poor," lose their ability to sponsor charter schools.
Some saw this as a potential benefit to e-schools, particularly larger ones like the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Because of its size and poor academic performance, ECOT is likely to drag down the rating of any organization that sponsors it, and some wonder if that eventually could leave it without a sponsor and force it to close.
"It’s not ECOT’s amendment, and it doesn’t benefit ECOT," said school spokesman Neil Clark, adding that the school’s grades are too low to allow it to transfer to a new sponsor.
Faber added, "It certainly wasn’t the intent to apply to ECOT or anybody else."
Brenner said ECOT was pushing for an alternative to Ohio’s value-added academic growth measure, but not for sponsor changes.
He expects the amendment will be fixed in the Senate, likely by mid-June. The mystery amendment has opponents in both parties.
"It just goes against all of the strengthening of standards bills that we’ve put forward," said Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman. "We’ve started to make some progress and this would take a step back."
Columbus Dispatch Reporter Catherine Candisky contributed to this story.