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Charter Schools Would Benefit From Levy

We continue our week-long critical look at the Columbus Schools Levy voters will decide next month. Voters, for the first time, are being asked to approve local property tax funds for independently run charter schools. The Charter school sharing proposal is the most controversial policy aspect of the $75 million request. Right now Charter schools get their money from the state. Charter schools get state education funds that would have gone to public schools. Last year, 87 charter schools siphoned off nearly 15,000 Columbus students. Because Columbus loses $5,000 for each student that attends a charter school, they have been controversial from the start. The levy only adds to the divide because if approved local tax money would go to the privately run schools. Columbus School Board member Mike Wiles opposes sharing the levy with charters. "All the people that I talked with that there was no way in the world that they were going to vote for a combined levy  sharing money with charter schools," Wiles said. The charter sharing plan was first recommended by the mayor's education commission and then approved by the school board.  But it took a change in state law to allow local tax funding of charters. Supporters of the higher taxes promise only high performing non profit charter schools will receive levy money. And the levy money will only go to schools who agree to accept Columbus district children. Teachers traditionally oppose charter schools but Columbus Teachers Union president Rhonda Johnson supports this sharing plan. "What we want our parents to have good options for our students," Johnson said. "And for me it's about the students it's not about whether the student is attending a charter school  or a traditional public schools. We want them all to be great schools." As for what defines a "high performing" charter school, that criteria has not been set yet. Like Columbus's traditional public schools – many of the city's charters have a "D" or "F" rating, only a handful are rated good or excellent. Interim school superintendent Dan Good said, "what is interesting is there isn't a great variance from the same percentage of high performing district schools and or low performing district schools. The charters fill out the bell curve about the same way when we break them down." Still, competition for possible local tax money will be intense. Franklinton Preparatory Academy is among 15 new charter schools operating in the district this school year. As school founder Marty Griffith watches students play a game of pick-up basketball during their lunch period, he says once the school establishes a track record it will compete for local tax funds. "Clearly something that we would be interested in, not only because it's a potential source of funding but we also feel we have some programs and projects here that we're developing here that are ripe for dissemination," Griffith said. Griffith explains that not all of the high school students that attend Franklin Preparatory Academy will go to college. The school’s curriculum includes trades and vocational instruction. The school draws mostly from the surrounding  neighborhood where most households struggle with poverty. Vacant houses are common. With 100 students enrolled in the first year, Franklin Preparatory Academy has a staff of ten and it draws $500,000 from the state. That's money that would have gone to the Columbus City schools if those students had enrolled in traditional public schools. The school’s founder makes no apologies for accepting public money. "With respect to the debate, the contentious debate about funding, I guess a simple answer would be to say: If there wasn't a need, then there wouldn't be this number of students leaving traditional district schools. The fact that kids are leaving  suggests something is either amiss within the traditional schools or  district schools are not meeting the needs of all the students they are educating. But, mostly parents are looking for a safe place where their kids can go and get a good education," Griffiths said. But, voters will get the final say on whether the new charter school and others that compete for funds will get local tax money.  Jonathan Beard heads a group opposing the levy.  He says local funding of charters needs to be separate from the current levy request. "That is a policy issue. Should the citizens of Columbus fund locally charters that are already funded at the state level. That's a great policy question. But it shouldn't be wrapped up in this 24 percent tax increase. It's so different that it needs to be separate," Beard said. But it's not separate.  If voters approve Issue 50 and raise Columbus School taxes –  $8.5 million a year will go to privately run charter schools.