Ohio

Eye on Education

It Could Be a While Before Churches Can Sponsor Charter Schools

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Rikard Fröberg / Flickr

A Columbus church seeking to become a charter school sponsor lost another round in court last month.

A sponsor is a group, such as a nonprofit or a school district, that oversees a charter school. In return, a sponsor receives a small percentage of the charter school’s state funding. Sponsors themselves don’t operate charter schools.

A state appeals court denied Brookwood Presbyterian Church’s appeal of a lower court ruling that had referred the matter back to the Ohio Department of Education.

The Ohio Department of Education originally rejected the church’s application to become a charter school sponsor; the lower court vacated that Department of Education decision but didn’t give the church a green light either.

The appeals court decision means the possibility of a church being able to sponsor a charter school is “a long time away, if ever,” said Ellen Wristen, a special education lawyer and member of Brookwood Presbyterian Church, which submitted a charter school sponsorship application to the Ohio Department of Education in 2007.

Currently, a tax-exempt organization can serve as a charter school sponsor as long as the organization has been in existence for at least five years, has at least $500,000 in assets and is an “education-oriented entity.”

Brookwood was not an “education-oriented entity” because it was “exclusively organized and operated for religious purposes” rather than educational ones, a lawyer for the Ohio Department of Education told the state Supreme Court when the case passed through that court in 2010.

The appeals court did not rule directly on whether churches can sponsor charter schools.

But it did affirm the lower court’s decision which said that the Ohio Department of Education’s rejection of Brookwood as a charter school sponsor was not correct because it did not rely on specific rules in determining whether an organization is “education-oriented.”

The specific rules didn’t exist then in state law.

This summer, rules about specific factors to be used in determining who qualifies as an “educational-oriented entity” were added to state law.

The Ohio Department of Education does not have a position on religious entities serving as charter school sponsors beyond what the law states, Ohio Department of Education spokesperson John Charlton said.

Brookwood has not decided whether to appeal the most recent court ruling, Wristen said.

The church originally sought to become a charter school sponsor because it saw a need for better oversight of how charter schools treat children with disabilities.

The church provided services to children with disabilities from both charter schools and traditional public schools for about a decade. That stopped last year when a nonprofit group with close ties to the church opened a charter school for students with disabilities. That school is sponsored by the Reynoldsburg school district.

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