LEFT: Children arrive for school at Eagle Heights Academy in Youngstown, one of dozens of charter schools opened after the Ohio legislature paved the way for diverting state education dollars to privately operated schools.
The language sounded so innocuous, it was easy to overlook. Slipped into a 1998 bill that massively overhauled academic standards for Ohio public schools were several paragraphs that allowed charter schools to open in all major cities and to go directly to the state board of education for approval.
It wasn't until nearly a year later that Akron Beacon Journal reporters Doug Oplinger and Dennis Willard figured out that state lawmakers had managed to make Ohio one of the easiest states in which private groups could open publicly funded schools - without a word of debate or even an open vote on the issue.
That parliamentary move became the inspiration for the four-part series, "Whose Choice?" that ran in the Beacon Journal last December and touched off a storm of indignation over the way charter schools in Ohio are funded and operated.
One of the charter schools highlighted in the series has closed and the IRS and state auditor are questioning the financial relationship between other charter schools and for-profit companies hired to operate them. More than 300 people have phoned, written or e-mailed the paper about the series and a public school advocacy group is considering a lawsuit on the issue.
"This has been very rewarding as a reporter," says Willard, "because there has been reaction."
Of course, not all of the reaction has been positive. School choice advocates have called the Beacon Journal mean-spirited and anti-reform. Willard says they miss the point.
"We're not anti-voucher or anti-charter," says Willard. "But we do think these issues should be debated in the light of day and that process has not occurred."
Willard and Oplinger were detached to the series full time for several months but "Whose Choice?" really encompasses five years of work on school funding the reporters have done as a team. Beginning in 1995 with the series "Shortchanging Ohio's Children," Willard and Opplinger have documented Ohio's failure to create an equitable public school system.
With an award-winning civic journalism series called "The Children's Hour" in 1998, the team found, through polls and focus groups, great depth of public support for public education and a genuine discomfort with vouchers and other methods of putting public money into private schools.
It was after that series, Willard and Oplinger say, that they began to notice what little impact voters' preferences seemed to be having on those they elected. None of the solutions that came out of "The Children's Hour" focus groups could gain a foothold in the state legislature. And yet, a small group of charter school advocates - and one man in particular -- had managed to influence the legislature and the governor in a way that further impacted the public school system most Ohioans wanted to see improved.
The reporter first turned their attention to charter schools as a way to explore that problem-of the disproportionate influence on government of one man, or a small group, over a majority of the electorate. But what they found out about some of Ohio's charter schools was so disturbing, the schools themselves became the series' focus.
"Whose Choice?" showed that the state board of education was approving applications so fast and with so little oversight that schools were receiving funding even though they didn't have adequate facilities for students and their staff had not been certified or checked for any criminal backgrounds. One school that closed after the series ran, Riser Military Academy, had no indoor toilets. Another was closed for fire code violations.
"Whose Choice?" also demonstrated that the charter schools were taking money away from local school districts and that many were being operated by for-profit companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the money the state is awarding to charter schools.
"What's going on in Ohio is a travesty," says William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in Education, "and the Beacon Journal series heightened awareness of what a travesty it is."
"I think the series was very important," says Democratic State Senator Leigh Herington. "It mapped out in an objective way a lot of the concerns we've been voicing and it's clear the legislature was manipulated."
Oplinger's frustration with his own work is that, though the series did expose-as Herington describes it-"manipulation" of the legislative system, it gave readers no tools for counteracting the special interests.
"I believe it's journalists' role to provide information and inspire citizens to feel some responsibility and then to act," says Oplinger. "I believe we've gotten to the point of helping them feel responsible but they're still not sure how to act. They're writing letters but it would be nice if newspapers could figure out how to create better ways of being involved."