Political News

Lawmaker refutes blog's claims of charter school conflict

Posted November 21

— An influential state senator in Ohio on Monday pushed back against allegations by a political blog that she has a conflict of interest regarding charter schools.

Republican Sen. Peggy Lehner, of Kettering, refuted claims detailed in a series of articles in the blog 3rd Rail Politics. She responded to the claims in a letter to legislative colleagues.

The articles allege a relationship between the nonpartisan Fordham Institute and Lehner's sister, Kate Walsh. The posts suggested the alleged tie has given Fordham undue policy influence, including over legislation rewriting Ohio's charter school laws and affecting competing charter school sponsors.

"Senator Peggy Lehner and Fordham Foundation seem to be on the same page. literally," 3rd Rail's Connor Brown blogged on Nov. 3. "Not only are they ideologically aligned, but they often appear in the same news stories 'singing from the same hymnbook,' as Grandpa would say."

Brown suggested Walsh's tie to the think tank was "likely a better explanation" for Fordham's Statehouse influence than ideology.

Lehner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, called such claims "baseless and scurrilous attacks" intended to mute her voice in fighting to crack down on bad actors in the charter school industry.

"It's a form of intimidation, frankly," she said in an interview. "It's harassment more than anything else to push me out of the discussion."

Lehner also sent her email to the founder and lobbyist for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio's largest online charter school. She said she suspects the school is behind the attacks, which both the blog and the school said Monday is not true. Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has been fighting the state in court over how it tallies enrollment figures used in doling out state aid.

Neil Clark, a lobbyist for the charter school, said he has nothing to do with 3rd Rail Politics.

"If I want to attack someone, I hit them straight up. I don't hide it," he said.

In a return letter to Lehner, 3rd Rail Editor-in-chief Cyndy Rees said the blog is funded by a Cleveland businessman increasingly disappointed in mainstream media coverage of the Statehouse. She did not name the investor.

"It is curious you would characterize 3rd Rail's bringing some much-needed transparency to these issues as 'harassment,'" Rees wrote. "While it may be more convenient for you, your sister, and her funders at Fordham to work quietly behind the scenes on education policy, we believe Ohioans have a right to know your connections to an individual school sponsor who may benefit from state legislation."

Lehner said her sister doesn't work for Fordham, but holds a full-time position as president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She said Walsh wrote two reports for Fordham nearly a decade ago as an outside contractor. The blog reported that Walsh's name appeared on Fordham's website under "staff." A message was left with Fordham seeking comment.

The senator said she didn't consult with her sister on charter reform legislation. She also refuted the blog's suggestion that she's angling for a job at Fordham when she leaves the Senate in four years.

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