Schools of choice need to be schools of quality

This post originally appeared as an op-ed column in the Columbus Dispatch.

Recent news
that White Hat Management, the big, Ohio-based, profit-seeking
charter-school operator, faces financial problems surely was received as
an early Christmas present by many longtime charter opponents,
particularly within the Buckeye State.

The company’s founder and leader, Akron industrialist David Brennan,
has been a larger-than-life target for school-choice foes since Gov.
George V. Voinovich appointed him in 1992 to head a commission intended
to advance choice in Ohio kindergarten-through-12th grade education.

That commission’s work led to the Cleveland Scholarship Program, the
nation’s first publicly funded voucher program. Its constitutionality
would be debated and litigated until being upheld by the U.S. Supreme
Court in 2002, a decision that has reverberated across the country.

Brennan’s vision, doggedness and political connectedness in the
education-policy sector have not been limited to vouchers. Without him,
Ohio’s charter-school program might have been stillborn, or strangled in
its crib by the outraged forces of the public-school establishment.
From Day One, the teachers unions teamed up with the League of Women
Voters, the PTA, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio AFL-CIO
and others to savage charters at the Statehouse, to challenge them in
the courthouse and to denounce them in every sort of public forum.

The vitriol of these attacks was illustrated in 2003 by
then-Cleveland Teachers Union president Richard DeColibus, who announced
his union’s $70,000 “truth” campaign by declaring that “these bad
(charter) schools are like 700-pound hogs at the dinner table, eating
everything in sight, and the longer they’re there, the harder it’s going
to be to move them out and away from the table.”

Such attacks were obviously self-interested. They were as clumsy as
they were mean-spirited. But they weren’t hard to rebut by school-choice
supporters, who noted that Cleveland’s public schools, for example,
were among the worst in the nation. Regrettably, hundreds of schools in
other Ohio cities, attended mainly by poor and minority youngsters, were
almost as ineffective.

Brennan fought the critics and enemies of choice on multiple fronts,
and thousands of Buckeye State youngsters owe him thanks for brightening
their educational prospects and rebutting those who would keep them
trapped in crummy district schools. As the current school year opened,
almost 100,000 children were enrolled in some 350 charter schools across
the state and an additional 22,000 attended private schools with help
from Ohio’s three public voucher programs.

School choice, however, has not fully delivered on its promise. Too
many schools of choice have turned out to be no better than the district
schools to which they are meant to be alternatives. That goes for
Brennan’s own schools, too. White Hat runs 33 of them in Ohio, and none
is rated higher than a C on state report cards. Most get D’s and F’s.
Brennan contends, as do some other choice supporters, that such results
don’t matter and that the marketplace is the only real accountability
mechanism that does.

Experience, alas, suggests otherwise. When it comes to education
quality, the marketplace alone has proved ineffective. Schools need to
satisfy parents and to deliver solid academic results — and when
taxpayer dollars are involved, those paying the bills have every right,
even obligation, to ensure that such results are delivered. Parents are
often unfussy about academic quality, keeping their children in a school
that doesn’t deliver much learning so long as they feel it is safer
than their other options, that its staff is welcoming or that it is
convenient to their home or workplace.

Without demeaning such considerations, charters are public schools,
and too many of Ohio’s children who attend them are still at academic
risk. Taxpayers deserve to invest their hard-earned dollars in schools
that deliver results — gauged both by parent satisfaction and by student
performance.

Brennan (and Voinovich and a few brave legislators) can fairly be
said to have brought school choice to Ohio, and that has been a boon to
thousands of families, many of them desperately needy and otherwise
powerless to seek better education options for their children. But much
more needs to be done. Today’s struggle is to ensure that all schools
deliver a solid academic return on investment. That’s how Ohio will be
able to turn its own economic fortunes around and make the state a great
place for children and families.

Thanks for part one, Mr. Brennan. Will you now tackle part two?

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