Ohio’s “unique” approach to charter-district collaboration

Ohio is unique
in its ability
to turn the best of charter school theory and practice on
its head. The most recent example comes from an Ohio school district that
set up
a charter school to offload test scores of low-performing students
while making money for the district. According to the Columbus Dispatch the London City School District “will collect 80
percent of the $1.9 million in state dollars the charter will draw this year as
payment for its services. It expects $700,000 of that to be profit.” The
treasurer for both the charter school and the district told the paper that “district
officials plan to continue the ‘revenue sharing’ method” despite the fact the
school received an academic rating of F on its 2010-11 report card.

Today the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released
its annual look at the state of charter schooling in the United States – Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look
at American Charter Schools in 2011
. The theme of this year’s report is
charter-district collaboration. For most of the 20-year history of charters in
America, relations between school districts and charter upstarts were frosty at
best and downright hostile at times. Or, as CRPE’s Robin Lake writes, “Districts
were known to call the local fire marshal to make sure new charter schools
could not get their fire permits approved in time to open or to delay the
release of state funds so that charter schools couldn’t pay salaries.” Yet, it
wasn’t a one-sided fight. As Lake observes, “Charter school leaders were just
as antagonistic – waging aggressive legal, public relations, and political
battles to win as many new charters as possible in historically low-performing
districts such as Dayton, Ohio; Milwaukee; and Los Angeles.”

Despite this stormy past, there are an increasing number of
school districts working with high-performing charters to pursue a “portfolio
strategy” to district management of schools. In assessing the nation’s charter
landscape the CRPE team notes that “what began with a handful of pioneers
almost a decade ago has grown to include at least 24 portfolio school districts
across the country…. Common among the portfolio school districts is a
commitment to open the best possible schools for students and close
low-performing schools, whether the schools are charter schools or traditional
public schools.”

CRPE’s director and founder Paul Hill has suggested over the
years that communities should consider a “tight-loose” system of school
management where districts are no longer just owner-operators of their own
schools but also quality control agents for portfolios of independently
operated charter schools. In recent years, such efforts have received
encouragement and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is
supporting district-charter collaboration compacts. According to CRPE there are
14 cities – including New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, Denver, and
Boston – with such compacts that are “crafted and signed by superintendents and
charter leaders willing to commit to collaboration on difficult and often
divisive issues” like funding, facilities, charter growth, accountability, and
transportation.

Back in Ohio, meanwhile, there are 45 school districts
sponsoring 64 schools. A handful of these district-charter relationships (e.g.,
Cleveland Metropolitan Schools) are worthy of inclusion in the CRPE report
because they are examples of reform-minded districts working with quality
independent charter schools to band together as equals to provide better
options for kids who have been shortchanged educationally. But, many of these
district-charter “partnerships” are little more than money makers for districts
that also serve the purpose of being dumping grounds for kids with low test
scores. The districts, as captured by the Dispatch,
collect the money for the schools because they provide all the services but
aren’t accountable for the student’s test scores because the schools are set up
as their own independent entities.

Charter-district collaboration takes many forms; some are worthy
of praise and replication while others are downright deviant. Yet again, when
it comes to charter schools, the Buckeye States seems  unique in its ability
take a worthy concept and turn it completely on its head.

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