A decade of charter school growth, but where to now?

More than 100,000 students in Ohio attended a public charter school during the past school year. Most of these students come from urban areas, as state law requires that a start-up charter school locate within the boundaries of either a “Big 8” urban district or a low-performing district. The charts below show the decade-long growth of charter schools, as well as the current percentage of students attending charters within Ohio’s urban areas.

Chart 1 shows the charter school growth in Ohio’s Big 8 urban areas over the past 10 years. None of the 8 cities’ charter sector has declined in enrollment (by way of contrast, all of these cities’ traditional districts have declined). The growth rates, however, vary across the cities. Columbus’ charter school sector has exploded, nearly quadrupling in student enrollment size. Cleveland and Toledo’s charter sectors have also expanded at a brisk pace, both more than doubling their enrollment. Meanwhile, Youngstown and Dayton’s charter schools grew at a considerably slower pace than their counterparts.

Chart 1: City’s charter schools grew at a varying pace in past decade – Percent change in charter school enrollment, 2003-04 to 2012-13.

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education - Enrollment Data, and District & Community School Payment Reports NOTE: Charter school enrollment includes students whose home district is the city’s main traditional district (e.g., Columbus City Schools).

Chart 2 shows the share of each city’s public-school student population that charter schools serve, as of 2012-13. Three Ohio cities—Youngstown, Dayton, and Cleveland—have charter school sectors that serve over 30 percent of the city’s students. To put this into perspective, only 7 U.S. cities had over 30 percent charter school students, according to NAPCS. Interestingly, Youngstown and Dayton, while showing little by way of growth (chart 1), have the largest share of charter schools students. In Youngstown, the charter school share remains high, due to the rapid erosion in its traditional district’s enrollment; in Dayton, charter schools captured a large chunk of the student population prior to 2003, but since then charter growth has all but stalled out. 

Chart 2: Three cities’ charter sectors have captured 30 percent of student population – Percentage of public-school students attending a charter school, 2012-13.

Charter schools are growing and are here to stay in Ohio—that much is clear from the charts above. More and more students are choosing to attend a charter, and as a result, charter schools are capturing an increasing percentage of Ohio’s student population. It’s no question, then, that charter schools have become a force to be reckoned with.

But as charters continue to grow and evolve, Ohio policymakers ought to review charter school policies, in order to uncover which ones are outdated, easily circumvented, or ineffective in today’s charter environment. For, we know about the good, the bad, and the ugly side of charter school growth. As such, it remains in the interest of the public—and the students whom charter schools serve—that policy incentivize an increase in the amount of “good” that the charters produce, reduce the amount of “bad,” and eliminate the ugly side of charter schools.

The axiom “placing a ‘charter’ sign over a school house door doesn’t guarantee educational excellence” has merit today, just as much as it did three years ago when it was written. And, given the quickening pace of charter school growth in the Buckeye State (and, one expects charters to grow even more Cleveland and Columbus as a result of recent reforms) the need to make sound charter school policy is now more urgent than ever.

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