The road to quality

Policymakers across the country are struggling with issues of charter school quality. Even well-intentioned, reform-minded leaders aren't sure what to do when many of their charters veer off track. Ohio is no exception. Thus, we were challenged this past summer when the state's top officials--Governor Bob Taft, Senate President Bill Harris, House Speaker Jon Husted, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman--requested from three national organizations an external audit of Ohio's charter program and recommendations for improving it. This was a gutsy and, to our knowledge, unprecedented act: inviting outside scrutiny of their state's charter sector.

The result is Turning the Corner To Quality, a report released yesterday by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In response to the state leaders' invitation, it sets forth seventeen "steps Ohio might consider to increase quality of education provided through the charter school choice option."

These recommendations rest on an analysis of Ohio school performance data; a review of best practices in other states; input from experts in charter school finance, sponsorship, accountability and policy; and evaluation of dozens of policy options. Joining with our three organizations in conducting the study were a number of national charter-policy experts, including Bryan Hassel and Louann Bierlein Palmer.

It is clear that Ohio's charter school program is at a crossroads. Thousands of students attend nearly 300 charter schools, many achieving at higher levels than their peers in surrounding district schools. Charter schools in Dayton and Cleveland outpace the local district schools in both reading and math. Across the state's eight major urban districts (the "Ohio Eight"), charter school proficiency rates in reading and math have doubled in five years, surpassing progress within the districts and nearly eliminating the proficiency gap between the district and charter sectors. Accomplishments like these underscore the promise that charter schools offer for Ohio's children.

Yet too many students attend lackluster charter schools. Some schools have spent multiple years in Academic Emergency, the lowest category in Ohio's accountability system, and many have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB. Though the performance of Buckeye charter schools as a group has improved substantially during the last half-decade, it remains a considerable distance from the state's goal of 75 percent proficiency. Only four in 10 charter students in the Ohio Eight districts are proficient in math. Just half meet state standards in reading. Yes, such results are similar to those of district schools. But that's not good enough. The charter sector is still too weak to meet the needs of Ohio's children and families, especially the neediest among them.

To address these challenges, Turning the Corner sets forth seventeen recommendations in four clusters.

The first group asks Ohio to renew the accountability/autonomy promise. The charter concept rests on a bargain: granting schools the freedom to be different while holding them strictly accountable for results. In Ohio, however, both sides of this bargain have eroded. To renew it, sponsors and state officials should take swift, decisive steps to close the worst-performing charter schools and measure the success of the remaining ones more accurately, while simultaneously easing the regulatory burdens that now beset these schools. The State Board of Education should be supported by a new Community School Advisory Council to help keep that promise over time.

The second set of recommendations calls on Ohio to strengthen the state's system of charter sponsors. As the organizations that approve and oversee charter schools, they, too, must be duly accountable--and adequately funded.

So, too, with the schools. While money alone cannot buy high quality education, Ohio's charter pupils deserve to have their schools funded at levels equal to other public school pupils. The third set of recommendations includes strategies to bring charter funding to reasonable parity with district funding and to address the huge challenges that charters face in accessing suitable school facilities.

The fourth and final cluster of recommendations calls on Ohio to enable more high-quality charter schools to open. Arbitrary caps on school numbers are counterproductive--and do nothing to boost quality. If the recommended quality-and-accountability measures--for sponsors and schools alike--are put in place, Ohio should re-open its doors to charter operators that can clear this high threshold.

Charter schooling in the Buckeye State is at a critical juncture. Its first decade demonstrated the state's strong demand for the charter option. A subset of outstanding charter schools and overall progress in school performance illustrate the compelling promise that charter schooling holds for all children. Today, however, not enough schools are delivering on that promise. Ohio policymakers--and leaders of the state's charter sector--have a tremendous opportunity to make charter schooling the kind of high-quality education option that Buckeye children, parents, and citizens crave--and to serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

"Report: Prune weak charter schools, spend more on others," by Ignazio Messina, Toledo Blade, October 12, 2006

"Backers scrutinize charter schools," by Scott Stephens, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 12, 2006

More By Author