Sources of charter-school mediocrity

A version of this editorial appeared as an op-ed in the December 11, 2007, Columbus Dispatch.

Why are so many charter schools mediocre? What went wrong? In reflecting on the Ohio experience, particularly in the charter-saturated terrain around Dayton, and taking maximum advantage of the benefit of hindsight, I've spotted 10 contributing factors. I offer them as a navigation aid for state decision makers and community leaders in Columbus and other Ohio cities--with the important caveat that Buckeye State charter schools, by and large, are presently doing as well as nearby district schools and that the state is blessed with a handful of outstanding charters that anyone would be proud to send their kids to and spend their tax dollars on.

1) Lax authorizing. Beginning with the Ohio Department of Education and continuing into today's sponsorship bazaar, negligence, haste, and greed have characterized too many of the entities charged with ensuring the competence and viability of would-be school operators, then monitoring their performance and intervening when results are weak. Quantity trounced quality, timidity trumped courage, and politics overpowered wisdom.

2) Unfussy consumers--and not just in Ohio. Many families are desperate to find a refuge for their kids from unsafe, unfriendly, dysfunctional district schools. Such considerations understandably take precedence over academic performance. That's compounded by meager information about school effectiveness, a dearth of truly outstanding schools, a shortage of effective advisors and brokers, and the propensity of student-hungry charters to make claims that they don't necessarily live up to.

3) Mediocre school operators. Only a handful of independent (a.k.a. "mom and pop") charters have the scale, resources, and sustainability to deliver high-quality education year in and year out--and authorizers haven't been good at winnowing them. Especially disappointing is the slipshod performance of large-scale regional and national operators, which haven't given Ohio children their best efforts. A few are simply profiteers. Others, including some with excellent results elsewhere, have settled for weak school leaders and second-rate teachers.

4) Too few support organizations and charter-friendly civic structures. Ohio lacks the school resource centers and help-groups that some states boast and, at the policy/political level, it has lacked quality-focused, pro-charter advocacy groups. The universities have shunned charters, not helping with the talent pipeline and professional development, let alone with school authorizing. And the state's business leadership, with honorable exceptions, has sat on its hands when it comes to school choice in general and charters in particular. (Most major newspapers, by contrast, have been game to give this education-reform experiment a fair chance.)

5) Rust-belt geography. It's easier to run high-quality charter schools on the coasts and in a handful of hot cities in between where talented people and zealous education reformers want to be.

6) Localism. Partly out of parochialism, partly out of parsimony, and partly out of the sheer difficulty of landing distant talent, most Ohio charters have drawn their leaders and teachers from the local market. That has sometimes made for slim pickings, worsened by low pay and compounded by inadequate budgets (see #8, below).

7) Trusting overmuch in "market-forces." Too many Ohio charter operators appear to believe that as long as parents are content with a school, it's good enough. This leads to scant emphasis on academic results, a worse problem when the customers aren't fussy.

8) Inadequate finances. Ohio charters are under-funded, plain and simple, by several thousand dollars per pupil per year compared with adjoining district schools. They don't get facilities funding, either (though the state is spending billions on new district schools), and they depend for transportation on often-uncooperative district busing operations.

9) A hostile political environment. This has worsened over the past year but even when most state officials were well-disposed to charters, a plague of union-initiated lawsuits and angry local school systems created insecurity, ill-will, and a bunker mentality among charters while scaring off potential supporters, operators, and school staffers.

10) Cumulative policymaking. Ohio's charter laws now resemble an archeological dig where layers of civilization have been jumbled over the centuries. Ten years of statutory amendments has not just created a maze that high-priced attorneys need many hours to find their way through; it has also led to some truly dysfunctional policies and practices. A thorough cleaning is needed, but in a charter-hostile political environment that could mean sacrificing the baby as well as its soiled bathwater.

I'll readily admit that, in hindsight, we should have made some different decisions in Ohio and the current political situation makes it harder to recover. But the problems remain solvable and now it's time for tackling them (see here).

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