A "third way" on charter-school policy

Since their inception in 1997, charter schools have
been at the center of some of the most politically contentious debates in Ohio.
These debates have too often been characterized by two competing camps. One
side typically has been organized labor (read: the teacher unions), stalwart
Democrats, and citizens groups believing charters represents a threat to
“public schools.” The other side tends to be the business sector—represented by
large profit-making school management companies—free-market oriented
individuals (often Republicans), and activists of all political stripes who
advocate for educational equity.

The Buckeye State needs more than charter-school quantity. It needs charter-school quality, too.   
   
 

Interest groups on both sides of the debate have poured
money into political campaigns over the years and have treated the politics of
charter schools as a zero-sum game.

This political polarization has led pro-labor Democrats to support anti-charter
legislation while pro-business Republicans have fought to protect extant school
operators and have resisted accountability measures that they perceived as
anti-charter. True to form, in his first budget in 2007—and again in his second
budget in 2009—Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) proposed legislation that would
have banned for-profit charter operators, cut charter school funding, and
buried the schools in costly regulations.

The political battle long-waged around these schools has hurt charter quality
in the state, made it difficult for Ohio to improve its charter law, and
retarded the ability of charter schools to meet their potential. According to new state charter-law rankings
by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), Ohio’s law now
ranks number twenty-seven out of forty-one states with charter laws.

In contrast, the states with the best charter laws—Minnesota, Florida,
Massachusetts, Colorado, and New York—have made steady improvements over the
last few years through bipartisan legislative action. According to NAPCS, these
improvements include both the removal of constraints on charters (e.g., lifting
of charter caps and moratoriums) and the strengthening of charter-school
accountability. Florida is a case in point. The Sunshine State made the biggest
jump in 2010, moving from number eleven to number two in the charter-law-rankings
database. Florida’s rating leapt because lawmakers there embraced quality-control
provisions that included adopting model-charter-school applications and
requiring high-quality charter-school-application evaluation forms and
performance-based charter contracts.

Republicans now control state government in Ohio and have promised to
remove
caps and moratoriums on charters. This is a good start, but removing
barriers
to new schools—increasing choice—must be balanced by improvements to the
state’s charter quality-control mechanisms. The Buckeye State needs more
than charter-school quantity. It needs charter-school quality, too.
Ohio should build on the
lessons from Florida and other high-performing charter states.

Specifically, Governor Kasich and legislative leaders should craft policies
that ensure would-be school operators are carefully vetted in advance of
opening; that all schools are thoroughly monitored by responsible authorities
for their academic performance; and that poor performers exit the market in
timely fashion.

Failed schools should not be able to skirt academic
accountability, whether they are traditional district schools, virtual charter
schools, or brick-and-mortar charters (operated by either for-profit or
nonprofit management companies). The theory behind the school-choice
movement—that parents will vote with their feet and that the market will hold
schools accountable—is imperfect. Choice alone all too often allows poorly
performing schools to stay open for business. Parental choice should be
encouraged and expanded, but in parallel with rigorous accountability for
results.

For too long, charter schools have been a political
battlefield on which powerful partisan interests have waged war. As such,
charter quality has suffered and children who badly need better educational
options have been unable to find them, all too often bouncing from troubled
school to troubled school. Governor Kasich and Republican lawmakers in Ohio
should break the cycle of political acrimony around school choice. This means
resisting the temptation—and the encouragement they will surely receive from
some in the charter sector—to push for more charter schools while also scaling
back on school accountability. This would be a grave mistake.

The challenge facing education reformers in Ohio isn’t so much to add still more
school options, but to ensure that those available to families are in fact
educationally sound. This is both the lesson from Ohio’s rocky charter-school
history and the lesson from state’s with higher performing charter schools.

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