Charter quality must trump corporate interests

Charters in Ohio have a contentious and troubled history. Events over the last few weeks have added another controversial chapter to the story. With Republicans in charge of the House, lobbyists for the large for-profit charter management company White Hat (currently operating 30 schools in Ohio) pushed for charter legislation in that chamber that would effectively create corporate, private schools, funded directly by the state but free of all state accountability requirements. As long as the kids show up the state money will flow. Whether the kids learn anything or not doesn't matter. In fact these new corporate private schools wouldn't even have to take state achievement tests or face other pesky state accountability provisions.

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch ran a front page piece on the political maneuverings behind all this, and Fordham was drawn into the story (see here and note below). Fordham has been a staunch supporter of charter schools in Ohio since before the first ones opened in 1998. But, we have also been equally unyielding in our belief that all schools that receive public dollars to educate children should be held accountable for their academic and fiscal performance. We support things like school report cards and academic death penalties for schools that perennially fail to deliver academically. We believe closing a failed charter school is the least bad option for children. Worse is letting a school that doesn't serve children well continue to operate year after year without serious pressure to improve.????

It is our belief in school accountability that has caused us to run afoul of some in the Ohio House and among portions of the state's charter school community. But, despite the current political struggle, there is growing recognition that charter schools in Ohio actually get better when performance is required of them. In fact, more and more charters are stepping up to the challenge in cities like Cleveland, Dayton and Columbus where some of the best schools are charters.

In contrast to the House, state senators took bold action by removing all language that would diminish charter school accountability from their version of the budget. The state's charter school association ??? the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools ??? was steadfast in its support of the Senate action and was supported in this by both the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

Further, groups across the state ??? including Fordham ??? are working together to launch a new statewide charter school authorizer that would operate around the standards and quality principles espoused by NACSA (see here). These partners include the state's largest county educational service center (Education Service Center of Central Ohio) and the state's largest school district (Columbus City Schools) ??? see here for details.

Ohio is at a turning point when it comes to charter school quality. The struggle is between those who hew to a failed laissez-faire approach to charter schools and quality versus those who insist charter freedoms must be matched by demands for student performance. School choice without quality is no choice at all. More and more people and organizations in Ohio realize this, and the state's children will surely be the beneficiaries of this recognition if Ohio's charter law embraces it fully.

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NB. In Sunday's Columbus Dispatch there were allegations made (by people with other agendas and much animus toward Fordham) that we somehow profit from being a charter authorizer. This could not be further from the truth. Since 2005 Fordham has annually spent $100,000 or more on sponsorship than it has accrued in state revenues. That's because doing sponsorship well isn't cheap and we wouldn't dream of doing it any other way. It's also why we hope to join with several other conscientious authorizers to build a high-quality but more cost-effective entity that could shoulder some (or perhaps all) of these responsibilities going forward.

??- Terry Ryan

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