Columbus needs all hands on deck

Back in June, we discussed the leadership role that Ohio’s cities were attempting to take in important and overdue efforts to improve education for all students. Central to that discussion was the work in Columbus of Mayor Michael Coleman and the Columbus Education Commission. At that time, we called the story “still in progress” but pointed out that city-based reform of the type the commission envisioned in its final report was worthy of praise and support. Nothing has changed in the interim. The Columbus plan that voters will have the opportunity to fund tomorrow, in the form of a 9.01 mil bond and levy measure, still represents the most promising attempt to improve Columbus schools—dare we say—ever.

Fordham has been supportive of the reform effort and worked with the Mayor’s team and the commission as these reform initiatives were developed. Our former vice president, Terry Ryan, even testified before the commission to bring the best knowledge of charter school excellence to the commissioners through data, research, his own public testimony, and the testimony of CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray. The commission adopted an ambitious goal to expand the number of high-quality school seats in the city so that all students can attend an A- or B-rated school by 2020. It is both admirable and achievable.

One of the most controversial components of the levy is the allocation of 1 mil to high performing charter schools in Columbus to support, expand, and replicate their schools. Unfortunately, Mayor Coleman went out of his way last week to assure voters that “no levy money will be used for for-profit entities, whether at the operating or management companies. They are ineligible for levy proceeds, period.” We are perplexed by this line in the sand, given the goals of the reform effort, the admirable dedication of the mayor to all aspects of the effort, and given the challenges to success posed by a system in which 30,000 children are currently attending a D- or F-rated school.

We can only assume that his generally excellent advisors gave him bad advice on this one issue, probably—even understandably—to influence the vote. But on this one they’re wrong on the merits.

As Columbus Business First has recently noted, the top-rated school in Franklin County (and in fact the entire state) is a charter school. Columbus Preparatory Academy is an A+ rated K-8 school with an enrollment of approximately 470 children on the far West side that emphasizes classical education, high rigor, and no excuses. And, it has a wait list.

But Columbus Preparatory Academy utilizes the for-profit Mosaica charter school management system and would be summarily excluded from access to the levy dollars meant to support, expand, and replicate high-performing public charter schools in Columbus.

For the 30,000 students attending low-rated schools, what matters most are results. Questions of governance are the last thing on their or their parents’ minds, and should be the last thing on the minds of the citizen panel helping to define the term “high-performing school” for purposes of expansion and replication of both district and charter schools.

Let us not forget the numerous for-profit contractors – transportation companies, IT providers, staff training firms, lawyers, textbook companies – who have long provided vital services to our public schools. This is no different.

Fordham is not in favor of education mediocrity whether public, nonprofit, for-profit, religious, etc., which is why the criteria to be used to select deserving charters matter so much. The criteria should be rigorous and demanding and insulated from political manipulation and self-serving interests of every kind. But they should be agnostic regarding governance so long as the results for kids are very strong.

Once again, we commend the mayor on his leadership in addressing the problems in education in Columbus, as we have done on numerous occasions throughout the process. But strong schools of all types, including schools like Columbus Preparatory Academy, operated by for-profit entities and producing the results that we all want, should be part of the solution in this hopeful new era in the education of our community’s children. 

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