Resolve to be resolute

The time for standing by and hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own is over. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my resolution this year is to seize the promise of change that accompanies a new year and resolutely champion the effort to improve the quality of the charter sector.

While I am committed to raising the performance of our state’s charter schools, I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies likely leads to failure. But timing is everything—and luckily, I believe that now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality charter schools.

The problem

Charter schools have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. There have been some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and dozens other like them, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of our most at-risk students. Yet there are other charter schools that have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In our most recent review of Ohio charter schools’ performance, we found that urban charters performed at the same low levels as district schools—which simply isn’t good enough.

The challenges in Ohio’s charter sector have garnered national attention, as well. The Center for Education Reform aptly described Ohio as the “Wild West” for charter schools, based largely upon poor authorizing and some charter schools that became very public “bad apples.” Fortunately, some recent legislative changes have improved the quality of the operating environment for charter schools. For example, the state is in the midst of implementing a system that holds charter school authorizers accountable for the way that the schools in their portfolios perform. Yet Ohio’s history of incoherent charter school policy has taken its toll: A 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Ohio’s charter school students as a group have been outperformed in both reading and math by similar students attending traditional public schools.

While there have been pockets of success and some positive legislative changes, there is little doubt that a problem with overall charter performance still exists.

The right thing to do

Every education reformer I’ve met—and there have been a lot in the past decade—has entered the movement to help kids to get a better education. When a student attends an ineffective school, be it charter or traditional public, the long-term prospects of that child are severely diminished. Why is that significant for charter schools? During the 2012–13 school year, 31,387 students attended fifty-six charter schools that received a D or F in both performance index (achievement) and value added (learning gains).

The fact that numerous schools exist with low student achievement and in which students learn less than a year’s worth of material per year should be a call to action for Ohio’s education reformers. And as a matter of fact, it shouldn’t matter whether the low-performing school is a traditional public school or a charter school. There is an uncomfortable parallel between a reformer who fails to take a stand against a low-performing school because it’s a charter school and a teacher union who defends the performance of a poor-performing teacher. It’s important to make sure that the reforms that have been championed, like charter schools, don’t become just another inert school system that protects adult interests at the expense of kids. Taking action, from strong interventions to closing schools that we know are struggling, is the right thing to do.

The politics

Charter schools from their inception have been plagued by politics. After all, charter schools offered the first real publicly funded threat to the public education monopoly. Any missteps were loudly decried, and attack after attack was leveled at charter schools from the education establishment. There were times when admitting that charter schools needed some improvements or weren’t working perfectly could have jeopardized the entire movement. But while opposition remains, I would argue that this threat has passed.

Last year, more than 116,000 students attended Ohio’s charter schools. The foundation of support represented by these impressive enrollment numbers indicates that the sector has reached a level of maturity and that charter schools are here to stay. The movement’s strength is enhanced by the strong advocacy and support organizations that have cropped up to help meet the needs of charter schools, including the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Ohio Council for Quality Education, and the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers.

In recent years, charters have also enjoyed tremendous support from Ohio’s political leadership, including from Governor Kasich, Speaker Batchelder, and President Faber. All three leaders understand school choice and have demonstrated their commitment to it. In addition, the Ohio Department of Education under the leadership of Dr. Ross has taken a much more active role in aggressively enforcing Ohio’s charter laws.

The political world isn’t always fair, and honesty isn’t always rewarded. However, the current politics in Ohio provide an opportunity for charter supporters to approach political leaders with support for important changes—without fear that simply acknowledging weaknesses in charter schools will thwart the entire sector and the important choice it represents for families.

The future

Despite the growth of charter schools and the political support they have enjoyed, Ohio’s charter school law still has some weaknesses that substantially inhibit the performance and growth of charter schools. Ohio’s charter schools obtain only a small amount of public funding for facilities, generally receive only about 70 percent of the funding received by comparable traditional public schools (including the local revenue share), and are geographically limited to locating within the boundaries of a small number of school districts, primarily within the state’s urban areas. Charter supporters should have a long-term plan in place to garner support for these and other provisions that prevent charters from providing the best education possible to students.

Importantly, when charter advocates come forward to request these changes from the legislature, they would be wise to remember the rule of law known as the “clean-hands doctrine.” To put it in its simplest terms, when you come to a court to ask for relief, you need to be free from unfair conduct. Requests for increased funding and removal of geographic limitations are far more likely to see success when led by groups that are actively working to improve the quality of charter schools and not those that spend their time defending schools that simply aren’t serving kids well. We can turn no more blind eyes towards charter schools that limp along year after year.

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In every movement there is a window of opportunity. It’s a time when factors align to make bold changes possible. For Ohio’s charter school supporters, now is that time. The problem is known, taking action is just and right, the politics are favorable, and the future outlook will be improved by addressing today’s problems. I’m excited about the future of Ohio’s charter schools and remain resolute on the need to improve the quality of the sector. Who’s with me?

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