Dark Clouds Do Give Way to Sunshine

Ohio’s charter schools are under a cloud. Recent articles in some of Ohio’s major newspapers have challenged charter school efficacy and have provided fodder for opponents who want to regulate these public schools out of existence. 

Fortunately, the Ohio General Assembly is out in front on this problem. This past summer, House Bill 66 was passed, and it addresses many of the concerns raised by the newspapers. This new law, slightly modified by the recently enacted budget corrections bill, slows the growth of new charter schools to a crawl, allowing only operators with a proven record of success to establish new schools in the coming school year. The law also imposes more severe academic accountability measures on charter schools. Those that fail to deliver for three consecutive years will be closed.

Moreover, the law protects children in failing schools by allowing them to use the Ohio Education Choice Scholarship Program to switch to a private school. This is a big deal. For example, this means many of the 7,000 plus children attending Dayton charter schools could opt for a voucher and private school education in 2006-07 if the students find themselves in a failing school. Because of the new law, charter schools will need to offer real and impressive benefits in order to retain their student body.

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is in on the act, too. It’s working with the state’s 63 sponsors (50 of which are traditional school districts) to develop a Community School Sponsor Evaluation Framework that will hold all sponsors accountable for the performance of their schools. Sponsors are those organizations that “license” charters on the state’s behalf. These organizations are crucial in monitoring, guiding, and supporting schools, and in holding schools accountable for academic performance and financial stewardship. ODE’s Evaluation Framework will enable the department to place sanctions on sponsors that fail to do their jobs – including shutting down the worst performers.

So, when the “charters need more regulation” hue and cry comes every time a negative article appears in a publication, remember that important changes are already in place. Critics of charters should give these new regulations an opportunity to prove their worth before requesting still more regulations.

However, should the General Assembly reopen debate over charter school accountability and performance as a result of this uproar, there are two issues they might want to consider.

1. Funding sponsors. Sponsors collect fees from schools for their services, some as high as 3 percent. Under this system, sponsors have no motivation for closing, or threatening to close, a school. After all, if they do follow through, they loose money. The Ohio Assembly may want to explore ways of funding sponsors directly, rather than through fees imposed on the schools they sponsor.

2. Cash-strapped schools. The state’s charter schools are poorly funded. In Cleveland, for example, charters receive about $3,000 less per children than do district schools. Worse, the city’s charters receive no facility dollars. This reality makes operating high-performing charters difficult at best, and makes replicating high performing schools nearly impossible. Ohio should develop rewards and incentives for schools that perform, thereby allowing good ones to grow. For example, the state could provide additional funds for those charters that regularly meet or exceed state and federal standards. One possibility is to increase per-pupil spending by $500 for charters tagged as “continuous improvement” schools, $1,000 per pupil for “effective” schools, and $1,500 for “excellent” schools. Maintain those funding increments for, say, five-years (as long as the school maintains its performance, its enrollment and clean state audits), and these schools will thrive. Surely quality charters deserve funding levels that are on par with their district competitors?

Charter schools trigger emotional responses—both for and against—but cooler heads need to prevail in coming months. Charter school accountability has been ratcheted up. Before any new restrictions are considered, lawmakers need to proceed using the same cool rationale they have to date.

After all, even the worst storms come to an end.

Substitute House Bill 530, 126th General Assembly

 

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