Good charter schools can still lead resurgence in Ohio education

Today's New York Times published an article headlined "Ohio Goes After Charter Schools That Are Failing," noting that more than half of the state's 328 charter schools received either a D or F on the state's report card issued in August (see here).

These are troubling statistics. But as necessary as it is to root out poorly performing charters, those attacking charter schools in Ohio are missing the larger issue. Public education (and this includes district and charter schools) is failing too many children in Ohio. This is especially true of children of color living in the state's big cities. When the state report-card data came out in August 2007, it indicated that 183,000 district and charter school students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton were attending schools graded either D or F (officially, "academic watch" or "academic emergency"). That compares to about 75,000 students in D or F schools in the rest of the state (see here).

In Dayton, hometown of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the numbers were especially grim. Fully 80 percent of children attending a public school in Dayton (district or charter) in 2007 attend an F or D rated school. The charter schools there actually outperform the Dayton Public Schools and do this with about $3,500 less per pupil in taxpayer dollars. The state report card makes clear that charters perform as well, or as poorly, as the district schools with which they compete. So, it makes no sense to attack just charters and leave undisturbed the poorly performing district schools, where many more tens of thousands of children are trapped.

Despite the fact that charter schools deliver an education of equal quality (but not nearly good enough on average) as district schools, the Fordham Institute-along with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers-issued a high-profile report in late 2006 recommending, as the New York Times reported, a "housecleaning" of the state's lowest-performing charters (see here).

The reason Fordham published this report was because, as also noted in the article, "If chronically lousy charters aren't closed, the charter movement will continue under assault from its opponents." What the Times story didn't emphasize was that the Ohio General Assembly has increased the pressure on the charter school program in Ohio to improve. This began in 2005 when the Republican-controlled House and Senate capped the charter-school program so that only operators with some successful charter schools could open new schools. At this same time, the General Assembly capped sponsors that were acting badly and forced them to surrender oversight of dozens of schools. In 2006 and 2007, the General Assembly added additional regulations over charter schools including requiring failing charter schools to improve or face closing in mid-2009.

Despite this ratcheting up of accountability, Governor Ted Strickland in his first biennial budget in January proposed legislative language that would have decimated charter schools. It would have ended, not mended the program. In September, Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann joined the fray, using a legal strategy concocted for him by the Ohio Education Association to attempt to close low-performing charters by going after their tax-exempt status (see here).

This political turmoil has no doubt increased pressure on charters and if it results in some improvement that would indeed be for the better. But this uncertainty also has cooled the ardor of decent school operators otherwise keen to open in Ohio. And, it has resulted in some talented people deciding not to take the risk of working in charter schools as teachers, principals, treasurers, and support staff. It's also made collaborative conversations between charter and district officials more difficult. Imagine a district or state education official in Ohio saying publicly what the Colorado commissioner of education recently told a statewide charter gathering: "We ought to be partners, not adversaries. I believe quality choice is good for public education. Educating kids is tough business." (see here).

It is true that the charter movement in Ohio hasn't yet delivered results across the board. Charters also have not triggered the widespread innovation that could compel traditional school systems to emulate them. In fact, poor academic performance and too many charter scandals have made it easy for charter enemies to turn possible friends and allies away. Charter schools, however, are getting the message and the program in Ohio is making the move toward quality.

Finally, it is critically important to remember that more than 75,000 Ohio children attend charter schools because their parents and guardians think it a better choice than a district school. Surely, all these people can't be wrong. Do we really want to send them back to the dismal district schools that they have made a conscious decision to flee?

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