Finding common ground
Columbus has joined New York, Washington, Chicago, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and other education-minded cities in building a high-quality new-schools sector. To date, however, the Columbus City Schools has not driven this effort. It has, in fact, dragged it down. This should change.
In recent months, two nationally recognized charter-school programs opened new schools in the city-one adhering to the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) model (see here), the second arising from the Building Excellent Schools (BES) program (see here). Both programs receive the support of serious urban school reformers-now including Columbus business and civic leaders-because they have a track record of delivering strong educational results for needy children. They are unabashedly "no-excuses" schools that deliver academic achievement to kids who have known little success in conventional schools.
In New York, Chicago, and other major cities where high-quality charters such as these have taken off, the school districts invite them to town, provide them with facilities, and sponsor the new schools. For example, the New York City Education Department has an Office of Portfolio Development while Chicago has an Office of New Schools. And, within the past year, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District launched its effort with the creation of its Office of New Innovative Schools (see here). Such units are responsible for recruiting, facilitating, and housing quality charter schools. They also hold schools to account for their results. These cities view charter schools as vital elements of a wider district strategy to improve public education and they treat charters with the same respect and support as traditional schools. District officials help these new schools with transportation and facilities while also protecting the essential operating freedoms that they need to succeed. Those freedoms include selecting (and deselecting) teachers, utilizing financial incentives such as performance-based pay, adapting the calendar and schedule to student needs, and installing high-yield curricula. The deal is simple: freedom in return for results.
In New York, even the teachers union has joined the act by opening two charter schools of its own-this in marked contrast with Columbus, where the school district has offered at best tepid support and the unions have sought to destroy charters through lawsuits, legislative action, and a nasty public relations campaign.
Wanted or not by the system, KIPP and BES have joined the Columbus City Schools in a war against educational failure, poverty, and ignorance, seeking to provide poor urban kids with the same life chances as their peers in wealthier schools and communities. This effort does not oppose or devalue the hard work of traditional district schools. It's another front in a shared struggle. That's why the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation partnered with an awesome gathering of community leaders and educators to help launch these two schools.
We're glad to be doing this. But if the district had embraced this opportunity, we wouldn't have had to. After all, Fordham is primarily a think tank. We generate ideas and policies for education reform that we think can work and criticize those we think will fail or hurt children. Today, to our knowledge, Fordham is the only think tank sponsoring charter schools. In that role, we have a performance contract with the State Board of Education that allows us to "license" schools like KIPP: Journey Academy and BES's Columbus Collegiate Academy to open. We are also their oversight and quality control agent and we, in turn, must answer to the state whose public education system these schools remain part of.
We expect these schools to do as well by Columbus youngsters as the best of their counterparts in New York and Chicago. According to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "The outstanding gains made by students in charter schools this year [2007-08] show what a great choice these schools are providing for thousands of families across the City." In Chicago, according to RAND Education, the average eighth-grade charter student who goes on to a charter high school is seven percent more likely to graduate and 11 percent more likely to enroll in college.
The time is right in Columbus and Ohio's other cities for school districts and high- quality charter schools to join forces in the common struggle to educate all children to a high standard. We at Fordham would gladly transfer our authorizing responsibilities to districts ready and willing to do it right and we'd even help them in their efforts. The state's neediest children would be the beneficiaries of such a deal.