Growth of school choice in the suburbs no cause for alarm

When charter schools were introduced in Ohio, they were presented as vital options for students in underperforming urban schools. Eleven years later, charters have broken through the borders of the "Big Eight" urban districts. Now, nearly a quarter of charter-school students hail from rural and suburban areas, with a surge in charter enrollment from such districts over the past five years. Evidence indicates that suburban families choose charter schools for the same reasons urban families do: to access an education that better meets the needs of their children.

E-schools enroll the majority of non-urban charter school students (more than 75 percent of e-school students come from outside the state's major urban districts) and account for much of the recent enrollment growth (e-schools first opened in Ohio in 2001, see more below).

In Franklin County, where suburban charter-school enrollment growth was highlighted recently in the Columbus Dispatch (see here), most of the suburban districts that are losing significant numbers of students to charter schools are also among the area's lowest-performing districts. Groveport Madison Local Schools lost nearly 1,100 students to charter schools last year, up from 400 students five years ago. Last year, the district failed to meet the state's minimum proficiency standards on 15 of the 23 state assessments administered in grades 3 through 10, besting only Columbus and Whitehall among Franklin County's 16 districts.

Families are also choosing charter schools at the urging of their home districts. Despite oft-repeated rhetoric, not all districts fight school choice. In fact, 55 of Ohio's 600-plus school districts serve as charter-school authorizers - the entities that sanction and oversee charter schools.

Upper Arlington City Schools has embraced the charter-school model as a tool for increasing and improving its educational offerings. Nearly 10 percent of the district's students attend one of its three charter schools - Wickliffe Alternative Community School, Upper Arlington International Baccalaureate High School, and Upper Arlington Community High School.

This cooperative coexistence of charter and district schools is reflective of a national trend. District leaders in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Denver are turning to charter schools as a way to create "portfolios" of high-performing schools for their students and families. District-charter cooperation also finds supporters on both sides of the political aisle. In its version of the state operating budget, for example, the Democrat-led Ohio House of Representatives provided financial incentives for charter schools affiliated with school districts.

Smart district leaders in Ohio and beyond are moving away from a zero-sum attitude. They are embracing charters as a tool that allows for innovation and operational freedoms-like   longer school days, relaxed teacher certification requirements, and innovative curricula. District leaders, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was one himself in Chicago - understand that charter schools are public schools and that when students attend them they and their parents are choosing a public option that they think works better for them than their traditional neighborhood school. These innovative educators appreciate that results matter more than district control, and their efforts should be commended rather than lamented.

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