Buckeye charter schools continue to shoot themselves in the foot

 Charter schools in Ohio are under serious threat. The governor has presented a state budget that would cut funding for charter schools to the point that most schools would have to close, while all would face increased regulation (see above).

Fighting to protect decent charter schools and the space for them to operate has been a tough road to hoe in the Buckeye State. The fact is that charters in Ohio have always faced tenacious opposition from teacher unions and others. And, far too often this opposition has been emboldened by high profile charter school blow-ups, various scandals, and greedy operators. Consider the contrast between the following stories from today.

The Columbus Dispatch ran a piece showing that the Columbus superintendent Gene Harris has delayed taking a raise for the fourth time as superintendent citing the bad economy and the district's upcoming labor-contract negotiations (see here). Harris, the Dispatch reports, earns a base salary of $172,000. While at the helm of the 52,000 student district Harris has seen the district's academic performance steadily improve. In fact, for six straight years the district has made academic gains and the district has maintained a rating of "Continuous Improvement"-the equivalent of a C on the state's scale for the last couple of years. If performance matters, Gene Harris deserves every penny she earns and frankly more. She is not only astute politically but also knows how to run a decent school system.

Meanwhile, out of Akron we learn that the chief executive officer and founder of Summit Academy Management-a non-profit charter school operator-is on leave of absence as his organization undergoes a "broad-based review." The Akron Beacon Journal reports that DiMezza earned $298,270 in salary and benefits last year running an organization that manages 27 charter schools across Ohio (see here). Of the 18 Summit Academy Schools that received academic ratings in 2007-08 from the state of Ohio, one school was rated Continuous Improvement (a C), two were rated Academic Watch (a D), and 15 were rated Academic Emergency (an F). Here, compensation seems utterly disconnected from performance, and politically this is another blow for a charter program fighting for its very existence.

Stories of greedy school operators that run poor performing operations are played up big time by charter opponents. They make it really hard for charter school supporters to argue these schools are both underfunded and worthy of their operational freedoms. Yet, the fact of the matter is that most charters in Ohio are operating on razor thin margins and the people running them are not getting rich.

The best way to ensure that the state gets good value for its charter investment is through strengthening accountability for performance.

Start here. Tighten up the current academic death penalty on underperforming charters. This can be accomplished by using the state's current accountability system and extending automatic school closure to charter schools that:

  • have been in operation for at least three years; and
  • have been rated academic watch (D) or academic emergency (F) on the state's report card for two of the last three years; and
  • have not seen students perform "at expectations" or above on the state's value-added rating system in both reading and math in the last two years, meaning students have not made at least a year's worth of academic growth during the school year.

In this fashion, schools that don't perform won't continue to receive state funds. And school operators who run bad schools will not be able to pay themselves high salaries.

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