Year in Review: Ohio's Charter Schools Under Threat

Ohio charter school sponsors are required by law to submit a report about their sponsorship activities and the performance of their sponsored schools to the state education department by the end of November each year. We try to use this as an opportunity to produce something that is worth reading and that sheds light on charter schools, sponsorship and state policy during the past year. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to Seeking Quality in the Face of Adversity: 2008-09 Fordham Sponsorship Accountability Report, available in full online here

Governor Strickland’s original version of the state’s biennial budget (H.B. 1) released in February would have, as we wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal at the time, deprived charters “of vital limbs and organs.” It would have severely worsened the funding inequities between charter and district schools. And it would have added greatly to the regulatory burden on all charters – good, bad, and middling.

“Put it all together,” we warned at the time, “and it’s hard to picture any high-octane charter operator wanting to work in Ohio. The operations will instead go to states that welcome and support them. This would be a blow for needy children and families.” 

Particularly galling was Governor Strickland’s plan to boost funding for traditional public schools while cutting funding further for charter schools, which already were receiving roughly $2,000 less per pupil than their district counterparts (see Chart I). Such heightened inequities struck us as unjustifiable, indeed discriminatory and cruel.

Chart I: Average Per Pupil Spending, Ohio Districts and Charters over Time
(in constant 2009 dollars)

 

In the General Assembly, the House agreed with the governor and passed his budget largely intact on a party-line vote in late April. It appeared that Ohio Democrats were united around the governor’s efforts to curb and possibly kill off this education-reform strategy once and for all. 

This was not their party’s national position, however. In Washington, D.C., and in many states and cities, some of America’s foremost charter advocates were Democrats, beginning with President Barack Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan. Democratic mayors have been especially strong for quality charter schools, notably Richard Daley in Chicago; Adrian Fenty in Washington; Corey Booker in Newark; and Bart Peterson, the former mayor of Indianapolis. During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama picked – of all places – Dayton to highlight his own support for charters.

In Ohio, however, the task of protecting charter schools in 2009 fell to the Republican-controlled Senate, which gave the governor most everything else he wanted on the education front – including his ill-conceived school funding scheme – but held the line on charters. On July 17, the governor signed the state’s $50.5 billion biennial budget, providing the same basic level of funding for charter schools as in earlier years. Further, the governor’s punitive regulatory burdens on schools and sponsors were purged from the final law by the Senate.

Remarkably, some common-sense reforms were also incorporated, including making all sponsors accountable for their performance to the Ohio Department of Education and strengthening the “academic death penalty” for truly low performing charter schools. (Sixteen such are now slated to close at the end of the 2009-10 school year.)

Thus Ohio’s charter-school program dodged another bullet. Yet the uncertainty around the future of charters and their funding made it really hard on all schools and sponsors in 2009. It’s possible, we again learned, for anxiety to do almost as much damage as actual weapons. Schools did not know, for example, how to plan their 2010 budgets, whether to hire teachers, to renew leases, to purchase new technology, etc. Sponsors had no way of knowing how many of their schools might actually be left standing in September.

A charter start-up, like any new business venture, is fragile. Such a school depends totally on student numbers for its operating revenue yet it has no track record to use for recruitment purposes. It can offer little more to prospective students and their parents than a promise to deliver education. Despite such challenges, however, Fordham agreed to sponsor two start-ups in Columbus in 2008-09. We made this decision because the organizations involved (The Knowledge is Power Program [KIPP] and Building Excellent Schools [BES]) are two of the premier charter school models in the country and because both schools had dedicated board members in Columbus who were committed to their successful launch.

KIPP Journey Academy, the first KIPP school in Ohio, opened in August 2008 with 64 fifth-grade students. Its first year was rocky. Not only was it operating in a hostile fiscal and political environment; it also faced some thorny operational issues. Its first-year student achievement results were not what anyone expected.  But KIPP, being KIPP – and supported by a deeply engaged governing board in Columbus – took fast action and found a talented school leader to take charge of the school and right the ship. The entire teaching staff was replaced and it appears that the KIPP Journey Academy is set to deliver in 2009-10 and—we trust—beyond.    

Fordham’s second start-up school in 2008-9 was the Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA), led by BES fellow Andy Boy. It expected an enrollment of 112 6th graders but ended the year serving 51 students. That shortfall hurt the school financially, but its academic results were stellar. According to the Columbus Dispatch, “sixth-graders there outscored sixth-graders at most of Columbus’ middle schools, including traditional schools and charters. Year-old charter schools don’t get an official grade on the state’s school report cards…But if Columbus Collegiate had, it could have earned a B.”

Despite the challenges of the last year, Fordham-sponsored schools as a group delivered academic results superior in core subjects to other brick and mortar charter schools in Ohio, and superior to the performance of students in the districts where they are located. (For methodology details, see part II of the report here.) Charts II and III show how children in Fordham-sponsored schools performed in reading and math compared with students in charter schools statewide and with students in district schools in Dayton, Cincinnati, Springfield, and Columbus.

Chart II: Percent of Students Proficient in Reading (2008-9)

Chart III: Percent of Students Proficient in Mathematics (2008-9)

Better, but not great. In no grades did students in Fordham-sponsored schools meet the state proficiency goal of 75 percent in reading and math. In sum, they performed well in comparison to their peers in schools with similar demographics, but poorly in comparison to the achievement goals set by the state and by us as their sponsor.

One more positive is worth noting, however: Fordham-sponsored schools fared relatively well under Ohio’s value-added measure, with 69 percent of their students in schools showing “Above Expected Growth” in 2008-9. See chart IV. 

Chart IV: Percent of Students in Fordham-sponsored schools, Home District Schools, and Brick and Mortar Charter Schools Statewide by Value-Added Rating 

Nor did any Fordham-sponsored schools show “Below Expected Growth.” In contrast, in both traditional district schools serving needy children in the cities where Fordham-sponsored schools operate and in brick and mortar charter schools statewide, more than one in five schools showed “Below Expected Growth.”

2008-09 could have been worse. Charter schools came out of a brutal political process in tolerable shape and the state has actually incorporated some accountability improvements into its charter program. Further, President Obama has made clear his support for quality charter schools, even making support for charter schools a key criterion for states eligibility for Race to the Top funds and Ohio is bent on qualifying. 

Indeed, charter friends in Ohio and well beyond can take hope from the President’s July 24, 2009 speech on education, in which he declared that:

“We can’t hold charter schools to a lower standard than traditional public schools. If a charter school is falling short year after year, it should be shut down. But if we’re holding charter schools accountable and if we are holding them to high standards of excellence, then I believe they can be a force for innovation in our public schools. And that’s why I’ve encouraged states to lift caps on the number of schools allowed – something being done in Louisiana, Indiana, and across the country. And that’s why we will reward states that pursue rigorous and accountable charter schools with Race to the Top fund grants.”

We salute the President in this effort—and are doing our best as a sponsor to advance and implement the principles he enunciated.

This past year has been about fending off major assaults to Ohio’s charter school program, and the story isn’t entirely over because the state’s budget woes could still drag down charter schools; as well as others. Meanwhile our challenge moving into the 2009-10 school year is dealing with school renewals (we have four sponsorship agreements that expire on June 30, 2010). Next year’s Fordham sponsorship report is sure to have a lot to say about the lessons learned on that front!  

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