Bring charters in from the cold

Can Ohio finally bring itself to see charter schools as an asset, and not a liability? It is in the interest of the state, its education system, and its children to do so. This became obvious in the state’s recent application for federal Race to the Top (RttT) grant dollars where success for the application means funds not only for traditional district-operated public schools but also for public charter schools.

We all wish the state well in this important competition – more than $400 million could be involved – and its application certainly has strengths. But we should also acknowledge that Ohio did not put its best foot forward when it came to sharing the story of the state’s charter school efforts.  

Ohio’s application dutifully states that its charter program meets the basic requirements sought by RttT reviewers. As evidence, it notes that charters are allowed to operate in the state; that there are a lot of them (296 brick-and-mortar and 27 cybercharters); that they educate many children (90,000 students); that the state funds them fairly (though they don’t receive local tax dollars); that their performance is mixed; and that there are “no caps” to their expansion.

Some in the charter community dispute parts of this analysis. For example, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently reported that Ohio is one of 13 states with caps on charter-school growth.

But in reading the state’s RttT application what really jumps out is that—in its 263 pages (not including attachments)—there is no mention of the positive things happening within Ohio’s charter school program. This in contrast to the accolades showered on STEM education reforms and the state’s Early College Academies.

There is no doubt that Ohio is better off because of these valuable initiatives. But the many positive things happening with Ohio’s charter schools went largely unmentioned. Here are four examples:

  • Six of the top ten public schools in Dayton last year were charters. The same was true in Cleveland. Not mentioning these successes is especially odd in light of federal guidelines that seek “evidence for ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools” and give points for it.
  • Tens of millions of philanthropic and private dollars have been invested in the state’s charter school program over the last decade—from national and state sources alike. To mention the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation only begins the list.
  • Locally, numerous individuals and foundations have also provided substantial private dollars to Ohio’s charter schools, but again the state’s RttT application failed to mention any of this. Charters in the state’s urban core have benefited mightily from the generosity of groups like the Cleveland Foundation and the Gund Foundation in Cleveland, the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation in Cincinnati, and the Mathile Family Foundation in Dayton, to name but a few.
  • A veritable who’s who of Columbus’s business, civic and philanthropic community support that city’s new KIPP charter school. In Dayton, the University of Dayton has been a critical investor in the Dayton Early College Academy charter high school. Again, none of this is mentioned in Ohio’s RttT application.

By contrast, the RttT applications for Michigan, Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado not only recognize the good efforts of individual charter schools and charter support groups but also terms such organizations critical partners in their school turnaround efforts (another key component of the RttT application).

Ohio’s application is silent on any role for charters in turning around the state’s 69 “persistently lowest-achieving schools” despite the fact that most brick and mortar charters operate in the state’s neediest neighborhoods. Consider, for example, that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District now favors the use of charters in turning around some of that city’s most troubled schools.

Whether or not Ohio is selected for federal Race to the Top funds, the state will have a better shot at achieving its stated goal of “radical change in a compressed time” if charters are brought in as a full partner in the effort instead of being kept at arm’s length. 

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