Quality must trump quantity when it comes to new charter schools

With more than 300 charter schools serving nearly 100,000 children, Ohio is known for its significant school choice market. Two of its cities (Dayton and Youngstown) are in the top ten cities nationally in terms of charter-school market share. This week the Columbus Dispatch reported that 40 new charters are opening this year, twice the average number that opened their doors at the outset of previous school years.

In other words, it's another year of rapid charter expansion in Ohio. You might think we'd be applauding. Alas, no. Ohio has had a big problem from day one with the balance between quantity and quality when it comes to charter schools. First it grew too many too fast ??? and too many of those turned out to be weak performers. Then it clumsily cracked down on quantity growth without doing much on the quality front ??? not even cracking down on authorizers so that THEY would do something about quality.??Then the state began to make exceptions to its clumsy caps. Then the legislature enacted a ???death penalty??? for persistently bad charter schools ??? schools that stayed that way at least partly because of irresponsible authorizing.

We chronicled most of this in our recent book Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the frontlines. We showed how irresponsible growth and inattention to quality have fueled much political animus directed toward Ohio's charters ??? the good and the bad alike.

Because of these quality issues, lawmakers (in 2006) forged an ???operator provision??? in state law that determines which charter operators are allowed to open new schools in Ohio. This is supposed to help ensure that only those schools with a high probability of succeeding actually open their doors??in the Buckeye State.

But when one looks at the 40 new schools opening this year, it seems that this well-intended provision could stand some further tweaking.

Some of the schools opening this year do indeed have strong academic track records and are worthy candidates for replication. Included here are several being launched by Constellation Schools and Concept Schools. Both organizations run some of the highest performing urban schools in the state and any fair-minded observer would surely agree that they deserve the opportunity to launch more schools to help serve more children in need of better schools than they're attending today.

On the flip-side, however, are eight new schools called ???drop back in??? academies, alternative high schools aimed at high-school dropouts to be run by EdisonLearning. The authorizer of these new schools is Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio, Inc. (ERCO). We have first-hand experience with both groups.

Our experience with ERCO goes back to 2006 when one of the troubled schools we authorized jumped ship to ERCO because Fordham was making demands about improving its performance that??school leaders either felt they couldn't meet or didn't care about meeting. (This school subsequently faced a state attorney general's lawsuit that made national news.)

We??at Fordham??currently authorize two Edison-operated schools in Dayton. Both have been in operation more than a decade so we, and the public, know plenty about their performance. In recent years, one of them has made steady academic gains and was rated ???Continuous Improvement??? (a C) by the state this past??year. It also showed greater-than-expected gains on the state's value-added measure and, based on our intimate knowledge of it, as well as the judgment of expert outside consultants that we hired to evaluate it a few months back, we can attest that the school is well-run and moving in the right direction.

[pullquote]It's not that we don't think Edison should have the opportunity to open new schools in Ohio at some point, but based on the firm's mixed performance in Dayton, is it in the state's best interest to okay eight new schools this year?[/pullquote]

The second Edison school in Dayton, however, has struggled academically for the last four years. It was rated Academic Emergency this year (an F) after three years of being rated Academic Watch (D) by the state.??Its results have been so weak that we provided the school's board with only a one-year contract for 2010-11 (we normally issue 5-year contracts) and a few weeks back the school was warned??by the state department of education that it's on death row ??? with its execution dependent on this year's academic performance. In sum, this school has failed to deliver for hundreds of kids and now faces closure if it doesn't show dramatic improvement.

So we were??more than a wee bit??surprised to read in the paper that EdisonLearning was working with ERCO to launch eight new schools in 2010-11.

It's not that we don't think Edison should have the opportunity to open new schools in Ohio at some point, but based on the firm's mixed performance in Dayton, is it in the state's best interest to okay eight new schools this year? Have they earned the right, based on their performance in Ohio, to go from two schools (one decent and one failing) to 10? (In fairness, Edison runs some swell schools in other states, though nowhere is its track record perfect.) Has ERCO made a responsible decision as authorizer and has the state department made a responsible decision in allowing this?

These are tough questions, but just the sort??that need to be asked and answered if Ohio is??ever to get beyond its troubled and tempestuous charter history. Quality must accompany quantity ??? a lesson that is apparently still unlearned??by too many in the Buckeye State.

- Terry Ryan & Kathryn Mullen Upton

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