Ohio’s “unique” approach to charter-district collaboration
Ohio is unique in its ability to turn the best of charter school theory and practice on its head. The most recent example comes from an Ohio school district that set up a charter school to offload test scores of low-performing students while making money for the district. According to the Columbus Dispatch the London City School District “will collect 80 percent of the $1.9 million in state dollars the charter will draw this year as payment for its services. It expects $700,000 of that to be profit.” The treasurer for both the charter school and the district told the paper that “district officials plan to continue the ‘revenue sharing’ method” despite the fact the school received an academic rating of F on its 2010-11 report card.
Last week the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released its annual look at the state of charter schooling in the United States – Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2011. The theme of this year’s report is charter-district collaboration. For most of the 20-year history of charters in America, relations between school districts and charter upstarts were frosty at best and downright hostile at times. Or, as CRPE’s Robin Lake writes, “Districts were known to call the local fire marshal to make sure new charter schools could not get their fire permits approved in time to open or to delay the release of state funds so that charter schools couldn’t pay salaries.” Yet, it wasn’t a one-sided fight. As Lake observes, “Charter school leaders were just as antagonistic – waging aggressive legal, public relations, and political battles to win as many new charters as possible in historically low-performing districts such as Dayton, Ohio; Milwaukee; and Los Angeles.”
Despite this stormy past, there are an increasing number of school districts working with high-performing charters to pursue a “portfolio strategy” to district management of schools. In assessing the nation’s charter landscape the CRPE team notes that “what began with a handful of pioneers almost a decade ago has grown to include at least 24 portfolio school districts across the country…. Common among the portfolio school districts is a commitment to open the best possible schools for students and close low-performing schools, whether the schools are charter schools or traditional public schools.”
CRPE’s director and founder Paul Hill has suggested over the years that communities should consider a “tight-loose” system of school management where districts are no longer just owner-operators of their own schools, but also quality control agents for portfolios of independently operated charter schools. In recent years, such efforts have received encouragement and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting district-charter collaboration compacts. According to CRPE there are 14 cities – including New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, Denver, and Boston – with such compacts that are “crafted and signed by superintendents and charter leaders willing to commit to collaboration on difficult and often divisive issues” like funding, facilities, charter growth, accountability, and transportation.
Back in Ohio, meanwhile, there are 45 school districts sponsoring 64 charter schools. A handful of these district-charter relationships (e.g., Cleveland Metropolitan Schools and Reynoldsburg City Schools) are worthy of inclusion in the CRPE report because they are examples of reform-minded districts working with quality independent charter schools to band together as equals to provide better options for kids who have been shortchanged educationally. And the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools has made a major commitment to improving charter-district cooperation, hosting a national conference on the topic last fall and publishing a book of best-practice examples of such efforts.
Yet, many of the district-charter “partnerships” in Ohio are little more than money makers for districts that also serve the purpose of being dumping grounds for kids with low test scores. Such districts collect the money for the schools because they provide all the services but aren’t accountable for the student’s test scores because the schools are set up as their own independent entities
Charter-district collaboration takes many forms; some are worthy of praise and replication while others are downright deviant. Yet again, when it comes to charter schools, the Buckeye States seems unique in its ability take a worthy concept and turn it completely on its head.
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