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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