Hard to kill charter school canards

 “Nothing lasting thrives in a hostile environment. Just as too many charter supporters are hung up on defending all charters all the time, their tireless opponents are bent on creating false distinctions and are constantly attacking them from every imaginable direction. Double standards and hypocrisy are in ample supply on both sides.”

Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan and Michael Lafferty, Ohio Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the frontlines, 2010

This quote summed up a key lesson learned from the charter school experience in Ohio over the first decade of its controversial life. Three years later, the lesson still rings true. And no doubt the long political struggle around charter schools has hurt the state’s overall charter school quality (great operators have far friendlier states to choose from), made it difficult for Ohio to improve its charter law (this struggle has been characterized by zero-sum battles at the state house), and retarded the power of charter schools to fulfill their potential (hard to thrive in hostile environments).

We’ve not shied away from taking on radicals on either side of the debate. Many in the charter community dislike us because we think accountability for school performance as measured by standardized tests is as important as school choice itself. Meanwhile those on other side don’t like us because we support school choice and indeed authorize 11 charters in Ohio.

We’ve not shied away from taking on radicals on either side of the debate.

In recent weeks, however, the anti-charter crowd has been working the state’s newspapers to spread half-truths and canards about Ohio’s charter school program. The Akron Beacon Journal ran a slanted piece on “Academic ratings for Ohio charter schools likely to tank in new scoring system,” and the Columbus Dispatch ran a piece by jilted Ohio House candidate Maureen Reedy entitled “Charters don’t deserve state windfall.” Both stories compared charter school performance to that of district performance across the state. This is like comparing the ACT scores of students attending Cuyahoga County Community College (CCCC) to those students attending Case Western, and saying CCCC is failing because its students don’t score as high as Case students.

Charter schools in Ohio serve a disproportionate number of needy children because under state law charters have traditionally been allowed to open only in districts deemed Academic Emergency (D) or Academic Watch (F). Thus, charters draw their students from the most troubled district schools and as such these kids are behind at the starting gate.

The following are three canards that have been repeated in these stories, and over and over by anti-charter folks in Ohio:

Canard #1: District students who transfer to charters go to worse schools

A popular myth spread by anti-charter voices in Ohio is that charters perform worse than their district peers. And, as a result, students who transfer to charters inevitably attend a lower performing school. The recent Akron Beacon Journal article feeds into this figment by making the following claim based on its analysis of the 56,987 students who left an Ohio Big 8 district for a charter school:

“82 percent of those students enrolled in a charter school that performed worse than the public school they left.”

But, according to our Student Nomads report, which examined the Ohio Department of Education’s student-level database and over 5.2 million student moves between October 2009 and May 2011, 82 percent is flat wrong.

Consider chart 1, which shows the total number of student moves—from a traditional district school building to a charter school—for five of the Big 8 Ohio cities: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.

The chart shows that district to charter moves are relatively even distributed across students who move up to higher-rated charters, move down, or go sideways. In fact, 65 percent of students who moved went to a charter school rated the same or above the district school building they left.  This is nowhere near the 82 percent “moving down” rate claimed by the Beacon Journal.

SOURCE: Community Research Partners’ analysis of Ohio Department of Education data, available at Student Nomads: Mobility in Ohio’s Schools. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo Area Profiles, Table 22. Number of moves = 13,612. NOTE: The chart divides district[1] -> charter moves into three segments: (1) district students who move to a higher-rated charter, “moving up”; (2) district students who move to a lower-rated charter, “moving down”; and (3) district students who move to an equally-rated charter, “same.”

Canard #2: Charter schools are the worst-rated schools in the state
Fingers are being pointed at charter schools for scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of academic performance. Maureen Reedy in her Dispatch piece offers this whopper (in bold – emphasis ours):

“So 77 percent of Ohio’s public schools are receiving A’s, B’s and C’s while 77 percent of Ohio’s charter schools are receiving D’s and F’s. And the bottom 111 performing schools last year? All were charter schools.”

Chart 2 shows that the most troubled schools in Ohio last year were a mix of both charter and district schools, and neither sector should be pointing fingers at the other. There are way too many underperformers in both sectors, and as a result way too many kids facing bleak futures.  The chart shows that a nearly equal number of charters reside in the state’s bottom 111 schools.  We use building-level performance—a fairer apples-to-apples comparison than comparing entire districts to charter schools—as the level of analysis for this chart. What we observe is that 55 out of the 111 bottom schools are traditional district buildings.

So, traditional districts and charter schools are both equally culpable and capable of poor-performance. And again, far too many kids in each type of school are languishing and are in need of better school options.

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, Performance index ranking.

Canard #3: All or most charters are operated by big businesses that rob taxpayers, dupe parents, and bleed innocent districts

Ms. Reedy’s letter to the editor also suggests that all of Ohio’s charter schools are (1) for-profit and (2) taking substantial money away from innocent traditional districts. Reedy writes:

“History seems to be repeating itself in the Statehouse. Once again, legislators are poised to pass a state budget bill that continues to take billions of our tax dollars out of traditional public schools to fund for-profit charters that have produced dismal results after two decades of experimentation in our state.”

Yes, there are some big-time for-profit operators in Ohio, and too many of them have not performed well (including a for-profit operator that we, as a sponsor, helped out the door for poor performance). Further, some of these operators have fought to keep their spending of public dollars free from public inspection. White Hat, for example, has lost its argument in both trial court and the 10th Appellate District court that their school model is proprietary and as such should not have to release how public dollars are spent. On March 12th of this year, the 10th Appellate District court ruled that a charter school is a “public official” and as such must be reported as public funds. Thus, the courts in Ohio are saying that all charters must publicly account for how they spend public dollars, and the fact is that the majority of charter schools have already been doing so anyway.

Despite the high-profile foibles of big-business operators such as White Hat, most of Ohio’s charter schools are actually operated by non-profit organizations. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 30 percent of Ohio’s charters were operated by for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) in 2010-11—the last year NAPCS reported data by management organization. The remaining 70 percent Ohio’s charters were either managed by non-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) or were freestanding charters (“mom-and-pop” charters). In fact, some of the state’s highest-performing charters are run by non-profit organizations, such as KIPP and the Breakthrough Schools.

Despite the high-profile foibles of big-business operators such as White Hat, most of Ohio’s charter schools are actually operated by non-profit organizations.

Second, it is misleading, as Reedy does, to imply that charter schools are robbing taxpayers, while simultaneously leeching innocent districts of their funding. The fact of the matter is that taxpayers spend less on each child in a charter school then is spent on their district peers. The largest study of charter school spending in the United States found that charter schools in Ohio on average receive 16.2 percent less in public funding than district schools. Further, while the state has spent over $10 billion in new school construction over the last decade not one penny of this went to help charter schools or the 100,000 plus school age Ohio children attending these schools.

True, as district schools lose students to charters the state and federal dollars for their education follow them out the door. This reality has had a profound impact on the school districts across the state that lose 10, 20 and nearly 30 percent of their students to charter schools. Yet, the school districts that experience the pain of diminishing revenue are also largely the state’s lowest performing districts. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s 2011-12 Report Card ratings and NAPCS’ charter enrollment statistics:

  • Cleveland Metropolitan School District, rated “Academic Emergency” (F), loses 28 percent of its students to charters;
  • Dayton Public Schools, rated “Academic Watch” (D), loses 26 percent;
  • Toledo Public Schools, rated “Academic Watch” (D), loses 25 percent;
  • Youngstown City Schools, rated “Academic Watch” (D), loses 25 percent;
  • Columbus City Schools, rated “Continuous Improvement” (C) and under investigation for data manipulation, loses 21 percent.

Given these woeful academic ratings, is it any wonder that parents in these districts actively seek better educational alternatives in charter schools? And, of course, none of these parents have been forced to enroll their child into a charter, nor are they forced to stay in one. It is a mistake – as the Beacon Journal and Ms. Reedy both do – to assume that the thousands of parents and guardians of children enrolled in charters have all been duped or don’t know what is best for their children. 

In the end, the truth is this: Ohio has too many low performing schools, both district and charter—and that too many of these low performing schools are found in Ohio’s inner-cities. This is quite simply the “achievement gap” between Ohio’s disadvantaged and advantaged students. Some schools, both district and charter, are resolving the achievement gap, but many more are failing. Accepting this reality—and neither sugarcoating nor misrepresenting the performance of either charter or district schools—is the first step toward engineering better public policies that improve public education for all of Ohio’s students.


[1] Moves include those that involve students attending the major urban public school district e.g., Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and moving to a charter.

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