We’ve passed the time for standing by and patiently hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own. Or that the authorizers of such charters will solve this problem on their own. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my New Year’s resolution is to seize the promise of change and resolutely champion the effort to strengthen the quality of the charter sector across the Buckeye State.
I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies won’t likely yield much change. But timing is everything—and now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality schools.
Charters have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. We’ve been blessed with some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and hundreds other like them around the country, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of at-risk students. Yet too many other charter schools in Ohio (and elsewhere) have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In Fordham’s own recent review of Ohio charter performance, we found the urban schools in this sector overall performing at the same low levels as district schools. That just doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t do the state’s neediest kids nearly enough good.
The challenges in Ohio’s charter sector have garnered national attention, now to the point of embarrassment if not humiliation. The Center for Education Reform aptly described Ohio as the “Wild West” for charter schools, based largely upon poor authorizing and a handful of highly visible “bad-apple” schools. Fortunately, some recent legislative changes have bettered the operating environment for charter schools. For example, Ohio is now implementing a system that holds charter school authorizers accountable for the way that the schools in their portfolios perform. Yet the state’s history of incoherent charter policy and low performing schools has left its mark: A 2013 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Ohio’s charter pupils as a group have been outperformed in both reading and math by similar students attending traditional public schools.
In short, despite our pockets of success and some positive legislative changes, a big problem with overall charter performance still exists in the Buckeye State.
The right thing to do
Every education reformer I’ve met—and there have been many over the past decade—has entered the movement to help kids get a better education. Everyone also understands clearly that when a student attends an ineffective school, whatever its “sector,” that child’s long-term prospects are severely diminished.
But that happened last year to more than 31,000 youngsters attending Ohio charter schools. Yes, it’s true. During the 2012–13 school year, 31,387 students attended fifty-six charter schools that received a D or F grade from the state on both the performance index (achievement) and value added (learning gains).
That is, frankly, appalling. Pathetic. Inexcusable. Shameful. Choose your own word.
The fact that so many charter schools are displaying such low achievement—and paltry gains—for so many students should be a call to action for every single one of Ohio’s education reformers. And it shouldn’t matter whether the low-performing school is a traditional public school or a charter school. (Or a private school that accepts vouchers, for that matter.) There is an uncomfortable parallel between a reformer who fails to take a stand against a low-performing school because it’s a charter (or private) school and a teacher-union leader who defends the performance of an ineffectual classroom instructor. It’s important to make sure that the reforms that we all have championed, like charter schools, don’t become just another inert school system that protects adult interests at the expense of kids. Taking action, from strong interventions to closing schools that we know are struggling, is the right thing to do.
Charter schools from their inception have been plagued by politics. (That’s true everywhere, of course, not just in Ohio.) After all, they offered the first sizable, government-backed threat to the district education monopoly. Any missteps were loudly decried, and attack after attack was leveled from the education establishment. There were times when admitting that charters needed improvement might have jeopardized the entire movement. But while plenty of opposition remains, I would argue that this threat has passed.
Last year, more than 116,000 students attended Ohio charter schools. The foundation of support represented by these impressive numbers indicates that the sector has reached a level of maturity and that charter schools are here to stay. The movement’s strength is enhanced by the strong advocacy and support organizations that have arisen to help meet the needs of charter schools, including the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Ohio Council for Quality Education, and the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers.
In recent years, charters have also enjoyed tremendous support from Ohio’s political leaders, including from Governors Taft and Kasich, Speakers Husted and Batchelder, and Presidents Harris, Niehaus, and Faber. All of these leaders understand school choice and have demonstrated their commitment to it. In addition, the Ohio Department of Education under the exemplary leadership of Dick Ross has taken a much more active role in aggressively enforcing Ohio’s charter laws.
The political world isn’t always fair, and honesty isn’t always rewarded. Still, the current politic alignments and leaders in Ohio provide an opportunity for charter supporters to press for important changes—without fear that simply acknowledging weaknesses will jeopardize the entire sector and the important choices it affords to families that need them.
Let’s begin by recognizing that Ohio’s charter laws—now embedded in multiple statutes—still contain shortcomings that inhibit the performance and growth of quality schools. Ohio’s charters, for example, obtain only a tiny amount of public funding for facilities, generally receive just 70 percent of the operating funds (per pupil) of comparable district schools , and are geographically limited to a small number of school districts, primarily urban. Charter supporters should have a long-term plan in place to correct these policy failings and others.
But when charter advocates come forward to request these changes from lawmakers, they would be wise to remember the rule of law known as the “clean-hands doctrine.” Simply stated, when you come to a court to seek relief, you need to be free from unfair conduct. Requests for fairer funding and fewer geographic limits are far likelier to prevail when led by groups that are actively working to improve the quality of charter schools and not those that defend schools that persistently fail to serve kids well. We can turn no more blind eyes towards charter schools that limp along year after year. Patience has run its course.
In every movement, there is a window of opportunity, a time when factors align to make bold changes possible. For Ohio’s charter supporters, that time is now. The problem is known, taking action is just and right, the politics are favorable, and the future outlook will be improved by addressing today’s problems. I’m excited about the future of Ohio’s charter schools and remain resolute on the need to improve their quality. Who stands with me?
This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Ohio Gadfly Daily blog.