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The Columbus Dispatch is reporting today that Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools will be discontinuing their experiment with charter school creation at the end of this school year. The school of 110 students in grades 9-12 will be absorbed into the district. The main reason cited: once start-up funds ran out ($450,000 from the federal government’s Public Charter School Program), Gahanna Community School’s board and staff were unable to maintain operations with the fractional per-pupil funding provided monthly by the state to all charter schools. Upper Arlington closed a charter school for similar reasons last year.
While it is tempting for me to snark about “unscrupulous charter operators” (believe me, I wrote that blog post and it was really funny) and to rage that the federal government should get its start-up money back from Gahanna-Jefferson and Upper Arlington too, I think it is more important to talk about the object lesson that this situation presents.
The fiscal picture painted by the board and staff of GSC is the daily reality of almost all charter schools across the state: once the start-up funds are spent, the per pupil funding provided for school operations by the state – with no local funds and no facility dollars – is at least a third less than what is available to even the poorest of public districts in Ohio. Gahanna cites the savings that will be had by not having to pay $85,000 for filing separate state data and paying for separate financial services between the community school and the district. And this was with the district Treasurer doing the work!
Charter schools have to report data to the state monthly while districts only have to do it twice a year (something that the current state budget will hopefully change), and well run charters often bid out their work to get the best price, share services with other schools, and even train some staff do double duty. Thus keeping costs down. All hands on deck, for certain.
GSC has been housed within Gahanna Lincoln High School since its inception, Wickliffe in Upper Arlington was within a building the district already owned, so neither school ever had to worry about paying rent or figuring out where to hold classes. That is not the reality of charter start-ups who have to identify facilities and then pay rent and often times repair costs to get the buildings up to code.
So, when you see Columbus Collegiate Academy, DECA Prep, KIPP Journey Academy, or Breakthrough Schools (among others across the state) providing high-quality education to their students, know that they are succeeding where Gahanna and Upper Arlington could not.
But we can’t applaud the failure of these experiments in Gahanna and Upper Arlington, because what is really lost is innovation and creativity and efforts to find new and better ways to educate children. Other school districts are finding a way. Reynoldsburg City Schools authorizes five charters that do very well by their students; Cleveland has a growing portfolio of high-performing charters (including Breakthrough Schools); while Dayton Public Schools authorizes the high-performing Dayton Early College Academy. Wickliffe was an important attempt by Upper Arlington to create a different learning environment in what is sometimes seen as a starched and stayed “well-heeled” district in central Ohio. The board and staff of Gahanna Community School say that the school will remain the same as it is absorbed into the district, but the space for innovation will be a lot narrower as a district program.
While the students in Upper Arlington and Gahanna have decent district schools to fall back on, these “failed start-ups” could have ripple effects into the larger charter community. Specifically, the federal government no longer provides start-up dollars for new charters in Ohio because the state has seen too many of its start-ups, many district sponsored, not deliver. But just because two of the highest performing districts in central Ohio didn’t count on the harshness of life after the start-up phase doesn’t mean that others can’t – even those dealing with harsher realities than ever materialized in Gahanna or Upper Arlington.
We know this because there are charter schools doing it right every day and some of these have been started by school districts. We applaud those schools doing more with less, providing families in Columbus and Dayton and Cleveland and southern Ohio with quality school options while dealing with harsher realities than many realize.