Toss the bad apples, but not the barrel

Earlier this month, Policy Matters Ohio released a short report examining how some charter schools evade Ohio’s academic accountability sanctions.  Ohio has an academic “death penalty” for charter schools – if a school performs too poorly for too long, the state mandates its closure.  The law is heralded as the toughest of its kind in the nation.

Since the law took effect in 2008, twenty charter schools have been subject to automatic closure. Yet, as Avoiding Accountability: How charter operators evade Ohio’s automatic closure law reveals, eight of these schools closed only on paper and soon after merged with other schools or reopened under new names, retaining the same physical address, much of the same staff, and the same operator. Two of the schools were closed for one year before reopening; six closed in May or June, at the end of a school year, and reopened in time for the start of the following school year. The report details the cases of each school’s “closure” and rebirth and provides information about their sponsors, operators, and academic performance.

Charter schools avoiding accountability is absolutely not okay, and Policy Matters is right to shed light on the issue. Many of the report’s recommendations are on the mark, and mirror recommendations Fordham (both as a policy advocate and authorizer of charter schools) has made over the years:

  • The state should tighten closure laws so that sponsors, school boards, and operators cannot enter into new contracts to circumvent the law.
  • Sponsors should be penalized for allowing schools to avoid accountability sanctions (in four of the eight cases the schools maintained the same sponsor before and after closure).
  • The Ohio Department of Education should gain more capacity to oversee the charter sector, especially the closure process of sanctioned schools.
  • The state should prohibit sponsors from selling services to schools they authorize, as this practice creates strong financial incentives for a sponsor to keep a failing school in operation.

These are admirable goals for continuing to shore up the quality of Ohio’s charter schools, and Policy Matters’ report illustrates that well.  However, the report’s authors overplay the impact of the issue, condemning charters altogether because of these bad apples.

Specifically, there are three key pieces of information that would help round out and balance the report:

  • Yes, 40 percent of schools marked for closure skirted the law, but these eight schools represent just two percent of all charter schools. It’s certainly hyperbole to suggest, as the report does, that that what transpired with these schools is evidence that Ohio’s overall charter law is “ineffective and weak.”
  • Eighty-five, or 24 percent, of charter schools currently have a state rating of Excellent or Effective. These strong performers – and their sponsors and operators – should be lauded and certainly not penalized through excessive new regulations because of the actions of few.
  • Eight percent of traditional district schools (159 buildings serving 105,000 students) have ratings of Academic Emergency or Academic Watch, the same as the failing charter schools featured in the report.

Academic accountability is an important issue for all public schools, charter and district alike.  Policy Matters deserves credit for highlighting a loophole in the state’s accountability system, and likewise is correct to recommend smart changes to state law.  However it is not accurate to allege that Ohio is not “serious about quality in the charter sector.” Ohio’s automatic closure law – even with its “loopholes” – remains the toughest in the country, and over the past four years state leaders have worked to increase oversight and accountability of charters.

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