Charter school critics wallow in the dregs
Recent blogs by William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (posted on Diane Ravitch’s website) and Join the Future highlight the academic woes of some of Ohio’s charter schools. Phillis writes: “The Department of Education’s ranking of schools and districts reveals that 83 out of the bottom 84 schools are charter schools.” Join the Future exclaims “Out of the bottom 200 districts, just 21 are traditional public schools, the remaining 179 are charter schools!”
Both authors make spurious comparisons that ought to be dismissed. Both make the mistake of comparing the performance index scores of charter schools to school districts. To compare charters to school districts fails to account for the disproportionate number of disadvantaged students that charters serve. In 2011-12, Ohio charter schools on average enrolled 79 percent economically disadvantaged (ED) and 61 percent African American students. Meanwhile, the statewide average was 46 percent ED and 16 percent African American. So long as the “achievement gaps” persist between race and income groups, is it fair to compare charter school performance with all statewide school districts? And do statistics about the worst-performing charter schools, in comparison with school districts, tell us anything beyond the fact that many charters struggle to narrow achievement gaps?
Taking a building-level view, rather than comparing charter schools to school districts, is a better comparison of charter and district performance. For, at a building-level, we gain a clearer picture of how charter schools do in comparison to schools that serve similar students. When we do this, we discover many district and charter schools lining the bottom of the performance barrel; in fact, there are more district schools than charter. At a school building level, 139 of the bottom 200 schools were district schools. Both district and charter schools are therefore guilty of weak results on the state’s “performance index” score.
Data quibbles aside, I wonder if there isn’t a bigger point to be made. This sad-sack debate around which Ohio schools are the “lowest-performing”—and pointing fingers in either direction, whether at charter schools or districts—shouldn’t drive the discourse about K-12 public education. Russell Ackoff, formerly of UPenn’s Wharton business school, hits the nail on the head when he remarks: “What’s wrong is asking, ‘What’s wrong with?’ What’s right is asking, ‘What’s right with?’ and ‘How can it be made righter?’”
Charter school naysayers are quick with their “what’s wrong with” quips, and the criticism is at times deserved. Many of Ohio’s charter schools must be made “righter,” to help more students—especially our neediest kids—succeed in school. But by focusing--gleefully, it would seem--on only low-performing charter schools (and making a poor comparison, to boot), critics are blind to the shining examples of charter schools that provide a great education for students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or arrive at their school grade levels behind. And worse yet, they ignore the rot in their own backyards.
Rather than wallowing in the dregs of charter and district schools, wouldn’t our time and energy be better used learning from exemplar schools, quickly rooting out the dismal ones, and pushing for constructive change in K-12 education, so that all Ohio’s kids have the knowledge and skills to face a different world than generations past?
 Ohio Department of Education, “2011-12 Annual Reports on Ohio Community Schools, Table 1”
 Charter schools are ranked as both “districts” and “buildings” by the department of education.