Innovation Ohio’s faux charter-school research

Innovation Ohio’s broadside on charter schools—and, by extension, the parents who select them and the children who attend them—is outrageous. The report is not necessarily flawed because of their critique of charters, per se, but because of the Swiss-cheese analysis that supposedly bolsters its conclusions. The author of this report makes two analytical faux pas, and each are discussed in turn.

First, the report’s suggestion that most charter students land in a lower-performing school, relative to the district-run school they came from, is bunk because of the absence of analysis at the student level. When Community Research Partners, a Columbus-based research organization, analyzed student data from the Ohio Department of Education in a project supported by Fordham and ten other organizations, its analysts discovered that the majority of charter students transferred to a charter rated the same or better than the district school they came from. Of the charter students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo—locations with relatively large concentrations of charters—39 percent went to a higher-rated charter school and 26 percent went to a charter school rated the same as the district school they had previously attended. (The students’ transfer data were taken from October 2009 to May 2011; at that time, the state issued school buildings an overall rating.) In the meantime, if we wanted to conduct an empirical evaluation of Ohio’s charter-school effectiveness relative to district schools, the richest analysis outside of a randomized experiment would be a student-to-student comparison, using achievement results from district and charter students from very similar backgrounds.

Second, the report’s fiscal analysis is egregiously incomplete. The report ignores the fact that traditional school districts, on average, generate roughly half their revenue via local property-tax dollars. For wealthier districts, local taxpayers’ share is well over half the district’s revenue—hence their relatively small amounts of state aid. All told, Ohio property owners paid nearly $8 billion, or about $4,000 per pupil, in taxes to their local district last year. But with just a few exceptions, charter schools receive zero revenue from local property taxes. (This even as charter-school parents pay their local taxes, whether directly as a property owner or through higher rent.) In addition, the report ignores the fact that charter schools (a) receive virtually no state facility funding (the FY 2014–15 budget appropriated for the first time up to $100 per pupil for charter facilities); (b) receive no “guarantee” funding (typically, transitional state aid for shrinking districts); and (c) none of the $1.6 billion of property-tax reimbursements distributed to districts. If all revenue streams were to be accounted for, charter students are funded at approximately 15 to 20 percent less than their district-school peers.

We at Fordham have been candid about the performance of Ohio’s charters. The evidence—both from our own experience and from the data—indicates that charters, as a group, must improve significantly. Moving forward, Ohio’s charters must demonstrate their net worth to parents and taxpayers through student achievement that is better than the district schools from whence their students came. The starting point, however, for such improvements should be sound research; meantime, what Ohioans don’t need is fictional reports and the politically driven chatter based on them.

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