Ohio's billion dollar bonanza

The proposal of a few members of the state legislature to increase the transparency around charter schools is a fine idea. But their allegation that charters “waste” public funds—apparently without acknowledging the infirmity of Ohio’s urban districts—is shameful discourse that conceals the woeful facts about public schools in urban areas, where most charters reside.

Consider the Columbus Dispatch’s report of what two lawmakers had to say about charters.

The lawmakers say increased scrutiny of spending is needed because 87 percent of charters received a D or F on recent state report cards.

“These changes are urgently needed to ensure that our school children receive the education they deserve and that tax dollars are not wasted,” Schiavoni said.

Carney noted that after excluding dropout recovery and special-needs charter schools – which many agree should not be held to the same standard – nearly $500 million went to failing charters last year.

Granted, $500 million per year is a large amount of public funds and again, let me be clear, charter schools must show a return on that public investment. But why don’t we put this figure into perspective, in light of what we know about Ohio’s large urban districts?

The table below displays the performance index rating (student achievement), the value-added rating (a school or district’s contribution to learning), and the amount of state revenue provided for Ohio’s “Urban Eight” school districts. As you’ll note, state spending on Cleveland and Columbus school districts alone exceeds $500 million per year, and spending across all eight districts easily tops one-billion dollars.

Source: Ohio Department of Education Note: The most recent data on state revenue is from 2011-12 and are still considered “preliminary” by the department. The table excludes the proceeds from local property taxes and state facilities funds, neither of which charter schools have access.

Given the challenging contexts in which they operate, a lenient Ohio taxpayer might consider the results from Canton and Cincinnati satisfactory. For the remaining six districts, however, taxpayers aren’t getting a bang for their buck. No one in their right mind should consider Ds and Fs (especially in value-added) acceptable performance. At best, Ohio’s public aid allows these districts to provide a basic education, which  many will agree doesn’t cut it, especially for the scores of kids who desperately need a great school and the opportunity it affords.

We at Fordham have been candid, blunt, and frank about the tragic shortcomings of too many of Ohio’s charter schools—and we eagerly await the day when Ohio’s citizens can claim the nation’s best charters as their own. Make no mistake, however: The sins of a few rotten charter-school apples pale in comparison to the ongoing catastrophe of public-school districts in Ohio’s urban areas. If charter-school critics consider the half-billion dollar expenditure on feeble charters as a “waste,” they ought to regard the billion-dollar-plus bonanza on low-performing districts in the exact same vein.

In the end, transparency, yes—and as a matter of fact, transparency should be the modus operandi for all schools, regardless of performance, dependency on state funding, or public-school “sector.” But at the same time, policymakers must not confuse transparency with regulation; in fact, they should resist the temptation to increase the regulatory burden on any school, whether district or charter; high or low-performing. Liberating schools, not tying them up with red tape, is the best path forward. 

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