Setting a course toward charter quality

Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique and necessary perspective that will serve her well as she navigates Ohio’s charter quality challenges.

Over the past several months, the winds of change have started to blow, and therein lies the real opportunity. Consider these positive recent developments supporting increased charter-school quality:

Leadership from the Ohio Department of Education

Within the last half year, the Ohio Department of Education, under the leadership of State Superintendent Richard Ross and Director of Quality School Choice David Hansen, has taken a more aggressive role in ensuring charter schools are serving kids well. In October, Ross took the virtually unprecedented step of closing two schools that weren’t measuring up, saying, “It is unacceptable and intolerable that a sponsor and school would do such a poor job. It is an educational travesty.” Just last month, ODE, after a thorough review of the processes being used by six separate charter authorizers, put three of them on notice, stating that if they continue with their plans to open new schools this fall, they will lose their ability to sponsor schools in the future. While it’s a shame that this sort of aggressive stance by ODE is needed, the rate of closure among newly opened schools and the mediocre performance of many that were previously authorized (and in most cases renewed) leave little doubt that it is.

Auditor of State reenters the fray

ODE isn’t alone in focusing on charter authorizing. In the wake of some high-visibility school closures in Columbus, Auditor Dave Yost’s office announced that it is taking a closer look at three authorizers’ operations. The deep familiarity that the auditor’s office has with charter operations through the annual audits that it collects, reviews, and releases each year should prove valuable when examining authorizers. Again, we feel like this ought not be needed, but the heedless behavior of too many Ohio sponsors has made it inevitable.

Ohio House proposes closing loophole

The House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker Batchelder, has been a relentless advocate in expanding school choice for Ohio kids—and a lot of that has indeed come about due to his leadership. But it’s no secret that we’ve raised doubts over the years regarding the House’s commitment to school quality, accountability, and transparency. A new dawn is glimmering, though, and the House deserves plaudits for recent changes it added into House Bill 487 (the education MBR) that will close a loophole that could be exploited by charter schools required to be closed for low academic performance.

Ohio’s mandatory closure has drawn national praise, but there have been situations—allowed under current law—in which schools could sidestep the mandatory closure by using legalistic maneuvers to create a new nonprofit school even if all the players remain the same. The new House language addresses that by preventing a closed school from reopening under another name if it has the same sponsor, the same chief administrator, any of the same governing board members, or 50 percent or more of the same teachers or administrators. These common-sense changes will put another few teeth into Ohio’s mandatory closure provisions by ensuring that a new school that opens is actually a new school. Let’s also remember, however, that with proper sponsorship the state wouldn’t need this “death penalty” for low-performing schools. Authorizers would never let them get to that point.

Media attention

Late last year, the Columbus Dispatch shone a spotlight on the struggles of some Columbus-area charter schools. The alarming stories served as wakeup calls to political leaders that some charters were not living up to their promises. Some of the responses noted above were likely influenced by those situations—and that exposure. This year, the media has continued to place the focus on issues likely affecting charter-school quality, with a recent series of stories in the Akron Beacon Journal calling into question the openness of charters and the transparency surrounding their funding. While media coverage can be frustrating for charter advocates, it’s important when media coverage points out areas of law that can be improved to better serve Ohio’s charter-school students that supporters capitalize on the public awareness that often results to make the necessary changes and not automatically write the findings off as media bias.

Charter supporters increasingly demand quality

Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that many longtime charter-school supporters are paying more attention to quality. A notable example is the recent guest post in the Ohio Gadfly by Ron Adler of the Ohio Council for Quality Education. In addition, Peggy Young of the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, an authorizer of charter schools, emphasized the importance of quality authorizing and supported the Ohio Department of Education’s efforts to develop a rigorous assessment of authorizer performance in a letter to the Columbus Dispatch. While charter supporters have long recognized and advocated for quality schools behind the scenes, taking the issue into the public eye is a new and welcome addition to the charter-quality landscape. Again, as we wrote in January, charter advocates have the responsibility to lead the fight for quality schools and are best positioned to do so successfully.

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Our sincere congratulations go out to Darlene and OAPCS. While it is a challenging time to take the wheel, we are excited about what her leadership will bring. As she charts her own course on the issue of charter quality, we trust that she’ll feel the strong winds (political, media, and charter advocate) at her back, hoist the sails, and steer a path toward ever better educational opportunities for Ohio’s charter students.

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