Setting the record straight on Ohio charter schools

Charter schools in the Buckeye State face a well-financed and well-coordinated assault. These attacks are playing out in the General Assembly, in state and federal courts, and in the court of public opinion. Charter foes, led by the state's two teachers unions, are spending big bucks. These efforts can be vicious, too, as evidenced by a comment from the Cleveland Teachers Union president when he announced his union's $70,000 "truth" campaign against charter schools: "These bad schools are like 700-pound hogs at the dinner table eating everything in sight, and the longer they're there, the harder it's going to be to move them out and away from the table."

For the unions, of course, this is not about children. It's about jobs. In 2003-04, the Ohio Federation of Teachers and Ohio Education Association lost 2,900 unionized teaching jobs to charter schools. This is an important fact for the media to keep in mind when reporting on Ohio's charter schools. It frames the politics of the assault on charter schools. Yet a recent series by the Cincinnati Enquirer uncritically recited many of the arguments being made by the unions and their allies. To date, these arguments have largely been dismissed by the General Assembly, and some have been summarily dismissed by the legal system. Yet they continue to appear in newspapers around the state as if they were fact.

Three of the most common misconceptions about Ohio's charter schools will sound familiar to reformers in other states:

·    Charter schools take money from school districts. False. As Sherry Panizo, senior program evaluator for the Ohio Legislative Office of Education Oversight, stated at an Ohio House Subcommittee hearing on May 12th, "Contrary to widely made arguments, community (charter) schools do not take local tax dollars from school districts." Charter schools receive only state and federal tax dollars. Additionally, in contrast to, say, the Cincinnati Public Schools, which will receive upwards of $1 billion in state and local dollars for school construction, charter schools receive not a public penny for facilities. Overall, Ohio's district-operated schools receive about 40 percent more tax dollars per pupil than do charter schools.

·    Charter schools aren't accountable to anyone. False. Charter schools are triply accountable. First, parents hold them to account: if  students don't attend a charter school, it dies. Second, charter schools are held accountable by their "sponsors" through a contract that details the academic, organizational, and financial promises a school must deliver or face closure. Third,  a charter school must live up to statewide academic achievement goals. In truth, charter schools are more accountable than district-operated schools, which cannot be closed for ANY of these reasons.

·    Charter schools have inferior teachers. False. Those who oppose charter schools equate teacher certification with teacher quality. However, the link between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness is tenuous. As reported in Education Week recently, "After spending four years sifting through hundreds of studies on teacher education, a national panel has concluded that there's little empirical evidence to show that many of the most common practices in the field produce effective teachers." (See below our note about the AERA volume that reports this finding.)

Unfortunately, one criticism is harder to dismiss for charter schools and their supporters. The allegation that some Ohio charter schools aren't performing academically contains more than a grain of truth. Far too many Buckeye charter schools are on "Academic Emergency" or "Academic Watch." The state's political leaders have dealt with this problem responsibly by changing state law to place a greater emphasis on accountability, with low-performing charter schools being swiftly put on probation. The pressure is now firmly on charter operators and their sponsors to show academic gains.

It's true. At day's end, the charter school movement is inextricably linked to the schools' success in producing well-educated young people. Sadly, in the Buckeye State, academic success for charters will have to come in the face of formidable and relentless political opposition, but come it must.

Charter opponents are losing the fight in the General Assembly and in the legal system. But with the willing participation of media outlets that would know better if they made even minimal efforts to ascertain the facts, they're making gains in the court of public opinion.

Terry Ryan is vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

"High promises, lagging results," by Jennifer Mrozowski, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 2005

"These schools sell education for profit," by Jennifer Mrozowski, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 30, 2005

"Time for tough look at charters," Cincinnati Enquirer, July 1, 2005

"Charters have high turnover," by Jennifer Mrozowski, Cincinnati Enquirer, July 3, 2005

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