Charter school lessons from Ohio

Charter schools are no longer in their infancy. They're gangly, pimply, headstrong, unpredictable teen-agers. It's been 15 years since the first school in Minnesota opened its doors. Back then, say veterans of the early charter wars, the struggle was simply to keep the spark glowing, to make sure that lawmakers gave charters a chance to open and prove their worth.

Today, charter schools are educating a million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Many of these schools are excellent. In Boston, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Houston, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, some of the top-performing public schools are charters. This is a stunning accomplishment for a movement not yet quite old enough to drive.

Such claims are harder to make in Fordham's home state of Ohio, where we've been helping to propagate the charter idea for a decade and sponsoring a handful of charter schools since 2005.

In the Buckeye State today, those who care about the education of needy youngsters are stuck between two less-than-satisfactory options. The first--Governor Strickland's approach--is to support traditional district schools, despite decades of evidence--persistently low test scores, high drop-out rates--of how poorly they meet many children's needs, particularly in Ohio's "big eight" cities (not to mention his recently proposed charter school moratorium). Yet fixing them is incredibly hard because they are set in their ways, rule bound, bureaucratic and union-whipped. (The union influence explains at least part of the Governor's policies.)

Option two is to embrace the state's 300+ charter schools, some of which are indeed excellent, but too many of which are appalling. The latest example is the Harte-Crossroads Schools in Columbus, where poor management and a disgraceful contract arrangement with the school's money-grubbing sponsor have left the schools in dire academic and financial straits (see here). Charter-school doctrine says that the "movement" is supposed to police itself, with authorizers shuttering bad schools and somebody--usually not very clear who--pushing on authorizers to do the right thing. Yet collections of charter schools (and at times, authorizers) have become interest groups in their own right and some of the self-policing, self-correcting mechanisms don't work so well in practice. (The same politics that make it hard to close traditional public schools make it also hard to close charter schools, alas. The GOP-dominated Ohio legislature is trying to find ways of ensuring that this happens, without killing the teen-ager on account of his acne.)

Ohio's charter saga has yielded some important, sometimes painful, lessons for the national charter movement. Five of the most sobering:

  1. Good charter schools are difficult and costly to open and run. It's time to end the myth that just about anyone can run a high-performing school and should be allowed to try.
  2. Quality authorizers--those organizations that "license" charter schools to operate and ultimately hold them responsible for their results--are as elusive as quality school operators, and not enough attention has been paid to ensuring that they do their jobs right.
  3. Authorizers should not profit from doing this important public work. As the primary quality control agent in the charter program, they should focus on monitoring and encouraging their schools, not finding ways to rake in more money.
  4. Good charter schools cannot make it on a financial shoestring over the long haul. Educating a state's neediest children with 30 percent less money per pupil (and no public support for facilities) simply doesn't work. Schools should be expected to be efficient but they can't make bricks with no straw and too little clay.
  5. Those who believe in charter schools--including state policymakers--must finger the dysfunctional specimens, condemn their failures, and encourage their closing, even as they help recruit better operators and authorizers.

Despite their troubles, Ohio's charter schools can legitimately take credit for two significant achievements. First, they have provided a lifeline to thousands of youngsters, most of them poor and minority, otherwise stuck in failing district schools and lacking other acceptable alternatives. Second, the charter program has put substantial pressure on Ohio's urban school systems to improve their academic performance--and their competitiveness. Charters are spurring overdue district reform and district leaders are embracing innovative ideas and practices, many gleaned from the charter experience.

Charter supporters in other states should take the Buckeye State's lessons to heart when they think through growth strategies, financing, and quality control. To make it through adolescence, teenagers generally need both discipline and support. Ohio's adolescent charter schools have lacked much in both areas.

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