Lessons from Ohio's frontlines

In Fordham’s customary role as a bumptious ed-reform think tank and advocacy shop, it’s unusual to engage in the real work of transforming schools and educating children. But our home state of Ohio has blessed us with many opportunities to get down and dirty in real-world education-reform struggles affecting real kids in a real place. Not the least of those opportunities has been our sobering, eye-opening work as an authorizer of charter schools in the Buckeye State.

Humbling might be a better term for this experience. One of our sponsored schools imploded in a fashion worthy of a Greek tragedy. Just a few years ago, the W.E.B. Dubois Academy in Cincinnati was visited by the (then) governor, lauded in the U.S. Senate (as a praiseworthy example of a school narrowing achievement gaps) and cited in a Seattle newspaper as a prime example of why Washington State voters should approve a charter school measure then on the ballot. But fast forward a few years and the school’s dynamic founder was pleading guilty to five counts of theft in connection with charges that he misused school funds and services to improve his home. The school he founded was closed—for weak academic performance—just last month.  

And that painful saga is just the tip of our experiential iceberg in Ohio, where we’ve learned the hard way that think-tankers don’t always fare well in the rough and tumble of politics, organizational interests, and human frailty. Expert theories don’t always hold water, either, and the ivory tower perspective doesn’t necessarily translate into real gains for schools and children.

We examine these lessons in Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines. This new book recounts our efforts to reform urban education on the ground, beginning in Dayton; to help launch new schools; to fix broken older schools; to assist needy families to make their way into better education options—and to duke it out with powerful institutional resistances, reform-averse politicians, and adult interests bent on maintaining the status quo. (You can find excerpts online at Education Next and can obtain the book itself—at a discount—here.)

A main thread through this story is the evolution of charter schooling in Ohio, home to four of the nation’s top ten charter cities. This form of school choice has been fought over since 1997. Every year, more bills and regulations have been proposed to reshape Ohio’s charter program. Some measures would strengthen it, others stunt it. Charter-school policy in the Buckeye State today resembles a multi-layered archeological site with relics from many past civilizations heaped atop one another.

Ohio is one of just two states where nonprofit organizations like ours may sponsor charter schools. (Minnesota is the other.) Sponsorship—a.k.a. authorizing—is probably the least understood element of the charter world. How outfits such as ours function in that capacity is unmapped terrain. Much of this book chronicles why we became a sponsor and what we’ve encountered in this role since 2005.

Yet there’s more to this story than charter schools. It is also a saga of school reform—and the prospects for economic renewal—in a key state in America’s old industrial heartland, and in a once-proud city now buffeted by profound economic, demographic, and social changes. Dayton and Ohio are struggling on multiple fronts, but nowhere more visibly than K-12 education. And nothing is more crucial to their revitalization than transforming the quality of their human capital, the performance of their schools, and the vibrancy of their neighborhoods.

The issues, of course, transcend Ohio and speak to how America is dealing with the twenty-first century; issues of governmental competence and institutional effectiveness, public and private interests, economic renewal and international competitiveness, social justice and equality of opportunity, and, of course, the efficacy of academic standards and school choice as education renewal strategies.

In the book’s concluding chapter, we share a number of lessons distilled from our work in Ohio and beyond. Here are some of the most compelling:

  1. Placing a “charter” sign over a schoolhouse door doesn’t guarantee educational excellence. Indeed, that designation doesn’t guarantee much of anything except a public educational institution with the opportunity to be different.
  2. Risks need to be taken and changes embraced. Encouraging innovation, choice, and experimentation in K-12 education entails obvious perils—and we fell victim to more than a few of them. But when barely half the kids in many U.S. cities even graduate from high school, risks need to be taken. The status quo is simply unacceptable.
  3. Really good schools make a big difference, particularly for poor youngsters whose life prospects need a boost beyond what their families and neighborhoods can supply. We have no patience with those who insist that “society must change” before schools can be expected to accomplish more for poor kids.
  4. The education marketplace doesn’t work as well as we thought—or as some of our favorite theories and theorists assert. It’s supposed to result in parents selecting high-performing schools for their children while shunning low performers. In practice, atrocious schools can languish for years, fully enrolled. There must be a balance between a school’s accountability to the parent marketplace and its obligations to sponsors and other external monitors that focus on its educational effectiveness.
  5. Reformers and innovators tend to evolve into their own vested interests with turf and jobs to protect. In the blink of an eye, it sometimes feels, zealous agents of change become defenders of the new status quo, greedy for money, resistant to accountability, hostile to competition, averse to further change. The “education establishment” turns out to be a big tent—with a doorway that appears to open in only one direction. 

Watch Mike Petrilli interview Checker Finn and Terry Ryan for Education Next about the book here

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