Ohio???s charter program risks becoming a laughing stock

The Ohio House, now again run by Republicans,
presented budget revisions last week that risk making the Buckeye State the
nation’s laughing stock when it comes to charter-school programs—a status that Ohio
has previously owned, and one we should struggle not to resurrect.

A decade ago, Ohio rivaled Arizona as the Wild West
of charter-school programs. It hewed to a laissez-faire
approach to school openings, growth, and quality, encouraging hundreds of charters
to spring up like dandelions. As a result some of the people and organizations
that launched these new schools were ill-prepared. Some had eccentric views of
what a school should be. Some operators turned out to be more interested in
personal enrichment than in delivering high-quality instruction to poor kids.
And most authorizers—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—offered
little to no oversight for their schools.

Ohio
needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of
charter schools run amok.

 
   
 

As a result,
headlines such as “Charters Fail to Deliver,” “State Audit Says Charter School
Company Owes Thousands,” and “Wild Experiment” were ubiquitous. Things got so
bad that, in 2002, State Auditor Jim Petro (a Republican, and now John Kasich’s
higher-education chancellor) issued a report blasting ODE for being such a weak
and undemanding charter-school authorizer. Less than a year later, the (Republican-controlled)
General Assembly passed HB364, which forced ODE entirely out of the business of
sponsoring charter schools.

This
was the first effort at cleaning up Ohio’s troubled charter program and it was
followed in subsequent years by further reforms to the program by Republican
lawmakers, including implementation of one of the nation’s toughest automatic charter-school
closure laws. (To qualify for that
grim fate
, a school must earn an F grade on the state report card for three
of the last four years; the cut-off is a bit stricter for school serving grades
four through nine.) As a result of such efforts to build a better balance
between choice and accountability, Ohio’s charter-school program has seen far
fewer school meltdowns in recent years and the overall quality of the program
has improved, with really atrocious schools being booted entirely from the market.

Governor
John Kasich’s education-reform plans, contained in his proposed biennial budget
for the state, would continue in that vein and deserve to be perfected and
enacted. But then the General Assembly’s House of Representatives weighed in.
Its proposed budget-bill amendments would push Ohio back into Wild West
status—and enable the profiteers to get even richer. Instead of striking a
sound balance between freedom and accountability—the essence of the charter-school
“bargain”—its plan focuses exclusively on how more schools can open, especially
those run by for-profit firms with mediocre-to-dismal track records of educational
success in the state. Some of the bill’s more troubling provisions would:

  • Allow
    school operators to apply directly to the Ohio Department of Education for
    authorization to establish a school and, upon approval, operate the school with
    essentially no oversight by anyone. (This is the same Department of Education
    that was banned from the job in 2005.)
  • Allow operators to force out board members if a
    dispute arises between the board and the operator, while also allowing the operator
    to handpick the replacements and requiring operator consent for renewal of any
    existing contract between a governing board and a sponsor. (This gives
    operators veto power over their regulator.)
  • Allow
    an authorizer—no matter how bad its current portfolio of schools—to sponsor
    many more new schools.

Three
months back, I warned in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that:

For
too long, charter school education has been a political battlefield on which
powerful political interests have waged war. As such, charter quality has
suffered and children who badly needed better educational options have all too
often bounced from troubled school to troubled school. Gov. Kasich and
Republican lawmakers should break the cycle of political acrimony around school
choice. This means resisting the temptation – and the encouragement they will
surely receive from some in the charter sector – to push for more charter
schools while also scaling back on school accountability. This would be a grave
mistake.

So much
for the power of the pen—my pen, anyway—but the message still rings true. Ohio
needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of
charter schools run amok. Fortunately for the state’s children, at
least a few others
seem to agree

The Ohio House
votes today (Thursday) on the budget bill; may its members do the right thing.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog,
Flypaper. To get timely updates from Fordham, subscribe to Flypaper.

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