Excellence in Ohio Charter Schools

How do we foster excellence in Ohio charter schools? That's the key question facing some 250 panelists and participants in the forthcoming "summit," Excellence in Ohio Charter Schools: What it will take and how to get there. The meeting is set for November 17 in Columbus and will be hosted by the governor, senate president, house speaker, and state superintendent. (The event is funded by the Gates, Walton, and Fordham foundations.)

Why a summit on charter school excellence? Why now? Since the first Ohio charter school opened its doors in 1998, rapid growth in school numbers and ceaseless pushback from their opponents has defined the charter movement in the Buckeye State. Charter proponents' first goal was to open lots of schools in lots of places so as to gain a foothold for this promising education reform and to create options for as many kids as possible, while the opportunity lasted. Quality and performance mattered, but what mattered more was getting schools up and running.

Now it's time to focus laser-like on quality. The urgency is underscored by recent changes to Ohio's charter law and the recent release by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools of "Renewing the Compact: A statement by the Task Force on Charter School Quality and Accountability." These are important principles—starting with the blunt assertion that school quality is the top priority—to apply to charter schools in Ohio as well as in other states.

The summit will highlight the Buckeye State's need to rededicate its charter school program to quality performance and student achievement. Its purpose is to forge a new agenda for Ohio's charter schools shared by operators, sponsors, funders, and policymakers.

The conference line-up includes a veritable "who's who" of respected leaders from the Ohio and national charter movements. What can we expect to learn from them? Here are five themes to look and listen for:

First, Ohio already has some superb charter schools. These include K-8 academic programs that are closing the black-white achievement gap in some of Ohio's toughest neighborhoods, and drop-out recovery schools that are working hard to bring young people back into the education mainstream. Some of these schools are solo operations led by earnest, incredibly hard-working educators and community leaders, while others are run by national operators such as Edison, National Heritage Academies, and the on-line provider K-12.

Second, the future belongs to quality charter operators who can consistently deliver academic achievement. Evidence abounds. Ohio's governor signed HB 66 on June 20, 2005, creating new pressure on charter schools to either perform or close. Additionally, a number of quality charter operators in Ohio and other states are starting to replicate their successes on additional sites. The best-known examples are the nationally recognized KIPP schools, and homegrown models such as the WEB DuBois schools in Cincinnati, the Richard Allen Academies in Dayton, and the Horizon Science Academies and Citizens Academies in Cleveland. These efforts are being supported and nurtured by national foundations and local funders dedicated to creating more high-quality school options for all children.   

Third, sponsorship matters greatly. Sponsors are those entities that, on the state's behalf, "license" charter schools to operate. They are crucial for monitoring, guiding, and supporting schools, while simultaneously holding them accountable for academic performance, organizational viability, and financial stewardship. The experiences of high-quality, successful sponsors in Michigan, Indiana, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and New York have taught us much in recent years.

Fourth, traditional school districts can learn from charters and benefit by emulating them. Charter schools are an asset to reform-minded school districts. School systems such as those in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City are now employing a "tight-loose" model of school governance, empowering individual schools to manage themselves while holding them to account for their academic performance. The superintendents in districts that adopt this model tend to act less like bureaucratic overseers and more like direction setters.

Finally, Democrats also support charters. Not all of them, to be sure, but it may surprise people in polarized states such as Ohio that some Democratic leaders not only support charter schools, but embrace them as a promising education reform strategy. Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis, for example, sponsors charter schools in his city. Chicago's Richard Daley is a strong supporter of charters, too, and the Windy City is at the forefront of the national charter movement. Many Democrats in Congress and in statehouses across this land also support and encourage this reform movement. In fact, some observers judge that the Clinton Administration was friendlier to this innovation than the current Bush Administration.

This is a pivotal time for Ohio charter schools. They have to produce academic achievement, with no excuses accepted. There are plenty of positive lessons to learn from and encouraging examples to model. Now we must bring these lessons and examples to scale so that quality charter schools become the norm rather than the exception. The charter future has arrived. Let's make the most of it.

To see the conference agenda, click here.

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