Open Season on Charters

Late summer in Ohio is open season on charter schools. With the release of the Ohio Department of Education's (ODE) state report cards on school achievement, critics have launched repeated volleys aimed at tearing down the state's charter school program. This year's carping is especially vicious as state elections loom in November.

While criticism comes in the form of a slew of reports, articles, and editorials seemingly from a variety of concerned audiences, it's easy to discern a steady, orchestrated refrain: Ohio's charter school program is little more than a "failed experiment" in need of terminating.

The tactic, frequently employed by teacher unions to disparage opponents, is hardly new (see here). The difference this time is that Ohio's charters are in the crosshairs.

Take a recent report from the Ohio Education Association (OEA), which asserts that charter schools pose a grave threat--both academic and financial--to Ohio's education system. Unless halted, "this experiment will continue to put a generation of public school students and charter school students at risk."

The Coalition for Public Education (CPE), funded by the state's teacher unions, is no less vituperative. Coalition researchers (many on loan from the New York and DC bureaus of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) recently claimed that while vast majorities of district students were proficient in math and reading (86 percent and 80 percent, respectively), charter school students lagged far behind with rates of 29 percent and 21 percent. Ohio Federation of Teachers president and CPE chairman Tom Mooney fussed, "After nearly a decade, this experiment with public education by private providers continues to fail."

Richard Gunther, an Ohio State University professor and expert on southern European democracies (a natural authority on charter schools), most recently towed the union line in an August 28 Columbus Dispatch editorial. Gunther argued that while 70 percent of traditional public schools earned ratings of either Excellent or Effective, just 17 percent of charters did the same. And yes, he used that old line again, "the costs of this failed experiment have undermined public education."

Staged rhetoric aside, many charter schools do need to improve or be shuttered. But the same goes for the 325 district schools rated in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency.

As for comparisons, charters rarely do well against "all district schools" as many district schools are vastly wealthier and serve fewer disadvantaged students. Not to mention that charters are allowed to operate only in the state's lowest performing districts.

Consider charter school achievement alongside that of district schools in large urban communities, and the picture is quite different. In Dayton, charter school students easily outperformed district students in grades four through eight on the math and reading portions of the 2005-06 state assessments. Cincinnati's charters surpassed their district counterparts in fourth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade reading, as well as fourth-grade math. In Cleveland, public charter students outpaced their district peers in grades three, six, and eight math as well as grades three, five, six, seven, and eight reading. And 46 percent of Cleveland's charters made Adequate Yearly Progress, compared to just 13 percent of district schools.

Improving student achievement in Ohio's urban communities remains a tremendous challenge for both charters and district schools. Yet while the drumbeat of charter critics may sound loudly, it cannot obscure the fact that a growing number of charter schools are outperforming district schools that have over 150 combined years of experience.

Not bad for an "experiment" that's less than ten years old.

"Ohio's Charter Schools Are Failing to Perform as Well as Its Public Schools," by Richard Gunther, The Columbus Dispatch, August 28, 2006.

Download OEA's study here, and read CPE's release here.

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