Rock or Hard Place?

Those who care about the education of Ohio’s neediest children are stuck between two vexed options--the proverbial rock or hard place. The first are traditional district schools with decades of evidence--low test scores, high drop-out rates--of how poorly they meet many children’s needs. Yet fixing them is incredibly hard because they are set in their ways, rule bound, bureaucratic and union-whipped.

Option two are entrepreneurial-style charter schools, some of which are excellent, but some of which are appalling--as illustrated by the ongoing saga of the Harte-Crossroads Schools implosion in Columbus (see here) and other much-publicized scandals and meltdowns in other cities. Charters are hard to fix, too. Ironically, they’ve become an interest group in their own right and some of the self-policing, self-correcting mechanisms that are part of the theory don’t work so well in practice.

Despite their troubles, however, Ohio’s charter schools can legitimately take credit for two significant public achievements since the first of them opened in 1998. First, they have provided a lifeline to thousands of youngsters, many of whom are poor and minority, otherwise stuck in failing district schools without other acceptable alternatives. The education haven--I didn’t say heaven--of charter schools currently appeals to over 76,000 students statewide, a bit more than three percent of the state’s public school students.

Ohio’s 300+ charters offer a range of programs, some of which were unimaginable ten years ago. On-line “e-schools,” for example, now serve over 15,000 children statewide. Drop-out recovery schools, like Dayton’s well-known ISUS and Mound Street Academies, have turned around lives and kept young people off the streets and out of jail while helping them earn a diploma. Schools like the Graham School in Columbus have provided needy families real hope that their children will, despite adverse odds, graduate from college. It’s likely that additional high-quality charter options like KIPP will open new schools here in coming years. 

Second, Ohio’s charter program has put substantial pressure on urban districts to improve their academic performance--and their competitiveness (see here). Charter schools are spurring overdue district reform and district leaders are embracing innovative ideas and practices, many gleaned from the charter experience. Consider that 50+ Ohio districts now sponsor their own charter schools, and options such as Columbus’s Academic Acceleration Academy would never have happened without the competitive pressures of school choice. Other district schools of choice like the Columbus Metro School and the Dayton Early College Academy have gotten off the ground because of opportunities and examples created by the charter program.

Ten years of experience have also yielded some important, sometimes painful, lessons about Ohio’s charter-school program. Five of the most sobering:

  1. Good charter schools are difficult and costly to open and run. It’s time to bury that myth that just about anyone can run a high-performing school and should be allowed to try.
  2. Experience in Ohio and nationally teaches us that quality sponsors—the 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. Sponsors should not profit from doing this important public work. As the primary quality control agent in the charter program, sponsors should focus solely on monitoring and encouraging their schools, not carving out parts of their operation on which to make added fees. (Speaking as a sponsor, however, it would sure be nice to break even!)
  4. Good charter schools cannot make it on a financial shoestring over the long haul. Educating some of Ohio’s neediest children with 30 percent less money per pupil (and no public support for facilities) may make for good political rhetoric but it doesn’t work in reality.
  5. Those who believe in charter schools must out the dysfunctional specimens, condemn their failures and encourage their closing, even as they help recruit better operators. Ohio’s charters sorely need coherent leadership, common agendas, vigorous, self-policing organizations, and unflinching dedication to high standards.

Ohio’s charter program can still achieve its potential. But lawmakers need to weigh the five lessons above—and some excellent recent advice from ACHIEVE and McKinsey (see here)—before rushing to impose new restrictions. They also need to recall that it does children no good to send them from badly performing charters back to badly performing district schools—any more than it does to send them in the reverse direction.     

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