Burying zombie charter schools

We've heard much about "zombie banks," institutions that are fundamentally insolvent but stay open because they are propped up by government intervention. But finance isn't the only field trod by the walking dead. In Dayton, and indeed across Ohio, we are also witnessing zombie schools. Many are operated by public school systems. To the great embarrassment of those who have supported charter schools, more than a few also exist within the charter sector. These are schools that remain open even though they no longer have any real hope of successfully educating children or even paying their bills.

Zombie charters are characterized by low enrollments, persistently weak academic achievement, and sorely troubled finances. In Ohio, 53 charter schools are rated in Academic Emergency or have fewer than 150 students, certainly meeting the zombie definition. Most have shown these failings since birth, which, for many, occurred during Ohio's mad rush by irresponsible sponsors in 2003-04 to open as many charter schools as possible as fast as possible. Sponsors, of which our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is one (we sponsor two schools in Dayton and four elsewhere in the state), are responsible for "licensing" charter schools to operate, holding them accountable for results, and intervening when they struggle. Regrettably, too many Ohio sponsors have not done their jobs well, and as a result we are stuck with too many zombie charter schools.

The Dayton Daily News has reported on three of them. The New City School, Arise Academy and Nu Bethel Center of Excellence all display zombie-like symptoms (see here). All were launched in 2003-04. All have enrollments under 150 students (two are actually below 100), and all have struggled academically and financially. One of these schools was rated F by the state and the other two have too few students to even receive academic ratings.

Like zombie banks, zombie schools hurt people and threaten community well-being. They hurt children attending them because they are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to educate these youngsters. They hurt employees by shorting their pay or not meeting their fundamental commitments for things like health insurance. They hurt charter supporters who find themselves associated with dysfunctional schools and irresponsible sponsors. And they hurt communities by violating the core obligation of a society's adults to do right by its children.

Closing a charter school is hard and painful work. Last year, Fordham worked closely with the leadership of two Dayton charter schools to help close their doors after more than eight years of serving families and children here. In both cases, responsible adults struggled with the difficult decision to close their doors because they cared deeply about these schools and the children in them. But the schools were ultimately shuttered - and one merged with the Dayton Public Schools - because, in the end, everyone agreed that this was preferable to letting them continue in a way that might embarrass their supporters or hurt the children and families that depended on them (see here).

Of course we'd rather open schools and see them thrive than watch them falter-despite valiant efforts to turn them around-and then close. But sometimes the responsible move is to shut them down while assisting families to find acceptable alternatives. In Dayton and across Ohio, those sponsoring and operating zombie charters need to do what's right and bury the walking dead. If they refuse or fail to do this, state authorities must crack down.

Charter supporters - lawmakers, advocates, and operators - should not just demand protection, fair treatment and equitable funding of decent charter schools (as they did recently at a rally in Columbus), but also push hard for the closure - in a fair and transparent way - of zombie schools that hurt children and wound the charter movement itself.

Those currently working on the state's biennial budget should pursue a "tough love" approach to charter schools. This approach is just as right for schools as it is for child rearing. Love means giving them the freedom and resources they need to be successful. Tough means holding them accountable and coming down hard on those that fail or are irresponsible. That, by the way, is also the way to treat district schools. Let's purge the zombie schools among us.

A version of this op-ed appeared originally in the Dayton Daily News (see here).

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