GOP owes charter schools some tough love

Since their inception in 1997, charter schools have been at the
center of some of the most politically contentious debates in Ohio. The charter
debate too often has been characterized by two competing camps. One side
typically has been organized labor (the teacher unions), many Democrats, or
citizens uninformed about school choice but believing it represents a threat to
“public schools.” The other side tends to be business –represented by large
profit-making school management companies, free-market oriented individuals
(often Republicans), as well as activists of all political stripes who advocate
for educational equity.

Interests on both sides of the debate have poured money into
political campaigns over the years and have treated the politics of charter
schools as a zero-sum game in which a gain by either side must come at the
expense of the other.

This political polarization has led pro-labor Democrats to support anti-charter
legislation while pro-business Republicans have fought to protect extant school
operators and have resisted accountability measures that they perceived as
anti-charter. True to form, in his first budget in 2007 – and again in his
second budget in 2009 – Governor Strickland proposed legislation that would
have banned for-profit charter operators, cut charter school funding, and
buried the schools in costly regulations.

The long political struggle around charter schools has hurt charter school
quality in the state, made it difficult for Ohio to improve its charter law,
and retarded the power of charter schools to meet their potential. According to
new state charter law rankings by the National Alliance for Public Charter
Schools (NAPCS), Ohio’s law now ranks number 27 out of 41 states with charter
laws.

In contrast, the states with the best charter laws – Minnesota, Florida,
Massachusetts, Colorado, and New York – have made steady improvements over the
last few years through bipartisan legislative action. According to NAPCS, these
improvements include both the removal of constraints on charters (e.g., lifting
of charter caps and moratoriums) and the strengthening of charter school
accountability. Florida, for example, made the biggest jump in 2010, moving
from number 11 to number two. Florida’s rating leapt because lawmakers there
embraced quality control provisions that included adopting model charter school
applications and requiring high-quality charter school application evaluation
forms and performance-based charter contracts.

Republicans now control state government in Ohio and have promised to remove
caps and moratoriums on charters. This is a good start, but removing barriers
to new schools must be balanced by improvements to the state’s charter quality
control mechanisms. Ohio should build on the lessons from Florida and other
high-performing charter states.

Specifically, Governor Kasich and legislative leaders can help promote charter
school quality by crafting policies that ensure would-be school operators are
carefully vetted in advance of opening; that all schools are thoroughly
monitored by responsible authorities for their academic performance; and that
poor performers exit the market in timely fashion.

 Parental choice should be encouraged, but in tandem with rigorous accountability for results.  
   
 

Failed schools should not be able to skirt academic
accountability, whether they are traditional district schools, virtual charter
schools, or charter schools operated by for-profit management companies or
non-profit ones. The theories behind the school choice movement – that parents
will vote with their feet and that the market will hold schools accountable –
are imperfect and in reality all too often leave poorly performing schools in
place. Parental choice should be encouraged, but in tandem with rigorous
accountability for results.

The states with the best charter schools also have the strongest charter school
laws. According to Peter C. Groff, president and CEO of the NAPCS “High-quality
charter schools start with strong charter school laws. Our state charter law
rankings describe how laws can ensure charter schools are able to innovate in
ways that boost student achievement while being held to high standards of
academic, fiscal, and operational performance.”

For too long, charter schools have been a political battlefield on which
powerful political interests have waged war. As such, charter quality has
suffered and children who badly need better educational options have all too
often bounced from troubled school to troubled school. Governor 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.

The challenge facing education reformers in Ohio isn’t so much to add yet more
school options, but to ensure that those available to families are in fact
educationally sound. This is both the lesson from Ohio’s rocky history with
charter schools and the lesson from states with higher performing charter
schools.

This op-ed
previously appeared in the
Columbus Dispatch and Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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