On November 1, 2015, Governor John Kasich signed landmark legislation to reform charter schools—House Bill 2, which strengthens the governance of Ohio’s charter sector and holds its key actors more accountable for their performance. These reforms lay the foundation for higher-quality charter schools and better outcomes for children. In time, we expect that the tougher accountability measures in Ohio’s revamped charter law will purge this sector of its lowest-performing schools, those that demonstrate no improvement (or worse) over the schools to which they serve as alternatives. However, simply eliminating ineffective schools is not nearly enough to create the opportunities Ohio children need; simultaneously, state policymakers should nurture the growth and replication of excellent schools.
Ohio already has some exemplary charters—a beachhead and benchmark for future sector quality—but the need for more high-quality schools in urban communities remains acute. In Columbus alone, more than 16,000 children attended truly dismal district or charter schools in 2013–14 (defined as a school that received a D or F for student growth and achievement). Equally staggering numbers of students attended low-performing schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland: 15,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. Taken together, roughly 75,000 youngsters in Ohio’s eight major cities (or about 30 percent of their public school students) were enrolled in low-quality schools that year.
As we at Fordham and others have insisted for years, these alarming statistics call for a concerted effort to grow great charters that can replace schools that don’t measure up. Now that Ohio policymakers have toughened accountability for underperforming schools, how can they jump-start the growth of more first-rate ones? What are the barriers to growth in this sector? What resources and supports are the most critical when expanding an existing school or starting one from scratch? What policy measures need to be in place to increase the number of students attending great charters?
To gain a better understanding of the on-the-ground realities of managing a quality charter school, we decided to go directly to the source. In the present study, we surveyed the school-level leaders of Ohio’s top charters. These individuals have experience recruiting and developing teams of effective educators, know how to work with parents and their communities, and understand the strategies needed to deliver results in the face of adversity.
Our survey sample was intentionally selective, as we wanted to hear from those who lead the state’s most successful charters. After all, they are doing the hard work of growing and sustaining quality schools, and their views demand the attention of state policymakers. To qualify for the survey, the respondent’s school must have earned a performance-index letter grade of A, B, or C or a value-added letter grade of A or B in 2012–13 and 2013–14. The school that met these criteria represent just under one-third of the total charters operating in the Buckeye State. In total, we surveyed 109 school leaders and received responses from seventy-six of them—a solid rate of reply.
To conduct the survey, we teamed up once again with Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of the FDR Group. We have worked with them on previous studies, including surveys of Ohio district superintendents in 2011 and 2013. Given their experience talking with and listening to education leaders, we know no one better suited to lead this work, including the survey itself and pre-survey interviews and focus groups in Columbus and Cleveland.
What did we learn from these school leaders about Ohio charters? What insights can be gained about growing great schools in the Buckeye State? As we dug into the survey responses, four themes emerged.
First, quality must be the top priority. When asked whether charters should expand in Ohio, 80 percent of charter leaders responded yes “but only if they are high performing.” Their quality-first mindset is underscored by the fact that 75 percent said that closing “failing charter schools” would be an effective way to improve Ohio’s charter sector (we conducted the survey in Spring 2015, before the recent statutory changes). More than half of these leaders regarded the tightening of oversight to be “necessary” to improve the overall quality of charters. In sum, these leaders are adamant that charters must demonstrate quality and that accountability measures must be taken if they do not, including the closure of schools that persistently perform poorly. The underpinning of their attention to the issue of quality is undoubtedly the damage that failing schools have wrought on the reputation of Ohio charters—leading to consequences that even quality charters have felt. Indeed, nearly six in ten school leaders (57 percent) report that “the negative image of charter schools has made it harder for my school to attract teachers and students.”
Second, talent matters. When asked about the single most important challenge associated with leading a successful school, both of the respondents’ most frequent answers related to talent: “attracting high-quality teachers” and “hiring a principal who is an effective leader.” The leaders also reported that recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers remains a major challenge. One finding was especially telling: There was near consensus (85 percent) that filling teacher vacancies is a struggle, at least in some subject areas. A follow-up question provides a clue as to why: 71 percent of charter leaders said that they’re at a “serious disadvantage” in recruitment because they cannot match district salaries, due to underfunding.
Third, securing suitable facilities is no picnic. Nearly half of the charter leaders reported inadequate space in their buildings (in a focus group, one noted how his school’s meager facility limited the opportunities for science labs and flexible ability grouping). One cost-efficient solution to the charter-facilities problem is the acquisition of unused district schools, yet nearly half of the charter leaders reported that districts are “generally uncooperative” with regard to making such facilities available. Virtually every respondent (92 percent) thought stronger enforcement of the legal requirement for districts to sell or lease mothballed facilities would be an effective way to support charters.
Fourth, resources are critical. Charter leaders made clear the challenges of operating and expanding in a harsh environment. An overwhelming majority of the respondents (87 percent) said that “a lot can go wrong” when expanding a school; more than half said that opening new schools has become “a lot harder” in recent years. What most likely underlies these sentiments is a sense that funding policies are inequitable: When asked how serious a problem lack of funding is for them this school year, 83 percent said it was very or somewhat serious. Above, we noted the salary gap and the difficulties this poses for charters seeking more great teachers. Perhaps not surprisingly, practically every leader surveyed (96 percent) thought that allowing charters to tap into local property taxes would be an effective policy shift.
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The leaders of today’s high-quality charters have managed, through a combination of energy, smarts, and perseverance, to overcome the many obstructions thrown in their way. Their schools are faring better than most charters in the state. But surely that is not enough—not when so many children in need continue to attend substandard schools. The charter leaders describe how these obstacles limit their potential reach and impact—and their frustrations come through. Consider, for example, the difficulties in recruiting and retaining effective teachers, the backbone of any high-quality school: How can they strengthen their current programs when they lose top-notch teachers to districts with deeper pockets? How can they expand to reach more children when they’re scrambling to fill vacancies?
Some of the challenges that charter leaders face are artifacts of policies that have long stunted the growth of high-quality charters in Ohio. Most urgently, policymakers need to improve the state’s bargain-basement funding arrangements for such schools. A 2014 report from the University of Arkansas demonstrated how severely Ohio’s charter schools are underfunded relative to district schools. Taking into account all taxpayer funding (local, state, and federal), charters, on average, receive approximately 75 cents on the dollar compared to districts. This disparity widens substantially in urban areas—to about 60 cents on the dollar. In Cleveland, for example, charters receive about $8,500 per student, while the district receives upwards of $15,500. Much of the disparity can be linked to the fact that charters are denied proceeds from local property taxes (with the exception of a handful of schools in Cleveland).
Making matters worse, Ohio charters receive only modest support for facilities and nothing from local bond issues, forcing them to cannibalize their already-thin operating budgets to make lease payments or fund capital improvements. If charters provide their own transportation, they receive only minimal reimbursement from the state. Unsurprisingly, most charters opt for district busing service (which itself creates myriad complications).
Ohio policymakers need to remove the barriers that obstruct charters so the sector’s high-performing schools can thrive, grow, and reproduce and so the state’s neediest children can gain access to more schools like these. This obstacle removal can take several forms:
Establish equitable operational funding. As discussed in the recent Bellwether/Fordham report on Ohio charter policy, two approaches would accomplish this. One option is to increase the amount of state aid, so that charter students are funded on an equal basis as their district peers (counting state and local revenues). Alternatively, state leaders could insist that local tax dollars follow students to the schools they attend—be they district or charter. As Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution explains in the 2014 Educational Choice and Competition Index, “Funding and management processes [should] favor the growth of popular schools at the expense of unpopular schools, including weighted student-based funding in which a high proportion of a district’s own funds follow students to their schools of choice.”
Both options would face political headwinds, of course, and a sensible first step would be moving toward a direct-funding approach for charters (rather than the current pass-through method, which aggravates the tension between Ohio districts and charters). However, any effort to direct-fund charters should also coincide with policy shifts that rectify the existing inequities. At the end of the day, the education of charter students—many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds—shouldn’t be valued less than the education of their peers in district schools.
Expand facilities support. To their credit, Ohio policymakers have recently improved charter-facilities policy. For instance, charters in FY 2017 will receive $200 per student to help with the cost of facilities, and the state is implementing a $25 million facilities grant program for high-quality charters. Much more is needed, however, and we see four possible paths forward. First, the state could enact a credit-enhancement program to help charters access debt markets. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) calls credit enhancement “one of the most effective and least costly options for facilities financing available” because “these programs significantly reduce tax-payer dollars spent on facility debt service by effectively substituting the state’s generally far superior credit rating for that of the charter school.” Second, Ohio could reboot its revolving loan fund to help schools with renovations and improvements. This loan program was funded during the early 2000s with federal dollars but hasn’t been funded since. Third, state policymakers should heed the advice of charter leaders and find ways to ensure that districts truly make their unused facilities available to high-quality charters, as law prescribes. Finally, lawmakers should raise the per-student facilities funding from $200 to an amount that aligns with the funding levels of other states, such as Minnesota (over $1,000 per student), California ($750), and New Mexico ($700).
Invest in the start-up phase. Launching schools is a difficult and risky endeavor; as 87 percent of charter leaders said, expansion must be done “very carefully—a lot can go wrong.” Fortunately, Ohio recently has won a large federal grant intended to help create new charter schools. If implemented well, this will be a big step in the development of not just more charters but more high-quality charters. (At the time that this report went to press, the dollars were frozen as the state provided additional information to the federal government.) The federal investment may not be enough, however, to guarantee that schools start off strongly. State policymakers could match those dollars for schools with strong track records of student success. Such investment by the state would further nurture Ohio’s newest schools through their infancy, mitigating the risks associated with the start-up phase and boosting their odds of long-term success.
Hold the course on accountability. Increasing the resources available to Ohio’s charters hinges on also upholding strict accountability for results. Taxpayers must be assured that public funds are being effectively used to further the education of children. Charters that perform poorly, as measured by their academic results, must be shuttered, both for the sake of children and in order to rebuild public trust in the charter sector. The reforms in House Bill 2 strengthen the accountability structure of Ohio’s charter system, and policymakers need to ensure that the letter and spirit of the law are followed during its implementation.
Ohio has the perfect opportunity to turn the page on its storied—some would say infamous—charter program. Lawmakers have established a strong framework for results-based accountability through the reforms of House Bill 2. Now it’s time for the Buckeye State to take the next step and put into place policies and practices that help great charter schools replicate and grow. Too many children in desperate need of an excellent education continue to languish in mediocre (or worse) district and charter schools. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that low-income students lag far behind their affluent peers in achievement. National test results indicate that just 20 percent of low-income eighth graders in Ohio reach proficiency on NAEP, compared to 50 percent of their higher-income peers.
Ohio policymakers should clear the roadblocks that the leaders of high-performing charters say constrain their ability to scale and sustain success. If policymakers listen to our current crop of charter leaders, the next generation will be better equipped to compete for the talent, expertise, and physical capital they need to deliver the quality of education that Ohio’s children deserve.
 The criteria used in this study to identify top-performing charters do not match exactly the state’s definition of a high-quality charter. Ohio law provides some incentives for high-quality charters, which it defines as schools that meet the criteria of earning an A, B, or C on its performance index and an A or B on value added in the most recent school year. To create a larger sample, we loosened the criteria; using 2013–14 results, the state’s criteria would have yielded just forty-five schools—too few potential respondents to derive meaningful survey results.