A tale of two charter school sectors: Ohio versus Idaho

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By Terry Ryan

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

Earlier this century, Dayton, Ohio, was a hotbed for charter school growth, largely driven by parents, mostly poor and minority, desperately seeking better options for their children. In 2002, the Council of the Great City Schools captured Dayton’s challenges when it reported that “no urban school system in Ohio has fewer children meeting state proficiency standards…The problem appears to be exacerbated by high teacher absenteeism.”

Throughout the 2000s, Dayton was annually rated by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as a “Top Ten Community by Market Share.” In fact, by the mid-2000s, Dayton had more children per capita enrolled in charters than any city in the country, save for post-hurricane New Orleans.

I was Fordham’s Ohio point person from 2001 to 2013. A big part of my job was to try and responsibly seed the growth of quality charter schools, mostly in Dayton. This meant providing start-up grant support to prospective school operators, identifying individuals and groups we thought could run schools well, organizing technical assistance for schools through partner organizations, explaining charter schools to both critics and supporters, raising money for schools and support organizations, tracking and reporting annual school performance based largely on test scores (as this was the era of No Child Left Behind), and in time helping to launch and lead Fordham’s efforts as a nonprofit charter school authorizer.

Our work was done in a city facing serious economic, demographic, and social decline. In 2008, Forbes magazine rated Dayton as being the “fifth emptiest city” in America. Some of the schools we helped launch there and elsewhere were outstanding and continue serving students well today, but too many were mediocre, and more than a few were downright abysmal. After twelve years of working in the Ohio charter school space, I left the Buckeye State bruised, battered, and humbled, but infinitely wiser about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to creating and sustaining quality public charter schools.

Since August of 2013, I have been working in Idaho to help grow its new school sector. I lead Bluum—a nonprofit dedicated to seeking out, vetting, and supporting innovative school leaders and high-performing school models. Bluum has partnered with the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, and Building Hope, a nonprofit facilities group, to launch and/or expand thirteen charter schools, two private schools, and a district innovation school. These efforts have garnered more than $13 million in direct grant support, and are collectively opening more than 6,000 new school seats mostly in and around Boise, but also in other parts of the state, when appropriate.  

But in stark contrast to Dayton, the Boise area is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Idaho grew faster than any other state in 2017, with most of this growth occurring within a forty-minute drive of downtown Boise. Whereas Ohio had some of the lowest performing public charter schools in the nation, Idaho has some of the highest. As a cohort, Idaho’s charter school students outperform their district peers in math and English language arts, in terms of both proficiency and growth, and across student subgroups. On the 2016–17 SAT, seven of Idaho’s ten top-scoring high schools were charters.  And the state’s charters were the highest performing in the country on the 2017 NAEP math exam.

Why, friends in education ask me, do Idaho’s charter schools seem to work, while Ohio’s struggle so? I’ve come up with five reasons, but there are surely more.

First, Idaho’s law allows charter schools to open anywhere in the state, but Ohio charters have only been able to open in the state’s most troubled school districts, where most students live in poverty. In Dayton, for example, more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch (FRPL). Students in the Boise-area’s three largest school districts are far less likely to live in poverty. Boise’s FRPL rate is 52 percent, West Ada’s is 28 percent, and Nampa is 66 percent. For Idaho charter schools, only about 35 percent of students are low-income. As the College Board has been reporting for years, “there’s a very strong positive correlation between income and test scores.” Allowing charter schools to educate just poor and needy children sets them up for failure, especially when they are asked to educate these students with less money than traditional districts. It also diminishes political support when largely suburban Republican lawmakers, most of whom are white, create and champion a reform program for mostly poor children and families of color.

Second, Idaho’s fastest growing communities can’t build schools fast enough, and charter schools help alleviate painful overcrowding. In Dayton, conversely, the district was losing students so fast that it had to build fewer buildings in the mid-2000s than voters had actually approved just a few years earlier. The district was not only losing students and buildings, but also some of its best teachers. Dayton’s teaching force declined from 2,000 in 1998 to about 1,100 in 2008. It seems competition in education works better in growing student markets—like Texas, Colorado, and Arizona—than in declining ones—like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Third, for-profit charter school operators over-promise and under-deliver. Ohio had a significant number of its charter schools managed by for-profit operators like Edison Learning, K-12, National Heritage Academies, White Hat, and Imagine Schools. With the exception of National Heritage Academies, these operators performed somewhere between weak and criminal. Far too often the focus seemed to be profits over children. Idaho has only two for-profit management companies operating charters, K-12 and Connections Academy; both are online schools, and both are low performers.

Fourth, zero-sum politics hurt charter school quality. In Ohio, charter schools are seen as a Republican creation with little to no support from Democrats. The narrative is that Republicans support charters, even bad ones, while Democrats seek to defund and set-back charters, even good ones. When Democrat Ted Strickland was elected governor in 2006, his first budget sought to defund all the state’s public charter schools. In 2018, Ohio Democrats are using Republican support for charters against them, with even Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown seeking to score points politically on Ohio’s ECOT charter debacle. In Idaho, however, Democrats in the legislature sometimes vote to support pro-charter school bills. And the Democratic candidate for Idaho governor, Paulette Jordan, said during a recent public debate that “charters fill an important role.” Charters, and school reform efforts more generally, work better in a bipartisan policy environment.   

Fifth, quality charter school authorizing matters. Although Ohio has had a hodge-podge of more than seventy-five charter school authorizers—ranging from money hungry school districts, to empire building county education service centers, to cash strapped nonprofits—thirty-seven of Idaho’s fifty-two charter schools are authorized by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission. Ohio’s authorizing landscape was so scattershot in terms of quality and competence that the legislature in 2015 rewrote the law around the roles and responsibilities of charter authorizers in House Bill 2. Meanwhile, Idaho’s charter school commission has slowly and steadily been improving its efforts as a quality-conscious authorizer. Perfect it isn’t; but competent and steady it is.

Public charter schools are creatures of state politics and policies. Some states have done it better than others, but all can learn from others.

Terry Ryan is chief executive officer of Bluum in Boise, Idaho.