Charter School Program grant teeters on the edge while millions of dollars flow down the “turnaround” drain

In September, Ohio was awarded a federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant, winning the largest slice of the pie among eight winning states ($71 million). Soon after, following on the heels of last summer’s charter school sponsor evaluation scandal at the Ohio Department of Education, there was significant backlash and a hold placed on the funds. Concerns stemmed from the fact that the grant application described Ohio as a “beacon of charter oversight” (before the state passed landmark legislation in October promising to make that a reality) and overstated the performance of its charter sector.

As part of the effort to salvage the grant, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) submitted revised data on charter school performance. Applying a more rigorous definition of failure[1] yielded fifty-seven low-performing schools, in contrast to the six listed in Ohio’s initial application last July.[2] Given these discrepancies, it’s appropriate that the feds are conducting their due diligence in asking ODE to update its application and demonstrate that it can manage the funds effectively. Meanwhile, those of us observing the ongoing debate from the sidelines should hope that Ohio retains its grant. It’s critical for the sake of good school networks looking to expand, great networks that might be willing to come to the Buckeye State if start-up dollars are available, and students in our neediest communities who would unfairly pay the price should the award be rescinded. Here are three reasons to root for Ohio to retain the grant.

Ohio’s urban families lack high-quality school options

Good urban schools can provide much-needed oases, but there aren’t nearly enough of them at present. According to Ohio’s updated letter to the feds, there are roughly the same number of high-performing[3] charter schools (fifty-nine) as low-performers (fifty-seven). For all its challenges, the charter sector slightly outshines the district schools in Ohio’s “Urban 8” communities (as shown in the chart below).[4]

Source: Ohio Department of Education letter to Stefan Huh, Director of Charter Schools Program at USDOE

Looked at a different way, Ohio has about 175 failing schools—district and charter—in its big cities. Four out of five charters and urban district schools miss the high-performing mark. That wretched record is not what the state’s neediest children crave in the way of better school options. 

High-quality start-ups are far more effective than turnarounds

Successfully turning around even one low-performing school is a Herculean task, and Ohio has scores of such schools in its urban communities alone. Toward this end, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program allocated $132 million to Ohio to spend on perennially struggling schools. Since 2010, Ohio’s grantees have overwhelmingly selected the softest option: “transformation,” which calls for replacing the school principal but little else in the way of meaningful change.[5] In essence, we’ve handed over fistfuls of money to schools with long track records of failure to essentially turn themselves around—a strategy that would be considered lunacy in any other industry or endeavor. Consider Weinland Park Elementary, one of Columbus City’s lowest performers, which received over a million dollars to fix itself. Surprise: it hasn’t worked, not at that school, nor at many others.

Antithetical to the doctrine that poor-performing charters should close, the SIG program also granted bundles of cash to underperforming charters. Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school where just 31 percent of third graders were proficient in reading and an appalling 15 percent reached the proficiency bar in math in 2014, has collected at least $1.1 million for improvement purposes alone.

A glance at almost any of Ohio’s SIG grantees (and their report cards) illustrates the maddeningly ineffective strategy of throwing good money after bad in languishing schools. Most, like Weinland Park and Virtual Schoolhouse, are very low-performing four years later and have little to show for their new spending. Meanwhile, our state’s high-performing charter networks wait with bated breath to see if Ohio retains its CSP grant—a program that would allocate just a fraction as much money as SIG grants—so they can grow and replicate proven models of excellence.

CSP will help expand Ohio’s good charter schools, improving the sector overall

The contention, voiced by charter critic Stephen Dyer, that “Ohio doesn’t have lots of high-performing charters in which to invest the federal money meant to expand their footprint” is simply untrue. Ohio has at least fifty-nine such schools, representing one-fifth of the sector. Arguably, ODE should target CSP funds to fewer than that number—perhaps the top 10 percent of performers (provided, of course, that they want to grow their networks). Going through a rigorous competitive grant application process promises to benefit Ohio more broadly; even those charter schools that don’t win a grant will be better off for having applied. Ohio is home to many top-notch charter schools that launched with earlier rounds of CSP funds and currently plan to expand. Many others, unfortunately, have been sidelined in their plans as they await details regarding Ohio’s currently frozen grant.

In order to improve Ohio’s charter school landscape and create more solid options for kids who need them, top-performing schools must expand and replicate while the state and its charter sponsors simultaneously shut down low-performers and prevent shoddy schools from opening in the first place. HB 2 installed much-needed reforms that will accomplish the latter two, but that’s only half of the equation. Ohio must also grow its best school networks so that more students can be served. That’s going to be awfully hard to do if the CSP grant slips through our fingers.

[1]Value-Added grade of D or F and Performance Index grade of D or F for most recent year of data.

[2] Only six schools qualified as low-performing under the federal definition: “ranked in the lowest 5 percent of schools based on the Performance Index Score in each of the last three years and received a Value-Added grade of D or F in each of the last three years.”

[3] High-performing charter schools are those with a Value-Added grade of B or better and a Performance Index grade of C or better; or a Value-Added grade of B or better and a Performance Index increase for the previous three years.

[4] Ohio’s “Urban 8” consists of Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.

[5] Other overhaul options include “turnaround”—replacing the principal and half the staff, alongside other changes; “restart”—handing the school over to a successful charter school operator; and closure.


Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.