Guest Commentary: Charter opponent rhetoric should lead to support for equitable funding

Friends of Breakthrough Schools

John Zitzner

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.

Not long ago, the Plain Dealer published an opinion article by former public school educator and teacher union head Bill Lavezzi. In his article, “Calls for funding equity for Ohio charter schools overlook charters’ failures and lack of transparency,” Lavezzi offered up five “simple, common-sense” standards that all charter schools should meet if they wish to receive equitable public funding. In the article, he also suggests that charters not meeting these conditions are “parasitic” and “undeserving not only of funding equity but of public funding itself.”

The idea that equitable funding for children should be conditional in the first place—especially for those students in public charter schools who are predominantly low-income and minority—makes about as much sense as a parent doing the same to his kids. In this analogy, public charter schools are the disliked step-child struggling to prove their worth to a parent dangling approval—and resources—conditionally for one, while doling it out unconditionally for the other. I’ve long argued that charter schools and the children who go there, in particular, are not worth less.

But Lavezzi’s conclusions about public charter schools, and the doubt he casts as to whether they deserve equitable funding (or any funding), are even more peculiar considering that charters do meet these conditions. Let’s take a look at each.

First, “public charter schools should be open to all applicants.” We are. By law, charter schools must accept all applicants and are required to create a random lottery process to admit students once the school is full. Charter schools are nonsectarian, free, and cannot screen students out on the basis of disability, race, ethnicity, language, or any other characteristic (these are also protected classes according to federal law).

Second, “publicly supported schools shouldn’t be able to use suspension and expulsion policies to clear their rolls of hard-to-educate students.” I wholeheartedly agree. No public school of any kind should be doing business this way. At Breakthrough Charter Schools, we are thoughtful in our approach to discipline and to keeping students within our schools as much as possible to continue learning while keeping all students safe. An analysis by Education Week showed that public charter schools did not report using suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than those reported by traditional public schools. Still, this is a topic worth debating and examining as many schools—traditional and charter alike—have room to improve. For instance, a report this year by the Cincinnati Enquirer showed that Cincinnati Public Schools delivered 36,000 suspensions to elementary students in a year.

Third, “the records of charter schools, including their financial records, should be subject to inspection by the public.” They are. Charter schools, which are by definition in Ohio 501 (c) 3 non-profit entities, are required to be financially transparent. Charter schools undergo audits each year by the Auditor of State, who reviews accounts, financial reports, records, and files to ensure that each school is compliant with state and federal laws, regulations, and principles of accounting. Compliance reviews are also conducted by the Ohio Department of Education.

Fourth, charter schools “should operate under the same open-meeting rules as public boards of education.” We do.

Fifth, “charter schools should be required to operate under the same labor rules as other public employees. Employees are capable of deciding freely whether to unionize or not…” Charter school employees do get to decide whether to unionize, as evidenced by the fact that several in Cleveland have moved to do so. On the flipside, charter school employees should also not be compelled to unionize or pay dues into a system that largely abhors their existence.

Based on these parameters, Ohio’s public charters schools are deserving of funding equity.

While we differ on our conclusions about the merit of charter schools, Bill Lavezzi and I agree about these basic standards of transparency. I also agree with him that “true reform” should result in genuine long-term improvements. A 2014 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) examining the academic gains of charter students as well as traditional public school students found overwhelmingly positive evidence in Cleveland. In the study, Cleveland students who attended charter schools learned more than their traditional public school peers (by about 14 school days) in both reading and math. The latest study by CREDO of charter management organizations further proved this, but broke the data down even further—by management group, not just city. Breakthrough Schools was the top Ohio charter network included in the study, and among the top charter organizations nationwide. Our students were ranked 11th nationally in reading and 16th in math, and learned the equivalent of an additional 148 days of math and 120 days of reading compared to their traditional public school peers.

High-quality charter schools like those in the Breakthrough network are making a lasting difference for children. It’s well past time that we invest in them accordingly.

John Zitzner is co-founder of Breakthrough Schools and President of Friends of Breakthrough Schools.