High-quality high schools: The next frontier for Ohio’s charter sector

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Each year, school choice advocates celebrate National Charter Schools Week. This year, they had an extra reason to break open the champagne: U.S. News and World Report’s annual best high schools ranking included a host of charter schools in its final list, including the three highest-ranked schools in the country.

Though charter success in general isn’t a surprise, the fact that more and more charter high schools are getting attention is important. High schools have remained relatively untouched by many aspects of education reform, and it shows in the data. Nationwide, high school achievement has been disappointing. NAEP scores for 12th graders are lackluster, as are ACT and SAT scores. The national high school graduation rate has hit at a record high, but there are concerns that the measure could be subject to gaming and low expectations. Effective reform at the high school level remains a mostly uncharted territory.

Luckily, there are some notable exceptions, including some high-profile charter school networks. For example, the Noble Network operates sixteen high schools in Chicago and has demonstrated remarkable achievement and growth with its largely minority and low-income student population. And let’s not forget BASIS, the Arizona-based charter network that nabbed the top three spots in the U.S. News rankings—between 2014 and 2016, BASIS graduates were accepted to some of the best colleges in the nation.

Unfortunately, neither of these networks operates in Ohio. That’s a shame, because Ohio needs more top-notch high schools. In 2016, only 33 percent of Ohio students who took the ACT met its college readiness benchmarks for all four test subjects. Report cards for the 2015-16 school year show that proficiency rates are extremely low in Ohio's high-poverty urban areas. When it comes to national rankings, the Buckeye State doesn’t fare much better: The highest-ranked Ohio high school in the U.S. News rankings was Walnut Hills High School, a selective-admissions school in Cincinnati, with a national ranking of 47. Only 19 Ohio high schools made it into the top 500, and all of them are district high schools located in wealthier suburban areas.

Obviously there are traditional public high schools that are doing an excellent job. But there are also hundreds of thousands of Buckeye students who cannot access high-performing schools because they live in the wrong school zone. Other students who received a great education from charter elementary and middle schools finish eighth grade and are left with nowhere to go but back into the district systems that their families already opted out of. These students would likely jump at the chance to attend a high-performing charter high school. While Ohio has some strong charter high schools, there simply aren’t enough. Now is the perfect time for Ohio to prioritize expanding access to charter high schools.

On May 18, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will open the application process for the long-awaited federal Charter Schools Program grant. For the 2017-18 school year, ODE has approximately $32 million to distribute with the goal of increasing the number of high-performing charter schools. Cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati that are eager to expand their number of high-quality seats should consider partnering with effective and exemplary sponsors to take advantage of these funds—and they would be wise to focus on expanding Ohio’s existing charter high schools, as well as recruiting high-performing, out-of-state networks. (I’ve already profiled a few high flying charter networks  that Ohio would do well to recruit, but there are plenty of others.)  

Of course, one of the reasons why high-performing charter high schools haven’t flourished everywhere is because of how expensive and difficult it is to run them. By the time students get to high school, many of them expect far more from their schools than elementary and middle school students do: They want a wide variety of courses, including AP options; lots of extracurriculars and sports teams; social events like prom; and guidance when it comes to career pathways and college options. All of these amenities require bundles of money, and many of them (especially sports) also require space, equipment, and additional staff. The logistics of running a high school, particularly class scheduling and transcripts, are complicated and high-stakes activities. If a school fails to do these things right, the negative consequences could impact college acceptance and job prospects.

Ohio’s federal Charter Schools Program funds are a perfect opportunity to grow more high-performing high schools. But these start-up dollars will only go so far. The operational funding and facilities issues that currently impede Ohio's charter sector must be addressed. Otherwise, the Buckeye State risks being unable to expand, recruit, and sustain the high-performing charter high schools that it so desperately needs.  

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.