Ohio’s charter school closure law is becoming irrelevant, and that’s a good thing

Ohio is one of fifteen states with an automatic closure law for low-performing charter schools, meant to serve as a minimum floor for performance and clean up the sector during an era when bad schools proliferated and authorizers failed to close them.[1]

Ohio’s academic death penalty for charter schools has been described as the “toughest in the nation.” In reality, it’s had minimal impact on either the number of schools closed or the number of students affected. A current three-year safe harbor on closure (among other sanctions) makes it all the more anemic. In its early days, it may have motivated some charter school authorizers to intervene and prevent their schools from facing a similar fate, but it hasn’t curbed poor oversight decisions among some authorizers in the nine years since the law was enacted.

Even so, accountability advocates needn’t be concerned or press for a stronger closure law. All in all, Ohio is a case study for how a minimum performance threshold for charter schools by itself doesn’t lead to wide-scale sector improvement. Our experience shows that direct state intervention cannot accomplish much and that strong accountability controls on charter school overseers, which took Ohio nearly eighteen years to put in place, are of central importance.

Impact of Ohio’s closure law

So far, twenty-four schools in Ohio have closed as a result of the state’s closure law. But this is a small fraction of the overall number of charter closures (approximately 210 since 2000). The vast majority have occurred through the actions of authorizers and/or governing boards, the entities that should be closing charter schools (when necessary).

The closure law had an immediate impact in its early days. More than two-thirds of the closures brought on by the law occurred within four years of its passage—a testament to the lenient climate in the late 2000s and the original need for the legislation. It is further worth noting that these closures occurred when the law was at its weakest, requiring three consecutive years of low performance before mandating closure. A school could escape unscathed merely by achieving “academic watch” (a D grade) once in its preceding three years.  

Table 1: Charter schools closed under Ohio’s automatic closure law

Data come from the Ohio Department of Education’s annual community schools report (2014) and the closed community school directory found on ODE’s website.

Very few charter schools have fallen prey to the automatic closure law in recent years, and only four currently sit on the state’s “watch list.” Yet it has attracted much attention from friends and foes alike. On the one end of the spectrum are free market supporters who believe that parental choice is sacrosanct, that Ohio has the most draconian closure law in the land and that it wreaks havoc on families and students exercising their right to choose a safe environment (even if it happens to receive an F academic rating year after year). On the flip side, charter opponents have urged the legislature to “accelerate the process” of closing failing charter schools, despite the fact that current law enables relatively swift closure. Poor performers can be shut based on just two years of performance data.

Automatic closure is not nearly as important as the vital work of ensuring that charter school overseers are exhibiting responsible oversight during all phases of a charter school’s life cycle—pre-birth, beginning, middle, and (occasionally) end. Fortunately, recent changes to Ohio’s charter school law finally place stronger controls on authorizers and empower them to intervene so the state doesn’t have to. New provisions will revoke authorizing rights from poorly rated groups, restrict ineffective authorizers from opening new schools, incentivize high-performing authorizers, and clean up conflicts of interest (like allowing authorizers to profit from selling services to schools). This will result in more quality control at the front end of the charter life cycle and stem mass openings of poorly vetted schools, as have occurred in recent years. Rigorous new evaluations of authorizers will motivate them to close failing schools before they sink low enough to hit the watch list or activate the state’s closure criteria.

Ohio’s closure law once provided a much-needed tool for the state to close poor performers during a time when many authorizers allowed them to languish. In light of new reforms, it may soon become irrelevant. If charter overseers are doing their jobs right, we should hope that it will.




[1] Ohio’s closure law, HB 79,  passed in December 2006. But that same law also put into place perverse incentives for authorizers, inasmuch as they would lose one school slot (out of a possible fifty or seventy-five, depending on the current cap) for every school they permanently closed. This no doubt played a role in sponsors’ reluctance to close schools in the late 2000 (and was later lifted from law).

 

 
 
Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.