Ohio House charter school reforms do detriment to state's charter program

The Thomas B. Fordham
Institute (and its sister organization, the Fordham Foundation) has worked in its
home state of Ohio since the late 1990s on a range of school-reform issues,
focusing much time and attention on the state’s charter school program. For the
past decade, we have worked with Buckeye State charter schools in a variety of
ways: as a donor, as a source of technical assistance, and most notably, as a
charter school authorizer. While we are unabashed supporters of charter schools
as options for students in need and catalysts for improving urban education, we
believe strongly in the need for accountability and quality-control mechanisms
for the charter sector (and all publicly funded schools). This position isn’t a
new one. We’ve been advocating for strong charter-school accountability since
the first charters opened their doors in Ohio in 1998 and we’ve issued multiple
policy reports recommending accountability improvements (and other needed
changes) to Ohio’s charter law (see
here, here, here, and here) to name just a few).  The
following editorial is a continuation of our advocacy toward improving charter
schools in the Buckeye State.

If the Ohio House's version of the biennial budget makes its
way into law, the state's mish-mash of a community-school (i.e. charter school)
program will become a full-fledged contender for America's worst. It's up to
the Senate and Gov. John Kasich to forestall that dire development - and
subject this worthy program to the thorough housecleaning and comprehensive
makeover it sorely needs.

Ohio's 300-plus charter schools now
serve more than 100,000 youngsters, most of them low-income refugees from the
state's worst district-operated schools, kids in urgent need of a top-notch
educational alternative.

A handful of charters provide exactly
that. Far too many of the state's community schools, however, are as
educationally moribund as the district schools to which they're supposed to be
alternatives - and a sizable subset of these appalling schools are run by
for-profit operators more concerned with their bottom lines than with children.

In many places across the U.S.,
including a few in Ohio, profit-seeking firms operate first-rate schools. But
the freedom that makes it possible must be balanced by the public's legitimate
interest in whether the pupils in those schools are gaining all the skills and
knowledge they need.

It's called "accountability,"
and getting the freedom-accountability balance right is key to every successful
charter-school program. Some Ohioans find it hard to believe that more than a
dozen states have really strong charter programs. But they do. And several -
e.g. Florida and Indiana - have recently taken bold legislative steps to
rebalance laws that had gotten out of whack.

Ohio's law has been out of whack for
years, partly because of provisions inserted on behalf of special interests,
partly because both legislators and the executive branch have failed to grasp
which kinds of freedom and accountability benefit kids, and partly because too
many school operators and authorizers either haven't known what they're doing
or have placed other interests ahead of students.

The result is overregulation where
autonomy is needed, slackness where results-based accountability is essential,
restrictions on the growth of quality programs and skimpy funding of worthy
schools combined with a whopping waste of tax dollars on poor performers.

That's why almost no top-notch national
charter operator wants to come to Ohio. That's also why so many Buckeye
charters post dismal scores on state tests every year.

 A thorough overhaul is needed, freeing schools from silly rules while holding everyone's feet to the fire for academic results.  

A thorough overhaul is needed, freeing
schools from silly rules while holding everyone's feet to the fire for academic
results. But the budget passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday
would push the state's charter program from mediocre to awful. Its various
provisions would:

  • Invite creation of more schools by
    charter operators with abysmal track records.
  • Encourage "authorizing" of
    more schools by sponsors whose existing portfolios are riddled with failing
  • Renew the monopoly enjoyed by current
    "cyber schools" - several are fine but others are pathetic - so
    quality outfits from other states cannot enter Ohio.
  • Reinstate the Ohio Department of
    Education as a direct school sponsor despite that agency's dismal performance a
    decade ago.

How to make the state's charter program
great is no mystery.

Indeed, Kasich's own budget plan was a
solid start. Crucial elements include encouraging successful operators to clone
good schools; leaning hard on authorizers to fix or close bad schools and
banning the replication of failure; placing schools' ostensibly independent
governing boards in clear charge of any outside organizations that they engage
to run their education programs; creating professional and ethical norms for
all parties; insisting on transparency around academics, governance, and
finances; channeling fairer funding into successful schools; and introducing
best practices and expert advice into every step of the process.

That's what Ohio needs. But that's not
what the House has given it.

originally appeared in the Columbus

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.