Ohio's charter sector is contracting, and that's worrisome for the whole country

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A handful of law changes in Ohio have accomplished what decades of “self-policing” among authorizers could not: Authorizers have been forced to act more judiciously when determining who should be allowed to start a school and what it takes to keep a school open. But while we at Fordham are encouraged to see the state’s charter sector become more quality-focused, contraction of the sector alone won’t deliver great options for kids who desperately need them.

Indeed, Ohio will see a record-low number of new charter schools open this fall, a slow-down that persists for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, twenty-two schools shut down at the end of the 2016–17 school year, the fourth highest number in Ohio’s almost twenty-year charter history. (See Figure 1.) These numbers point to a worrisome lack of capacity in the state around launching new schools and replicating high-quality models—to say nothing of how hard it is to attract quality national operators. It’s a situation that warrants action in the state of Ohio—but also attention from the charter sector at large, where leaders are struggling to balance measures meant to ensure quality with policies that allow more schools to open for the students who need them most.

Let’s take a quick look at the data.

Closures

Twelve of the twenty-two Ohio charter schools that closed their doors this June were overseen by traditional public school districts. This provides further evidence that the traditional public school establishment has contributed at least in part to some of Ohio’s past charter quality issues, even though some would prefer to conceal this fact. (For example, an Innovation Ohio analysis of the failures of Ohio’s federal start-up grant winners overlooked the fact that over 40 percent of failed grant recipients were district-run charter schools.) All of the state’s poorly rated sponsors this past year were districts; all of those that have since closed or are going out of business are district authorizers. Maybe someone should tell Randi Weingarten and the NAACP, who have called for all charters to be overseen by districts, that district authorizers have their own quality-control issues.

Figure 1: Ohio charters closed each year

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Closed Community School Directory and updated 2017 closure list from ODE

Here are a few other facts about this year’s closures:

  • One of the closures was a statewide e-school.
  • Two schools were considered closed because of a “merger,” thus not really shuttered so much as absorbed into an existing school.
  • Eight of the closures were dropout recovery schools.
  • Nine were closed at least in part because of sponsor quality issues and/or because their authorizer planned to cease operations.
  • Thankfully, none of the closures occurred mid-year.

New school openings

In the aggregate, Ohio authorizers are allowing far fewer schools to open. The state has good company in this respect; fewer charter schools are opening nationwide, in part because fewer groups are applying for charters. Yet Ohio’s steep decline is surely also attributable to authorizers becoming much choosier. That is by design. Blatant financial incentives to start schools regardless of quality—such as the ability to sell services to said schools—were removed under the recent reforms, and authorizers now face stringent evaluations that weight the academic performance of their schools as a third of their overall rating. Figure 2 shows that for the third year in a row, just eight new charter schools are slated to open this fall. The number for school year 2017–18 come from ODE’s recently released list of possible new schools. If past years are any indication, the actual final total will likely be smaller and represent an all-time low for Ohio. 

Figure 2: Number of new charter schools opening each year (fiscal years)

Sources: Historical data come from ODE’s annual community schools report. The opening number for 2017 (fiscal year) was arrived at by examining ODE’s summer 2016 list of potential new charter schools, then checking Ohio’s community school payment reports to see which schools received funding in the fall of 2016. The number for 2018 comes from ODE’s current list of “possible” new charter schools for the 2017-18 school year.

With an evaluation system encouraging authorizers to act more cautiously, it’s safe to say Ohio has dramatically reduced the likelihood of a year like 2014, when a massive number of newly opened schools closed mid-year, displaced students, and helped crystallize just how bad Ohio’s quality problem had become. In that sense, Ohio’s slow-down could be viewed as a success. However, there are several more questions worth asking and finding answers to:

  • What do we know about the quality of the schools that are opening? For 2017–18, at least two of the eight to open are replications of very high-performing existing networks—but what about the other six, which are being opened by the same authorizer responsible for eight of the high-profile blow-ups of 2013–14?
  • Does the authorizer review system, which currently allows only five Ohio authorizers to approve new schools to open, measure, reward, and sanction what we want it to? Are we okay with the incentives it creates: that it requires a mountain of compliance paperwork each year, that it weights raw performance so much more heavily than student growth, or that the evaluation as structured makes it easier for authorizers overseeing dropout recovery schools to score well on the academic portion of the evaluation?[1]
  • Are charter schools opening in communities with the highest needs? Of those on the opening list for this year, three are located in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), two in Franklin County (Columbus), one in Montgomery County (Dayton), and one in Hamilton (Cincinnati). No charters are set to open in Youngstown or Lorain, Ohio districts overseen by academic distress commissions and prioritized through its federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant.
  • Are we making it feasible for Ohio’s very best networks to replicate? What about high-profile, high-achieving, out-of-state networks?

The answer to the last question is almost certainly “no.” Ohio has done a fine job putting pressure on authorizers who historically had few consequences for poor decision-making. But creating a great charter landscape is about much more than how tightly the state can apply a vice grip to charter overseers.

Ohio’s slowed opening rate is useful for a handful of things: showing the feds we’ve gotten serious about the quality of new schools, responding to critics who use five-year-old Wild, Wild West references to demean Ohio’s charter sector, or reminding folks that the strength of a state’s charter law matters. But it’s not going to ensure that more children are given quality educational options that propel them into lives of opportunity. And that’s a serious problem.

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Like all states with charter schools, Ohio has worked hard to restrict bad actors and diminish the likelihood of future messes, and lawmakers deserve credit for that. But the Buckeye State hasn’t done enough to support the expansion of great charter schools—and this, unfortunately, also applies to most states in the union. Obstacles like tight state budget do nothing to close the widespread charter funding gap. Nevertheless, if leaders across the country care about lifting outcomes for their neediest students, it’s going to require intentional investment, not just a giant hammer.


[1] Under the current formula, which is heavily weighted toward variables that correlated with poverty, the academic scores of nearly all charter schools in Ohio are low. (For that matter, overall grades for any urban or poor district will also be low if the state doesn’t change the formula by the time those grades are due out.) Thus, the academic portion those schools contribute to a sponsor’s grades is also poor. For dropout recovery charter schools, the formula is different: One needs to “meet expectations” through modest improvements in order to get a “C” grade.

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.