Will anyone even qualify for the much-debated federal charter school program grant?

Last week, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) announced that the long-awaited Charter School Program (CSP) grant funds will soon be available. The federal program will provide $32 million in FY 2018 for high-quality charter startups and replications. This is good news for Ohio’s charter sector, as new school growth has sunk to historic lows, and is a breath of fresh air after Ohio nearly lost the grant.
 
Quick refresher on Ohio’s CSP drama
 
Here’s the bad news: Based on the announced criteria, hardly anyone will qualify for the money. Some quick context on CSP’s history: many charter networks wishing to expand or replicate have been able to do so primarily because of this pot of money. Many brand new models also got their start via CSP. But current criteria immediately disqualify many of Ohio’s 362 charter schools. Neither e-schools nor dropout recovery charter schools may access the money (unlike in years past), which slims down the qualifying pool by almost 100. In addition, all CSP applicants must have a preliminary contract with a sponsor that is rated Effective or Exemplary. Given that only five of Ohio’s sponsors earned an Effective rating last year and none received an Exemplary, just eighty-four schools are eligible to apply. Of course, many of those might not be looking to replicate or grow their networks. It’s possible that brand-new, unaffiliated schools could apply, but they would also have to secure a contract with one of the state’s few eligible sponsors. The last unknown: out-of-state networks can apply if they have a contract with a qualified sponsor. Unfortunately, Ohio’s current school funding climate makes the state less than hospitable to outside groups who could access more startup capital by going elsewhere.
 
Finally, as part of its revised application, Ohio notes that a developer or founder “should consider a community school model with a track record of high-quality academic performance.” This is defined in statute for Ohio charter schools as a Performance Index Score of A, B, or C and a value-added score of A or B. Just five charters in the entire state met this criterion and none are overseen by a sponsor earning a high enough rating. Hardly any urban schools or schools serving high percentages of children in poverty—district or charter—met this threshold, as the Performance Index is highly correlated with student demographics.
 
Luckily, ODE’s guidance regarding a school’s track record of academic performance says “should” rather than “must,” an important difference that should mean high-performing school networks can still apply regardless of whether they meet that specific performance threshold. Let’s hope so, anyway—or else literally not a single charter school in the state of Ohio wishing to replicate would be able to access this money.
 
Ohio is right to be careful in doling out startup funds, selecting applicants with a high likelihood of success and avoiding some of the pitfalls of the past. Too many past CSP grant winners closed up shop or weren’t able to open after receiving a federal planning grant (about a third of these closures were district-run charter schools). We’ve come a long way since Ohio’s early chartering days and should be judicious when public dollars—and kids’ futures—are at stake.
 
But the stringency of Ohio’s CSP criteria is further evidence that Ohio—after a long history of lax regulation, uneven sector quality, and national embarrassment—didn’t just course correct but could be veering into over-compensation territory. The state’s current authorizer accountability policies create disincentives for sponsors to take on highly impoverished schools, as the state accountability system doesn’t give appropriate credit for student growth and places too much weight on metrics correlated to demographics. Even with the CSP grant in place, stagnant funding for charter schools and a lack of resources for facilities collectively make it damn nearly impossible for good schools to open and remain sustainable organizations. Some of Ohio’s best charter networks may not be able to access the CSP funds, and it’s unlikely that out-of-state networks will be clamoring to come here either.
 
Last year, I expressed hope that despite Ohio’s temporary slow-down in new schools, our charter school accountability pendulum would “swing back toward a reasonable middle ground,” one with “greater tolerance for risk taking and entrepreneurship.” Unfortunately, the latest CSP guidance confirms that the pendulum has barely budged.
 
This is bad news for families and students in need of high-quality options and disappointing for anyone who believes in the original vision and promise of charter schooling.
 
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.