The Ohio Senate passed legislation (House Bill 167) last week that enables Columbus’ mayor to authorize charter schools. The reform legislation was introduced in response to a cheating scandal that has brought Columbus City Schools to its knees. When Governor Kasich signs the bill into law—we expect he will—Columbus will be one of two cities in America (Indianapolis being the other) that directly empowers the mayor to authorize charter schools.  

The reform legislation has one other major component, in addition to the mayoral authorization of charters. The Columbus City Schools school board will be required to place a levy on the ballot, which will require that the district share the revenue with partnering charter schools. If passed, this could be a considerable boost for Columbus’ charters, who until now have had no access to local revenue. (Cleveland Metropolitan School District is the only other school district in Ohio that is required by law to share local revenue with charter schools.)

As Columbus’ mayor acquires a portfolio of charter schools to authorize, and as he and the district prepare a levy for the November elections, let us suggest that these leaders be choosy about which charter schools they partner with. For it has become nearly axiomatic that cities around the nation and in Ohio have a fair share of both dreadful and fantastic charter schools.

Columbus is no exception. To show the variation in charter school quality, consider the chart below that shows the academic performance of Columbus’ charter schools (data are from 2011-12, the last year of available data). The horizontal axis denotes the schools’ value-added scores—the school’s impact on student learning progress.[1] The vertical axis shows the schools’ performance index—student achievement. The lines through the middle of the chart shows the group average performance index score and value-added. Columbus City Schools is also displayed for reference.

Each dot represents a Columbus charter school:

  • Blue dots indicate the high-performing charters (high achievement/high progress);
  • Green dots indicate mixed performance (charter does well on one or the other indicator);
  • Orange dots indicate the low-performing charters (low achievement/low progress).

(Click on the image for an interactive visualization.)

Mixed charter school performance - academic performance of Columbus’ charter schools, by achievement and progress, 2011-12.

Source: Ohio Department of Education, value-added rankings. Note: Charters included are those with a Franklin County ODE designation and enroll students whose home district is Columbus City Schools. Columbus City Schools is shown for reference.

The blue dots in the top right portion of the chart are the high-performing charters. These charters perform well on both dimensions of academic performance, progress and achievement. In fact, one charter school is nearly off the chart—Columbus Preparatory Academy. Other high-performers in the top right portion include two schools that Fordham proudly authorizes: Columbus Collegiate Academy and KIPP:Journey Academy.

Meanwhile, other charters perform poorly—the orange dots that populate the bottom left corner. These charter schools show little evidence that their students achieve on grade level, or that they have an effect on student learning gains. Finally, many others fall somewhere in between, having either strong progress scores but low achievement, or vice-versa.

Columbus’ fantastic charter schools absolutely deserve the support of the mayor, along with the city’s parents and taxpayers. They ought to be embraced and provided resources to help them grow rapidly. On the other hand, schools that have persistently underperformed ought to be denied a share of the levy dollars, and the mayor would be best advised to stay away from these schools. There’s no reason to support and encourage failing charter schools.

Kudos to Columbus’ mayor, Michael Coleman, to the Columbus Education Commission who spurred on these reforms, and to the Ohio General Assembly. All have recognized the urgent need to reform Columbus’ public education system. Yet, as these reforms move from legislation into action, here’s hoping that Columbus’ leaders look toward high-performing charter schools—those with a track record of academic success—as appropriate partners, lest this delicious apple of education reform turn into a sour lemon.

[1] The Ohio Department of Education rates a school with greater than +2.0 value-added score to be “above,” indicating that the school surpassed expected growth; between -2.0 to +2.0 to be “met,” indicating that the school provided the expected growth; less than -2.0 to be “below,” indicating that the school failed to meet expected growth.

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