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Ohio Charters In Need Of Major Reform, Say Advocates

One of the country’s largest charter school programs is faltering and in need of dramatic reforms, argue some of the country’s leading advocates for school choice.

In Ohio, about 7 percent of students attend charter schools, one of the country’s highest charter attendance rates. The state’s network is also well-established, dating back to the 1990s. Growth has been rapid, surging from about 10,000 charter students a decade ago to over 120,000 today.

While increasingly popular, however, Ohio’s school don’t appear to be fulfilling the vision of school choice advocates, who argue that allowing parents to choose alternative schooling options will result in improved educational outcomes through the power of market-based forces.

According to a detailed analysis released last week by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), Ohio’s charter schools are currently performing significantly worse on average than ordinary public schools. In a given year, charter students were found to receive about 14 fewer days of learning in reading, and 36 fewer in math. The numbers are especially disheartening as they reflect only a small improvement from a 2009 CREDO report that also found Ohio’s charters to be flagging.

Rather than attempting to rebut the report, however, many national charter advocates are accepting it, and making the case for major reforms to the charter system to revitalize it.

Just days after CREDO’s stinging analysis came out, the Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank and supporter of charters that has played a significant policy role in Ohio’s charter system, released a paper of its own, The Road to Redemption. The report, produced in conjunction with nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, urges Ohio lawmakers to undertake a series a major reforms to its charter law in order to save its system from being permanently discredited.

“Past changes to Ohio’s community school law haven’t been able to rein in low-performing sponsors and schools, grow high-performing schools, rehabilitate the sector’s reputation, or provide enough disadvantaged students with the high-quality schools they deserve,” says the paper. More drastic shifts are needed, the authors argue, in particular to increase accountability

One significant change Fordham proposes is that members of a charter’s oversight board be prohibited from receiving any payment for their work. Currently, board members may be paid, and since a board can dissolve if it closes the school it oversees, this creates a possible incentive for board members to try to keep a failing school open. Abolishing the practice, they argue, will help ensure that members of oversight board are concerned exclusively with the interests of children.

Another part of Ohio’s charter law is criticized for enabling “sponsor-hopping,” where poorly performing schools that have had their authorization by a particular group revoked are able to stay open by quickly finding a new sponsor instead of being closed down.

Fordham suggests that schools which have their sponsorship revoked or which are currently in bad standing should not be allowed to seek out a new sponsor. Closing this loophole, it argues, will make it easier to eliminate poorly-performing schools.

In addition to reforming the operations of charters, Fordham argues that charters would benefit from an increase in state support. Currently, charters are not funded on an equal per-pupil basis compared to standard charter schools, and they do not receive assistance in areas such as transportation. Eliminating that disparity,

Ohio Auditor David Yost, the state’s chief oversight officer, released a statement endorsing Fordham’s recommendations and saying he hopes the Ohio legislature will consider them.

“This report does a good job of pointing out where Ohio’s governance of community schools doesn’t work,” said Yost. His statement noted that charters have been hindered by “byzantine” state regulations that have enabled “lax oversight by boards, conflicts of interest, improper spending and even criminal conduct by some rogue schools and operators.”

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