Ohio Charters Want More Money, But Others Want More Accountability

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January 28, 2016; Columbus Dispatch

In 2015, Ohio taxpayers spent just over $1 billion on 372 charter schools, which serve 120,000 students. For many, however, that figure just isn’t high enough. Advocates argue that charter schools in the state of Ohio receive 78 cents on the dollar compared to traditional public schools, with some schools receiving as little as 65 cents in urban districts. A recent poll of charter school leaders in the state reveals that many believe lack of funding is the root problem, making it difficult to offer competitive salaries for quality teachers and ensure their facilities are meeting their students’ needs. The results were based on responses from about 76 of Ohio’s 109 top-rated charter schools, those earning a C or higher on performance index scores on the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 state report cards. That said, it should be noted that The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsored the poll and its accompanying report, “Lessons from Ohio’s Best Charter Schools,” itself sponsors 11 schools. It also supports the closing of underperforming charter schools and advocates for accountability at the state and local levels when schools are not meeting the needs of the community. But what does that actually mean?

If we were thinking like businesses, we might wonder about share-of-market concerns, but let’s put that aside and assume the best of motivations.

The report from the Fordham Institute comes just a few months after Ohio Governor John Kasich signed legislation designed to “improve the performance, accountability, and transparency of charter schools” in early November. This law is largely in response to increasing public scrutiny of charter school finances. With many in favor of granting charter schools access to the local property taxes that have long funded traditional public schools, those against expanding funding options are concerned that deducting a larger portion from traditional public school allocations will cannibalize the system already in place and lead to less effective spending on education across the state. This report, therefore, might be seen as an “it’s them, not us” move, acknowledging the existence of a problem but trying to move the best-performing out of the way of a larger crackdown.

There is no doubt that the charter school field is rife with accountability issues all over the country. In June of 2015, Martin Levine covered how the Illinois Charter School Commission and Chicago Public Schools often find sources of conflict over which communities within the district would be best served by the addition of new charter schools. Levine reports that CPS has been reviewing proposals for 30 new charter schools for the September 2016 school year, despite the fact that it closed 48 public schools in 2013 and there are already 130 charter schools operating within the city. In December, Larry Kaplan reported similar strife in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Trustees voted on a proposal to oppose “market-driven” education reforms that would create as many as 260 new charter schools in the district, the second-largest grouping in the nation. Opponents of the plan argue that enrolling half of district students in charter schools over the next eight years would “reduce public education in Los Angeles to an educational marketplace and our children to market shares.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, the charter school sector is split into two halves: those that are independent, and those affiliated with a network. Network schools, which have the national brand recognition to attract high profile donors, are generally considered wealthier and more influential than their independent counterparts. They have the resources to provide competitive educational resources to their students, but at what cost? Dogged with criticism and controversy over a myriad of issues, from governance to student discipline, school networks such as Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and many others, have poured resources into lobbying efforts and large-scale marketing campaigns to rectify their sullied image, sometimes at the expense of the student learning experience.

Is this report just another, similar move?—Sophie Lewis