Sunday, May 08, 2011

Opinion: Ohio's charter program risks becoming a laughing stock

The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 17. May 5, 2011.

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Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Ohio's charter program risks becoming a laughing stock
By Terry Ryan
The Ohio House, now again run by Republicans, presented budget revisions last week that risk making the Buckeye State the nation’s laughing stock when it comes to charter-school programs—a status that Ohio has previously owned, and one we should struggle not to resurrect.
A decade ago, Ohio rivaled Arizona as the Wild West of charter-school programs. It hewed to a laissez-faire approach to school openings, growth, and quality, encouraging hundreds of charters to spring up like dandelions. As a result some of the people and organizations that launched these new schools were ill-prepared. Some had eccentric views of what a school should be. Some operators turned out to be more interested in personal enrichment than in delivering high-quality instruction to poor kids. And most authorizers—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—offered little to no oversight for their schools.
Ohio needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of charter schools run amok.
As a result, headlines such as “Charters Fail to Deliver,” “State Audit Says Charter School Company Owes Thousands,” and “Wild Experiment” were ubiquitous. Things got so bad that, in 2002, State Auditor Jim Petro (a Republican, and now John Kasich’s higher-education chancellor) issued a report blasting ODE for being such a weak and undemanding charter-school authorizer. Less than a year later, the (Republican-controlled) General Assembly passed HB364, which forced ODE entirely out of the business of sponsoring charter schools.

This was the first effort at cleaning up Ohio’s troubled charter program and it was followed in subsequent years by further reforms to the program by Republican lawmakers, including implementation of one of the nation’s toughest automatic charter-school closure laws. (To qualify for that grim fate, a school must earn an F grade on the state report card for three of the last four years; the cut-off is a bit stricter for school serving grades four through nine.) As a result of such efforts to build a better balance between choice and accountability, Ohio’s charter-school program has seen far fewer school meltdowns in recent years and the overall quality of the program has improved, with really atrocious schools being booted entirely from the market.

Governor John Kasich’s education-reform plans, contained in his proposed biennial budget for the state, would continue in that vein and deserve to be perfected and enacted. But then the General Assembly’s House of Representatives weighed in. Its proposed budget-bill amendments would push Ohio back into Wild West status—and enable the profiteers to get even richer. Instead of striking a sound balance between freedom and accountability—the essence of the charter-school “bargain”—its plan focuses exclusively on how more schools can open, especially those run by for-profit firms with mediocre-to-dismal track records of educational success in the state. Some of the bill’s more troubling provisions would:
  • Allow school operators to apply directly to the Ohio Department of Education for authorization to establish a school and, upon approval, operate the school with essentially no oversight by anyone. (This is the same Department of Education that was banned from the job in 2005.)
  • Allow operators to force out board members if a dispute arises between the board and the operator, while also allowing the operator to handpick the replacements and requiring operator consent for renewal of any existing contract between a governing board and a sponsor. (This gives operators veto power over their regulator.)
  • Allow an authorizer—no matter how bad its current portfolio of schools—to sponsor many more new schools.
Three months back, I warned in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that:
For too long, charter school education has been a political battlefield on which powerful political interests have waged war. As such, charter quality has suffered and children who badly needed better educational options have all too often bounced from troubled school to troubled school. Gov. Kasich and Republican lawmakers should break the cycle of political acrimony around school choice. This means resisting the temptation – and the encouragement they will surely receive from some in the charter sector – to push for more charter schools while also scaling back on school accountability. This would be a grave mistake.
So much for the power of the pen—my pen, anyway—but the message still rings true. Ohio needs to take the lessons of the past seriously, not return to the days of charter schools run amok. Fortunately for the state’s children, at least a few others seem to agree

The Ohio House votes today (Thursday) on the budget bill; may its members do the right thing.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. To get timely updates from Fordham, subscribe to Flypaper.

News Analysis: Vouchers for everybody?
School-choice proponents should be swinging from the rafters, as voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs are finding their way into more and more states’ statutes—several of which offer aid to middle-class families, not just impoverished ones. But fissions are emerging among the ranks. Some, including Howard Fuller (a diehard voucher supporter and key architect of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program), see this as a distinct shift away from the social-justice mission of vouchers. No longer will vouchers “help equalize the academic options for children from low-income and working-class families,” warns Fuller. Yet others, like John Norquist, see this expansion as a way to keep middle-class parents in socio-economically integrated neighborhoods even as their children grow to school age. Instead of fleeing to rich suburban districts (often with “private” public schools), these parents would remain in their integrated neighborhoods—stymieing the “system that rewards concentration of the rich in exclusive suburbs segregated from the poor” (Norquist’s words). A sticky debate indeed. While Gadfly supports the expansion of school choice to families in higher income brackets, he can’t help but wonder if the Year of the Funding Cliff is the right time for this idea to come of age.
School Choice and Urban Diversity,” by John Norquist, Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2011.
Keep intact the mission of choice program,” by Howard Fuller, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 23, 2011.

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