Buckeye Blues Again

Back in 2006, NACSA, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued ‘Turning the Corner to Quality,” a tough report on Ohio’s charter sector whose message was summed up in its first major recommendation: “Clean House.”  There were too many failing charters, oversight had gone from bad to worse after the legislature removed chartering authority from the state education department, and the state’s charter cap was effectively shutting out strong operators.

In the intervening 8 years, a lot of good things have happened, including successful charter ventures like Cleveland’s Breakthrough Schools;  a default-closure law that has eliminated 24 low-performing charters; and most recently, a concerted effort by the state agency’s Quality School Choice office, led by former NACSA staffer David Hansen, to bring accountability to the state’s multitudinous authorizers.

Yet the muck persists. Last week, CREDO at Stanford reported that on the whole, students in Ohio’s charters are getting 14 fewer days of learning in reading and 36 fewer days in math than their counterparts in district-run schools.  There are some bright spots. Cleveland charters outperform the district; performance is better in charters for black students and those in poverty; middle schools do comparatively well; and there seems to be a trend toward improvement among urban charters. But overall performance hasn’t improved since CREDO’s 2009 Ohio study, and is particularly weighed down by woefully deficient results in the roughly half of Ohio charters operated by charter-management organizations.

There’s been some giddy blogging about one comment made by the report’s author Macke Raymond, in a Columbus speech introducing the findings: “[Education] is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.” Expect to hear that repeated ad nauseam as an indictment of choice itself,  which it assuredly is not. Raymond’s early work was on regulation in the telecommunications industry and she has always linked good outcomes to good oversight.  And in Ohio, you simply can’t discuss the weak results without asking what role authorizers are playing — as noted in the rest of her comment: “We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.”

So it was good to see that issue taken up forcefully in another report issued yesterday by Bellwether Education Partners in conjunction with the Fordham Institute (which, let’s remember, is not only a DC think tank but also a successful Ohio authorizer).  My former Alliance colleague Andy Smarick, who’s emerged as a formidable education thinker and activist, is co-author of the report, which bears the fire n’ brimstone title “The Road to Redemption.”

You should read the whole thing but I want to note some highlights here, starting with the report’s welcome emphasis on clarifying and simplifying the legal framework for chartering. Ohio’s charter statute is a perfect example of what the education scholar Paul Hill calls the “geologic” nature of school reform, one measure piled on top of another as ed-politics change, and it badly needs coherence.  Equally welcome is a call to sharpen and accelerate the still-new processes of authorizer accountability. And there are strong and timely recommendations to eliminate laws that allow charter management companies to do “end runs” around the authority of charter school governing boards.

The Bellwether and CREDO reports should spark some serious arguments about the future of Ohio’s charter program.  But I don’t think the state will ever fully “turn the corner to quality” without strong political leadership that’s ready to take on the state’s entrenched interests. Now is not the time for paving over existing legislation with another layer of quick fixes and carve-outs.  Serious, long-term reform is urgently needed. Otherwise, there is no reason not to expect the unending game of whack-a-mole to continue, and the “closed” schools to pop up again in a different hole.

The legislature will be back in session soon. It won’t take another 8 years to know if there will be meaningful change.