When the U.S. Department of Education recently announced $125 million in grants to help eight states create new high-quality public charter schools across America, one state stood out like a sore thumb: Ohio.
The state’s public charter school quality issues are manifold. In a report last year on the health of Ohio’s public charter school movement, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools noted widespread quality problems among the state’s charter schools and sponsors and recommended that Ohio develop stronger accountability measures and shut down chronically low-performing schools and sponsors.
The quality struggles aren’t surprising. Ohio ranks number 28 out of 43 in the National Alliance’s annual ranking of state public charter school laws.
One of Ohio’s biggest problems has been sponsor “shopping.”
Sponsors grant charters, provide school oversight, and make decisions about renewing or closing charters. School operators that don’t get authorized or renewed by one sponsor have been allowed to shop around to find another that will approve them. With 20 different organizations able to sponsor charter schools anywhere in the state, it’s been too easy for bad schools to find accommodating sponsors to keep them going. This is at least partly because sponsors in Ohio have earned fees for selling services to schools even when the schools in their portfolio produce poor results.
An Usual Choice
So with this background, Ohio might seem like an unusual choice for a $32.5 million grant—the largest awarded to any state—from the U.S. Department of Education to promote high-quality public charter school development.
But the grant is not rewarding Ohio based upon its past conduct; it is investing in the new, high-quality public charter schools that Ohio will develop in the future. And with the grant, Ohio has committed to upholding high standards for accountability and quality in the charter sector. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education put in place special conditions on Ohio’s grant that will ensure Ohio utilizes the funds to implement the rigorous plan described in its application.
It is critical now for Ohio to follow through on the promises in its application. And there are bright spots on Ohio’s chartering landscape. Columbus Collegiate Academy, Breakthrough Schools, KIPP Columbus and the Graham Schools are delivering some of the best academic results in the state. Ohio’s political leaders, education officials, public charter school sponsors and public charter school leaders need to redouble their efforts to ensure that the schools launched with the new federal grant money will be the high-quality schools we know Ohio can produce, even though they haven’t produced enough of them in the past.
It is also encouraging to see that Ohio’s elected officials have recognized the problems in the state’s public charter school environment and recently passed legislation to fix them.
The new law is the state’s most comprehensive charter school reform legislation in over a decade. It’s designed to, among other things, improve the state’s flawed sponsoring environment that has allowed bad schools to open (and stay open) and created conflicts of interest between public charter school leaders, sponsors and school management companies.
Under the new law, a poorly performing school is now prohibited from switching sponsors unless certain conditions are met. These conditions will make it difficult, if not impossible, to game the system. It also increases transparency, accountability and outcomes measurements.
Furthermore, increased federal support for public charter school start-ups will help new schools get on the right track from the beginning. Federal dollars will give school leaders a chance to invest in early-stage activities, such as developing strategic plans that they would otherwise not be able to fund. Indeed, among Ohio’s current crop of charter schools, those that received federal charter school grant money have performed better than those that didn’t.
The proof will be in the results. While Ohio’s public charter schools—like so many across the country—do show evidence of being beneficial for students in impoverished urban areas, quality has to improve across the board. With a new, better law in place to strengthen sponsoring and accountability practices, and additional resources to help schools adopt best practices when launching, the state has what it needs to fix itself. Now it’s up to the public charter school movement and education officials to deliver.