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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Ohio Charter Schools are Different

Whenever I talk about Charter Schools with people outside Ohio, they always ask me why I'm so "anti-charter." The truth is, I'm not. I just think that the way many of Ohio's Charter Schools operate is so cynical that Ohio's Charter School laws must be changed. Now.

The Akron Beacon Journal today published the first of what promises to be a significant series of reports detailing just how outside the frame the vast majority of these schools operate. Remember that nearly $900 million in taxpayer money is going to these Charter Schools. That's our money. Yours. Mine. The same money that would otherwise have gone to our local public schools.

Now it is true that sometimes it's tough to get information out of traditional public schools. As a former reporter, I remember many rounds I'd go with districts about whether I could get information. But I never remember failing to receive this kind of information:

  • Who runs the building?
  • Who is that person's supervisor?
  • Who is the management company in charge?
  • How does one contact the school board?
  • When does the board meet?
Only 1 in 4 Ohio Charter Schools answered these five basic questions. That's right. Only 1 in 4 Charters told members of the public, who pay $900 million a year for these schools, when the school board meets. And these schools are called "public schools" throughout the Ohio Revised Code. Perhaps this is why courts around the country are finding that Charter Schools aren't actually public schools? Because they act like private schools? 

Look, Ohio taxpayers fork over $900 million a year for Charter Schools. They deserve to know how that money is being spent. Because they would be able to find the answers to these five questions on every single traditional public school website. You wouldn't have to set up phone banks to find out the answers to these basic five questions, the way the Akron Beacon Journal did for Charters.

Can you imagine if the Beacon called Akron Public Schools and they refused to tell them who the Superintendent was, or when the board met, or how to contact the board? I mean, that is just beyond imagination, right? But Charters, we are told, are just as public a school as APS. So why do they operate under such a shadow?

Ohio's Charter School system is a disaster. It needs serious overhaul. 

Ohio's Charter Schools take far more kids from school districts that outperform the Charter than the other way round. They spend nearly 3 times as much on administration than the average school district. They spend more per pupil  overall than traditional school districts. And because the state pays about twice as much per pupil for the typical Charter School kid than the typical traditional public school kid, kids not in Charters get several hundred dollars less in state revenue than the state says they need. So what's the bottom line for Ohio's Charter Schools in comparison with traditional public schools, overall?
  1. They perform far worse academically
  2. They cost the state far more
  3. They spend more per pupil
  4. They spend far more on administration
  5. They are far less transparent
Can Charter Schools work in Ohio? I simply don't know. That's because Ohio's Charter School law has been cynically put together over the years, not designed to really improve educational opportunities for kids. There are a few examples of Ohio Charter Schools that perform the way we were told they would -- as incubators of innovation that can provide needed opportunities for kids who may not be able to receive those experiences otherwise. 

But the fact that only a couple handfuls of Ohio Charter Schools fit this description, while the remaining 350 or so Charter Schools do not, proves to me that the system was never designed to grow these high-performing Charter Schools. 

All I can conclude is it was designed to allow the poor performers to thrive. 

Why? 

Because they do. 

And they do so largely in the dark.

I hope people around the country take note of Ohio's issues. They are unique, deeply entrenched and will be very difficult to change. 

But I'm hopeful they will because I know there are folks around Ohio's education community, regardless of school type or political stripe, who recognize how desperate is Ohio's need for reform. Perhaps what Ohio needs is a "Network" moment about Charter Schools.

So who will be Ohio's Howard Beale?