Ohio Charter Schools' Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week
In this May 11, 2016, file photo, Paolo DeMaria, center right, greets members of the Ohio State Board of Education after board members named him the state's schools superintendent in a 19-0 vote, during a meeting in Columbus, Ohio. As the Ohio Department of Education prepares to publish ratings of charter school sponsors by Oct. 15, 2016, Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria sent a Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, memo expressing confidence in the state's current method of evaluating as few as 10 percent of a sponsor's charter schools, a sampling method criticized by some state lawmakers. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth, File)
They say the night is darkest before the dawn. In Ohio’s charter school experience, it’s been night for a long, long time. And while recently there have been much ballyhooed efforts to change the course of our state’s charter school policy, last week has been a cold splash of water.
The state has become the first to be slapped by feds as “high risk” for charter school grants, just days after some of its best performing schools rejected by Mississippi for poor performance. And while I’m glad that Mississippi has clearly adopted the national dialogue focused on charter quality, it is clearly another black eye for the Buckeye State.
Last Monday, Mississippi’s Charter School Authorizer Board rejected the application of three I Can schools to come to Jackson, Miss. I Can has some of the highest performing schools in the state of Ohio – so high performing that the state’s teachers’ unions actually organized the schools. So why were they rejected? Low performance.
“They fall well short in my view,” one Mississippi board member said. “They have done very well in some schools but they have not been consistent.”
When one of your state’s highest performing charter school groups isn’t high performing enough for Mississippi, you’ve got problems.
Then on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education made the unprecedented move declaring Ohio’s Charter School Program application “high risk”, adding significant federal oversight to the distribution of the nation’s largest grant given last year – $71 million. Essentially, USDOE will be approving all grants for Ohio charters, among other safeguards.
Among the reasons the Department cited were the fact that the guy who wrote the grant (who is the husband of Gov. John Kasich’s chief of staff) had to resign shortly after because he illegally altered the state’s authorizer oversight structure to benefit politically powerful online charter school operators.
The feds were also concerned about the fact that several members of the Ohio congressional delegation were concerned about the grant. Also a problem was Ohio’s past performance in administering the grants, which led to nearly four in 10 grantees either closing shortly after receiving the grants, or never opening in the first place.
The final reason was Ohio’s continuing struggle to implement the authorizer oversights contained in the state’s charter school reform law passed last year. Recently, Ohio Republicans effectively killed a proposed rule that would have put the tougher authorizer regime in effect because (get this) it would have had to be retroactive by three weeks. Not three months. Not three years. Three weeks.
The feds also strongly encouraged the state to employ greater checks on the agreements between the state’s non-profit charters and their for-profit operators – an operator dominated relationship that caused great concern for the WestEd auditors who looked at Ohio’s previous federal grants. They also made explicit that Ohio’s notorious online schools can’t receive a penny of the funding.
But it didn’t stop there.
One day later, new Ohio state report cards came out and revealed that about 2 out of 3 charter school grades were Fs – far worse performance than Ohio’s school districts, who received the worst report card grades Ohio school districts have ever received. No matter how often Ohio changes its report card system and calculation, one constant has remained – Ohio’s districts (all of whom lose funding and students to Ohio charter schools) far outperform Ohio’s charter schools on the whole.
However, while the night may be darkest now, the decision to release the money, regardless of how many more strings are included, could signal the graying of the sun’s first rays.
Now that the feds will be exerting far more control over who gets the grant, the USDOE should take this opportunity to turn Ohio from national embarrassment to national example of what a quality-based school expansion can do for kids. Because for once, money will flow to charters based on quality, not connections.
This federal grant is a last stand for the charter school movement here – the best opportunity to see if high-quality charters can be grown in Ohio – the so-called Wild, Wild West of charter schools, where 40 percent are in “urgent need of improvement.” Making charters work in Ohio will be the quality-based charter school movement’s greatest accomplishment and a national triumph.
So while the last week has been another dose of nationally embarrassing news for Ohio’s troubled charter school sector, I can take it. Because in the end, it is far more likely now that Ohio will have higher quality choice options benefitting kids and parents. And that’s more important than anything Mississippi has to say about our state’s charter schools.