Upcoming reforms and funding may be the key to improving Ohio's troubled charter school system

COLUMBUS -- Lametris Joiner has had a rough year.

Her granddaughter, Ka'Nijah Kelly is now in second grade, and she's always been a good student. She grew up going along with her family to classes at Kent State and was surrounded by people who valued education. 

Second grader Ka'Nijah Kelly

When it came time to send Ka'Nijah to grade school, Joiner explored every option. She knew that their local district, Cleveland Public Schools, was in a bad shape, academically and financially, so she looked elsewhere.

Joiner heard bad stories about some charter schools in the Cleveland area closing, but she shopped around and decided to enroll her granddaughter at Imagine Cleveland Academy. The first year was good, but then there were some troubling signs. 

"Things started to change toward the end," Joiner said. "They wanted to shift students around and move the kids. Sometimes when you make decisions, you're not thinking about the big picture. They really weren't when it came to the students and the school."

She said that Ka'Nijah, who loved to learn, stopped wanting to go to school. Classes were unorganized, and teachers were spending more time disciplining students than teaching them, she said. 

"For Ka'Nijah, going from so much excelling to none, was a problem," Joiner said. "it was unacceptable... I was so happy when that year was over, because it had changed her mindset on school, period. In second grade? That's a problem. "

Teachers were leaving, and curriculum was changing drastically. Last August, the Ohio Department of Education, who was already reviewing the school, shut down Imagine Cleveland Academy for poor academic performance.

But Joiner said that there should have been more oversight from the beginning. Throughout that year, she was always talking to school officials and administrators about how they were handling the situation. 

"You're trying, but its not good enough," Joiner said. "And it wasn't just about my grandchild; it was the entire student body as a whole. You're not doing anything for these kids. It's getting worse -- it's crumbling right before your eyes. You have to do something." 

This year, failing grades, sudden school closures, and data-rigging in the state government have led to rallying cries from Ohio families, legislators and academics who think the state isn’t living up to its promise of providing a quality school choice to parents who don't want to send their children to a public school. 

But there are signs that the state may be making efforts improve the system. The federal Charter School Program is sending the state $71 million to expand and build up its charter system, and recently passed oversight reforms are on their way.

The question is: Will these changes help clean up Ohio’s image?

Ohio charter schools were established with the intention of providing students the opportunity to attend schools other than those in their traditional public districts. These independently operated schools are meant to allow greater flexibility, both for the student and the operator, all while being affordable.

When Ohio students attend charter schools, dollars are given to their local public school district but then are diverted and follow students who opt to attend charter schools.

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Just this year, several high-profile charter closures have made headlines. VLT Academy, serving 600 students in Cincinnati, closed after its sponsor withdrew in August. The same situation occurred just two weeks later at FCI Academy in Columbus right before the school year began.

This was all happening as the Ohio Department of Education’s Director for School Choice, David Hansen, admitted to purposefully excluding grades of failing online schools in sponsor evaluations with the intention of making others look better.

Over the past several years, charter researchers have singled out Ohio on its high closure rate and sub-par academic performance, some placing a lot of the blame on a lack of oversight.

Unlike traditional public schools, independent charter sponsors are required to evaluate their schools for compliance with state law and academic standards to keep the doors open. These reports go to the Ohio Department of Education for review.

But after David Hansen, the former head of the department entrusted to review those reports, purposefully excluded failing grades of some schools, parents and advocates started losing confidence in the system.

Since that controversy, ODE has taken steps to reform their processes, announcing this month that an investigation performed by an 3-member ODE panel has produced a list of recommendations aimed at shoring up the department's public image. 

'Creating More Information and Transparency' 

Ohio’s track record with charter schools showed oversight reforms are necessary, according to charter researcher Margaret Raymond, Director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, who was part of a panel on charter schools at the City Club of Cleveland last year. 

“I think the policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. I think 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.”

In 2014, CREDO released a study showing that Ohio students attending charter schools received approximately 14 fewer days of reading education and 36 fewer days of math education. Their findings are cited by both pro- and anti-charter groups alike.

These statistics haven’t fallen on deaf ears in Ohio. After this past summer’s recess, state legislators returned to unfinished business in enacting more charter school oversight.

Working together in committee, a bipartisan team of legislators in the House and Senate hammered out House Bill 2, which places more responsibility and regulation on sponsors of charter schools.

Primarily, it would inject more transparency into charter school performance reports and prohibit “sponsor-hopping,” in which sponsors leave failing schools just for another to come in and take their place. 

That bill will go a long way, though not all the way, to improve oversight of charter schools, according to Chad Aldis with the pro-charter school policy group the Fordham Institute.

“This is the strongest, most comprehensive piece of legislation the state has really ever undertaken in regards to charter schools,” Aldis said. “Some of it was long overdue. This is a really important step forward. It will be critical that it’s implemented well. From everything I’ve seen, the Department of Education is already taking an active role at looking at the provisions in House Bill 2.”

Fordham is a major proponent of charter school reform and oversight. That’s a position they share with Ohio’s largest teacher’s union, but they come from a different perspective.

InnovationOhio, a pro-public school policy group in the state, works with the Ohio Education Association to revamp the way charter schools are funded and kept accountable in Ohio. The organization applauds the passage of the oversight bill, but says the law is only as good as the people who apply that law.

“There has to be greater impartiality at the Department [of Education] to ensure that charter schools are held to the same level of accountability that all other schools in the state of Ohio are,” said InnovationOhio Director Keary McCarthy.

Charter Schools on a Pedestal They Don't Deserve? 

When State Superintendent Richard Ross announced he will retire at the end of year, McCarthy and other critics of the Department of Education saw an opportunity for that systemic change they’re looking for.

OEA and InnovationOhio are not outright anti-charter schools, but they argue that the current system puts charter schools on a pedestal at the expense of traditional public schools, and that it’s a pedestal they don’t deserve. McCarthy cited the state report card that showed charter schools receive more failing grades than As, Bs or Cs.  

He said that the way the current system works is unfair, and it’s detrimental to both groups.

“The biggest challenge we face now is thinking about a funding system that does not create animosity between local schools and charter schools,” McCarthy said. “If we’re going to strengthen the system overall, local schools and charter schools need to work better collaboratively and complement one another.”

McCarthy said he’s hopeful and that he’s already seen discussions about funding reforms taking place in the legislature. Their hope is that someday the state will fund charter schools directly instead of first putting the funds through public schools.

However, the battle over funding may prove to be just as lengthy as the one surrounding oversight has been.

An upcoming change that could have the greatest impact is a recently granted $71 million in funding from the federal Charter School Program.  

When the news broke, Ohio Democrats were quick in their response. U.S. Senate candidate and former Governor Ted Strickland called on the federal government to reconsider sending the money to Ohio. U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, D-Niles, urged that the state use caution to determine how the state would disseminate the funds.

Federal regulators are doing just that. They’re withholding the money amid questions about whether or not Ohio can be trusted to use it appropriately.

But some in Ohio see that money as an opportunity for improvement, not a mistake.

Fordham Institute has reported that Ohio’s track record with CSP awards is actually quite positive, noting that the closure rate for charters receiving CSP awards is nearly half of the overall rate and that almost half of the schools receiving the awards are receiving satisfactory grades from the Department of Education.

Aldis said that Ohio is on the right track to learn from its mistakes, and continue to make improvements into the future. The funding, to him, is an opportunity for much needed change, especially in improving charter schools' image.

“I’m just afraid, because of the nomenclature, ‘charter school vs district school’ that there are people willing to give back this money that could be used to open more good schools for kids,” Aldis said. “This could make for much better charter schools.”

Additionally, Aldis and his colleagues at Fordham are not completely discouraged by the closure of failing charter schools; it may actually be good for the students. A study released by the group this past Spring showed that students in Ohio's urban areas who attended a school, traditional or charter, that closed between 2006 and 2012, made significant academic progress 3 years later.

Those students forced out of failing or troubled schools may actually end up in another, better school, that can better serve their needs. That's certainly been true for Lametris Joiner and her granddaughter Ka'Nijah Kelly. 

Ka'Nijah now attends Citizens Academy in Cleveland, where's been doing well. It's the kind of school that Joiner always wanted for her granddaughter. 

"Things are better; they've gotten so much better," Joiner said. "When I go in [to these schools] I always have a list of questions. Here, I didn't have to do that... my daughter was totally satisfied, I was over the moon with what I saw and what I continue to to see. The professionalism, the love, the support. It's awesome. I love it." 

Ben Postlethwait is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter @BCPostlethwait

 

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