Are charter schools really making the grade?

Dayton Daily News - September 16, 2012

Margo Kissell at the Dayton Daily News put together a thorough review of charters — publicly funded, privately run schools — for Sunday’s paper. It acknowledges both the success stories and the challenges facing Ohio’s charter sector.

In the past 15 years, some public charter schools have shined as examples of what they were intended to be — incubators in educational innovation that could be replicated elsewhere.

But other charter schools have been plagued by financial mismanagement and scandal, prompting some officials to call for tighter state oversight and regulations.

For the article, Kissell quotes State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, Terry Ryan of the Fordham Institute, and Piet van Lier, education researcher at Policy Matters. Lehner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the impact of charters has been mixed:

“I think there have been some absolutely fabulous charter schools that have sprung up. DECA (Dayton Early College Academy) certainly comes to mind, first and foremost, but there are others that have been very high performing,” Lehner said. “At the same time, we have a lot of them that are not performing as promised and that’s troubling.”

One of the key differences between charters and traditional public schools is the level of regulation. Lehner said lawmakers have worked to put more safeguards in place, calling it an evolving process.

“I think that over time we will see more of the good ones staying open and the poorer ones not opening in the first place,” she said.

Policy Matters researcher van Lier, she writes, says that more regulation is needed and that cuts to the budget of the Ohio Department of Education’s has reduced the agency’s capacity to oversee charters.

“And now, by law, an individual can serve on up to five charter school boards, rather than the two-school limit under previous law so even charter school boards are going to be less able to exercise their legal duties of oversight and governance,” van Lier said. “Things are getting worse, not better.”

Kissell explains that the Miami Valley is home to 41 charter schools. (In fact, 51 charters enroll Dayton students alone, but this includes online schools that may not be located in the Miami Valley.)

Dayton still ranks among the top nationally for its sizeable charter school share of the public school market. It ranks eighth, with 27 percent or 5,995 of the public school students attending charters in 2010-11, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-choice nonprofit in Dayton, said Dayton became a charter “mecca” in the years after the city’s first charter, City Day Community School, opened in 1998.

The article breaks down statewide charter attendance:

About 126,000 Ohio students attended 360 charter schools in 2011-12. About 35,000 of those students now attend online or e-schools. Up to five new e-schools can be opened in 2013 after lawmakers partially lifted the state’s moratorium on charter school growth.

While City Day remains open at 318 S. Main St., more than a dozen other charters have since closed their doors because of financial troubles or they have been shut down by the state for consistently poor performance. Locally, seven closed in the last two years. The state has shut down 22 for poor performance since 2009.

Having so many charters in a community like Dayton has been “a destabilizing force for the district, both financially and in terms of student transience. That is what has happened in Cleveland and other urban districts in Ohio,” van Lier said. “It’s a highly inefficient, ineffective road to school improvement. While some of those charter schools are serving students well, not enough have been doing what needs to be done.”

Kissell also makes note of scandals involving Dayton-area charter schools, including the Richard Allen schools and a former charter school treasurer who pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzlement. Ryan defends charters, saying the worst have been close and “decent schools are expanding their efforts by increasing enrollment and/or adding new schools.”

Local charter schools saw significant gains on the 2010-11 state report cards released last year. The 2011-12 report cards have not been released yet due to the Ohio auditor’s office statewide investigation into how school districts, charter schools and the Ohio Department of Education report student attendance data after questionable practices surfaced in some districts.

DECA, a Dayton Public Schools-sponsored charter school for grades 7-12 on the University of Dayton campus, last year received an “Excellent with Distinction” report card rating. It was only one of five charters statewide to receive the A-plus rating.

The article ends with an emphasis on the mixed results shown by charters and different takes on the future:

Van Lier thinks Ohio’s ability to close charters that are performing poorly academically “has been a good step forward” but he said the state needs to do more “to prevent ineffective charters from opening, rather than just trying to hold them accountable after they open. At this point, we know what it takes to run a good school and there needs to be more serious vetting on the front end.”

Lehner agreed. “We are looking at standards right now for sponsors, certainly as it relates to Cleveland,” she said. “Those standards I think will become more and more prevalent across the state.”

Van Lier is less hopeful. While he said he saw some promise of vetting schools in Cleveland, “the charter sector protested and the charter accountability part of the law no longer has any teeth.”

Are charter schools really making the grade?
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