THE TOLEDO BLADE
Better late than never, Ohio is reforming its notorious system of public charter schools, both brick-and-mortar and online. A new law promises to impose meaningful state oversight of charter schools, which compete aggressively with traditional public schools for students and tax dollars.
Separately, new guidelines developed by the Ohio Department of Education provide objective measures for evaluating the sponsors of charter schools. It’s about time, but the job of charter school reform isn’t done yet.
For too long, state politicians and bureaucrats permitted Ohio’s charter system to grow rapidly, without offering adequate regulation or enforcing tough academic standards. Executives of several big, for-profit charter school operators became major contributors to Statehouse elected officials’ campaigns. Some Education Department officials appeared more intent on protecting poor-performing charter schools than on requiring them to improve or close.
The new state law aims to impose tougher performance, accountability, and disclosure standards on charter school sponsors, operators, and boards. The law prohibits conflicts of interest among charter officials, and makes it easier to shut down bad schools. At the same time, the new regulatory regime will issue public ratings of charter sponsors, similar to the annual report cards the Education Department gives school districts and individual schools.
Perrysburg Schools Superintendent Thomas Hosler was a member of the state panel that proposed the new standards. Under them, the state will evaluate not only the academic quality of sponsors’ charter schools, but also their compliance with state laws and regulations. State officials say the rules will allow effective sponsors to flourish, and will force out incompetent and wasteful sponsors.
It all sounds good, but the new era hasn’t fully dawned. The U.S. Education Department has placed on hold a $71 million grant it approved last October to promote and expand charter schools in Ohio. Critics charge that the state’s grant application overstated the success of Ohio charter schools, and misrepresented the extent of academic and financial oversight of charters.
Last summer, the state Education Department’s school-choice chief admitted rigging evaluations of several charter sponsors to make their failing online schools look better. He subsequently quit, but the scandal has yet to be resolved or even fully investigated. Last week, the liberal advocacy group Progress Ohio called for a grand jury review of the data-scrubbing.
Former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross retired at the end of 2015. His successor can provide focus and rigor to the charter school reform effort — if that is what state officials want.
Assessing the value of charter schools is one of the most divisive, emotional issues in American education. Advocates say such schools give innovative, high-quality choices to students — especially disadvantaged ones — and their parents, and provide competition that challenges traditional schools to get better or lose enrollment and resources. High-performing charter schools, in Toledo and elsewhere, are among the best public schools in Ohio.
Too often, though, the promise hasn’t become reality. A study by Stanford University researchers concluded that the typical Ohio charter school student gets 43 fewer days of math instruction and 14 fewer days of reading instruction than the average student in a conventional public school. The conclusions of a separate recent study of online charter schools in Ohio was even more alarming: Their typical students lose 79 days of learning in reading and 144 days of math learning — nearly an entire school year.
Charter schools are not the deliverance of public education, in Ohio or anywhere else. But they can and do add value to education in the state. The goal of the reform effort must be to spread the advantages of charter schools as widely as possible, while eliminating their excesses.
Ohioans will start to find out this year whether the operators of those schools, and the state officials who oversee them, are up to that task.