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Monday, July 1, 2013

OH Turns Corner on Charter Schools?

One of the most important Education Policy developments coming out of this recently passed Ohio biennial budget wasn't even contained in the budget itself. It's contained in the reaction to it.

As I have reported at 10th Period, the budget disproportionately helped poorly performing Charter Schools, especially those of major campaign contributors. In fact, schools run by David Brennan and William Lager received 38% of all the increase to Charter Schools, even though they only have 9% of the schools. In addition, those two major Republican Party financiers (between the two of them, they've given about $1 million since 2008, mostly to legislative and executive branch leaders) received 19% of all the state revenue going to Ohio's Charter Schools.

A growing coalition of high-performing Charter Schools and Charter School quality advocates have had enough, though. And in the Akron Beacon Journal yesterday, they finally spoke up. Take this quote from Greg Harris, Executive Director of Students First Ohio -- the Ohio arm of conservative Education Policy darling Michelle Rhee:

"Harris has only one explanation for how funding would be distributed.
“A lot of times it has to do not with how well your school is performing but how well your lobbyist is paid,” he said.
...
We need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on [low-performing schools] and, more importantly, we need to stop wasting kids’ lives,” said Greg Harris, a school reform lobbyist and director of the Ohio chapter of Students First, a national advocacy firm that promotes quality school choice.
Harris and other charter-school advocates lobbied Ohio senators a month ago to increase the investment in the state’s highest-performing charter schools.
The charter-school movement was meant to offer better choices for parents, who would invest in the best options by enrolling their children in high-performing schools.
“Twenty years into the [national] charter movement there are no more excuses,” Harris said. “Our funding policies have to be reformed accordingly. And that is not reflected in this [state] budget.”
Financially rewarding the lowest performing schools undermines the entire movement, Harris said.
But that’s what the next two-year state budget would do. 
 Or try this comment from the top-rated group of Charter Schools in the state:
“Not only will high-quality charters not get funding, but low-quality charters could get a boost. That can’t be right. No legislator in their right mind would get behind something like this,” said John Zitzner, president of Friends of Breakthrough Schools, the marketing and fundraising arm for Citizens Academy East and other top-performing charter schools.
I can't emphasize enough how momentous these comments are for the progress of School Choice in Ohio. I can't think of a time in the history of this state where any Charter School advocates have dared suggest that Brennan's ability to benefit from state legislators didn't also benefit those who didn't contribute millions of dollars to politicians. But perhaps enough is enough. Here's how the Beacon story concluded, perhaps nailing down the explanation for this new-found anger within the Charter School community:

The biggest winners in this budget are dropout recovery programs that cater to high school students.
Brennan operates at least 17 such facilities, with two in Summit County and one in Stark. Each of the 2,476 students who attends the centers, most of which are named Life Skills, would bring in an additional $1,438 on average under the proposed budget. That’s a $2.41 million bump, or 10.7 percent of the entire $22.6 increase in basic state aid for Ohio charter schools.
Life Skills serves about 2 percent of the state’s charter-school population.
These Life Skills facilities, like all dropout recovery programs, are also some of the state’s least regulated charter schools. They’ll be the last to receive a grade under the new report card. Academic standards for measuring these schools won’t be determined until the end of next year.
While these programs attempt to educate the most challenging of students, they often have graduation rates in the single digits.
In order to remain open, these dropout recovery programs would only need to improve graduation rates by as little as one percentage point to meet regulations added to the budget by the House.
An amendment later added by the Senate calls for dropout recovery programs to receive “separate report cards that do not include letter grades and are subject to separate closure standards.” 
Exactly. This is how it has always worked for Brennan. The difference is today, even Charter School advocates are fed up with the games. Time will tell whether that's enough to change the conversation in Ohio from one of Choice for Choice's sake to better Choices. As I've said over and over again, in Ohio we could invest heavily only in the high-performing Charter Schools and still have enough money remaining to fund universal pre-school throughout our state.

Even though it seems like this budget is miles away from that outcome, perhaps it's a lot closer than we think. Now it is up to the legislators and Gov. John Kasich to heed these reasonable calls for temperance on the investment in poorly performing Charter Schools. The chart I have inserted below shows the percentage of state funding Ohio's kids who aren't in Charters have lost to Charters since the program's inception. You'll see it's pretty much been a steady increase since 1998, topping out last year at about 6.5%.

That means every child not in an Ohio Charter School loses, on average, 6.5% of their state revenue because Charter Schools remove so much money from school districts. And the vast majority of that money goes from districts that perform better than the Charter School to which they lose the money. Yesterday, that trend may have started to change.