Thursday, September 26, 2013

In Ohio, Quality Should Be Job 1

In a recent post by the Fordham Institute, Aaron Churchill takes Bill Phillis -- the legendary public education defender who ran the campaign that ended up having the state's school funding declared unconstitutional four times -- and Join the Future to task for daring to compare Charter School with School District performance.

Note: All calculations in this post come from the new State Report Card, located here.

The rest of Churchill's column makes cogent points about focusing on what works and eliminating what does not. And on that, I completely agree with Churchill. That is the argument I have been making ever since I first spoke about this issue on the floor of the Ohio House.

Unfortunately, though, I have to disagree with a couple of his arguments.

1) "Both authors make spurious comparisons that ought to be dismissed. Both make the mistake of comparing the performance index scores of charter schools to school districts." 

This argument is often made by Charter School advocates. And, frankly, I understand what they're saying: Charter Schools are typically small, one-building operations. Comparing their performance with much larger, diverse districts is unfair, right? Well, except that eSchools like ECOT and the Ohio Virtual Academy -- Charter Schools both -- are bigger than all but about a dozen Ohio School Districts. And there are 161 Ohio School Districts that didn't have 1,000 kids in them last year. So not all School Districts are hulking leviathans.

Most importantly, though, is that Ohio law treats Charters as if they are School Districts for funding and accountability purposes. They are paid like School Districts. They are considered Local Education Agencies for federal funding purposes, just as School Districts are. They are required to have Superintendents and Treasurers, just like School Districts. They have boards that oversee them, just like School Districts. They are, under law, School Districts.

In addition, only one School District did not lose money or students to Charters last year. And 47% of all kids in Charters last year did not come from a Big 8 Urban School District. If Charters take kids and money from every School District, why should they only be compared with 8 of them, especially when 47% of the kids do not come from there?

When you compare Charter with School District performance, the comparison is really not very good for Charters. As Churchill himself points out:

Recent blogs by William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (posted on Diane Ravitch’s website) and Join the Future highlight the academic woes of some of Ohio’s charter schools. Phillis writes: “The Department of Education’s ranking of schools and districts reveals that 83 out of the bottom 84 schools are charter schools.” Join the Future exclaims “Out of the bottom 200 districts, just 21 are traditional public schools, the remaining 179 are charter schools!”
2) "At a school building level, 139 of the bottom 200 schools were district schools. Both district and charter schools are therefore guilty of weak results on the state’s “performance index” score."

Well, sort of. I agree that the bottom 200 buildings in the state on Performance Index are populated by both District and Charter buildings. However, Churchill misses the point. Of course there are more District Buildings in the bottom 200, assuming you use Building rather than District-level data to make the comparison. There are, after all, 3,050 Traditional School Buildings in the state that receive the Performance Index rating. There are only 262 Charter Schools that receive a Performance Index Score. There are nearly 12 times as many District Buildings as Charters. Math, as much as performance, dictates that many of the lowest performing Buildings would be District Buildings.

Why do I mention this? Well, because the 61 Charter Schools that do rate in the bottom 200 represent a little more than 23% of all Charter Schools rated by the Performance Index. That means nearly one out of every 4 Charter Schools in Ohio rate in the bottom 200 of the more than 3,300 District and Charter buildings that receive the Performance Index score. Put another way, one in 4 Charter Schools rate in the bottom 6% of all Ohio School Buildings -- Charter and Traditional -- on the Performance Index.

One more thing: The average Performance Index score of the bottom 23% of School Buildings (710 total) is 79.54. The average Performance Index score of the bottom 23% of Charter Schools (the 61 in Churchill's calculation) is 62.57.

Again, this is not to say Charter Schools should be eliminated. What I am saying is that Churchill has a point; it's time to talk about the quality of these things. We have far, far too many unsuccessful Charter Schools in Ohio, especially given that we're going to be spending upwards of $1 billion a year on these schools over the next couple years.

Yes, we must ensure that quality Charters are able to thrive in this state. Unfortunately, though, the average school run by the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland -- routinely the highest-rated Charter group in the state -- was cut by about $200 in the most recent budget.

I welcome Churchill's call for a new approach to Charter policy in Ohio. However, we must confront how Ohio's Charters have, for the most part, failed so frighteningly frequently. This phenomenon helps explain why the high fliers have been so stifled. And it also explains why some School Districts have struggled. For when kids in Districts like Columbus and Cincinnati who don't attend Charters lose about 25% of their state revenue to the Charter School funding system, isn't that as important an impediment to their success as anything else?