Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Charter Day in Columbus

Today is one of those news days I loved as a reporter -- lots of news, and really important news at that.

First off, Bellwether Education Partners released a study funded by the Fordham Foundation, which to their great credit has funded two high-quality reports that have called out Ohio charter schools. The report gave 10 policy recommendations for fixing Ohio's broken charter school sector. Lots of good recommendations in there -- coming down hard on failing schools, operators and sponsors, focusing on quality rather than quantity of choices.

My only real beef with it was the suggestion that we need to put local money into charters too so that the "inequity" issue can be resolved, as well as some of the transportation and building funding issues. Including charter schools as part of the Ohio School Facilities Commission funding scheme has issues, like what's the local match? School districts have to come up with local money to fund part of the project. Would charters get their whole project paid for? The fairness of that, when districts (for whom the fund was originally developed during the DeRolph school funding case) had to match it seems a quagmire.

I understand the need to provide some building assistance, though, because without that, charter schools are forced to get in bed with big-time operators that are focused on profits, not kids.

I also struggle with the transportation issue. Charter school kids are transported by school districts at no cost to the charter. Some districts transport a lot of kids to charters. There may be a few charters that take kids from outside a district, so I can understand the need to maybe provide some transportation to them. But again, it's fraught with issues. What do you do, for instance, with open enrollment kids going between school districts whose parents do the driving? Again, there are equity issues galore.

Ultimately, it's awfully difficult to understand why we need to put more money into a sector that already gets almost $1 billion to educate 130,000 kids when folks on both sides of the issue now agree the sector doesn't work.

I would prefer to see the direct state funding of charters, coupled with rigorous quality controls and differentiated funding for excellence could be a way to fix this funding issue. Funding charters is a tough thing to do. But it can be done. And better than it is today. Especially with the state's expected budget surplus this next year.

I don't even mind the transportation or building recommendations nearly as much if I was assured as a taxpayer that it would actually go to successful charter schools, not schools that graduate 2 of 155 kids, as one Ohio charter school currently does.

About an hour later, we at www.KnowYourCharter.com put out a report that showed that 511 of Ohio's 613 school districts got less state funding per pupil last year than the minimum charter deduction required under state law. This means that local revenues have to subsidize these charter school payments.

And when you consider that brick and mortar charter schools spend more per pupil than school districts -- all revenues considered -- you start to see the issue with funding charters. Keystone Local Schools Superintendent Jay Arbaugh and Lorain County ESC Superintendent Greg Ring joined me at the news conference today.

They relayed the tale of how shocked their constituents are when they find out how charter school funding works in this state, and its adverse impact on the 90% of kids not in charter schools.

What we've seen the last week or so are reports that are pointing Ohio leaders in a direction to reform charter schools. I was encouraged to see state Rep. Andrew Brenner and state Sen. Peggy Lehner -- both Republicans -- remark after Bellwether's presentation that they will fight for these recommendations in the legislature.

But overcoming the millions of dollars contributed to Ohio politicians by adults that run poorer performing charter schools will be a monumental task.

For the first time in years, though, I'm optimistic it can happen.

Charter schools can work. They are neither the panacea nor devil's work folks claim. They're not working in Ohio. They can. But it will take education and leadership to overcome three decades of Ohio political habit on this issue.

So let's kick the habit.