Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017
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Marilou Johanek

COMMENTARY

Time to back up promises to hold charter schools accountable

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The news is not good, but neither is it shocking. Ohioans have heard it before: The charter school industry in the state is, with rare exception, an abject educational failure.

Somebody is always assessing the dismal test scores of Ohio charter schools or holding them up as an example of an academic experiment gone terribly wrong. It’s old news in the state.

Ask any educator who has pulled out clumps of hair over the growth of publicly funded, privately run schools in Ohio despite ongoing problems. The state’s solution is to throw more tax money at for-profit charter school operators in the interest of promoting school choice.

Never mind that the educational choice offered by most charters is worse than that offered by most traditional public schools. Year after year, studies and statistics compiled by leading national scholars on charter schools have painted the same tragic picture in Ohio.

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) consistently finds charter school students in the state falling behind their counterparts in traditional schools. Last month it released another report on Buckeye charters, again noting how charter students performed worse in reading and math than their peers in local school districts.

CREDO first published a study on Ohio charter school performance in 2009. It showed comparable academic discrepancies between demographically similar students at charter and regular public schools.

New research shows charter students in the state falling even further behind in reading and basic math skills. They’re learning less in a year than their district school peers.

If a 180-day school year is considered “one year of learning,” the study said, “an average Ohio charter student would have completed 14 fewer days of learning in reading and 43 fewer days in math.”

Correspondingly, “93 percent of charter schools in Ohio fall below the 50th percentile in achievement in math, and 73 percent of charters fall below the 50th percentile in achievement in reading.” The number of charter schools in Ohio with below-average growth and achievement in reading and math is “grim,” a Stanford researcher concluded.

Charter students are losing ground they will never make up. Marginal improvements noted by the CREDO report, largely in a handful of high-performing charters, don’t change the dismal education received by students in nearly 400 Ohio charter schools.

The report cites state legislative and Ohio Department of Education (ODE) regulatory changes since 2009 that continue to evolve. It suggests the changes could eventually improve the poor learning record of charter students.

But if the past is prologue, renewed rhetoric from Ohio Gov. John Kasich and others about enhancing academic quality and private operator accountability in Ohio charter schools is just lip service.

For years, the same pro-charter politicians have not only tolerated lackluster academic performance in state charter schools, they’ve also rewarded it. They’ve given some of the most mediocre operations in the state more money to open more charters.

Ohio charter school policy allows the charter mess to flourish. Loose regulations, pro-business governance, minimal transparency, and accountability exemptions have spurred robust growth in the state’s charter school sector.

In return, grateful charter school operators contribute big money to keep their political benefactors in power. And so it goes, at the expense of young minds.

Academic achievement in Ohio charter schools has either stayed the same or deteriorated from the 2007-2008 school year to 2012-2013, according to the Stanford study. Researchers report “over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement.”

As recently as June, 2014, an ODE Web site for new developers of charter schools appeared oblivious to that urgency, insisting that charters “offer an education that is regarded as equivalent to that of Ohio’s traditional public and private schools approved by the Ohio Department of Education.”

After the CREDO study and a separate report by the Fordham Institute begged to differ, the state schools superintendent echoed the governor’s pledge to “get tough” on underperforming charter schools and institute greater state control over those who are charged with providing operational oversight.

Failing charter schools in Ohio are old news. Promises to fix what’s broken will require proof.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com

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