In 1998, Ohio opened its first 15 charter schools. There are now more than 300, and they’re enrolling more than 100,000 primary and secondary students. Ohio is paying upwards of $500,000,000 to support those schools. But as charter schools have grown, so have divisions between them and traditional public schools.
Thirteen years ago, Ohio lawmakers embraced on a massive educational experiment called charter schools. They picked Toledo as the pilot city; a guinea pig to test a quick cure for what many saw as the state’s ailing public education system.
Charter schools technically are public schools. They are free, and open to everyone. Because of the way Ohio’s charter school laws developed, they are mostly limited to the state’s urban areas. The biggest difference between traditional public school districts and charter schools is that charters receive less public funding in exchange for freedom from requirements about how they teach and spend their money.
Bob Vasquez is the president of the Toledo Public School board. He says some charter schools are great; some are abysmal, and most fall somewhere in between.
“The discussion I have a problem with is charter schools being the panacea for education, because it hasn’t been proven,” says Vasquez.
The relative academic freedom and lack of accountability rub public school folks the wrong way. Vasquez argues that if scaled-back regulation is the key to academic success, wouldn’t the solution be untying the red tape around public school districts?
Vasquez says public school districts have to have a certain size cafeteria, certain size gymnasium, certain curriculum students are taught. “I’d like to know how much success charter schools would having to following the same rules we have to follow?” he asks.
But public schools must provide a lot of services most charter don’t, like transportation, maintaining facilities, and free-lunch programs. All of that costs money.
Cindy Wilson is the executive director of Aurora Academy in Toledo. She says this exchange of state funding for reduced accountability “was one of the reasons that charter schools were started.”
Aurora Academy was Ohio’s first charter school. It’s printed right there on Wilson’s business cards, and on some posters inside the school, and on the school’s website.
Wilson says the idea was that with less accountability, charter schools would ”be able to have better academics at thirty percent less funding.”
But critics say freedom for charter schools has transformed into too little accountability. That has led to performance problems and financial abuses that they say would never be tolerated in traditional public schools.
“Nationally, people who advocate for and support charter schools view Ohio as a state that has a lot of problems that need to be cleaned up,” says Greg Richmond with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
“There are good charter schools in Ohio, many good charters, but there are also too many bad schools and the frustration has been that over the years the state as a whole has not been able to take strong enough action yet to clean up the bad schools in Ohio.”
Richmond says Ohio has one of the strictest laws when it comes to shutting charter schools down, but little accountability before things get that bad.
One hundred and twenty charter schools in Ohio have collapsed over the last 13 years. They owe the state millions of dollars in audit findings.
Just last week, the Ohio Department of Education banned nine charter school sponsors from adding more charter schools because of the rotten academic performance of the schools they already have.
But charter school advocates say all of that is evidence that they are accountable in ways they need to be.
The state evaluates charter schools through annual report cards, just as it does with traditional public schools. Plus, Wilson says she feels plenty accountable to the school’s sponsor, the teachers, taxpayers and parents.
Wilson says her teachers files are kept in her office, and “parents are allowed to come in and view the teachers’ files.” She acknowledges though that, so far, just one parent has checked out those files.
Don Yates is head of the union at Toledo Public Schools that represents building principals and other administrators. He says he would have nothing against charter schools, if they did a better job of educating students than the nearby public schools. But, he says they do not.
“Instead we’re taking that money and giving it some place else and telling parents that ‘there’s an option for you. Gee, I hope it works.’”
Statewide, charter schools tend to perform the same, or slightly better than the surrounding public schools.
For example, the state report cards list Aurora Academy as in continuous improvement, up from academic watch last year. Nearby Toledo Public Schools are also in continuous improvement, same as the year before.
Aurora Academy’s Cindy Wilson says it is misleading to say her school and the Toledo Public Schools are performing the same, or that the public schools are even doing better.
“Traditional public schools have been around for how many hundreds of years? Let’s say TPS is 100 years old. It is only in continuous improvement right now. Can charter schools in Toledo have that same amount of time to prove itself? That’s what I’m asking for, is time to get through the bumps and the bruises, time to refine what we have.”
Plus, Wilson says her school recruits special needs kids. That puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to the state report cards.
Toledo Public Schools’ Don Yates doesn’t buying that argument. Urban schools like his serve lots of kids with special needs, and are condemned when those kids don’t perform well.
Yates says funneling millions of dollars from traditional public school districts to charter schools is a “sham.”
-Toledo Public Schools’ Administrative Union President Don Yates
“If there’s a problem with the schools where the kids are, then the school district and the Legislature should figure out what’s wrong with that school and begin to fix that,” Yates says.
But the impact of charter schools in Ohio is extending well beyond individual school performance. When charters started, proponents said they would not replace public school districts. Instead, the competition was supposed to improve public schools. Choice, the theory went, would benefit everyone from the students to parents and other schools.
Toledo Board President Bob Vasquez says that choice often backfires on the local public school district.He regularly gets e-mails from parents threatening to pull their kids out of Toledo Public Schools and move them to a nearby charter if the school doesn’t see things a parent’s way.
E-mails like this one:
“I’m sending the kids to charter school. I remember you from Riverside. … School starts soon and my kids will be at the local charter school because you folks can’t even hear us, much less listen to us.’”
Still, charter schools have taught public schools one thing: Parents want more control over their kids’ education. In Toledo, a new transformation plan includes opening a performing arts school, a health sciences school and a teacher-prep academy as well as more focus on distance learning.
Other school public school districts are going further and sponsoring their own charters. Stay tuned for that story on Tuesday.
Note: A previous version of this story stated that $500,000.00 is spent annually on charter schools in Ohio. That figure is actually more than $500 million, as was correctly stated in the radio version of this story.