Last week, the Ohio General Assembly finally passed meaningful charter school reform that holds the promise of improving Ohio’s nationally mocked system of charter schools. And while we should all celebrate its passage and acknowledge the enormous strides the bill represents for additional accountability and transparency of Ohio’s charter schools, we must now keep a careful eye on what happens next.
That’s primarily because the bill relies on the Ohio Department of Education to provide the necessary enforcement and oversight that will actually make HB 2 a success. Given the recent scandals and controversies that have engulfed ODE, there’s good reason to be concerned. And this is critically important because HB 2’s accountability provisions focus almost entirely on charter school sponsors, especially, the state’s evaluation of them.
If sponsors are rated exemplary or effective, they can receive incentives, including unlimited ability to open new charters. If they’re found to be ineffective or poor, they can have their ability to sponsor charters revoked. The theory, then, is that sponsors will keep tighter tabs on their schools because their schools’ poor performance can now mean damaged bottom lines.
But this only works if the state effectively evaluates the sponsors. Unfortunately, the department’s top school choice official resigned in July after it was revealed that he illegally inflated the ratings of several sponsors who happened to oversee the largely failing schools of big political contributors.
And while the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded the state a staggering $71 million to expand charters here, the award was granted almost exclusively upon the premise that Ohio has its act together on sponsor evaluations.
And it’s clear that the department does not.
But even if it did, there remains an issue: it’s not clear if the new regime will effectively drive out enough of the poor performing Ohio charter schools that are in “urgent need of improvement”, as the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University found in a study last year.
The issue is the evaluations are based on three broad categories:
A sponsor’s adherence to quality practices
Compliance with applicable laws and administrative rules
Academic performance of its schools
Importantly, the law states that all three sections are to be weighted equally. Why is this important? Because it’s not the strongest way to discourage poor performing charter schools.
That’s because if the sponsor gets, for example, an A on the first two components, and an F on its schools’ performance, the average (assuming a 4.0 scale) would be a B- (2.7 GPA). Most likely, that B- grade would give the sponsor an effective rating, which means it could keep sponsoring schools.
So even if all the sponsor’s schools rated Fs on the state report card, there wouldn’t be much incentive for the sponsors to close those schools because the sponsors aren’t punished for their performance.
So yes, it’s important that sponsors adhere to quality practices and follow the law. And it’s great that sponsors will be evaluated, even under this system. But 2/3 of the evaluation is, essentially, a bureaucratic exercise. The most important job of a sponsor – ensuring that charter schools are effectively serving kids – is not the focus of the sponsor evaluations as set out in code.
And that, more than anything, could lead to less effective oversight of school performance than we’re all hoping HB 2 delivers.
Also, there remain serious, outstanding issues HB 2 didn’t tackle. For example, the problems of funding charters, which force districts to subsidize the charters with local revenue. It’s encouraging that leaders on both sides of the aisle have recognized this problem.
HB 2 also doesn’t deal with directly closing charters, or tightening the state’s automatic closure standards, which have only closed about two dozen charters in 10 years. Closing schools that consistently perform at F and D would help. Now, it’s only Fs.
So while HB 2 is a great victory for kids, there are significant steps that remain untaken and that we must all take together.
But at least the state is finally on the right path. For now.