Home Education This is what the current state of charter schools in Ohio looks like

This is what the current state of charter schools in Ohio looks like

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Ohio Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Ohio charter schools requested an increase in funding in this year’s state budget. But after a turbulent history, how are they serving Ohio communities today?

Four years after the Ohio state legislature passed charter school reform, some charter officials asked for an additional $2,000 to be given to every charter school student as part of the next state budget. In the recently proposed budget, charter schools would receive an overall funding increase of $149,183 from last year, a 3.36 percent increase.

Charter schools are free and open to any student but are privately operated. As of last month, an estimated 340 charter schools were operating in Ohio, which enrolled around 105,000 students total.

While traditional district schools receive federal, state, and local government funding, charter schools are more dependent on state funding. They receive poverty-based support and limited facility funding, federal tax funding, foundation grants, and privately-raised philanthropic support. However, they cannot receive local tax funding because they are not part of local school districts.

The Fordham Institute, which sponsors multiple Ohio charter schools, estimated in a January study that charter schools across Ohio receive about $2,000 less per student than district schools. According to Chad Aldis, the Fordham Institute’s Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy, this gap is largely caused by charter schools missing out on money from local tax levies.  

“I think the root cause is the lack of local dollars,” Aldis said. “The state makes up some of the dollars, but it doesn’t put them on equal footing.”

John Zitzner is president of Friends of Breakthrough Schools, a network of charter schools in Cleveland. Zitzner says that while charter schools are able to look into other sources for funding, there is too much reliance on private funding and philanthropic support.

“Charter schools have to raise private money to survive,” Zitzner said.

Another issue with funding comes from the idea that charter schools are simply able to operate with less money — an idea that was propagated when the Ohio charter system first started in 1997.

While Zitzner said this idea of charter schools being able to run on less money is correct to a degree, ultimately this misconception causes inequitable funding for charters to continue.

“We can do it for 10 percent or 15 percent less, but not for 40 percent less,” Zitzner said.

Proponents of charter schools point out the value in allowing parents to choose alternatives to traditional district schools, especially in areas where public schools may already be struggling.

John Dues, Chief Learning Officer for United Schools Network — a series of charter schools in Columbus — is particularly concerned with the lack of charter school funding from a civil rights perspective.

Students enrolled in charter schools are predominantly students of color or economically disadvantaged students. For families that are already struggling, charter schools can offer a much-needed choice.

“Public charter schools serve a purpose in areas where schools have a long standing challenge and traditional public schools that have struggled mightily for decades,” Dues said. “I got into charters because of a belief that parents deserved another choice.”

However, the current request for more funding is muddied by Ohio’s history of numerous issues with charter schools in the past. Charter schools have often received poor grades, and the state’s system has been criticized for having too few controls and allowing for-profit operations to run unchecked.

Charter school opponents have also pointed out the poor performance of Ohio charter schools in the past. However, last year most physical, “brick and mortar,” schools performed similarly students in district students, come close, or beat their scores.

Part of the reason for these past poor charter school scores may come from poor scores from e-schools, some of which are run by public school districts. E-schools — which often serve drop out recovery students — are often put in the same category as charter schools, lowering the overall grade for brick and mortar charter schools.

One of the most infamous cases of a failed Ohio charter school was the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which closed last year in the middle of the school year. The closure came after the school collected millions in taxpayer funds by inflating their reported student enrollment numbers.

Now, a joint committee in the Ohio legislature is working to reevaluate funding for online charter schools. But Dues stated that sensational headlines like the ones around ECOT make working in charter schools more challenging.

“When we had these negative stories in the paper, it just makes it harder for us to do our jobs and do right by kids because bad actors in our sector aren’t doing what they’re supposed to,” Dues said.

Charter school law is an issue the ODE has worked to improve in the past five years. One particularly notable change was the passage of House Bill 2 in 2016. While the bill made changes to multiple aspects of charter school law,  it most notably insured that school boards were acting independently, without influence from sponsors.It also outlawed sponsors selling services directly to their schools and also increased overall transparency for how schools spend their money.

Since the passage of House Bill 2, Ohio has seen multiple charter schools close. In just the last year, 25 more schools have closed in Ohio. But Aldis believes that ultimately, this is a good thing for charter school students, and for the system as a whole.

“If you’re a charter school and you’re not serving kids well, you’re not going to stick around, and that’s what was always imagined with the model,” Aldis said. “You would get flexibility and autonomy, but with that is supposed to come accountability. I think what you’re seeing now is Ohio’s charter sector is demonstrating some accountability.”

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