Decline in charter schools bodes well for Ohio students

Columbus Dispatch: News that charter-school enrollment in Ohio has continued its six-year decline probably is good — not because all charter schools are bad, but because bad charter schools harm kids and Ohio used to have far too many of them.

The 14 percent drop since the 2013-14 school year results largely from the fact that fewer schools are operating, which in turn stems from higher standards, both for schools and the organizations that sponsor them.

Ohio students are far better off with a smaller stable of better-run charters from which to choose than with the Wild West environment that characterized the state’s charter schools in the early 2000s.

For years, while the state of Ohio did little to hold charter schools to any kind of standards, the schools opened by the dozens every year. Enrollment growth seemed unstoppable as Ohio parents, especially those in troubled urban school districts, embraced alternatives.

This permissive climate led to a number of spectacular failures. Groups with little experience or capacity to operate a school nonetheless could find sponsors, because sponsors could collect fees from the schools they authorized and faced no consequences when those schools closed.

Some schools opened in temporary space secured at the last minute, with no written curriculum, attendance or discipline policies. Schools sometimes failed midyear, stranding families and leaving taxpayers out millions.

Calls for more structure and accountability resulted in the 2006 law that said any charter school that received failing grades on the state Department of Education report card for two years out of a three-year period had to close. Since then, every year but one has seen at least 13 schools close.

Accountability for charter schools was further strengthened in 2013 and 2015, when new rules set performance standards for sponsors with penalties for those that failed to improve or close poor-performing schools.


Finally, the implosion of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow had a further impact. First, exposure of the school’s inflated enrollment caused the official number to drop and also sparked downward adjustments of enrollment at other large e-schools with phantom students on the books. When ECOT actually closed in January 2018, 12,000 students had to make new arrangements, and some presumably returned to traditional school districts.

Somewhat ironically, this long-running shakeout among charter schools is followed by moves to ease performance standards. Language included in the two-year state budget passed in July changes the rules to say that the trigger for automatic closure of a charter school is three straight years of failing grades rather than two years out of a three-year period.

The change comes in part because more-rigorous requirements for passing state tests would, without the change, mean the closure of 52 charter schools –far more than typical. The budget also includes funding bonuses for charter schools that meet certain performance targets.

As long as critical guardrails – such as the higher bar on state tests and rigorous standards for charter-school sponsors – remain in place, allowing struggling charters an additional year to improve is acceptable.

The last thing Ohio should do is allow a return to the low standards and little accountability that left thousands of Ohio’s neediest kids putting their hopes in schools that were bound to fail.

But with time and evolving standards, charters might be finding their Ohio equilibrium.