Fed up with persistently poor student results in Ohio's eight largest urban school districts, Republican state legislators enacted a law in 1997 allowing charter schools to locate exclusively within the boundaries of the "Big 8" systems. Sixteen years later, charters statewide performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to reform, results released under a revamped Ohio report-card system show.
Fed up with persistently poor student results in Ohio’s eight largest urban school districts, Republican state legislators enacted a law in 1997 allowing charter schools to locate exclusively within the boundaries of the “Big 8” systems.
Sixteen years later, charters statewide performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to reform, results released under a revamped Ohio report-card system show. And when it comes to graduating seniors after four years of high school, the Big 8 performed better.
Akin to a deregulation movement, charters operate under different rules: Operators are allowed to turn a profit from a portion of the tax money they’re given and don’t have to follow state laws that dictate everything from the distribution of textbooks to minimum teacher salaries to school-board elections. In return for that freedom, their supporters expected them to deliver strong academic results.
But what started as an experiment in fixing urban education through free-market innovation is now a large part of the problem. Almost 84,000 Ohio students — 87 percent of the state’s charter-school students — attend a charter ranking D or F in meeting state performance standards.
“Measured up against the hype of the proponents early on, this adds to the accumulation of what has to be regarded, measured (through proficiency tests), as disappointing results,” said Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University political-science and education professor who has studied the school-reform movement.
“There were proponents who believed there was a fundamental flaw in the public system that led them to be resistant to change,” Henig said. “Charters were going to unleash this energy and responsiveness, and they haven’t done that as a sector.”Bill Sims, president of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that Ohio’s charter schools, like traditional public schools, will have to adapt to the new report-card standards.
“Everybody’s grades are dropping here, and this isn’t meant to sound like an excuse,” Sims said. But it might “take a year or two to figure out how schools can be more effective and how they can get better results.”
One of the reasons the state hasn’t given an overall grade under the new report-card system is to give schools time to adjust and use the ratings to focus on areas where schools are lacking, Sims said. Overall grades will start up again in 2015.
Since the inception of charters, legislators have expanded them from the Big 8 into other low-performing districts in 37 counties, but most still serve urban students in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, Youngstown, Akron and Canton. Eighty-eight percent of the Big 8-run district schools ranked D or F in meeting standards, meaning more than 160,000 students attend low-performing schools.
Among charter schools, it’s 86 percent, even though around 150 of them have been closed statewide for academic or financial reasons, and even though a Dispatch analysis excluded charters that deal exclusively with high-school dropouts. To meet standards, at least 75 percent of students in each tested grade must pass proficiency tests in reading, math and other subjects, in addition to standards in attendance and graduation.
Since last year, Ohio law has required that schools also be ranked on a “performance index,” the other general measure of student achievement. Under that measure, instead of just looking at whether students pass the proficiency tests, it weighs how well they scored on them, from the highest advanced rating on down to accelerated, proficient, basic or limited.
Here, also, charters haven’t leapt to a big lead. Just under 12 percent of charters scored an A or B on the performance index. Nearly 11 percent of Big 8 schools scored an A or B. Again, most of the schools in each system ranked poorly: 62.6 percent of charters had a D or F, compared with 68.2 percent of Big 8 schools.
Both types of schools also scored poorly on “annual measurable objectives,” a new measure that involves closing gaps between categories of students, such as black students or students with disabilities, and the district’s overall performance.
Eighty-six percent of charters rated in this category scored D or F, compared with 90 percent of Big 8 schools.Just over 17 percent of Big 8 high schools ranked A or B in graduating students in four years, compared with about 7 percent of charters.
Among Big 8 schools, 73 percent ranked D or F in graduating seniors after four years; among charters, 93 percent had the low grades. A Columbus City Schools levy on the November ballot will for the first time seek to share local property-tax dollars with high-performing charters, but those are rare. As with the statewide numbers, there’s little overall difference between the performance of Columbus City Schools and charters that also serve Columbus students.
They appear to be almost identical on test performance: Ninety percent of Columbus schools got a D or an F on the basic measure of meeting standards. Among Franklin County charter schools, 89 percent were graded D or F.
And on the performance index, Columbus schools fared worse: About 74 percent of district schools have a D or F for their performance index, while about 67 percent of charters do.
More charters struggle with low marks for their graduation rates than Columbus district schools do, but they also tend to make more gains with students in a year’s time than Columbus does. The district makes more yearly progress with its disabled students, but charters do better with students who struggle the most.
Meanwhile, the state’s charter-school rolls expanded again this year. Statewide, 52 charters are set to open, 17 of them in Columbus. The state approved three new Internet charters — where students work from home on computers — despite their persistently poor performance across the board.
Dispatch Reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this story.