Once again we find ourselves face-to-face with the Ohio Charter School.  In recent months, and even years, we have posted a number of articles critical of the charter school process.  Recently, a PB reader told us that she was growing increasingly frustrated and found herself scanning the education posts because she felt the articles were using apples-to-oranges comparisons and were unnecessarily misleading regarding the performance of charter schools in Ohio.  I disagreed with her then and still disagree now as to her assertion because by claiming that charter schools are part of a reform effort for Ohio education through the state budget, John Kasich and charter school advocates place these schools within the mix of ALL public schools in Ohio, not just those in the largest urban areas.  However, I am willing to concede that our reader makes a fair point that the state primarily restricts charter development to the major cities and she thinks we should show a comparison that would best demonstrate how the charters and their associated city schools are performing with the same student populations; an apples-to-apples comparison.

We set out to offer information on both ideas today.  First, an explanation of the expectation of the effect that charter schools are supposed to be having on public education in Ohio.  Then, using Performance Index Scores, the oft-used measure of student achievement throughout recent legislation, we offer a comparison (with graphs!) of charter schools vs. city schools for the four largest city school districts in Ohio (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo; charter schools identified by county).  In our judgment, the other large districts from Ohio’s Big 8 urbans did not have an appropriate number of charters to provide fair enough comparisons.

Charter Schools as an Education Reform Measure

Over the past decade, charter schools have evolved to become synonymous with education reform.  In Ohio, the number of operating charter schools has tripled in the past six years to over 300.  The expectation of these schools is that they will transform the education of ALL children, not just those attending the charters.

According to the Governor’s Reforms Book, and as quoted by Robert Sommers in the Plain Dealer:

His point man for education, Robert Sommers, says the administration has a consistent message: It will promote schools that deliver student success, whether or not they’re the traditional district model.

When adults compete to educate our children, the children win.

Governor Kasich’s administration intends to promote schools that deliver success (and conversely condemn schools that do not deliver).  Additionally, they believe that competition in the field of public education will result in a positive outcome for all of our children.

Echoing that sentiment is The Center for Education Reform out of Washington D.C.:

The primary reason for charter schools is to make sure every child has access to a quality education. With the freedom and choice to do so, charters set higher standards and must meet them to stay in business. Most other public schools stay in business no matter how poorly they perform. Not so with charter schools. They are your ticket to higher-quality schools.

Do Charter Schools Work? Yes. In addition to the positive pressure they put on the public school system as a whole, charter schools satisfy and serve their primary constituents (teachers, parents, and students) by providing exciting and viable new education in an inclusive, individual manner.

These statements indicate, among other things, that the pressure created by opening charter schools has a positive effect on the public school system as a whole.  And don’t overlook that first sentence: “The primary reason for charter schools is to make sure every child has access to a quality education.”

More on the rationale for charters from the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education:

Charter schools drive education reform

Given the freedom to create and implement positive changes, charter schools have becom [sic] the engines of innovation in K-12 education.  Most of the significant changes to public education in recent years are a result of charter schools and the competition that was inserted into the education marketplace.

Great Value to Ohio taxpayers

The Buckeye Institute published a study that clearly demonstrates the economic value of charter schools for taxpayers.  Public charter schools operate with 30% less funding than traditional district schools.  They do not recieve [sic] any of the state facilities funds available to district schools to pay for their buildings.  Nor do their [sic] recieve [sic] any share of local taxes from school levies.

The reality is that even in dificult  [sic] economic times, while working with very limited budgets, charter schools are delivering a high quality education to thousands of children while providing a value of hundreds of millions of dollars for public education and Ohio taxpayers.

Two things we need to unpack in this quote.  First, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education boldly claims that the competition of charter schools is the reason for “most of the significant changes to public education in recent years.”  Second is the statement that charter schools are funded differently, and less than, traditional district schools.  I suspect that a certain newspaper’s fact-checking machine would find this to be “somewhat true.”  It is accurate to say that charter schools do not receive funding through local taxes, but you need to also be aware that some charters receive a significant amount of state money that far exceeds the amount received by traditional districts.

Another key funding piece that we have stated before that cannot be ignored is the fact, unequivocally backed up by the Ohio Department of Education, that a charter school receives 2.5 times the amount per pupil that the corresponding local district receives.  So when Kasich is specifically talking about the STATE budget, he has no business talking about local or federal dollars that are out of his control.  When he and the legislature have been throwing around numbers about state budget cuts and the impact on state education funding for ALL schools, they confirm that including all districts in a discussion is an apples-to-apples comparison.  Whether local voters approve levies in local districts to provide additional money for their local schools is none of the Governor’s business.  And when they talk about increasing funding for charters and allowing for the creation of more, we need to remember that the money is coming out of the same state pool of education funding, whether the wealthiest district or most impoverished, whether charter schools operate in the area or not, whether voters approved bonds or levies last year or not.  An increase in funding for charter schools equates to a decrease in funding for traditional district schools, whether or not the district is home to a charter school (the majority are not).

U.S. News and World Report addressed the charter school dilemma in Ohio back in 2009.

Unfair, you say, to insist on closing bad charters when equally bad traditional schools remain open? Perhaps, but that’s what a higher standard is all about. Charter schools were not supposed to be about just replicating mediocrity.

If you assume that a charter school should at least exceed the academic performance of comparable traditional neighborhood schools, then about one fifth of those 4,600 charters [nation-wide] need to close immediately. Applying that guideline to states such as Ohio, with loose charter school laws and by extension quality problems, means as many as half of the state’s 326 charter should close their doors.

To reiterate that point one last time, the charter movement was not started to create another separate but equal school system, it originated to create schools that outperform the existing schools.  At this point, perhaps Ohio would settle for equal.  Instead, what you will find in our apples-to-apples comparison is that not only are charter schools under-performing, they just might be pulling the performance of the traditional districts down, contrary to the claims of Kasich, Sommers, The Center for Education Reform, and the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education.

A reason for this leveling of achievement that might seem contrary to common logic but would be obvious to classroom teachers in these large cities, is subtly contained in this additional excerpt from The Center for Education Reform:

  • A charter school is an independent public school that must perform well and attract parents to stay in business.
  • A charter school is held accountable. Its students must show satisfactory achievement equal to or better than the state average.

A frequent selling point of the charter school concept is that the school will shut down if it fails.  While this idea is applauded as a necessary reform for schools and the notion that it echoes the private-sector business, the closing of a school is an intensely disruptive event in the lives of students.  As you’ll see in the graphs below, unsuccessful charter schools provided a double-whammy for their students — they under-performed and then they terminated the relationship.  And while legislators parade this occurrence out as evidence of a successfully working business model, perhaps we should ask for input from both the displaced children and the teachers who welcome those children back into their neighborhood school after a year or two at the failed charter.

How does Bob Sommers explain to these children and their parents that this is all part of a “winning” system?  When you look at the graphs, think about students transferring in and out of these charter schools as they open and close, or even as they provide a substandard educational experience.  As the children return to their neighborhood school, can you envision how the neighborhood schools’ scores would begin to level off or decline?  Ask yourself whether you think those children gained or lost during their time at a charter.


You’ll likely notice the wild lines in the first few years of charters as the number of schools was smaller and also in the line for the charter schools that are now closed (also due to a smaller count each year).  The Performance Index Scores of the charters and Cleveland City have increased over the past ten years.  Cleveland in particular is a challenging district to try and break down in this comparison, primarily due to the probable impact of school vouchers on student enrollment, too.  In either case, we do not see the positive impact on the Cleveland City Schools that we would expect to see based on the implementation of such significant school choice reform initiatives.  However, the scores do indicate that the average Cuyahoga County charter school outscored the average Cleveland City school in 2008-2010.


[CORRECTED: June 20, 2011, 4:15 pm.  Years 2005 & 2006 were reversed on original graph.]

The central Ohio area was slow to adopt charter schools, thus the huge variability in the first five years.  The scores of both groups are trending upward, with the closing of charters generally having a positive effect on the charter school scores overall as they are increasing at a greater rate in the last four years.  Columbus scores can be seen to flatten out in the last five years, mirroring state averages (shown below).  In ten years, the charter school scores have never been higher than Columbus.

While you might think Hamilton County had fewer charters in 2005-2007, resulting in the huge swing in scores, there were actually 21 schools in 2005 compared to 25 in 2010.  The schools themselves have turned over quite a bit though, including a couple relatively high-performing schools closing.   As with the prior graphs, both groups of schools are improving over time.  In 2010, the Cincinnati City Schools continued to transcend the local charters for the tenth straight year.

This graph makes me wonder if Toledo is where the mythology of charter schools began.  Notice the early success experienced by the few operating schools followed by three straight years of decline while Toledo City Schools consistently improved up through 2006 before flattening out, similar to the other big cities.  It could be easy to imagine those early successes were hailed as proof that the charter school movement held great promise.  Alas, it was not meant to be as they have yet to once again match the performance of the city schools.  With the exception of 2002, Toledo has exceeded the performance of the local charter schools, continuing to maintain that pace through 2010.

So there you have it.  The performance of the four largest school districts in the state compared with the charter schools that enroll children from the same neighborhoods.  While it is true that many charter school students come from disadvantaged homes, the students in the corresponding public schools live in the same economic environment.  And so, when comparing Performance Index Scores that are based on standardized tests (not what I choose, mind you), the traditional school district students perform as well as, or in most cases outperform, their local charter school peers.  And it is neither all true nor false, but instead unverifiable, that students attend charters because they are failing in the traditional school districts.  Students attend charters for a myriad of reasons, but student-level academic data is not publicly available (nor do I think it should be), so the ability to accurately compare a single child’s performance in one or the other simply does not exist today.

So what do you see in the graphs?

Do you see “a study that clearly demonstrates the economic value of charter schools for taxpayers?”

Do you see “your ticket to higher-quality schools?”

Do you see evidence of the Governor’s premise “When adults compete to educate our children, the children win?”

I see no proof that our children are better off as a result of charter schools.  And yet this information is ignored in the call for the expansion of charters in Ohio.  The ignorance of this information is leading to the reduction of funding for very successful districts around the state in order to divert additional money to increasing enrollment in failed experiments.  To be clear, I am not claiming that every charter is a failure nor that every traditional district school demonstrates high student achievement.  I do not, however, see evidence that reinforces charter school supporters’ assertions that they are a key reform measure to improving all schools.  In fact, the scores could just as easily lead us to claim that the major increase in the number of charter schools since 2005 has resulted in an adverse effect on children in the major cities as the performance of city districts has leveled off.  Consider this final graph that now places the four cities alongside all charter schools, and then adds the average score for all districts across Ohio.

Notice how just as with the four cities, the state-wide average has flattened as the number of charter schools has increased?  If charter schools are the magic elixir in educational reform, shouldn’t we expect to see an increase in all scores, not a leveling off?

So finally, I’d like to revisit an earlier quote from The Center for Education Reform:

Most other public schools stay in business no matter how poorly they perform. Not so with charter schools. They are your ticket to higher-quality schools.

Public schools stay “in business” because they provide a public service to all children, regardless of their circumstances.  When a charter school closes, where do those children go?  A public school.  When a private or parochial school “goes out of business,” where do those children go?  A public school.  Why can’t we simply close a low-performing public school as we would a failing business?  Because public schools have the legal obligation to provide an education for the children who live in the community.  Instead, we need to re-focus on working to improve the school, not give up on the students by funneling the financial support to some private entity with little to no background in K-12 education.  The public school’s SOLE reason for existing is to provide an education for EVERY child, regardless of race, disability, gender, homeless status, English proficiency, or economic situation.

In a wheelchair?  Public schools have teachers for you.

Just moved to America?  Welcome.  Public schools have teachers for you.

Hearing impaired?  Blind?  Homeless?  Wealthy?  Autistic?  Gifted?  Learning disabled?


So instead of redirecting public funds to private companies in an effort to prove a business theory that has no basis in facts, how about the Governor reinvests those funds in the schools that continue to do everything for everyone?  How about the Governors stops taking chances with the lives of children in the name of trying to prove that some “hunch” someone has about how a business model can be replicated to public education?  How about the Governor loosens the restrictions on traditional public schools to enable them to take chances and implement innovative education models?

How about them apples?