Charter schools have been touted as the key method by which Ohio was going to improve public schooling in Ohio for over a decade.  Charters have long been given flexibility by the state to try innovative programs and have been frequently exempted from many of the same regulations that constrain traditional public schools.  Charter schools have also been promoted as providing competition to “failing” urban schools under the premise that the competition would cause both the charters and the districts to make dramatic improvements.

According to StateImpact Ohio, “Charter schools were supposed to offer students who weren’t succeeding in traditional public schools—either because of the school or the student—a good education. They were supposed to apply competitive principles to Ohio’s public school marketplace by encouraging traditional public schools to improve in order to retain students.”

After 15 years of charter school expansion, the new Ohio school report cards provide the strongest evidence yet that this method of using charter schools to supposedly reform education in our state is a complete failure.  The latest results from the state make it clear that the large urban districts are not dramatically improving and the charter schools that are supposed to be transforming educational practices while being given every advantage (including a greater amount of state funding) are doing no better.

As you might have heard, the State (as a result of Ohio’s legislators) released new school report cards this year that assign letter grades for Ohio’s public schools in up to 9 different categories.  While not all schools get letter grades in each category (i.e., elementary schools don’t receive grades for graduation rate or graduation tests), every school does contribute at least some grades to their overall district grade.  Now, instead of only comparing the low achievement scores of the charters with the urban school districts where they reside, we can now compare the combined letter grades of all of the charters with those of all of the individual schools in the large urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) that have come under attack in recent years.  While Cleveland got their own mayoral takeover plan last year, Columbus has been soundly criticized this year, and just last week was vilified by its own mayor, Michael Coleman, in a “pro-levy” commercial and on the mayor’s “pro-levy” website.

These attacks on the large urban districts should be evidence that the overall performance of the districts is not acceptable to elected officials in the state and, for the most part, many of those living in the areas.  Additionally, the push by the legislature to increase the number of charter schools in these areas across the state makes it clear that the legislation is designed to improve educational options for the families living in the state’s urban areas.

However, if the achievement in these districts remains poor after hundreds of charter schools have opened (and closed) after the past fifteen years, then it is time to admit that charter schools are not working to turn around public education in Ohio and a new plan is required.

The following chart represents the combined letter grades of every school in the large urban districts as compared with the combined letter grades of the charter schools serving the “same” population.  This is possibly the best apples-to-apples comparison that we have ever had, thanks to the legislators wanting to supposedly increase accountability (for everyone but themselves).


Notice that the percentages are virtually identical for each letter grade, and are pretty poor overall.  If the urban schools are doing so poorly and in need of completely being overhauled, then where is the accountability for the charter school movement designed to reform public education?  Not only are the charters performing at the same level as the districts they pull their students from, they are doing so while taking a greater share of per pupil state funds away from the local schools.  Charter schools are the legislature’s primary effort at reforming Ohio’s schools, yet are apparently having no demonstrable impact despite that being the primary reason for their very existence.

There are some high-performing charter schools in Ohio, but there are some high-performing schools in the large urban districts, too.  The chart below shows the combined grades of the “Top 20%” of schools in each category using their performance index score (based on student achievement test scores) as the criteria for ranking them.


While the top charter schools hold an edge in the percentage of “A” grades, they also hold an edge in “F” grades and the middle grades are comparable.  There is little difference despite the fact that charters exist to provide a “better” alternative to the public districts and are supposed to be providing a model for reform.

Finally, the new report card has two different grades for graduation rates based on 4-year and 5-year cohorts of students.  Note that these reports do not include the rates for “dropout recovery” schools that are given their own unique report cards for the first time, so again we’re comparing only traditional high schools this year.  The table below shows the combined percentages for the grades given for graduation rate for all reporting charter schools and high schools in the urban districts.


While neither set of grades is particularly good, the urban districts display a noticeably higher percentage of passing grades than do the charters.  The differences between the percentages in this chart are the most significant that we’ve found, and isn’t graduating kids sort of a key indicator of successful schools?

Not shown in this chart, but an important fact nonetheless is the number of schools who received A’s for a graduation rate grade and the number of students served by those schools.  Four separate charter schools received an “A” in one of the two graduation categories (one school received two A’s) and those four schools have a total of 1,705 students enrolled (an average of 426 per building).  In the urban districts, a combined fourteen schools received at least one “A” (eight schools received two A’s) and those schools have a total of 8,264 students enrolled (an average of 590 per building).

Look, we’re not saying that the urban schools are knocking it out of the park – they wouldn’t be under attack so much by politicians if they were showing dramatic improvement.  But the reality is that the charter school experiment in Ohio has failed as a method of public school reform and it’s time to pull the plug.

Ohio’s children need a better plan than the one drawn up by our legislators and their donors.