False choices in charter schools

In an interesting article pointing out some of the problems with charter school expansion, the Plain Dealer observes that in some districts, underperforming charters are sucking money away from their contemporary traditional public schools which are rated much higher.

Charter school supporters say all Ohio parents should be able to make the choice for their children, no matter how well their home districts may be doing overall. But district officials say it's unfair for their budgets to take a hit when they're doing a good job according to the state's criteria. And it's especially galling when students leave for a charter school with a lower state ranking.

"I have no problem if we're serving students with better options, but paying for a student to go from an excellent district school to a poor-performing charter doesn't seem right," said State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat who represents Mahoning County. "It doesn't make sense."

As well as sucking money away in order to provide a lower quality education, this story also reveals one of the other major problems with "choice". Parents don't necessarily make rational choices when it comes to their child's education. Factors other than school performance play significant roles. When parents realize their mistake, the cost to their child and the district can be significant

In Parma, for example, the district gets a total of $2,030 per pupil from the state while it has to shell out $5,700 for each of the 900 or so students who attend charters.

"You can do the math," said Treasurer Daniel Bowman. "I don't care what anyone says, that is local property tax money going out that the community approved for a specific purpose and the legislature has decided to spend another way."

By Bowman's calculation, one-fourth of the Excellent-rated district's total state funding is used for fewer than 1,000 charter school students.

The picture is similar in North Olmsted, which drove school board member Terry Groden to testify in Columbus on behalf of Schiavoni's bill. Last school year, 133 students opted for charters. That was about 3 percent of the total enrollment, but they took almost 10 percent of the district's state aid with them, Groden said.

Forty-two of those students ended up returning to the district, which was rated Excellent on its last state report card.

"They came back from charter schools that were not rated at all or were rated lower than North Olmsted," Groden said. "I'm concerned with what we have to do, or undo, with these kids to get them back up to the level of performance we want to see and how that affects the children around them."

Expanding Ohio's failing charter school experiment further as HB136 would do would only serve to amplify these kinds of problems.