One weird trick to fix Ohio charter schools

Charter school proponents recently agreed that Ohio’s charter schools are among the worst in the nation. As reported in Akron’s local newspaper, panelists at a conference on charter schools and choice hosted by the Education Writers Association in Denver, Colorado agreed that Ohio hosts an outsized number of charter school operators that run failing schools.

The participants on the panel included Micheal Pettrelli, the president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation which advocates for charters, vouchers and other market-based education reforms, and Todd Ziebarth who oversees state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Both men have dedicated their professional lives to charter schools, but because they believe in the mission of such schools, they are willing to call out those that are failing students.

The story puts into perspective the well-documented problems with Ohio’s charter schools. Whatever inherent challenges charter schools pose, Ohio appears to wrestle with outsized problems compared to other states.

Those problems can be traced to many factors, but one deserves special attention. In 2006, during the lame duck session after the election of Ted Strickland, the General Assembly quietly passed one of the strangest laws I have ever come across. The law states that when a charter school board attempts either to terminate or decline to renew the contract of a charter school operator, the operator can seek to have the board dismissed.

A charter school operator is a person or organization that provides services to a school. Generally in Ohio for-profit corporations have stepped into the role. The typical operator takes in the state money, spends it as it sees fit on staff, materials, equipment and books, and keeps some portion as its management fee. In short, it is a vendor selling management services to a school, so Ohio’s legislature passed a law that empowers a company to punish a customer for declining to continue purchasing its wares.

One reason this law has persisted for eight years is that in order to understand its awfulness a person needs to understand the gallery of entities that make up the parallel charter school universe and the terms of art used to name them. “Operator” sounds like an official entity created by state law as opposed to a profit-making company enabled by it.

Technically a charter school is a not-for-profit corporation organized under the auspices of another organization known as a sponsor. The sponsor is charged with maintaining oversight over the board which runs the day-to-day activities of the school. An operator seeking to fire a governing board appeals to the sponsor. By law the sponsor is to consider whether the operator followed state law and fulfilled the terms of the contract. In other words, an operator performing to the bare minimum requirements of the statute and contract can get its customer fired. Weird.

The law renders charter school boards nearly powerless and operators supreme. Boards that have complained that they are unable to regulate or even learn how the operator spends the school’s state allocation have been successfully removed.

As weird as this all sounds, it is that much weirder when considered against the theory behind charter schools. Charter schools are supposed to benefit from fewer of the regulations a traditional public school is subject to, while they expose public education to the rigors of free markets, forcing all schools to be more innovative and effective. Charter proponents pressed their point with the mantra that they would break the public school monopoly.

But Ohio imposes a regulation that creates as effective monopoly in the market for providing services to a particular school. A charter school board that finds an operator who delivers better services for the money cannot switch to that vendor. The law shields operators from the market competition that in theory might make charter schools work, if they ever do.

Like any other promise to solve a vexing problem with “one weird trick,” the headline above exaggerates the prospects for a total solution. Partly that is because charter proponents originally sold the idea as one weird trick: impose a little market discipline and all of our education challenges would work themselves out. Subsequent experience indicates that market competition alone provides no panacea – the system must include some regulation and oversight. Indeed, one reason sponsors acquiesce to the appeals from operators to fire boards is that there is insufficient oversight upon sponsors.

Ohio’s charter system needs more than one reform, but this one would go a long way toward correcting one of a fundamental imbalance. And make it less weird.

(Read more that the Akron Legal News)