Added scrutiny of charter schools in city and state is overdue, but finally coming

State and local education lead- ers are committing themselves to beefed-up monitoring of Ohio’s ballooning network of charter schools.

That news, albeit long overdue, is welcome for those who value quality public education and rigid accountability to the public who bankrolls these tuition-free public school competitors. We hope that scrutiny is serious and comes with consequences for those that demonstrate failure. After all, failure has been a watchword for many of Ohio’s charter schools since their inception in the Buckeye State 16 years ago.

In 1997, the Ohio General Assembly authorized charter schools — publicly funded schools typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract or charter with the state. The intended goal was to offer innovation and increase the quality of education in the state’s Urban 8, the state’s largest city school districts that include Youngstown.

Falling short

But over the past two decades, a large number of Ohio community schools have fallen woefully short of those goals. The realities reveal an unsavory trail of mismanagement, greed, illegal activity, instability, lack of public accountability and anemic academic performance. What’s more, the systematic disintegration of urban public school systems has emerged as a troubling side effect.

Because charter schools are administered in the shadows of public accountability and are run by sponsors instead of elected school board policymakers, the potential for secrecy and shenanigans runs high. One need only look at several unseemly examples in Youngstown charter school history for evidence.

Take the “extensive mismanagement” and failure to pay $450,000 in taxes at the former Eagle Heights Academy or the receipt of $232,000 to the former treasurer of the Legacy Academy “for no apparent reason,” according to state Auditor Dave Yost. In the latter case. Yost remarked that he’d seen “better documentation at a lemonade stand.”

Taxpayers deserve better

Clearly, Youngstown residents and Ohio taxpayers deserve better school management. They also deserve better academic performance inside those schools. According to state report cards, students in many charter schools perform as poorly or more poorly than their public school counterparts. Among Youngstown’s dozen community schools, one-half continue to occupy the lowest rung. Among Youngstown’s dozen public schools, many have shown improvement over the previous year, some performing excellently.

To be sure, however, Youngstown schools remain in a state of academic crisis and merit ongoing oversight by the state-appointed Academic Distress Commission. But the presence of charter schools aggravates their financial health, and by extension, their academic health.

Youngstown ranks in the top ten school districts across the nation with the highest percentage of student residents opting out of the public schools. About 30 percent of district students attend community schools. As they leave, so, too, does the approximate $8,000 per pupil in state and federal aid. The loss of about $20 million annually places an added roadblock on the city schools’ slow journey toward financial and academic recovery.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Youngstown Schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn reach out to all parents of charter school students with details on his plan for next school year to add innovation and strengthen academic standards. Those parents ought to give Hathorn a chance to prove his case. His track record has been noteworthy. The implementation of an innovative arts and STEM curriculum at Chaney High School has won state honors and has helped it leapfrog from a D to a B on the most recent state report card.

Getting new attention

In addition, Adrienne O’Neill, chairwoman of the distress commission, is meeting with local sponsors of charter schools to ensure standards that public schools are required to meet are also in place in charter schools.

“I think if we’re going to improve all schools in Youngstown, we have to improve all the schools that Youngstown City students attend,” O’Neill rightly said.

At the same time, the state vows to tighten oversight of community schools. It’s going to be harder for those schools to get top grades under the new system. The Ohio Department of Education estimates that about three-quarters of charter schools would see their grades drop at least one rung.

The Legislature must avoid giving in to charter school lobbyists whining for exemption from the toughened standards. These schools have been operating for far too long with insufficient oversight of the taxpayers’ money spent on the inadequate academic results many produce.

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