All spring through the 2014-2015 biennial Ohio budget debate in Columbus, the legislature was provided printouts of the implications of the budget for the state’s 631 school districts. The only catch is that the printouts counted charter schools as part of their public school districts for budgeting purposes. Nobody—no legislator, no school superintendent, no school board member, no citizen—could tell how much money the public schools in any school district would receive once money followed some children to charter schools.
Critics questioned whether there might not be school districts that appeared in the printouts to benefit from additional state aid or at least stay even but would actually lose state funding when the money for the charters was broken out. Computer runs that would reveal the truth did not appear before the budget was passed by the legislature and signed in to law by Ohio’s Governor John Kasich on June 30.
Months later and a couple of weeks into this school year, the Ohio Legislative Services Commission released the data. The September 6 Plain Dealer shared the news: “Estimates for how much the state would deduct from districts for students attending charter schools were not available when the budget passed June 29…. The most dramatic case those estimates reveal is the Cleveland school district, which has no aid increase from the 2012-2013 school year to the current school year under the budget, but much higher deductions for charter students. Depending on how you calculate it, the district will end up with $3 million to $4.5 million less for its students, after the state deducts a greater share for charter schools.” In other words Cleveland, one of the nation’s poorest big city school districts, had been told its state aid would stay even in the upcoming budget cycle, only to learn this week that it will lose millions of dollars it had counted on. And this after Cleveland voters passed a 15 mill levy last November to replace the millions cut by the state in the 2012-2013 budget.
There are ample reasons to be concerned about the emergence and growth of Ohio charter schools. A recent report by the Columbus Dispatch describes Charter Schools’ Failed Promise. Our state is reputed to be among the weakest in its regulatory oversight of charters, with many earning state-issued grades of D or F on the report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education. To his credit, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson tried to create a Cleveland Transformation Alliance with the power to authorize only quality charters and to put the rest out of business, but it turned out that the legislative fine print denies the Transformation Alliance any real power to regulate Cleveland’s charters.
Of additional concern, however, is the allegation made by reporter Stephanie Simon in a Reuters investigative report last February, Class Struggle–How Charter Schools Get Students They Want, that one of Cleveland’s top-rated charters is controlling its test scores by selecting its students. According to Simon, a boy at the top of the waiting list for the Intergenerational Charter School was required to take a two-hour entrance examination. The principal then told the mother the child “wasn’t academically or developmentally ready for third-grade–even though he was enrolled in the third grade at his local public school, where he remains.” Simon continues: “A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said charter schools are obligated to admit students into the grade they would attend at their neighborhood school, regardless of skill.” Simon continues: “The community authorizer that supervises Intergenerational Charter said that it is confident the school’s admissions policy is legal but that it will review the policy.”
Simon’s article describes the many ways charter schools across the United States cream-skim the most promising students and those whose parents bring the most savvy to the application process; she alleges that the sometimes subtle ways charters select students leave behind students with special needs, English language learners, and homeless and other children living in extreme poverty. These students are the most expensive to educate In Cleveland this year we see the state budget punishing the public school district which is required to serve all children.
In a fascinating analogy, former middle school life sciences teacher Anthony Cody blogged last winter that charter schools exist as organisms in a symbiotic arrangement. He warns that parasitism, in which one set of organisms are “helped at the expense of the other,” cannot survive if the parasites kill off their hosts.