Are charter schools really making the grade?

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Are charter schools really making the grade?

The Dayton Daily News has closely covered public charter schools since the first one came on the scene in 1998, one year after state lawmakers passed the first law establishing them. The newspaper has examined fiscal mismanagement at some local charters and analyzes state report card data annually.

In the past 15 years, some public charter schools have shined as examples of what they were intended to be — incubators in educational innovation that could be replicated elsewhere.

But other charter schools have been plagued by financial mismanagement and scandal, prompting some officials to call for tighter state oversight and regulations.

The legislature cleared the way for charter schools in 1997 to offer choices for families and programming that might be different from traditional school districts.

Since then, debate continues over whether charter schools have improved education in the state or made things worse.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the impact has been mixed.

“I think there have been some absolutely fabulous charter schools that have sprung up. DECA (Dayton Early College Academy) certainly comes to mind, first and foremost, but there are others that have been very high performing,” Lehner said. “At the same time, we have a lot of them that are not performing as promised and that’s troubling.”

One of the key differences between charters and traditional public schools is the level of regulation. Lehner said lawmakers have worked to put more safeguards in place, calling it an evolving process.

“I think that over time we will see more of the good ones staying open and the poorer ones not opening in the first place,” she said.

But Piet van Lier, a spokesman for Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit policy research organization, believes more regulation is needed. He claimed the Ohio Department of Education’s cut budget has reduced its capacity to properly oversee charters.

“And now, by law, an individual can serve on up to five charter school boards, rather than the two-school limit under previous law so even charter school boards are going to be less able to exercise their legal duties of oversight and governance,” van Lier said. “Things are getting worse, not better.”

Today, the Miami Valley is home to 41 charter schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Twenty seven are in Montgomery County and there are two in Greene, one in Warren, five in Butler and three each in Clark and Champaign counties.

Dayton still ranks among the top nationally for its sizeable charter school share of the public school market. It ranks eighth, with 27 percent or 5,995 of the public school students attending charters in 2010-11, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-choice nonprofit in Dayton, said Dayton became a charter “mecca” in the years after the city’s first charter, City Day Community School, opened in 1998.

“What it means at the most basic level is kids who are graduating from high school this year grew up in a city where they had choices,” Ryan said.

About 126,000 Ohio students attended 360 charter schools in 2011-12. About 35,000 of those students now attend online or e-schools. Up to five new e-schools can be opened in 2013 after lawmakers partially lifted the state’s moratorium on charter school growth.

While City Day remains open at 318 S. Main St., more than a dozen other charters have since closed their doors because of financial troubles or they have been shut down by the state for consistently poor performance. Locally, seven closed in the last two years. The state has shut down 22 for poor perfomrance since 2009.

Having so many charters in a community like Dayton has been “a destabilizing force for the district, both financially and in terms of student transience. That is what has happened in Cleveland and other urban districts in Ohio,” van Lier said. “It’s a highly inefficient, ineffective road to school improvement. While some of those charter schools are serving students well, not enough have been doing what needs to be done.”

Two local examples hightlight recent scandals.

In February, the Ohio auditor’s office reported “booze, missing money, missing records and self-dealing” led to $929,850 in findings for recovery in a special audit of the Dayton-based Richard Allen Academy charter school system, which has three schools in Dayton and one in Hamilton.

In June, former local charter school treasurer Carl Shye pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling $472,579 through secret payments to himself that he tried to cover up with forged documents and lies. Court filings said Shye defrauded now-shuttered Dayton charter schools Nu Bethel Center of Excellence and New City Community School of $56,349 and $26,300, respectively.

Ryan said performance of charter schools has improved because the worst performing charter schools are no longer operating and decent schools are expanding their efforts by increasing enrollment and/or adding new schools.

Local charter schools saw significant gains on the 2010-11 state report cards released last year. The 2011-12 report cards have not been released yet due to the Ohio auditor’s office statewide investigation into how school districts, charter schools and the Ohio Department of Education report student attendance data after questionable practices surfaced in some districts.

DECA, a Dayton Public Schools-sponsored charter school for grades 7-12 on the University of Dayton campus, last year received an “Excellent with Distinction” report card rating. It was only one of five charters statewide to receive the A-plus rating.

The newest charter school in the Miami Valley, DECA Prep elementary school at 200 Homewood Ave., opened last month. Sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, it will serve as a K-6 feeder school for DECA, where the goal from Day 1 has been creating a student mindset among the urban youth that they will one day graduate from college.

Judy Hennessey, superintendent of DECA and DECA Prep, is excited about the opportunity to reach children earlier to try to close the achievement gap.

Hennessey, formerly Oakwood City Schools’ superintendent, believes there is a place for charters and traditional districts to serve the community side by side. But she also believes the state wasn’t as “vigilant” as it should have been regarding poorly performing charters schools.

“When a charter continues to remain open and not serving its students well, it affects the reputation of all charters,” Hennessey said.

Van Lier thinks Ohio’s ability to close charters that are performing poorly academically “has been a good step forward” but he said the state needs to do more “to prevent ineffective charters from opening, rather than just trying to hold them accountable after they open. At this point, we know what it takes to run a good school and there needs to be more serious vetting on the front end.”

Lehner agreed. “We are looking at standards right now for sponsors, certainly as it relates to Cleveland,” she said. “Those standards I think will become more and more prevalent across the state.”

Van Lier is less hopeful. While he said he saw some promise of vetting schools in Cleveland, “the charter sector protested and the charter accountability part of the law no longer has any teeth.”

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