by Max Brantley
Ohio became a test tube for the nation’s charter school movement during a decade of Republican rule here, when a wide-open authorization system and plenty of government seed money led to the schools’ explosive proliferation.
But their record has been spotty. This year, the state’s school report card gave more than half of Ohio’s 328 charter schools a D or an F.
Now its Democratic governor and attorney general, elected when Democrats won five of Ohio’s six top posts last November, are cracking down on the schools, which receive public money but are run by independent operators. And across the country, charter school advocates are watching nervously, fearful the backlash could spread.
Attorney General Marc Dann is suing to close three failing charter schools and says he is investigating dozens of others. It is the first effort by any attorney general to close low-performing charter schools.
Here's the thing. Charter schools might be better in some cases, they might not. But the movement's advocates operate on the presumption that they must be better because they are declared charter schools. No national study has shown that. They've been rife with mismanagement in Arkansas, too - even one touted as a leader nearly came a cropper to abysmal leadership on the financial side. There's been some oversight of gross financial mismanagement in Arkansas, but far less attention to academic performance, particularly in judging outcomes of similarly situated students. As I've suggested to one of the noisiest charter advocates, how about we try this experiment? Sign up to convert the worst public middle school in Little Rock or the Delta, as defined by standardized test scores, and run it where it is with the students who appear at the front door under the standard assignment rules. You may not sift enrollment by making the parents provide transportation. Or sift by requiring parents to sign agreements of support in homework, attendance at counseling sessions, etc. You may not discourage students in other ways, whether through courses for which the kids aren't prepared or aren't interested in taking. You must choose a school with an overwhelming majority of poor black kids, preferably with parents from single-parent homes and no parent who is a college graduate. There's yet to be a proposal like this in Arkansas. (No KIPP doesn't count because it's a self-selected student body where parents make a significant commitment to the rigorous program.) That would be a test.