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Charter Schools Provide Good Feelings, But Not Much Else

By Pete Shuler · December 17th, 2003 · Statehouse
Ohio's traditional public schools triumphed over community schools in most measures of academic performance, according to a recent report by the Legislative Office of Education Oversight (LOEO), the agency responsible for evaluating the state community school initiative. Furthermore, community schools have run into a host of financial problems and many have failed to live up to their contractual arrangements.

Community schools, also referred to as charter schools, are exempt from many laws that govern public schools. Most significantly, community schools need not follow the state-mandated curriculum or attendance schedule. The philosophical foundation of community schools is that this flexibility and freedom will allow administrators and teachers to provide better education.

Ordered by lawmakers to evaluate these schools, the LOEO has issued five reports on their implementation and performance. The most recent, issued in October, examines community schools with regard to academic performance, student attendance, parental satisfaction and accountability.

Due primarily to the inadequacy of the data submitted by many of the 59 community schools in the study, the LOEO was able to analyze the academic performance of only 32, the parental satisfaction of only 50 and the student attendance of 55. One school failed to report proficiency test results for 97 percent of its fourth-graders, 99 percent of its sixth-graders and all of its ninth-graders.

In comparison, public schools compile and report data with little trouble. Only 6 percent of public schools' ninth-grade academic proficiency data were questionable, compared to over 81 percent for community schools, according to the LOEO report. Furthermore, nine of the 59 community schools in the analysis failed to provide basic information such as parents' names, addresses and phone numbers.

The LOEO overcame these obstacles and published a revealing report that should be studied by all Ohio lawmakers. The report found that fourth-graders in public schools outperformed their counterparts in comparable community schools -- schools in the same district, with the same poverty levels and with the same number of non-white students -- in each of the five categories for which the state mandates proficiency testing.

On the fourth-grade reading test, the 2001-2002 passing rate for public schools was 65 percent higher than that for community schools. Passing rates for public schools were also 64 percent higher on the math test, 53 percent higher on the science test, 43 percent higher on the citizenship test and 18 percent higher on the writing test.

At the sixth-grade level, community schools had passing rates 3 percent higher than the public schools on the reading test and 9 percent higher on the writing test; however, the public school passing rate was 80 percent higher for math, 20 percent higher for citizenship and 8 percent higher for science. In addition to achieving higher passing rates, public school students also earned higher scores, on average, in all grade level and subject combinations except sixth grade reading and writing.

Since nine of the 12 community schools serving ninth-graders didn't submit usable data, no group comparison could be made at that grade level. Additionally, only 17 of the 59 community schools submitted academic performance data that could be used to determine whether they fulfilled their contracts with the Ohio Department of Education or the school districts in which they operate. Those 17 schools failed to meet over 60 percent of the measurable performance goals in their contracts.

But community schools performed well on attendance and parental satisfaction. The average 2001-2002 attendance rate for the 44 community schools submitting usable attendance data was 92.9 percent, while the rate for comparable public schools was 91.1 percent. However, community schools failed to meet 40 percent of the measurable attendance goals in their contracts.

The community school's lead in parental satisfaction is significant. Of the parents surveyed by the LOEO, 51 percent were "very satisfied" and 39 percent were "satisfied" with community school education. Of public school parents, only 25 percent were "very satisfied" and 56 percent were "satisfied." Why would so many community school parents be very satisfied with an education that is, on average, inferior to that provided by the public schools from which they pulled their children? According to the survey, parents are impressed by the amount of individual attention their children receive at community schools.

The final area measured by the LOEO report is accountability. Lawmakers have bestowed greater autonomy on community schools, but they also required these schools to continuously prove to parents and to the state that they work. The LOEO's evaluation of community schools ends with the October report, and the three ongoing mechanisms through which community schools are held accountable for their performance are annual reports issued by the schools, financial audits performed by the state auditor and the state's Local Report Cards, which include academic proficiency and attendance data reported by the schools.

But the LOEO concludes that, due at least in part to unusable or questionable data and deadlines that are regularly missed, the two mechanisms driven by self-reporting -- annual reports and Local Report Cards -- are not reliable as performance measures. Evidence that community schools aren't held accountable by these two mechanisms is the number of problems that go unnoticed until contract renewal reviews are performed, which can be as infrequent as every five years. Of the 15 community schools up for contract renewal in the 2002-2003 school year, 40 percent didn't earn renewals but instead received one-year probationary agreements due to contractual violations.

Currently then, community schools are being held accountable only by financial audits, the results of which provide reason for concern. Noncompliance or material weaknesses in financial condition were found in nearly 52 percent of the audits performed between 1999 and 2002.

As it now stands, community schools get more flexibility with almost no oversight or accountability. Freed from supposedly stifling rules, they are under-performing the much-maligned public schools from which their students came. Many are also financially ill, and nearly one-fifth of the schools founded between 1998 and 2001 have already closed due to financial problems. Based on the findings of the LOEO, the philosophical foundation of community schools has crumbled to dust, and there exists no logical basis for continuing to siphon money away from public schools to fund them.



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