After 20 years of charter schools, what's worked and what hasn't

Published: Sep. 5, 2019 at 6:13 PM EDT
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We're just passing the 20 year mark of a major change in how the state of Ohio educates kids. Families were given a choice where they wanted to send their kids. You know them today as charter schools.

Many charters have not lasted but our area has some that have endured for over 2 decades.

At the Autism Model School in West Toledo, staff members focus on kids on the autism spectrum.

‘We've always stuck with our mission and revisited our mission and let that guide everything we do," said Mary Walters, the director of the Autism Model School.

The school sits inside the old Saint Clement's school on Tremainsville Road. The doors first opened in 1998 with 26 kids. It's one of six schools still operating since the charter program began. So what's the secret?

"Having a very intensive, direct mission statement that guides all the principles of the school and how you're going to operate," said Walters.

The Toledo School for the Arts opened a year later. Student artistic ability paired with academic performance have made it arguably the area's most recognizable charter.

"We've built enough equity in now our 21st year of existence where we've proven that we are an exceptional school,” said Doug Mead, director of TSA.

The road has not been easy for all charters. 306 charter schools have closed their doors statewide since 1998. Just over 30 have closed in our area alone.

Why do charter schools close? Some are ordered by the state because of things like academic performance, they must report testing data just like traditional schools. Some are not renewed by their sponsors. Some are voluntary, for example when these school run into money issues.

"I am opposed to how charter schools are run in Ohio. I do think they can work in some cases and they have worked in Ohio in some cases," said Stephen Dyer of Innovation Ohio.

Dyer is former legislator and currently an analyst for the think tank Innovation Ohio. He's studied charter schools and is concerned with how long failing ones can remain open and how they are funded.

"Local property tax payers are essentially subsidizing their school district's competitors. That's really been at the heart of a lot of the anger and angst," said Dyer.

The state designates a dollar amount for each child's education and pays a percentage, forcing local school districts to pay the rest. Charters can't raise local money so the full amount comes from the state.

That full amount is deducted from what the traditional school districts should be getting. Losing those dollars apparently didn't make some happy when charters like Toledo School for the Arts started.

"There were meetings we went to where superintendents would not shake Marty Porter or my hand because they were so thrilled by our new existence," said Robert Koenig, a board member for TSA.

Changes for charter schools could be on the way. Each charter has a sponsor organization, for example, Bowling Green State University sponsors the School for the Arts. Many of these schools then have for-profit operators. There has been some discussion of legislation in Columbus forcing operators to be non-profit. That may weed out companies only trying to make money and not educate kids.

"Getting the profit motive out of charter schools in Ohio I think is a very large step to moving down the path toward a successful program," said Dyer.

None of that is expected to affect the work of the Autism Model School. With 110 enrolled student and a waiting list, administrators say the evidence based practices stand the test of time.

"Even the critics of charter schools when they look at our data and dig down can see what we're doing is very beneficial and helpful,” said Walters.

The funding issues may be simplified in the next few years. Legislators may vote on a plan to directly fund charter schools and eliminate that percentage formula that affects the traditional school districts.

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