As Kentucky Considers Charter Schools, Ohio Offers Important Lessons

Kentucky is one of a handful of states that has zero charter schools.  As legislators return to Frankfort in 2014, though, it seems another push is underway for the state to allow at least some charter schools, most likely in Louisville (JCPS).

The argument for charters is two-fold.  1) Families should have a choice.  Period.  Rather than being offered a limited set of options from district schools, families should be allowed to choose another option.  A publicly-funded charter school may offer that option.  And choice is good, no matter if the charter is actually any better than the traditional schools students may attend.  This argument has some degree of appeal, especially for those students and families who are situated in struggling schools.

2) Charter schools are good because they serve economically disadvantaged students BETTER than district schools.  If Kentucky adds charter schools, student achievement will improve over time and more students will be better-served by the offerings of the school system.

The advantage of having not yet adopted charter schools in Kentucky is that we can see what other states have done and what works and what’s not working.

If number 2 above is true, then it would be hard to argue against charters.  However, if number 2 is false, it’s difficult to adopt charter schools simply on the basis of choice alone.

So, what is the experience in other states?

I’ve written before about Tennessee, a state that has had expanding access to charter schools for the past 10 years.  Yes, it’s true that a very small percentage of TN students currently attend charter schools — but it also seems likely that Kentucky would follow a similar path — a gradual scaling-up of charter schools.  It’s likely to be some time before more than 5% of Kentucky students attend charters.  So, Tennessee is instructive if for no other reason than it has had charter schools for 10 years now and yet it’s students, even in the big cities where charter schools exist, perform at a lower level than Kentucky’s on NAEP assessments AND on the ACT.  So, education “reform” hasn’t moved the numbers substantially in Tennessee.

Moving in the other direction from Kentucky, northern neighbor Ohio has had charter schools in its “Big 8″ school districts for 16 years now and has expanded charter schools to 37 other low-performing districts.  After 16 years, this report shows some pretty disappointing results.

87% of students in a public charter school in Ohio attend a school that earned a grade of D or F on ability to meet state standards.  What’s more, 93% of charter schools in Ohio scored a D or F in high school graduation rate — 20 points WORSE than the public schools in the Big 8 districts. So, kids attending charter schools were significantly less likely to graduate than there non-charter peers in big city districts.  And that’s with accountability measures in place that closed the lowest-performing charters.

Urban poverty is a complex problem.  Educating students in that environment is also complex.  Simply adding charter schools, even with accountability provisions, doesn’t solve the problem.  A small number of charter schools are working in Ohio’s big cities.  And so are the district schools.  It seems like the wiser course of action to investigate what’s working at those schools and apply it to JCPS.  Likewise, Tennessee offers 10 years of empirical data.  Looking to schools that have success stories and finding out what works makes a lot of sense.  If state laws need to be changed or tweaked to allow more district-level innovation, that makes sense, too.  Adding a layer of charter schools, especially when the numbers say they offer no better educational future than existing district schools (and are sometimes worse) does not make sense.

The problem with experiments in public education is that those receiving the treatment are our children.  If the charter school where they attend middle school is a failed experiment, and it closes after three years, they’ve lost middle school.  Time they cannot get back.  Kentucky would be better served to increase its investment in and support of existing schools while adopting proven strategies based on evidence.

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