Advocates for charter schools long have argued that parents and their children deserve a choice. Families, the reasoning goes, should not have to settle for inferior public schools. The reality has been that while many charter schools excel, the vast majority perform at a lower level than their traditional counterparts. As Doug Livingston, a Beacon Journal staff writer, reported this week, two in three privately run charter schools are in academic watch or academic emergency.
What Livingston found is that 93 percent of the children in the Akron area who left a traditional public school to attend a privately run, publicly funded charter school landed in a school with lower academic performance ratings. In other words, they left superior public schools.
To be sure, the reasons for a departure can be complicated, say, a student with a gift for dance seeking a more flexible schedule, or a student who has been bullied seeking helpful relief. Yet, as Livingston reported, often the choice is driven by transportation, public schools mandated by the state to provide charter students with a bus ride to the schoolhouse doors.
The result hardly has gone unnoticed, many parents of traditional public school students scrambling to get their children to school as buses pass carrying charter students to their destination. Thirty-one of the 89 buses operated by the Akron Public Schools are dedicated to charter students. The district has a private contractor provide another 24 buses to meet the charter requirement. Meanwhile, students attending traditional public schools do not receive bus service if they live within two miles of a school.
In 2005, the Akron schools examined reducing the boundary to 1.5 miles, but the system could not afford the 40 additional buses needed. The district finds itself in a most frustrating place. Students are exiting its classrooms, where it holds an advantage, because of the transportation benefits. At the same time, it lacks the funds to improve its transportation service for traditional public school students.
More, the state not only has reduced significantly money for school transportation, erasing the subsidy for buying new buses. It has set in motion a pattern, increasing numbers of students headed for charter schools, taking the state share of public money with them, leaving districts to cope with fewer resources, aggravated by funds moved from the classroom to transportation.
Might a district ask local taxpayers to make up the loss? The option is there, tough as it is. The circumstances run wholly counter to the landmark DeRolph decision of 16 years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ruling that public education relies too heavily on local property taxes. The court emphasized the state responsibility. The story of charter schools and transportation offers a clear view of how the state has failed to step up.