COLUMBUS — Ohio lawmakers have eased the rules for closing charter schools with bad grades, saving up to 52 from risk of closure.
Tucked into the just-passed state budget was a provision expected to reduce the number of the privately operated tax-funded schools subject to automatic closure.
The legislature eliminated a rule that forces a charter school with an overall “F” grade on its state report card for two of the prior three years to shut down. Now, schools must perform poorly for three consecutive years before being closed.
The change gives a reprieve to as many as 52 charter schools that were at risk of closing unless they improved on 2019 state report cards due out in a few weeks, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Now, none of Ohio’s more than 300 charter schools will be forced to close for failing academic performance and they will have at least another year to get their grades up.
The two-year $69 billion budget, House Bill 166, included other policy changes which will help charter schools avoid closure and penalties.
One alters how student progress or growth is calculated on state report cards, making it easier for schools, charters and traditional public schools alike to avoid sanctions, according to budget analysts. Another maintains or reduces passing-score criteria for students in dropout prevention and recovery charter schools which analysts say will increase the number of schools meeting or exceeding state standards.
As requested by Gov. Mike DeWine, the budget also provides an additional $30 million per year in state aid for high-performing charter schools. Eligible schools will receive an additional $1,750 per pupil for low-income students and $1,000 per pupil for other students.
Charter school supporters say the accountability changes are fair and line up expectations for charter schools with those for traditional public schools.
“Nothing in this lessens oversight. It aligns what we expect from schools,” said Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord. “We’re attempting to treat all students equally.”
Traditional public school districts with three consecutive Fs on state report cards are deemed to be in academic distress and poised for state control, although lawmakers put a moratorium on the controversial state takeover law to consider alternatives.
Callender also noted that changes to how the state calculates student academic growth applies to all schools, not just charters, and aims to simplify an overly complex and inaccurate measure of what a student achieved in a year’s time.
Critics say softening accountability measures like the closure law for charter schools undermine efforts to ensure students receive a quality education and to hold charter schools and their sponsors accountable.
“On the heels of ECOT, they decide to go easy on charter schools?” asked Stephen Dyer, education fellow for the liberal think tank Innovation Ohio. “We’re making it harder to automatically close charter schools and making it easier for dropout recovery schools to stay open all within a year of the biggest charter school failure in the country.”
The changes come as state attorneys seek to recover $124 million overpayments to the failed online charter school ECOT which for several years had grossly inflated its attendance used to calculate state aid. The school was closed by its sponsor in 2018.
“This is another effort to prop up the charter school industry in Ohio,” said Sen. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat who has pushed to hold the schools accountable. “Taxpayers deserve and want quality assurance for all schools.”
Aaron Churchill, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute which supports and sponsors charter schools, said the changes in the closure law are needed given the sharp rise in the number of charter schools facing automatic closure.
In previous years, he said, about five to 10 charters faced closure each year. But that number has spiked with higher standards and the recent elimination of “safe-harbor” protections.
“The original intent was as a fail-safe, if sponsors weren’t doing their job, but sponsors are under more pressure to close poor-performing schools,” Churchill said.
But Dyer questioned relying on sponsors, who receive up to a 3% cut of a charter school’s state aid. “There is not really a financial incentive for sponsors to close charters,” he said.
“If a bunch of charter schools were supposed to close under the automatic closure rule, isn’t that good? Sounds like the automatic closure law is doing its job.”