The recent news out of Columbus—that 17 of the 75 local charter schools had closed in the past year—is bad in so many ways. It throws up a big obstacle for reformers in that city, in Cleveland, and elsewhere who need to use chartering as a policy to create good options for all families. It buttresses opponents’ arguments that charter operators don’t know what they are doing. And it gives the press a field day reporting on how much public money was wasted.
But that’s not nearly the worst. The closure of these schools puts hundreds of children back at the tender mercies of a public school district that has failed students and defrauded the public about school performance and spending.
These children might be better off out of the failed charter schools than in them. But they are caught in a no-man’s land. No charter school or authorizer is responsible to provide something better for these kids. Charter schools and authorizers have the luxury of defining whom they will be responsible for; kids who don’t get into charter schools or are pushed out of them for some reason are no longer the school’s—or the sector’s—responsibility.
And the Columbus City Schools is not ready for them. Yes, the district is now legally required to provide some sort of school. But the district, facing enrollment declines due to charter school growth, has been shrinking and cutting costs. It had no duty to hold school vacancies open (or make sure there were empty seats in the classrooms of good teachers) just in case the kids who went to charter schools needed to come back.
The Columbus district had duty only to do the best it could for the children it expected to be in its schools. Without judging whether Columbus adapted well or badly, it is fair to say the district is now in a bind. It is unprepared to serve the kids put out of charter schools because it was trying to cut fixed costs of school buildings and the central office in ways that reformers (like me) say they should do.
The root causes of this debacle are a badly drafted (so-called “strong”) state charter law that enables just about anyone who wants a charter to get one, and the absence of any community-wide mechanism to ensure that there is a at least one good school for every child.
Putting an end to chartering won’t solve this problem; the district has already shown it is too weak and corrupt to educate the kids entrusted to it. Columbus—like many other cities—needs a community-wide K-12 governance system. Columbus City Schools is not serving this function. Some entity needs to be responsible for identifying unmet needs (kids without schools, kids in schools where they aren’t learning) and engaging the group best equipped to serve them. That entity can’t be constrained to use only one provider (only district schools, or only charters). It should instead be able to choose the best available, and to look outside as well as inside the city for great school models and leaders. That entity needs to be able to set priorities and withdraw public funds from providers who are failing kids. It also needs to be able to say “no” to a charter school that has a poor academic track record, lacks basic financial competence, or would weaken an ongoing effort to put a strong school in a struggling neighborhood.
This entity can be called many things. In Ashley Jochim’s and my forthcoming book, Within Bounds: A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, we call it the Civic Education Council. It can be part of the mayor’s office or even the local school board. No matter the name or the office, the entity must have totally different powers and responsibilities than existing school boards—not to operate schools, but to use chartering, contracting, and memoranda of understanding in order to obtain the best possible mix of schools to meet the needs of local children. The new entity can sit outside the existing school district, or take the district over and transform it via school autonomy, pupil-based funding, and closure and replacement of unproductive schools.
This it what a real governing institution does. What it does not do is make a rash bet on a set of charter schools and then look the other way until it hears a big crash. Nor does a responsible governing organization do what school districts have done: give away all its options by hiring employees for life or entering collective bargaining agreements that undermine school leaders.
A real governing body delegates to school operators, but it doesn’t abdicate. It remains responsible and able to withdraw its support from a school that doesn’t work and to find better options for kids in need.
Columbus demonstrates that the district and the charter sector can’t be totally independent of or indifferent about one another. It also highlights the need for local governance that does not shirk its responsibility for kids but only delegates it on a contingent basis.