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Charter Schools, Part 2

Friday, September 26, 2003 at 10:58 AM

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It's been about half a decade since the first charter schools opened in Ohio. These quasi-public institutions have made an impression - on the education establishment as a thorn in their budgetary sides; on the state legislature and some parents as a viable alternative to traditional public schools. The General Assembly last spring opened the door wider to those wishing to start new charter schools. At the same time recent school report cards have given public school advocates new ammunition to denounce them. In the 2nd of a two part series, ideastream's Bill Rice reports.

Some in the debate over charter schools are mild mannered about it. Take Cleveland Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, for instance. The head of a large urban district that’s lost $33 million to charter schools this year, she says she’s for school choice. She just isn’t sure Ohio’s method of introducing charter schools is the right one.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: There’s not enough choice available for everyone who might want to take advantage of it to take advantage of it. There fore, the percentage of people that have the opportunity, I think, provides an inequitable opportunity.

Then there’s Perry White, founder and Director of Citizens Academy, a charter school in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood that draws money from Cleveland’s share of state funding. He says he admires Byrd-Bennett’s efforts to reverse years of decline in the district, but…

Perry White: I don’t think there’s any harm in introducing these new models relatively slowly which in fact is the case. There’s still a very small percentage of students in this state in either voucher or charter school programs.

But every debate has its top sellers, and so it is with charter schools. “A wise shopper knows the facts”, reads a brochure being distributed to parents and other by the Cleveland Teachers Union. It’s talking to parents who may be considering moving their children out of the Cleveland schools and into a charter school. Teachers Union President Richard Decolibus says most of Ohio’s charter schools are a bad deal, and he’s angry about it.

Richard Decolibus: Let me be clear, we are not against charter schools, we are against bad charter schools.

Decolobus says points to the new Wilson Military Academy, just opened in Cleveland and sponsored by the Cleveland district, as one of the good ones. It’s completely non-profit, he says, and takes a military approach to education - something the Cleveland district would not do. But a large majority of charter schools - especially for-profit ones, Decolibus says - haven’t lived up to their promise.

Richard Decolibus: Their achievement results are clearly much poorer than they are in our schools.

Just look at the latest state school report cards released earlier this month, Decolibus says. 75% of charter schools achieved no higher than the second lowest ranking. The seven Hope Academies - a group of elementary level charter schools run by White Hat management, based in Akron - were among them. Five were rated at academic emergency status, one at Academic Watch, and one was unrated because of its small size.

Decolibus says for-profit companies like White Hat are examples of how market driven schools can’t succeed any better than traditional public schools.

Richard Decolibus: These are run by individuals who like to see themselves as entrepreneurs, but what it really means is that they’re running a for-profit school, and the profit part is the part that really matters to them, not the education of children.

Not so, says Mark Thimmig, President and CEO of White Hat. He agrees that the proficiency test scores reflected in the report cards need to improve. But, he says, the poor showing is understandable. Charter schools are new, and most of the students are products of other academic institutions.

Mark Thimmig: All of the students who have come into our charter schools have come into our schools generally at or within a grade level or two of where they are today. Therefore those test scores are not so reflective of what our school’s educational program is, but of the educational program that they have been participating in for several years.

Thimmig says he expects those scores to rise as the Hope Academies’ influence on students becomes more entrenched. And he dismisses Decolibus’s claim that charters put profits above students. Sure, he says, White Hat is a for-profit company, founded by business entrepreneur David Brennan. But, he says, Brennan’s commitment is to fundamental change in education, and he believes that can be accomplished in a competitive setting.

Mark Thimmig: White Hat’s focus is a very fiscally responsible school that lives within its budget, and doesn’t create a budget or create scare tactics when they need more money by telling parents that they’ll be getting rid of this service or getting rid of their best teachers or some of the other things that have oftentimes been said to people in order to raise those funds.

Thimmig doesn’t disclose whether White Hat actually turns a profit on the 30 charter schools it runs in three states. It shouldn’t matter, he says. What matters is that kids are being well-served. Ditto, says CTU President Richard Decolibus - and adds: charter schools aren’t doing it. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3. 

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