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January 16, 2014 10:00 AM Why Did 17 Charter Schools Fail in Columbus Last Year?

By Daniel Luzer

Charter schools are one of America’s major education reform initiatives to take hold across the country in the last 20 years. Charters, which receive public funding but operate independently of local school boards, are supposed to “be creative sources of innovation [and] show what could be accomplished when government got out of the way,” according to Diane Ravitch, who used to like the reform model, and now opposes it. Charter schools should introduce competition and choice into public education, which is supposed to push normal public schools to improve, and test out new ideas for teaching and school organization.

But in Columbus, Ohio, something seems to have gone very wrong. The city had 75 charter schools. And last year a quarter of them went under. Several closed without warning. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch

At the beginning of 2013, one long-struggling charter school closed. Over the summer, five more did. And in the fall, 11 more Columbus charters closed their doors, most of them brand new.
That’s 17 charter schools in Columbus closed in one year, which records show is unprecedented.
When they closed, more than 250 students had to find new schools. The state spent more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money to keep the nine schools open only from August through October or November.

In some cases the schools ran out of money. Others health and safety problems. In some cases the school sponsor withdrew support.

How did this happen? Well according to Chad Aldis, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a group that loves charter schools and sponsors 10 of them in Ohio, is has to do with “the power of a couple of players with standards that are not up to par really affecting an overall market.”

Well that’s one way to put it. The more serious structural problem, however, might just be that there is virtually no oversight or quality control of charter schools. According to the article,

Nonprofit groups, universities, school districts and educational service centers can act as charter-school sponsors or authorizers. They’re supposed to be the gatekeepers; they decide which schools can open and whether they should close if they’re not adequately serving students.
“The way it works right now is, if a school has a sponsor and they sign a contract, that school can open,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. “We don’t have any approval or denial power.”

Basically, any institution with a little cash can open up a school and start advertising. No questions asked.

Maybe this model doesn’t quite work that well without oversight.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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