National news outlets including Slate, Politico, Esquire, and the Washington Post have predicted that charter schools might be a growing thorn in Governor John Kasich’s side as he competes for the Republican presidential nomination. Kasich is being criticized for the overall poor performance of Ohio’s charter school sector, as well as for last year’s scandal over authorizer evaluations and its aftermath (including a hold placed on Ohio’s $71 million federal Charter School Program grant).
But by calling charters Kasich’s “little problem back home”—or, more boldly, claiming that his track record with them is “terrible”—national reporters are missing big pieces of the story. If these journalists had dug a little deeper, they would have realized that Kasich mostly deserves praise, not scorn, for the steps he’s taken to improve Ohio charter schools. In fact, any real examination of the candidate’s record on charters would reveal that no Ohio governor has worked harder to strengthen oversight of the charter school sector.
Kasich inherited a charter sector that was notorious for conflicts of interest, regulatory loopholes, self-dealing, and domination by powerful special interests. The mediocre performance of Ohio’s charter sector precedes Kasich’s tenure as well: CREDO’s 2009 charter study rated Ohio among the lowest-performing states.
In his first year in office, Kasich attempted to prohibit authorizers from opening new schools if they had any school rated the equivalent of D or F (a move that would have essentially frozen the sector entirely). This was later modified to prohibit the bottom one-fifth of authorizers from opening schools, based on a ranking system that, for the first time ever, evaluated them on the academic performance of their schools.
On the heels of two studies Fordham released pointing out the remaining weaknesses in Ohio charter law and sector performance, Kasich continued pushing for reforms. In remarks to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce in December 2014, he said, “We are going to fix the lack of regulation on charter schools. There is no excuse for people coming in here and taking advantage of anything. So we will be putting some tough rules into our budget.” His remarks were likely surprising to leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature, as well as for-profit charter school operators with a history of powerful influence at the statehouse.
It wasn’t empty rhetoric. Released two months later, Kasich’s budget bill outlined unprecedented reforms for charter schools and authorizers, many of which were embodied in the final reform bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in October 2015. The legislation is significant: It builds on the authorizer performance system that Kasich had begun building in 2011, aligning incentives so that high-performers will be rewarded and low-performers will be shuttered. It eliminates conflicts of interest and installs new transparency measures for governing boards and operators. Credit also belongs to several lawmakers for seeding reform ideas and getting the legislation across the finish line—but it’s indisputable that Kasich set the tone and put pressure on lawmakers to get the job done.
Kasich also has been slammed for the actions of former Ohio Department of Education official David Hansen, who was charged with implementing the world-class authorizer evaluation system. Hansen made a serious error in judgment by excluding the failing grades of online charter schools from authorizers’ evaluations and resigned shortly after the omission came to light last July. Despite zero evidence that Kasich was aware of Hansen’s actions, many believe he’s guilty by association. (Hansen is married to Kasich’s campaign manager.)
However, the education department during Kasich’s administration has played a far more active charter oversight role than ever before. In 2013, the governor’s hand-picked state superintendent ordered the closure of charter schools for egregious health and safety violations; the next year, the department investigated underperforming authorizers and prevented them from opening poorly vetted schools. By the end of 2015, a new authorizer evaluation system with more emphasis on academic performance was approved.
Critics have also pointed to the political sway of Ohio’s academically struggling e-schools, exercised through sizeable donations to Republicans. Politico, as evidence of influence, points out that Kasich was responsible for lifting the state’s moratorium for online schools. But that move enabled competitors to enter the market, which didn’t exactly benefit the powerful e-school oligopoly. Since then, three new online schools have opened, subject to an additional layer of approval by the department. The law has also capped the annual growth of existing Ohio e-schools. Most importantly, the state is currently holding the line against the anti-reform efforts of the e-school lobby more than at any other point in our charter history. Recent efforts to water down accountability are being met with strong resistance, evidence that the power of Ohio e-schools is dwindling.
Finally, no Ohio charter school discussion would be complete without mentioning funding. While charter detractors might suggest that Ohio charters made money hand over first under Kasich’s administration, such claims are bogus. State funding for charters expanded overall during his tenure, but that’s primarily because the number of students enrolled in charter schools has increased. The base state allotment for charter schools has gone up in precisely the same manner it has risen for district schools. Charters, deprived of access to the state’s school facilities program and denied the ability to raise funds locally, were awarded a meager $150 per pupil toward facilities and may apply to a competitive $25 million facilities state grant if they rank among the top performers. That’s hardly pork barrel politics at work.
There are many other aspects of the governor’s education record that most school reformers would laud. Kasich was instrumental in bringing Teach For America to the state and was at the helm when Ohio designed award-winning report cards; he also improved learning standards, raised the bar on proficiency, expanded a program to help high schoolers earn college credit, and created an innovation fund. In sum, Governor Kasich has been a powerful advocate of charter school reform in a state whose sector has long been deeply troubled, and it’s shameful that the national media has created the opposite impression. In fact, Ohio could become a leader on charter quality if the latest reforms are implemented well. Rather than haunting his political career, the turnaround of Ohio’s charter sector could be another example of Kasich beating the odds.