NOTES: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.
This commentary was originally published in Crain’s Cleveland Business.
As a business owner in Cleveland as well as other cities, I spend a lot of time thinking about return on investment (ROI).
It's a financial term that when used in public education can make some people feel uncomfortable. Students and teachers are not units or widgets, and running schools is not a business — or so the thinking goes. Many would argue that the educational process of expanding a child's mind and equipping them for a lifelong love of learning simply can't be reduced to numbers.
I agree that teaching is an art form, that children are unique, and that K-12 public education — as a public good — cannot and should not be reduced to balance sheets alone. Yet we see the results of a poor education very much in terms of numbers.
These are cold, hard facts that we must contend with and eventually pay for. Low percentages of students who can't read or do math at grade level lead to high dropout rates, which give way to discouraging numbers on unemployment and crime, a swelling prison population, and an ultimate breakdown of healthy communities. The cost of all this is emotional, physical and, yes, economic.
Recognizing these trends and patterns is partly what motivates me to volunteer for Breakthrough Schools, a nonprofit network of public charter schools in Cleveland serving 3,400 students in 11 schools in some of our city's neediest areas. Nearly all Breakthrough students are students of color, and eight of 10 are low-income.
Despite the challenges they bring with them to school each day, including many coming to school several years behind, its schools are in the top third of all schools in the city for academic performance. Breakthrough is ranked among the best charter networks in the state and is doing its part to change lives and get many first-generation students equipped for high school and college. This also has the long-term benefit of helping to revitalize neighborhoods and to prepare young people to contribute meaningfully to our local workforce.
An increasing number of jobs require postsecondary education, and Cleveland lags the surrounding region on these metrics. A 2016 labor market analysis of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County shows that just 15% of residents in the city of Cleveland have a bachelor's degree or higher — half the rate of Cuyahoga County. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 Cleveland residents live at or below the federal poverty line.
To escape poverty, Cleveland families need access to decent-paying jobs. Access to those jobs is made possible through a postsecondary education or meaningful workforce training — both of which rely on a high-quality K-12 education. Breakthrough is providing that education, offering hope to families that their students may reach greater heights one day.
This is a dream that all parents, rich or poor, have for their children.
Despite their schools' impressive scores and high parental satisfaction rates, their charter schools as well as all Ohio charter schools receive, on average, two-thirds as much funding as traditional public schools. This means that Breakthrough has to raise significant private capital in order to fill the gap and provide the quality of education their students deserve. As a donor, I see this firsthand and can say that such a funding model is not only unfair, it is unsustainable.
While some politicians or opponents of change like to suggest charter schools like Breakthrough's are "draining" funds from traditional districts, they forget that those educational dollars don't belong to institutions. They belong to children. From a business point of view, we should be investing in what's working.
Two years ago, the Ohio Legislature did just that when it created a competitive grant fund for high-performing charter schools to purchase or remodel school facilities. The $25 million fund had rigorous parameters and ended up providing much-needed support to Ohio's best charters, like Breakthrough, which won $6.5 million to continue growing and expanding. The Ohio House of Representatives did the right thing recently when it made funds left over from that grant cycle available to great schools again.
But they should take it a step further and reinstate the grant program for this budget cycle as well. Breakthrough aims to serve almost 5,000 students at full capacity. Although strong partnerships with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District have eased the burden slightly, making it easier for Breakthrough to access some public school buildings, there are many additional costs involved. Charter schools in Ohio have to dip into already-limited operations funding in order to purchase or renovate facilities — a challenge traditional schools never have to face.
The Ohio Legislature should continue to recognize and reward excellence, and make it easier for those with a track record of great performance to continue their good work. Continuing the competitive facilities grant program is one such way to get a solid return on investment. Breakthrough is accomplishing results for kids that so few are able to achieve, setting them up for success in high school, college and eventually the workforce. Shouldn't we recognize what's working and invest our public dollars accordingly?
Moreno is president and founder of the Bernie Moreno Cos. chain of auto dealerships.