GENEVA — Some local educators are taking aim at charter schools and online academies, claiming they are not as great an educational bargain as their commercials claim.
Charter schools and online academies use taxpayer money to operate, in accordance with Ohio law. However many public school educators believe they do not always fare as well in educational achievement as public schools.
Geneva Area City Schools Superintendent Mary Zappitelli said comparing public schools to charter schools was not an apples to apples comparison, and that each had its own particular educational value. However, she said there were public perceptions that needed to be clarified before making any comparison at all.
“People need to be careful in assuming charter schools typically outperform public schools because that’s not necessarily the case,” she said.
Geneva Area City School Treasurer Kevin Lillie agreed, but took his assessment of charter schools one step further.
“They take a lot of state and local money,” he said. “The sad thing is taxpayers vote for a school levy in a locally elected school board district, yet much of this money is taken by charter and online schools that have nothing to do with the local area. There’s no single charter school in the Geneva Area City Schools District.”
Lillie said there is no local control, and there are no brick and mortar charter schools in Ashtabula County. Of the 93 Geneva area schools students going to charter schools, most students are in online academies. Less than four attend actual physical schools in Youngstown, Cuyahoga County and Painesville, he said.
According to his research, charter schools academically perform poorly compared to most public schools.
“Very few of these charter schools are in the top 300 in the state,” he said. “Many are in the bottom.”
A 2014 charter schools comparison report card from the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding showed seven out of 13 charter schools funded to educate those 93 Geneva students received a performance index grade of D or lower. Only four received a C grade.
Of these schools only one, Summit Academy of Columbus, had a graduation rate of more than 70 percent, while others scored much lower. Geneva Area City Schools had a graduation rate of 96 percent.
Family Support Coordinator of the Ohio Virtual Academy in Maumee Susie Ebie also said comparisons to brick and mortar schools were not “apples to apples.”
“We (charters) receive much less than typical brick and mortar schools,” Ebie said. “We receive state and federal funds but we have our own unique costs.”
She said though the Ohio Virtual Academy has no buildings or buses, it must still pay for state-of-the-art tech and curriculum improvements, teachers’ salaries and required state testing costs.
“Brick and mortar schools have buildings to conduct testing in,” she said. “On the other hand, virtual schools have to rent facilities for weeks at a time at locations within 50 miles of the students. It is a challenge, since we set up dozens of facilities across the state and teachers must travel there.”
The Ohio Virtual Academy receives funding from the state and a local levy to educate about 44 Geneva Area City Schools students. Yet its performance index was reported as at about 88, or a C grade, and its four-year graduation rate was about 37 percent, or an F grade, Lillie said.
He said in the same comparison, Geneva scored a performance index of 99.7, or a B grade, and a four year graduation rate of about 96 percent, or an A grade.
Charter school supporters have criticized the coalition’s academic comparisons. Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a charter-school supporter, told the Columbus Dispatch in October that comparing a charter school’s performance with entire school-district averages is misleading because some districts offer different educational experiences across buildings.
“Parents choose a school. They don’t choose a district,” he told the Dispatch.
Other charter school supporters have criticized the idea that money belongs to public school districts rather than the idea it follows the student.
Charter school opponents, meanwhile, point to the struggles a number of charter schools have gone through for failing to live up to standards.
The Ashtabula County Educational Services Center on State Road provides shared services like speech and physical therapists to schools across the county. Superintendent John Rubesich said red flags go up every time public school educators talk about charter or online schools.
“They don’t like the idea that they must follow stringent academic guidelines and provide many services while charter and online schools do not,” he said. “The majority of charters are not fiscally responsible, and the state has shut down a number for violations.”
Some charters have been closed because of accreditation issues or criminal or civil charges, according to the coalition.
The coalition reported in June that the VLT Academy of Ohio (not related to the Ohio Virtual Academy) closed because of nepotism, corruption, ethics and poor performance.
“I see people getting rich and using large campaign funds to insure these schools and online academies are funded,” Lillie said. “The result is kids sit at home in front of a computer and often get bad grades and nothing is done about it.”
He also argued against charter schools use of public funds to make commercials for student recruitment. The coalition reported in August that a northeastern Ohio charter school with 1,200 students spent more than $185,000 on marketing in the 2013-14 school year. Marketing money is not available to public schools.
“People need to know how these private institutions are using public funds,” Lillie said, adding, “Some electronic schools say in their commercials they can educate a student for $1,000. If they then receive $4,800 from the school board the student comes from, who gets the remaining $3,800? It’s profit for the electronic curriculum.”
Ebie said most virtual schools, unlike public schools, cannot rely exclusively on levy money and must advertise to find students.
“Advertising is expensive, but we have to do it to survive,” she said.
The Ohio legislature and Gov. John Kasich are ultimately responsible for creating charter school funding guidelines.
For Ebie, she said charter schools are about giving students and parents choice.
“The state sends funds to local schools and they must be released to educate students. I’m thankful they have a choice of options as to how they can get an education with those funds,” she said.
Charter schools were first created to provide a good education to students in “bad” urban school districts. Geneva Area City Schools is not a bad urban school district, but rather, a good school district, Lillie said.
“Some districts may not need charter or online schools to provide local students’ educations,” he said.