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Jamie Davies O'Leary: Charter school policy analyst

"Charter schools have an opportunity to prove what’s possible for low-income kids and to illustrate that high expectations, hard work, and school culture can greatly reduce poverty’s stranglehold on kids' outcomes."
"Charter schools have an opportunity to prove what’s possible for low-income kids and to illustrate that high expectations, hard work, and school culture can greatly reduce poverty’s stranglehold on kids' outcomes."
Jamie Davies O'Leary

Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst & Associate Editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She conducts research and offers policy analysis on a variety of K-12 issues and advocates for excellence in education for Ohio’s students. She also contributesto the writing, editing,distribution management of Fordham’s biweekly newsletter, Ohio Education Gadfly. Jamie is a Teach For America alum and has been involved in mentoring, tutoring, and violence-prevention programs over the last ten years. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and earned her Bachelor's Degree in Politics from Messiah College. She is also an Education Pioneer and Truman Scholar.

1. What role do your see charter schools having in Ohio public education over the next ten years? Charter schools have an opportunity in Ohio to prove what is possible for low-income kids and to illustrate that high expectations, hard work, and school culture – while not eliminating the problem of poverty – can greatly reduce poverty’s stranglehold on these kids’ outcomes. This isn’t to say that traditional district schools can’t do this work, but charters have fewer barriers to innovation. Over the next decade (under laws that will hold authorizers and charter operators more accountable), my hope is that the highest-performing charter networks will expand to serve a much larger number of students. Not only will more low-income/at-risk students be served by these networks, but excellent charter schools can serve as proof points that one's socioeconomic status doesn't have to be destiny, and thus change the dialogue around education for poor kids. In Ohio (and everywhere, but especially here it seems) I still hear people – educators nonetheless! – describe low-income kids’ inability to learn. This is 2011, and yet we allow low expectations to prevail. Charter schools can help turn the tide on that.

2. How would you improve Ohio's charter laws? Thanks to the efforts of some Ohio lawmakers and advocates for quality (my colleagues at Fordham deserve a big chunk of credit for this!), some changes may happen very soon that could improve Ohio’s charter landscape. For starters (as Kathryn mentioned), holding authorizers more accountable for their schools’ academic performance and not letting them expand their portfolios until they clean up their existing pool of schools would improve quality. I would like to see laws that pay attention to scale and sustainability and allow for the creation of a statewide authorizing entity that could handle a larger portfolio and abide by principles of authorizing excellence. I would hold all charter schools accountable for results – e-schools, drop-out recoveries, hybrid models that are likely to emerge, etc, and making funding to charter schools more equitable and access to facilities less of a burden. Finally, I would create a climate that is ripe for charter networks to come into Ohio and take on the very difficult work of school turnarounds. Ohio is slated to turn around nearly 100 schools – if the governor’s turnaround provisions go through in the budget – but there are looming questions about capacity here. Who will turn them around? Charter start-ups are often more successful than traditional turnaround attempts and could fill these voids in communities of poverty where schools are failing. But they need start-up funds, better long-term funding, cooperation from districts, and human capital to make that happen. This requires a change not just in Ohio’s charter laws, but funding laws in general to attract talent to our state.

3. We often hear that charter schools have fewer barriers and bureaucratic obstacles, and that this is a main component of their success. But, many charter supporters advocate for more accountability. Can you distinguish between the two? Does accountability necessarily mean restraints? Well the freedom and autonomy comes in exchange for more accountability. Fordham advocates for this type of tradeoff, loosely known as “tight-loose” –which just means that state education policies should be tight on the end goals (student achievement; transparency at all levels) but loose on the means, as in Ohio shouldn’t prescribe exactly what those means look like because they differ dramatically from school to school. The larger point is, and should be – can a school deliver stellar gains for students? “How” matters less than “whether” in this instance. Presumably, educators and leaders within charter schools opt to do things in education a bit differently, but if they can’t deliver on student achievement then there’s no point in having alternatives, or greater choice – this is why accountability is so key. We don’t want more choice for choice’s sake so that parents and kids simply have a larger menu – we need better options and so holding them accountable is an equally important half of that formula. It’s also important to note that Ohio already has some of the toughest charter school accountability laws in the nation (“death penalty” for charters that are chronically underperforming). Accountability in this sense isn’t a “restraint” – it’s just holding schools’ and educators’ feet to the fire to do what they said they could and what they receive public dollars to do – educate kids well.