Letting go of romantic notions about charter schools in Ohio

This conversation about churches authorizing charter schools has raised my hackles. Not because it deals with religious organizations overseeing public schools and ensuring that public dollars are spent well (a conversation absolutely worth having), but because the conversation is happening in Ohio, where we already have too many charter school authorizers (70+ sponsors serving about 310 schools) - especially if the goal of authorizing is to birth and oversee great schools.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring (as authorizing is called here) charter schools in the Buckeye State since 2005, and as such we have learned a ton about the business. First and foremost, that providing high-quality oversight of public charter schools is costly and time-consuming, and this is if things go well. Being a sponsor in Ohio means not only holding schools accountable for their results (and ultimately making life or death decisions about schools), but also helping schools navigate a myriad of regulatory and legal issues.

Our base sponsorship agreement with schools is more than 30 pages long - and this doesn't include dozens of pages of attachments - and deals with issues ranging from responsibilities of parties to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Quality sponsorship requires serious legal expertise.

In Ohio, many sponsors make their economics work by not only sponsoring schools (for this you can charge up to 3 percent of a school's per pupil revenue) but by selling their schools services - like treasurer, professional development, and special education services. Sure, this helps with the costs, but it creates a real conflict of interest for sponsors. Do you close a school that is not only paying a sponsorship fee but also buying additional services from you? Ohio has the toughest charter accountability laws in the country including an "academic death penalty" that automatically closes persistently low-performing schools in large part because sponsors haven't done their jobs.

The chart below shows the sponsorship budget for the Fordham Foundation since 2005. We don't sell services to our schools, so for every state dollar we've received in school fees we've spent an additional two dollars and twenty-five cents of our own money and that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. True, we've offered free sponsorship to schools, as well as grant support and ample technical assistance (this is included in the consultant/grant line under expenses) but we've done so because the schools are struggling financially and requested the help.

Fordham Sponsorship Financials (2005-06 to 2008-09)

Source: Annual Fordham Sponsorship Reports

In Ohio, too many people still cling to a romantic notion about charter schools and charter school sponsorship that is frankly disconnected from reality. Ohio has too many sponsors (and it is for this reason the USDOE has put Ohio's sponsors on a "watch list"), and we have made it too easy for sponsors and schools to enter the marketplace.

As such, we are awash in mediocrity. Consider that 50 percent of charters in Ohio last year were rated D or F by the state. We must do better and this means maximizing our resources through fewer and better sponsors. This is the conversation that we need to start having in Ohio.

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