Setting the record straight: Fordham and charter-school sponsorship

Ohio has echoed with controversy in recent weeks regarding
House-passed changes to the state’s charter law that would decimate an already
weak charter-school accountability system (see here,
here,
and here).
We at Fordham have been outspoken and relentless in commenting on what’s wrong
with the House amendments and have forcefully argued for stronger charter
accountability and transparency.

That’s not a new argument or a new role for us. For more
than a decade, we’ve pressed Buckeye policymakers on charter-school quality.
That included co-authorship (with the National Association of Charter School
Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools [NACSA]) of Turning the Corner to Quality: Policy
Guidelines for Strengthening Ohio’s Charter Schools
. This 2006 report
urged a “housecleaning” that would close down Ohio’s poorest performing
schools. Partly in response, the General Assembly passed a law two months later
that forced failing schools to improve or face automatic closure.

We have no need or desire to sponsor
schools in the future if a better option is available for schools and
the children they serve.
 

 
   
 

Because we’ve been so vehement in criticizing the recent
House language (currently in conference with the Senate, which stripped that
language out of its version of Ohio’s biennial budget), some who disagree with
us have questioned our motives. They’ve even charged Fordham with a “power
grab” because we’ve pushed the legislature to allow for a new statewide
authorizing entity that would merge the school portfolios of several existing
sponsors, us included. Still others claim we are financially greedy and seek to
expand our sponsorship efforts in order to boost our revenues. Such allegations
are hokum and need to be refuted.

Our charter-school
sponsorship philosophy

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring charter
schools in Ohio
since 2005.* Today there are six schools in our portfolio. (The all-time peak
number was ten.) Two of these are in Columbus
(KIPP: Journey Academy
and Columbus Collegiate
Academy), two are in Dayton
(Dayton Liberty and Dayton View), one is in Cincinnati
(Phoenix Community
Learning Center),
and one is in Springfield
(Springfield Academy of Excellence). Collectively, these schools serve about
1,850 students, more than 85 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.
Next month, two more charters enter this fold: Sciotoville Elementary Academy
and Sciotoville Community School, both located outside Portsmouth, in southern
Ohio.

Fordham’s sponsorship efforts are aligned with NACSA’s Principles and Standards for
Quality Charter School Authorizing
. We believe that quality
sponsors provide their schools with maximum flexibility and space for
innovation while holding them accountable for performance, fisical integrity
and sound governance. If a school performs well, it should rarely see or hear
from its sponsor beyond basic compliance issues (mandated—sometimes to excess—by
state law) and required school site visits. If, however, the school struggles
to deliver academic achievement, faces financial problems, or encounters other
serious operational deficiencies, the sponsor has a solemn duty to push it hard
to make needed changes. Under Ohio law, such pressure may include probation and
closure—and threatening to take such actions if remedies are not forthcoming.
Quality sponsors carry out these threats if a school fails (or refuses) to
improve over time. Nothing is worse for children than to allow them to languish
in a failed school. As a sponsor, Fordham has closed four schools since 2005;
fortunately, these closures were done amicably and in partnership with the
governing boards of each school involved.

Financing our
sponsorship efforts

In contrast to many Ohio charter authorizers, we believe it
is inappropriate, unethical, and sometimes immoral for sponsors to sell any
supplemental services to the schools they authorize. Whether these services
take the form of business management, instructional support, special education,
professional development, or something else, such an arrangement creates an
inherent conflict of interest, invites profiteering by sponsors and their
agents, and pressures schools to obtain services from entities that wield
enormous power over their very existence. It also creates strong economic
incentives for sponsors to turn a blind eye to poor school performance.

Fordham doesn’t “make money” as a sponsor. To the
contrary. We’re gradually losing our shirts. While Ohio allows authorizers to
levy sponsorship fees of up to three percent of a school’s state funding,
Fordham charges just two percent while investing north of $100,000 a year in
its sponsorship operations. That’s money taken from our own endowment or raised
from external funders. (See our annual report here.)
Further, we reward performance, providing performance rebates based on a
school’s academic rating and calibrated to its enrollment.

New statewide sponsor entity

We have no need or desire to sponsor schools in the future
if a better option is available for schools and the children they serve. For
months we’ve been exploring with six other sponsoring organizations that also
subscribe to NACSA’s quality principles the joint creation of a new sponsor
entity with the scale and resources necessary to advance the improvement of Ohio’s charter program.
(Those organizations are: the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio,
Montgomery County Educational Service Center, Dayton Public Schools,
Reynoldsburg City Schools, Loveland City Schools, and the Columbus City
Schools. Others are also considering joining this venture.)

This undertaking has been driven by the need for stronger
quality in a time of tighter resources. We explained our reasoning to the State
Board of Education in May 2010 in these words:

For most sponsors in Ohio, quality
sponsorship costs more than school fees can generate. Consider the numbers for
a moment—the state has sixty-seven active sponsors. Two of these—the Lucas
County ESC and the Ohio Council of Community Schools (both based in
Toledo)—collectively authorize one third of all Ohio charter schools. The
state’s remaining sixty-five sponsors authorize on average three schools each.
Fifty-two sponsors have two or fewer. Yet quality sponsorship costs money to
deliver. For example, sponsors need the resources to meet the legal costs of
closing a school, which can accrue quickly.

It is because of limited resources
for sponsors and the need for scale and shared expertise that the Thomas B.
Fordham Foundation and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio (ESCCO)
are proposing—with planning-grant support from the National Association of
Charter School Authorizers—to launch a new statewide charter school sponsor.
Both ESCCO and Fordham have developed the tools, resources, and expertise
needed for quality authorizing, in Fordham’s case with help from the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation. We are willing
to cede these assets to a new entity that we believe can help consolidate and
improve Ohio’s charter school sponsorship landscape
.

Fordham remains firmly committed to advancing educational
excellence in Ohio and nationally. We embrace this struggle openly. Charter
schools are an important tool in the reform struggle, and for more than a
decade we have put our money, time, and energy where our mouth is.

Not everything we’ve done in the Buckeye State (or
elsewhere) has worked. (We’ve tried to be candid and forthcoming about the
misfires, too.) Through it all, however, we’ve been motivated by the need to
improve educational options for needy kids. We are honored to work with
policymakers, others in the state’s charter sector, and with district educators
who are committed to creating, leading, supporting, and sponsoring great
charter schools that embrace high standards of excellence. As the General
Assembly winds up its crucial work on the state’s biennial budget, we are proud
to call these individuals allies and friends.

* Sponsors (aka authorizers) are the organizations
responsible for helping birth charters, for holding them accountable over time
for their performance, for providing technical assistance and guidance when
appropriate, and—if necessary—for closing schools that no longer work for
children.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) in the
Ohio Education Gadfly and on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to the Ohio
Education Gadfly, click here; to subscribe
to
Flypaper, click here.

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