Fordham plus choice equals charters

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has issued its "Sponsorship Accountability Report 2006-07" for the nine charter schools it sponsors in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Springfield (see here). The bottom line of the report is that Fordham and the schools we sponsor have a lot of work to do. As a group, Fordham-sponsored schools are simply not performing as well as we, or they, had hoped they would, but that doesn't mean we're giving up or that those schools are not making a difference to the students and communities they serve.

Fordham got into sponsorship by choice because it was the most obvious way to begin to bring much needed change to public education. Creating and running charter schools in Ohio has proved incredibly difficult for both sponsors and school operators. Yet, our challenges are largely mirrored by urban districts in Ohio. When the state report card data came out in August, we saw that 183,000 district and charter-school students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton were attending schools graded either D or F (officially, "academic watch" or "academic emergency"). In Dayton, Fordham's hometown, the numbers were especially grim. Fully 80 percent of children attend a public school in Dayton (district or charter) rated F or D.

Clearly, both charters and public district schools must improve. Toward this end, Fordham is excited about its effort to sponsor two strong new school models for Ohio: a KIPP (see here) school and a "Building Excellent Schools" (see here) school will both open in Columbus in 2008 under Fordham sponsorship. Additionally, we are working closely with the current schools we sponsor to see them strengthen their academic performance. In the two years that Fordham has sponsored schools, most have struggled to meet and exceed state standards. Even so, students in Fordham-sponsored schools have largely outperformed their peers in charter schools statewide and in their home districts in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Springfield. They have done so with 30 percent fewer operating dollars per pupil than district schools, with no public money for facilities, and in an increasingly hostile political environment (see here).

Despite the challenges, we at Fordham believe that sponsorship is worth continuing and even expanding, although the charter school cap makes this hard to do. Too many children in Ohio still attend low-performing schools. For these children, charters provide hope. Moreover, we know that Ohioans value school choice in general and the charter option in particular. Support among residents of Ohio's big cities is even higher - a fact not very surprising considering these folks' long and painful experience with troubled district schools that seem inert to change. (For survey details, see here.)

We've learned many important lessons as a sponsor, beginning with the tremendous challenge of successfully educating acutely disadvantaged children. We share these lessons in the report and we note that we certainly don't have it all figured out. But, what we have learned is interesting for those who work in, or care about, public education in urban communities.

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