The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is seeking to close a troubled charter school sponsor (aka authorizer), blazing new territory for the nation’s charter school program. While there have been many charter school closures over the years, this is the first time a state education agency has stepped in to close a sponsor – the entities responsible for birthing charter schools, holding them accountable for results, and ultimately making life or death decisions about them based on their performance.
In fact, Ohio, Minnesota, and Missouri are the only states that give the state department of education authority to revoke a charter school sponsor’s right to authorize schools. In most other states, authorizers are brought into being via statute, and they can only be decommissioned by the legislature. Ohio’s General Assembly, for example, fired the State Board of Education as a charter school sponsor in 2003.
Ohio currently has more than 70 charter school sponsors and under recent changes to state law each is held accountable for their performance through a contract with ODE. (The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation currently sponsors six charter schools in Ohio and has had a sponsorship contract with ODE since 2004; read more about our sponsorship efforts here.)
Per the case at hand, ODE is seeking to revoke the sponsorship authority of the Cleveland-based Ashe Culture Center, Inc. According to press accounts, the department wants to close Ashe for “not properly overseeing the spending of taxpayer money.”
Specifically, Ashe has sponsored two schools that the state auditor has deemed “unauditable.” Further, according to an investigation by the state auditor, Ashe’s CEO received payments from a school, and his wife – a member of the school’s governing board – approved said payments. Considering that the sponsor is supposed to represent the interests of the state – including ensuring tax dollars are actually spent on the educational needs of children – this seems an obvious conflict of interest.
Most charter schools that close for financial reasons also struggle academically, and this is true for Ashe as most of its sponsored schools have woeful academic performance. Chart I shows that Ashe-sponsored schools are far more likely to be rated Academic Emergency (“F”) by the state than similar district and charter schools. Chart II shows that students in Ashe-sponsored schools are making fewer academic gains, according to the state’s value-added metric, than students in the state’s other charter schools. Finally, Chart III shows that Ashe-sponsored schools haven’t improve much over time. Since 2005-06, two-thirds of Ashe sponsored schools have languished in the state’s lowest academic rating of Academic Emergency.
The state is sure to face criticism from many in the charter school community for seeking to revoke the sponsorship authority of the Ashe Culture Center. But, based on publicly available academic and fiscal data, it appears to this observer that Ashe deserves to lose its right to sponsor schools. ODE should be supported in its efforts to take on charter sponsors as a way to ensure a basic standard of quality for Ohio’s charter schools.