A recent flurry of news about Ohio charter schools makes a strong case for clearer lines of charter school accountability in the Buckeye State.
On May 17, the governing authorities of ten schools operated by White Hat Management sued the company and the Ohio Department of Education and asked the Franklin County Common Pleas Court to declare a provision of state charter school law unconstitutional. At issue is a 2006 change in law that made it possible for a school operator to override a school’s governing board’s decision to switch operators by appealing directly to the sponsor (aka authorizer). If the sponsor agrees with the operator, then the operator can fire the governing authority, appoint a new one, and retain control over the school. But even if the sponsor rules that the operator should be fired, in some cases the operator will retain the school’s assets, facilities, and even its employees, leaving the board empty-handed.
The Fordham Institute – and our sister organization, the Fordham Foundation, a charter-school sponsor – applauded many of the changes included in HB 79 in 2006 but has opposed this provision since it became law. As Fordham’s Terry Ryan explained to the Akron Beacon Journal, ''[This law] creates a situation where you're going to have lawsuits and you're going to have muddied accountability because it's not at all clear who's on the hook for performance. We would not sponsor a school that worked that way… what we always say is, for us, we want to know who the governing board is and we want to communicate with the governing board and we want to have a relationship with the governing authority. Because at the end of the day, that's our partner. They're the ones we hold accountable for results.''
Meanwhile, Policy Matters Ohio released a report alleging that Imagine Schools, which operates 11 schools in the Buckeye State, “receives as much as 98 percent of its schools’ funding to act as superintendent, central office, principal, workforce and landlord” – with little regard for student performance. Further, the report shows that the authorizer of seven of Imagine’s Ohio schools sells services to all of the schools, creating an inherent conflict of interest.
Policy Matters says its findings are evidence for outlawing for-profit operators altogether. Instead, the Fordham Institute offered up three recommendations, including giving the state authority to prevent conflicts of interest for charter sponsors.
These sordid stories demonstrate the need for strong, independent statewide sponsors in Ohio. This is exactly what Fordham and the ESC of Central Ohio hope to achieve via a merger of our sponsorship efforts – an endeavor supported by the National Association for Charter School Authorizers and the Columbus Dispatch.