Bias, faulty research cloud valid message in charter school report

Last week, Policy Matters Ohio released a report on charter school accountability.  The primary finding was that when charter schools are operated by management organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, too often the management organizations are running the show, not the independent boards that are legally the schools’ owners. 

We at Fordham will be the first to admit that Ohio charter school law allows for blurred lines of responsibility among operators, authorizers, and school boards.  In fact, Fordham testified to the Ohio House and State Board of Education last spring in support of efforts to clarify the roles and responsibilities of sponsors (aka authorizers), governing boards, and operators. 

Some of Policy Matters’ findings are, without question, worth taking seriously. For example, if some charter schools’ governing board structures are out of compliance with state law, as the report alleges, that’s a problem that absolutely needs to be addressed post haste. 

However, other items in the report raise an eyebrow about the validity of some conclusions.

First, the methodology is messy. The report compares Ohio law regarding multiple facets of the charter school program to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers' principles for authorizers. Not Ohio charter laws to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ model charter law. Not Ohio laws specifically regulating authorizing to the NACSA principles for authorizers. The report is essentially a comparison of management company contracts to NACSA's principles for authorizers – apples to oranges to say the least, and more than a bit misleading.

Then there is the research, which from Fordham’s vantage point as a charter school sponsor, is flawed.  Two Fordham-authorized schools, both operated by EdisonLearning, are included in the report. Policy Matters makes three faulty claims against these schools:

Faulty Claim 1: Members of the school’s board were picked by the school operator Edison to serve as the school’s governing body (p12).

Fact:  Dayton community and business leaders banded together more than a decade ago to recruit a high-quality charter school model to the city to provide better school options for children in long-suffering Dayton Public Schools. This, only after the local teachers union vetoed the efforts of district leadership to convert five of its lowest performing charters and have Edison run them for the school district on a contractual basis. (This whole sorry episode is chronicled in our recent book Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges.)

Faulty Claim 2: The governing board relies on legal services from Edison (p14).

Fact: The school’s governing board uses the Dayton law firm Coolidge Wall for all board related matters. Edison relies on its counsel for its operational matters (and Fordham, as sponsor, relies on lawyers from Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur). The sustainability of these legal costs is an issue all its own; especially in light of likely state spending cuts to education in 2011.

Faulty Claim 3: The school’s governing board does not insist on independent accounting of state dollars (p14).

Fact: The school’s governing board has an independent treasurer and she provides independent accounting of state dollars at each and every board meeting. All board meetings are open to the public. Both schools are audited annually by the state auditor and the final audit report is shared with Edison, representatives of the schools’ governing board and with Fordham, as sponsor.

Second, Policy Matters’ bias toward traditional district schools and away from charter schools rears its head in several places. For one, the report goes after charter school board members who are compensated for their work, but is silent on the fact that district school board members are similarly compensated; as are many other non-profit board members. The report is also quick to dismiss the positive academic performance of more than a few charter schools, saying that just “a handful of charters have solid academic records.” In fact, in Ohio’s urban areas, where most charter schools are located, charters often perform on par with or better than their district peers. The Dayton Daily News, for example, ran a story just this month under the headline “Eight of 10 top public schools in Dayton are charters.”

The anti-charter bias reemerges in the author’s description of Fordham as "a national think tank with a free market orientation toward education reform." Yes, Fordham is a staunch supporter of school choice, but we’ve been saying for years (in fact, gasp, for a decade) that choice for choice’s sake isn’t sufficient. There must be high standards and accountability for all public schools, and persistent failure isn’t an option. In fact, we take this so seriously that, as an authorizer, we have closed three schools and put several others on notice.

It’s encouraging when a left-of-center organization like Policy Matters joins our camp and call for smart improvements to Ohio’s charter school program (as it does in this report), rather than the obliteration of charters altogether.  But this report has so many faults in terms of its methodology and facts that it hurts the cause of a sensible middle ground by giving ammunition to both ardent anti-charter foes and zealous supporters of all charters irrespective of quality or performance.

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