Ohio’s sponsor evaluations: Take two

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) recently released the results of its revised sponsor evaluation, including new ratings for all of the state’s charter-school sponsors. Called “authorizers” in most other states, sponsors are the entities responsible for monitoring and oversight of charter schools. Under the current rating system, sponsors are evaluated in three areas—compliance, quality practice, and school academic outcomes—and receive overall ratings of “Exemplary,” “Effective,” “Ineffective,” or “Poor.” Of the sixty-five Buckeye State sponsors evaluated, five were rated “Effective,” thirty-nine “Ineffective,” and twenty-one “Poor.” Incentives are built into the system for sponsors rated “Effective” or “Exemplary” (for instance, only having to be evaluated on the quality practice component every three years); however, sponsors rated “Ineffective” are prohibited from sponsoring new schools, and sponsors rated “Poor” have their sponsorship revoked.

Number of charter schools by sponsor rating

Evaluating sponsors is a key step in the direction of accountability and quality control, especially in Ohio, where the charter sector has been beset with performance challenges. Indeed, the point of implementing the evaluation was two-fold. First, the existence of the evaluation system and its rubric for ratings is meant to prod sponsors to focus on academic outcomes of the charter schools in their portfolios. Second, they’re designed to help sponsors improve their own work, which would result in stronger oversight (without micromanagement) of schools and an improved charter sector. Results-driven accountability is important, as is continually improving one’s practice.

What happens next is also important. ODE has time to improve its sponsor evaluation system before the next cycle, and it should take that opportunity seriously. Strengthening both the framework and the process will improve the evaluation. Let us offer a few ideas. 

First, the academic component should be revised to more accurately capture whether schools are making a difference for their students. Largely as a function of current state policy, Ohio charters are mostly located in economically challenged communities. As we’ve long known and are reminded of each year when state report cards on schools and districts are released, academic outcomes correlate closely with demographics. So we need to look at the gains that they are (or aren’t) making in their schools, as well as their present achievement. In communities where children are well below grade level, the extent and velocity of growth matter enormously. Make no mistake: proficiency is also important. But schools whose pupils consistently make well over a year of achievement growth within a single school year are doing what they’re supposed to: helping kids catch up and preparing them for the future.

It’s critical that we make sure that achievement and growth both be given their due when evaluating Ohio schools—and the entities that sponsor them. Fortunately, Ohio will soon unveil a modified school-accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): This would be a perfect opportunity to rebalance school report cards in a way that places appropriate weight—for all public schools and sponsors—on student growth over time.

Because dropout recovery charters are graded on a different scale from other kinds of charters, their sponsors may get artificially high ratings on the academic portion of the sponsor evaluation. That needs fine-tuning too.

The compliance component of the sponsor evaluation system also needs attention.  The current version looks at compliance with “all laws and rules,” which is a list of 319 laws and rules applicable to Ohio’s charter schools, many of which don’t apply to individual sponsors. (For example, many sponsors have no e-schools in their portfolios and therefore the laws and rules that apply to such schools aren’t really pertinent to them.) Yet all Ohio sponsors were forced to gather/draft more than a hundred documents and memos—many of them duplicative—for each of their schools over a 30-day period. A better way to do this would be to figure out what applies and what matters most, then examine compliance against those provisions. For example, current item 209 (“The School displays a US flag, not less than five feet in length, when school is in session”) is not as important as whether the school has a safety plan (i.e., how to deal with armed intruders). ODE should focus on compliance with the most critical regulations on a regular basis while spot-checking or periodically checking compliance with the more picayune regulations. Another option would be to review a sample of the required documents each year, much as an auditor randomly reviews transactions. The current compliance regimen is hugely burdensome with, in many cases, very little payoff.

The sponsor evaluation is critically important, and reflects continued progress in Ohio’s efforts to improve charter school outcomes. But it’s also important to get it right if it’s indeed going to improve sponsor practice and in turn the charter sector. In its current form, it measures how well a sponsor responded to rubric questions and whether there were enough staff on hand to upload documents. It needs to quickly move to 2.0 if it seeks to be a credible and effective instrument long-term. 

Kathryn Mullen Upton
Kathryn Mullen Upton is the Fordham Institute's Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives