Setting the record straight: Fordham and charter school sponsorship

Ohio has echoed with controversy in recent weeks regarding House-passed
changes to the state’s charter law that would decimate an already weak charter-school
accountability system (see here,
and here).
We at Fordham have been outspoken and relentless in commenting on what’s wrong
with the House amendments and have forcefully argued for stronger charter
accountability and transparency.

That is not a new argument or a new role for us. For more
than a decade, we’ve pressed Buckeye policymakers on charter school quality.
That included co-authorship (with the National Association of Charter School
Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) of Turning the Corner to Quality: Policy
Guidelines for Strengthening Ohio’s Charter Schools
. This 2006 report
urged a “housecleaning” that would close down Ohio’s poorest performing
schools. Partly in response, the General Assembly passed a law two months later
that forced failing schools to improve or face automatic closure. 

Because we’ve been so vehement in criticizing the recent
House language (currently in conference with the Senate, which stripped that
language out of its version of Ohio’s biennial budget), some who disagree with
us have questioned our motives. They’ve even charged Fordham with a “power
grab” because we’ve pushed the legislature to allow for a new statewide
authorizing entity that would allow the voluntary merger of the school
portfolios of several existing sponsors, us included. Still others claim we are
financially greedy and seek to expand our sponsorship efforts in order to boost
our revenues. Such allegations are hokum and need to be refuted.

Our charter-school
sponsorship philosophy

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring charter
schools in Ohio since 2005.[1] Today
there are six schools in our sponsorship portfolio. (The all-time peak number
was 10.) Two of those schools are in Columbus (KIPP: Journey Academy and
Columbus Collegiate Academy), two are in Dayton (Dayton Liberty and Dayton
View), one is in Cincinnati (Phoenix Community Learning Center), and one is in
Springfield (Springfield Academy of Excellence). Collectively, these schools
serve about 1,850 students, more than 85 percent of whom are economically
disadvantaged. Next month, two more charters enter this fold: Sciotoville Elementary Academy
and Sciotoville Community
School, both located outside Portsmouth, in southern Ohio.

Fordham’s sponsorship efforts are aligned with NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing.
We believe that quality sponsors provide their schools with maximum flexibility
and space for innovation while holding them accountable for performance, fiscal
integrity, and sound governance. If a school performs well, it should rarely
see or hear from its sponsor beyond basic compliance issues (mandated—sometimes
to excess—by state law) and required school site visits. If, however, the
school struggles to deliver academic achievement, faces financial problems, or
encounters other serious operational deficiencies, the sponsor has a solemn
duty to push it hard to make needed changes. Under Ohio law, such pressure may
include probation and closure—and threatening to take such actions if remedies
are not forthcoming. Quality sponsors carry out these threats if a school fails
(or refuses) to improve over time. Nothing is worse for children than to allow
them to languish in a failed school. As a sponsor, Fordham has closed four
schools since 2005, and fortunately these closures have been done amicably and
in partnership with the governing boards of each school involved.

Financing our
sponsorship efforts

In contrast to many Ohio charter authorizers, we believe it
is inappropriate, unethical, and sometimes immoral for sponsors to sell any
supplemental services to the schools they authorize. Whether these services
take the form of business management, instructional support, special education,
professional development, or something else, such an arrangement creates an
inherent conflict of interest, invites profiteering by sponsors and their agents,
and pressures schools to obtain services from entities that wield enormous
power over their very existence. It also creates strong economic incentives for
sponsors to turn a blind eye to poor school performance.

Fordham doesn’t “make money” as a sponsor. In fact, we’re
gradually losing our shirts. While Ohio
allows authorizers to levy sponsorship fees of up to three percent of a
school’s state funding, Fordham charges just two percent while investing north
of $100,000 a year in its sponsorship operations. That’s money taken from our own
endowment or raised from external funders. (See details in our sponsorship annual
report here.)
Further, we reward performance, providing performance rebates based on a
school’s academic rating and calibrated to its enrollment. 

New statewide sponsor

We have no need or desire to sponsor schools in the future
if a better option is available for schools and the children they serve. For
months we’ve been exploring with six other sponsoring organizations that also
subscribe to NACSA’s quality principles the joint creation of a new sponsor
entity with the scale and resources necessary to advance the improvement of the
state’s charter program. (Those organizations are the Educational Service
Center of Central Ohio, Montgomery County Educational Service Center, Dayton
Public Schools, Reynoldsburg City Schools, Loveland City Schools, and the
Columbus City Schools. Others are also considering joining this venture.)  

have no need or desire to sponsor schools in the future if a better
option is available for schools and the children they serve.

This undertaking has been driven by the need for stronger quality
in a time of tighter resources. We explained our reasoning to the State Board
of Education in May 2010 in these words:

For most sponsors in Ohio, quality
sponsorship costs more than school fees can generate. Consider the numbers for
a moment – the state has 67 active sponsors. Two of these – the Lucas County
ESC and the Ohio Council of Community Schools (both based in Toledo) –
collectively authorize one third of all Ohio charter schools. The state’s
remaining 65 sponsors authorize on average three schools each. 52 sponsors have
two or fewer. Yet quality sponsorship costs money to deliver. For example,
sponsors need the resources to meet the legal costs of closing a school, which
can accrue quickly.

It is because of limited resources
for sponsors and the need for scale and shared expertise that the Thomas B.
Fordham Foundation and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio (ESCCO)
are proposing – with planning-grant support from the National Association of
Charter School Authorizers – to launch a new statewide charter school sponsor.
Both ESCCO and Fordham have developed the tools, resources, and expertise
needed for quality authorizing, in Fordham’s case with help from the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation. We are willing
to cede these assets to a new entity that we believe can help consolidate and
improve Ohio’s charter school sponsorship landscape

Fordham remains firmly committed to advancing educational
excellence in Ohio and nationally. We embrace this struggle openly. Charter
schools are an important tool in the reform struggle, and for more than a
decade we have put our money, time, and energy where our mouth is.

Not everything we’ve done in the Buckeye State (or
elsewhere) has worked. (We’ve tried to be candid and forthcoming about the
misfires, too.) Through it all, however, we’ve been motivated by the need to
improve educational options for needy kids. We are honored to work with policy
makers, others in the state’s charter sector, and with district educators who
are committed to creating, leading, supporting, and sponsoring great charter
schools that embrace high standards of excellence. As the General Assembly
winds up its crucial work on the state’s biennial budget, we are proud to call
these individuals allies and friends.

[1] Sponsors (aka authorizers) are the organizations
responsible for helping birth charters, for holding them accountable over time
for their performance, for providing technical assistance and guidance when
appropriate, and -- if necessary -- for closing schools that no longer work for