Thomas B. Fordham Institute Proponent Testimony on Ohio House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 148

Thank you Chair Hite, Vice Chair Sawyer, and subcommittee members for giving me the opportunity to testify today in support of House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 148.

My name is Chad Aldis. I am the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C. It’s worth noting, given the subject matter of my testimony, that Fordham’s Dayton office is also a charter school sponsor.

I’d like to start by commending Governor Kasich and legislative leaders from both chambers and both parties for taking on the issue of charter school reform. Despite bipartisan support for charter schools in much of the nation, they remain a deeply divisive issue in Ohio. My hope is that this bill could start to change that. At the end of the day, we all want our students to have access to high-quality schools.

Organizationally, Fordham has long focused on the need to improve accountability and performance in all Ohio schools. Last year, after seeing an onslaught of troubling stories about charter schools, we commissioned research to learn more about the problems that the charter sector was facing.

Getting to the bottom of the issue was important to us because Fordham has long been a supporter of all forms of school choice—including charter schools. We believe that it’s critical for parents to have a variety of high-quality educational options.

Our research consisted of two separate reports that were released this past December.

  • The first was an analysis of the academic performance of Ohio charter school students conducted by CREDO (the Center for Research on Education Outcomes) at Stanford University. The results showed that student achievement in Ohio charter schools isn’t where we need it to be, with the typical charter school student losing days of learning in both reading and math each year. Here’s some additional detail from the report—both good and bad.
    • Low-income black students benefit greatly by attending a charter school, gaining twenty-two days of learning in math and twenty-nine days in reading.
    • Cleveland charter schools lead other Ohio urban areas, with their students gaining fourteen additional days of learning in both reading and math.
    • Charter operators (management companies) were outperformed by standalone charters.
    • Charter middle schools have a strong positive impact on student learning (forty-three additional days of learning in math and thirty-six days in reading).
    • Charter high schools, unlike middle schools, struggled to post positive student learning gains. 
  • The second report was a look at Ohio’s charter school law. We asked Bellwether Education Partners, a highly respected national consulting firm with deep experience in charter school policy, to do an analysis of Ohio’s charter law and make recommendations for reform. The resulting report, The Road to Redemption, contained ten specific recommendations on ways to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter school sector as a whole. The recommendations focused on sponsor quality, misaligned incentives in sponsor funding, accountability of charter operators, independence of charter school boards, sponsor hopping, standards for all schools, and greater equity in funding, transportation, and facilities.

If anyone would like a copy of one or both reports, I have some with me and can arrange other copies for you.

It is with this background, and Fordham’s commitment to high-quality charter schools, that I stand here in support of HB 2 and SB 148.

First, I’ll talk a little about HB 2. Overall, it’s a thoughtful approach to charter reform, and we are supportive of it. It strikes a good balance between accountability and autonomy. Some of the strongest provisions include:

  • Prohibiting sponsors, the entities charged with overseeing charter schools, from selling services to schools that they sponsor
  • Requiring sponsors to disclose how they spend their sponsor fees
  • Eliminating the ability of operators to appeal to the sponsor if fired by the governing board of the charter school
  • Requiring the compilation of academic achievement data for charter operators
  • Helping ensure that charter school boards are more independent by requiring annual conflict-of-interest statements, independent fiscal officers and attorneys, and the public posting of the names of charter school board members

Of course, what would testimony be without some suggestions to make the bill even stronger? So here goes. We suggest that:

  1. All sponsors should be required to contract with ODE and to submit to the department’s sponsor performance review. ODE has put together a strong system of review for charter sponsors. It’s important that the provisions apply to all sponsors.
  2. While the bill requires sponsors to disclose how they spend their money, the language in HB 2 should go a step farther—sponsors should be permitted to spend their money only on oversight and technical support. Charter sponsorship is about providing oversight and should not be a source of revenue for unrelated activities.
  3. Language should be added to make it clear that, in its role as a sponsor, ODE is not required to accept low-quality schools.
  4. Auditor Yost, whose office has a ton of experience looking at the books of charter schools, has recommended that some additional information be provided regarding the expenditures of operators. We agree, but we would urge that it be done very thoughtfully, because operators—even while serving a public purpose—are private organizations that shouldn’t have a typical audit.
  5. Finally, sponsor hopping is a real point of vulnerability at a time when ODE is working to improve sponsor quality. Allowing low-performing schools to move from sponsor to sponsor as a way of escaping accountability could undermine sponsor accountability, and HB 2 allows for that to happen.

I’m pleased to say that SB 148 includes each of these recommended changes. If HB 2 ends up being the vehicle for charter school reform, I would suggest that the above provisions be added to it.

SB 148 is a fairly comprehensive approach to charter school reform and, as such, is lengthy. As a member of the workgroup that Senator Lehner organized, I’m happy to answer any questions that I can about the bill’s provisions. In the interest of time, I’ll highlight just a few additional provisions. SB 148 does the following:

  1. It incorporates much of Governor Kasich’s proposal related to charter school sponsor oversight—this is critical if we want to continue the progress Ohio has made cracking down on sponsors who don’t have the commitment or competency to effectively oversee schools.
  2. It places limits on direct authorizing by the Ohio Department of Education. ODE’s ability to sponsor schools puts it into a position of being both a sponsor and the overseer of sponsors; taking steps to limit this is prudent.
  3. It assists high-performing charter schools with facilities by encouraging co-location and providing some facility funding. A large number of Ohio charter schools struggle with facilities. These provisions make it easier for the best-performing charter schools to secure a facility at a relatively low cost.
  4. It requires criminal background checks for charter school board members—while very likely common practice already, this makes it a requirement, thereby strengthening governance.
  5. It aligns compensation of charter school board members with that received by board members of traditional public school districts, thereby reducing the likelihood that charter governing board members will be attracted and/or influenced by the relatively large per-meeting reimbursement allowed under current law.
  6. It requires internet-based charter schools to track active student participation, conduct a student orientation course, and confer with parents when student performance declines—These provisions will help ensure that e-school students are positioned for success and that only those actually engaged with the school remain enrolled.

I stand here today as a strong supporter of charter schools and school choice, having spent the last ten years of my life focused on the issue. During that time, every education reformer I’ve met—and there have been a bunch—entered the movement to help kids get a better education. When a student attends an ineffective school, be it a charter or a traditional public school, his long-term prospects are severely diminished.

We need to structure our law to maximize the likelihood that schools will be successful. The structural changes in both HB 2 and SB 148 go a long toward doing that. Importantly, they do it without—for the most part—getting into the day-to-day operations of charter schools or imposing a slew of new mandates at the building level. Charter schools must remain free to innovate and be distinctive from the neighborhood school.

In every movement, there is a window of opportunity. It’s a time when factors align to make bold changes possible. For Ohio charter school supporters, that time is now. The problem is known, taking action is just and right, the politics are favorable, and the future outlook will be improved by addressing today’s problems. I’m excited about the future of Ohio’s charter schools and remain a believer in their ability to make a meaningful difference in the lives of thousands of children.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have. 

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.