Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told the Columbus Dispatch back in 2007, about his city’s rapidly declining population, that, “Our problem is families with children. People are making their choices based on education, and if I am able to make our school district a district of choice where people want to put their children because of excellence, then I can guarantee you that our population reduction will come to a halt.” In the last decade Cleveland’s school age population has shrunk by 10,000 children, and those left behind are largely poor, minority, and struggling academically.  

It is in the hope of stemming the loss of families and children that the mayor has proposed his bold school reform plan that seeks to turn the city’s educational fortunes around. There are many worthy parts to his plan (see here for details), and one of the boldest sections calls for changes to how charter schools operate and are treated in Cleveland. First, high-performing charters would be welcomed as equals and even be offered a share of local tax-levy revenue. This arrangement would be the first of its kind in America and is truly path breaking. Second, the plan calls for a Transformation Alliance that would have the authority to veto proposed start-up charter schools that don’t meet yet-to-be-determined criteria for quality.  

While many in the state’s charter community support the overall direction of the mayor’s plan no one, including Fordham, likes the provision giving the Transformation Alliance (and its yet unidentified members) veto authority over the start-up of new schools. We’ve learned as a charter school authorizer since 2005 (Fordham currently authorizes eight schools that serve about 2,300 students) that making determinations about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to open new schools is one of the hardest and most important decisions that an authorizer makes. It is not something politically appointed bodies usually do very well even if it is done with the best of intentions.

The work of an authorizer is hard because it literally demands trying to peer into the future and make bets about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to open new schools. These decisions are based on the people involved (leadership and governance), their academic plans (curricular and programmatic), their resources and budget assumptions, their experience (have they opened successful schools previously or been involved in a successful school?) and market demand. When Fordham takes applications for charter school sponsorship from prospective school operators we will only issue contracts to those applicants that we believe have “a high likelihood of success” in opening new schools.

As a result, we have dozens of prospective school operators contact us each year, a dozen or so actually go through the detailed Fordham charter application process, and this year we agreed to sponsor just three new schools.  We hold such a high-bar for prospective operators for two primary reasons. First, we have learned from experience that opening and running a successful charter school is one of the hardest things to do in American education. Many think they can do it well, but few really can. Second, it is far harder to close a struggling school (and disrupt the education of students and the lives of teachers) than it is to say no to a prospective operator that you think simply isn’t up to the task of opening and sustaining a successful charter school.

Yet, while we have doubts about the proposed Transformation Alliance and the scope of its authority, we fully understand, appreciate, and share Mayor Jackson’s frustration with the current system of charter school quality control in his city, and indeed across the state. We believe the charter community has a responsibility to offer the mayor and the city of Cleveland a workable solution to a real problem.

Today there are currently nine different organizations that can birth new charter schools in Cleveland. In no other American city outside of Ohio do prospective charter school operators have so many choices of authorizers to pick from and negotiate with. Not surprisingly, these authorizers have dramatically varied levels of commitment, resources, capacity, and motivation for giving birth to new schools along Ohio’s north coast. Not all hold high standards.

For example, in 2005 Fordham rejected a charter school application for the Weems School in Cleveland. They quickly and with little fuss found another authorizer, the Education Resource Consultants of Ohio. Fast forward to 2011 - state auditor Dave Yost summed the situation up at the now defunct Weems charter school as “a heck of a mess.” An avoidable mess. Others like it have played out in Cleveland and elsewhere and each time these charter blow ups have come at the expense of children and their education.

Mayor Jackson is absolutely right to demand better from the state’s charter community. A reasonable proposal would be for the mayor and the Transformation Alliance to have authority over determining – based on standards from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and state achievement data – those authorizers that would be allowed to sponsor new schools in Cleveland and those that wouldn’t.

Fordham – which expects to authorize one school in Cleveland in 2012-13 – would willingly be the first to go through a vetting process led by the Transformation Alliance. We would see this as an opportunity to partner with the mayor and the Cleveland school district in working to create more and better school options for children and families who badly need them. Maybe together we can help Cleveland reverse its decline, while giving children and families better school choices.  

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