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.

On the Corner...
Ensuring a bright future for Cleveland and its education system requires taking chances.
 Photo by Laszlo Ilyes.

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.

We believe the charter community has a responsibility to offer a workable solution to this real problem.

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. Cleveland is rife with dozens of low-performing charter schools, sponsored by nine, going on eleven, separate charter authorizers, many of which are only in it for the money. We believe the charter community has a responsibility to offer the mayor and the city of Cleveland a workable solution to this real problem.

As mayor of Ohio’s second-largest city, Jackson is right to demand better from the state’s charter community, and a fine starting point would be to give him some say about who, besides the district, can authorize schools in Cleveland. Using real data about actual school performance and doing all this in the sunshine, he and the Transformation Alliance, might advise the Ohio Department of Education regarding future Cleveland sponsors. They might even get to pick and choose, provided that a reasonable number of independent authorizers are always chosen. But it does the children of Cleveland no favor to continue with boundless authorizing of mediocre (or worse) schools. Maybe quality charter authorizers working together with the mayor can help Cleveland reverse its decline, while giving children and families better school choices. It is certainly worth a try.

A slightly different version of this editorial originally appeared on the Ohio Gadfly Daily blog.

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