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The Education Gadfly

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has deep roots in Dayton, Ohio and has long been immersed in Ohio education policy, particularly as it?relates to charter schools. Debates around charter schools ? their role, their efficacy, even their right to exist ? are hot and contentious in the Buckeye State, perhaps as much so as anywhere else in the nation. But Fordham hasn't merely weighed in from the lens of think tank and advocate of choice; it has also worked directly with schools as a grant maker, launched and supported a Dayton-based charter management organization, and for the last five years has been?a charter school authorizer (aka ?sponsor? in Ohio).

To recount and draw lessons from this experience, Fordham's Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan, and Mike Lafferty authored Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines. The book, published by Palgrave Macmillan, chronicles what former commissioner of education of Massachusetts (and Fordham board member) David Driscoll aptly describes as the ?collision of theory and practice,? starting with Fordham's beginnings in Dayton, the decline of that city, and the desperation felt by many low-income families trapped in one of the most chronically under-performing school districts in Ohio. It is this perennial academic failure as well as changes to Ohio law in early 2003 (when the state ?fired? the department of education as authorizer, orphaning about 75 charters), that prompted Fordham to roll up its sleeves and plunge into the fray.

Fordham had long been active on the Ohio charter scene as critic, policy analyst, facilitator of new schools, and source of assistance to start-up operators. After much internal soul-searching, in 2004 it applied to become a school authorizer. But, there were doubts that this was a smart decision even within Fordham's own board. Former trustee Diane Ravitch, the respected education historian (and Chester Finn's longtime friend and collaborator) summed up this skepticism in 2006 when she told a journalist ?I don't think thank tanks should run schools, but I was outvoted.?

It hasn't been an easy road. Finn, Ryan, and Lafferty recount in the book (and in this week's Education Next) the dismal academic state of most of the ten schools Fordham initially took on, as well as exceedingly difficult efforts to keep on track schools that ended up shuttering. In one case, the school went from being the darling of Ohio's charter school program to a scandal that ultimately saw the school leader sentenced to four and a half years?in?prison. Fordham's sponsorship team has navigated a political environment often hostile to charters, and learned how difficult it is to hold accountable charter schools chronically failing to serve their students when those schools can avoid tough love and ?sponsor hop? to avoid consequences. As a former Ohio Senator said in 2008, ?The charter movement has in many ways been the best argument against itself.?

Fordham's Ohio experience has yielded many lessons to temper its think tank perspective and ivory tower ideals about school choice. The book describes and analyzes Fordham's efforts, successes and failures, and distills what it all means for others committed to school reform and innovation. For more about Ohio's Education Reform Challenges, including a presentation on the book delivered at this year's National Association of Public Charter Schools conference in Chicago as well as information on how to order the book at a discount, visit our webpage.

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