Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Fordham Sponsorship 2010-11 Year in Review
WILD AND WACKY POLITICAL BATTLES
Since their inception in 1997, charter schools have been at the center of some of the most politically contentious debates about education in Ohio. The past year offered yet another example of charter school controversy, but this time with a twist. The 2010 elections were very good for Buckeye State Republicans, with John Kasich winning the governor’s race (replacing Ted Strickland who had been a charter adversary throughout his four-year term). Republicans also took control of the House while expanding their majority in the Senate.
Almost immediately GOP lawmakers set out to make the Buckeye State more inviting to charter schools. Governor Kasich’s budget proposals in House Bill (HB) 153 offered a solid plan for not only increasing the number of charters in Ohio but improving their quality. Crucial elements included encouraging successful operators to clone good schools; leaning hard on authorizers to fix or close failing schools and banning the replication of failure; placing schools’ ostensibly independent governing boards in clear charge of any outside organizations that they engaged to run their education programs; creating professional and ethical norms for all parties; insisting on transparency around academics, governance, and finances; channeling fair funding into successful schools; and introducing best practices and expert advice into every step of the process. This was a vision that excited us and many others in Ohio and beyond because it sought to boost quality, not just quantity.
It seemed at the time that finally the Buckeye State was positioning itself to become a leader in both charter school quality and expansion. Then the House version of the budget came out in April and with it an enormous risk that yet again the charter school community in Ohio would shoot itself in the foot. The House’s budget would have done away with any meaningful accountability for school operators just when it seemed like we were moving in the right direction. It would have, among many other items:
- Neutered both governing boards and authorizers of their oversight responsibilities and authority and given charter school operators carte blanche authority over virtually all school decisions; and
- Exempted charter schools from compliance with most of the state’s education laws and rules, essentially transforming them into publicly funded private schools.
We were not the only ones upset by the House’s charter school proposals. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers wrote in a joint letter to Senate leadership, “We are writing today to express our serious concerns with HB 153 as passed by the House. In the guise of helping charter schools, we believe that HB 153 will actually harm charter schools.” The letter continued, “Many of the provisions in HB 153 contradict the charter school model, thwart efforts to strengthen charter school accountability and quality, and will ultimately undermine popular support for Ohio’s community schools. As passed by the Ohio House, the charter provisions of HB 153 represent a significant risk for Ohio’s community school sector.”
The president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools warned that the House’s budget, “takes the public out of public education,” while the Columbus Dispatch editorialized that “School choice is meaningless without good charter schools from which to choose, and that requires accountability and effective oversight.” The Senate agreed with the critics and ultimately purged most of the troubling language from the bill, but yet again there had been much political drama and uncertainty around charters and their future in the Buckeye State. This time, however, the danger came not from charter foes but from friends of school choice who had sought to neutralize authorizers, including Fordham, and governing boards in the name of efficiency for well-heeled school operators.
But, fortunately, the larger charter school community rallied itself around the need for charter school quality and at the end of the day Ohio’s charter school law came out of the budget process stronger on some fronts while weaker on a few others. Improvements included requiring all charter schools and charter school authorizers to be rated by their performance index (PI) scores. Under the changes to law, the authorizers with the lowest 20 percent of students accordingly to the PI cannot open new schools until they improve or close the ones they have. Further, the budget allows schools to open in districts rated in the bottom five percent of all school districts.
Unfortunately, the law also requires the Ohio Department of Education to yet again sponsor charter schools – it was fired from the role in 2003 by the General Assembly after a blistering report from the Attorney General at the time chronicling the many failings of the department as a sponsor. There is no evidence that the department or the state board wants the job authorizing schools and they now find themselves dealing with some potential troubling conflicts of interest. The most bizarre is that the department is now responsible for not only overseeing and rating all 80 plus sponsors across the state (and it has struggled to do this job well), but is also now also responsible for authorizing schools of its own. In practice, this means the department’s Office of Community Schools must now hold the department’s Office of School Sponsorship accountable for the performance of its schools and take corrective action against itself as needed. This will likely be a painful situation for the department as it will surely create divided loyalties and confused responsibilities within the department. Better would be to have the department out of sponsorship all together, while giving it the resources and legislative mandate to hold all authorizers accountable for the performance of their schools.
FORDHAM’S CHARTER SCHOOL PORTFOLIO: IMPROVING SCHOOLS BUT NOT FAST ENOUGH
Despite the uncertainty around the state budget and the future of charter school authorizers in Ohio, Fordham’s sponsored schools made gains in 2010-11. With the exception of one school, Fordham-sponsored schools made academic gains last year. Three Fordham-sponsored schools were rated “Effective” (a “B”), two “Continuous Improvement” (a “C”), and one “Academic Watch” (a “D”).
The next three exhibits use data from the Ohio Department of Education provide detail on how the Fordham schools as a whole stack up against those of the other major authorizers in the Buckeye State. Graph 1 below shows that, while we don’t currently have any schools in Academic Emergency, 11 percent of the students in our portfolio were in a school rated Academic Watch (Springfield Academy of Excellence). Fifty-two percent attended schools rated Continuous Improvement, and 37 percent attended schools rated Effective.
Graph 1: Fordham-sponsored Schools v. Portfolios of Other Sponsors, by State Rating
Graph 2 shows how Fordham’s portfolio fared against other authorizers regarding “value added.” Of the 10 largest Ohio authorizers studied (by number of students), fully 57 percent of students in Fordham schools made “above expected” growth in 2010-11. Note, when a school makes above expected gains it automatically gets an academic rating jump of one level (from Academic Watch to Continuous Improvement for example). However, 38 percent of students in Fordham-sponsored schools did not meet expected growth in 2010-11.
Graph 2: Fordham-sponsored Schools v. Other Ohio Sponsors, by Value Added Designation
Graph 3: Academic Performance of Ohio 8 District and Charter Schools (Fordham-Sponsored Schools as Pull-outs), 2010-11
In the Big 8 cities, approximately 80 percent of schools (district and charter) were able to help their students meet or exceed expected value-added gains. This, however, does not translate into a solid “Performance Index” (PI) score, an indicator that takes into account whether students actually reach proficiency, not just whether they’re making gains. More specifically, PI scores reflect averages of a school’s student achievement in all tested subjects in grades three through eight, with the most weight given to students who exceed state standards. The PI runs on a scale from 0 to 120, with a state target of 100 for all schools. Graph 3 tells the PI story at a glance. It shows that fully eight in ten schools (district and charter) in the Buckeye State’s biggest cities met or exceeded academic growth, but less than five percent (25 out of 510) earned a PI score of 100 or higher.
Ohio’s urban schools have done a decent job meeting or exceeding value-added growth, but few receive a PI score above 100 because many students in these schools are still not reaching state proficiency expectations. Unfortunately, Fordham sponsored schools are a microcosm of this trend.
Since we first started as an authorizer in July 2005, our sponsorship portfolio has evolved considerably. Six years ago we started with a total of 10 schools (all in the Dayton-Cincinnati area) that collectively served about 2,700 students, and all but three of these schools we inherited from the Ohio Department of Education as they were booted from sponsorship in 2003. For the most part, our initial crop of schools were troubled academically with five being rated Academic Emergency, one being rated Continuous Improvement, and one being rated Excellent (three new start-up schools were unrated). Over the last six years we’ve had six schools leave our portfolio either through closure or by jumping to other sponsors; we’ve opened one new school only to see it close after a year; and we’ve birthed two new schools. We currently sponsor only four of the ten schools that originally signed with Fordham in 2005.
This year, Fordham-sponsored schools serve approximately 2,500 children and as the data show these schools have made progress. This is a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the educators, school board members, and students in each building. But, more work remains to be done. We know it and we won’t hide from the challenge, but more importantly the teachers, school leaders, and board members working in the schools we sponsor are committed to making a difference in the lives of children who need it and they are making progress.
For more analyses on the performance of Fordham-sponsored school as well as more context on the last year in sponsorship, read our full report: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Fordham’s 2010-11 Sponsorship Accountability Report.
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May 8, 2013