Two Years, Ten Lessons

It feels like the Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring Ohio charter schools for decades. In reality, though, we’re at the two-year mark--not counting many prior months when we agonized over whether to take this plunge; tried to learn from others who were doing it well in other states; sought (without great success) to persuade and prepare other Ohio-based organizations to enter this fray; and subjected ourselves and our board to much analysis, cost-projecting and pro-con debate.

As the 2006-7 school year comes to a close, Fordham’s sponsorship “portfolio” contains just nine of Ohio’s 300+ charter schools (seven of these we inherited from the Ohio Department of Education when that agency got out of the sponsorship business in 2005). Not many, you may think, but sponsoring even this number has been no easy task. It’s taken a lot of work and we’ve learned a ton. It’s been healthy to emerge from the ivory tower to work closely with real educators trying to do right by real children--almost all of them poor, minority and ill-served by traditional schools--in real places. Someone once defined a think-tank as a place where reality is examined to see if it accords with theory. I’ve come to view sponsorship as a crucible in which education theories are softened and sometimes melted by the considerable heat that reality can generate.

Part of Fordham’s mission and mandate as a sponsor is to try to make sense of this experience in ways that may benefit others in Ohio and beyond who are engaged, or might one day engage, in this important but under-analyzed precinct of contemporary education reform. It’s too soon to draw any definitive conclusions. But I’m ready to share ten early lessons, some partly-melted theories among them.

First, though, let me recapitulate what charter sponsors (aka authorizers) do--and don’t do. A sponsor bears the solemn responsibility of looking after the public interest in regard to the education of children attending “its” schools and the tax dollars entrusted to those schools on behalf of their pupils. Yet they don’t operate schools--at least they’re not supposed to. (Ohio has a few unfortunate exceptions.) Rather they “license” non-profit charter boards to create and operate schools for a limited period of time, then monitor the performance of those schools in several crucial areas (academic achievement, fiscal competence and organizational viability), as well as compliance with a host of laws and regulations. If the school’s board and operator do a good job, the sponsor may renew the charter. If not, the sponsor is supposed to provide the school with “technical assistance” (a sticky assignment, as you’ll see below), put it on probation, decline to renew its charter or even, in extreme cases, shut it down. Solemn responsibilities, indeed.

Here, in no particular order, is some of what we’ve learned so far:

  1. Ohio’s sponsorship market is a mixed blessing. Charter theory holds that states should have multiple sponsors so that no one entity can slam all doors in the face of would-be school operators--the more so if the sole sponsor option is a local school system that’s apt to reject charters in order to avoid the competition (and revenue loss) that they create. But be careful what you wish for. Ohio’s sponsorship “market” sometimes functions poorly, allowing mediocre schools to avoid oversight by shifting to less demanding sponsors and (because sponsors are funded via fees paid by the schools themselves) creating perverse economic incentives for sponsors and schools alike.
  2. Everyone benefits from having someone watch over his or her shoulder. That’s why corporations have auditors, why parents check on their children’s homework, why wives monitor their husbands’ alcohol consumption (and vice versa), and why state testing programs track the performance of public schools. In Ohio, however, many charter sponsors--including the two largest--are accountable to nobody but themselves. Neither the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) nor anybody else has legal responsibility for monitoring their performance in this key role or pulling the plug if they mess up. While we don’t always enjoy being accountable to ODE for our sponsorship work--and ill-considered changes in a few key positions there could make it downright painful--we do a better job because we know they’re watching. In my view, all sponsors should have to adhere to the same basic standards--and be fully transparent.
  3. It’s a mistake for sponsors to be financed by fees paid by their charter schools. The already under-funded schools view this as an onerous tax and have every reason to seek sponsors with low fees, whether or not they do a good job. And sponsors seeking to maximize their “business” by charging low fees may end up with too little revenue to deploy the expertise needed to do the job well.
  4. It’s a bigger mistake for sponsors to provide fee-based “services” to their schools. Whether these services take the form of business management, special education, professional development or something else, such an arrangement creates an inherent conflict of interest, invites profiteering by sponsors, and pressures schools to obtain services from entities that wield enormous power over their very existence.
  5. Quality sponsorship is costly, labor intensive and voracious in its appetite for pricey expertise. If Fordham didn’t have a small endowment, plus external subsidy for its sponsorship work by one of the nation’s large foundations, we’d long since have gone broke. I well understand why other sponsors are wont to maximize revenues--or minimize the oversight that they provide. Yet quality sponsorship is too important to a healthy charter school movement for this situation to be sustainable.
  6. It’s incredibly difficult to determine in advance whether a would-be operator is up to the many challenges of running a successful charter school. Indeed, it’s all too easy to err--to trust earnest intentions and forego the hard-nosed analysis of an organization’s track record, financial stability and governance; of an education plan’s curriculum, pedagogy and assessments; and of the histories and capacities of the people involved. Between earnest incompetence on the one hand and self-serving greed on the other, many sponsors have misjudged a prospective operator’s odds of succeeding. And even the surest-fire school plans can go awry if key individuals are taken ill, move away--or suddenly get indicted.
  7. Everything under the sun gets thrown at sponsors. From the standpoint of aggrieved school employees, disgruntled parents, muckraking journalists and fretful creditors, the sponsor looks like the local school board or superintendent’s office: a place to take one’s complaint and seek redress from higher authority. When something goes radically off the tracks--two dozen kids get food poisoning when tainted lettuce makes it into the lunchroom, the police get summoned after a student claims to have been molested--even though we don’t run the school, we are in some sense responsible for what happens there. No wonder we get asked why we didn’t prevent the problem. 
  8. Sponsorship carries risks of its own. These include legal liability, reputational damage, financial peril, vexed community relations and more--particularly for non-profit organizations. Trying to avoid missteps and do the right thing, our own attorneys’ bills have been hefty. We’ve had to get more insurance. And because we don’t enjoy the “sovereign immunity” of government agencies, we do fret about lawsuits filed by opportunistic (or genuinely distressed) individuals and eager tort lawyers.
  9. It’s far harder than theorists (like me) thought to actually close a mediocre (or even bad) school. Unless its students face imminent danger or someone has fled to Bermuda with the payroll, shuttering a school is a tricky business. Parents and kids usually like their school, no matter its low test scores and torpid curriculum, and don’t want it closed any more than do the clients of a surplus district school. Worse, there may be no better educational option in the vicinity. (Remember why these families opted for the charter school in the first place.) Moreover, many charter boards and operators have deep community, political and institutional ties about which one must think twice before severing. What if the school is the darling of local business leaders and philanthropists? A “ministry” of a major local church? A path down which a wary school district might be drawn into chartering? One doesn’t casually close (or non-renew) such a school.
  10. Sponsors in Ohio have too few “intermediate” options for putting pressure on their schools to improve without threatening a shut-down. Yet the state’s expectation that sponsors themselves will furnish faltering schools with “technical assistance” isn’t right, either. It conflates the role of social worker with that of policeman (see here) and invites conflicts of interest. (What if the school faithfully follows the sponsor’s advice but still produces woeful results? Whose responsibility is that?) I’m glad to refer “our” sponsored schools to other competent sources of technical assistance and back-office operations, but if we’re to hold them accountable for their results, we shouldn’t be deeply implicated in their operational decisions.

That’s ten. Note, though, that they’re but a few small tributaries of a very big river. We’re still exploring it, learning as we go. For charters to be done right, sponsorship (and much else) needs to be done right. Nobody has yet written “Sponsorship for Dummies.” What you’ve just read may be chapter one. But don’t expect it to be a short book.

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