Two steps forward, one step back

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back cover imageSince
Ohio’s first charter schools opened in 1997, they have been at the center of
some of the state’s hottest and most politically contentious debates about
education. The past year brought still more examples of charter-linked
controversy.

The
2010 elections were very good for Buckeye 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 Senate majority.

Almost
immediately, GOP lawmakers set out to make the Buckeye State more inviting to
charter schools. Governor Kasich’s budget proposals offered a solid plan for
not only increasing the number of charters in Ohio but also
boosting their quality. Crucial elements included:

  • Encouraging
    successful operators to clone good schools and channeling fairer funding into
    them;
  • Leaning hard
    on authorizers to fix or close failing schools and banning their replication;
    and
  • Placing
    schools’ ostensibly independent governing boards clearly in charge of any
    outside organizations that they engaged to run their education programs.

This
vision for quality along with quantity excited us and many others in Ohio and beyond. The Buckeye State was finally positioning
itself to become a true leader in the charter sector rather than a troubled
sector plagued by too many mediocre schools.

Then
the House issued
its version of the budget in April and with it came an enormous risk that
charter advocates in Ohio would again shoot themselves in
the foot—and their pupils in the heart. The House proposal, pushed by friends
of school choice, sought to neutralize authorizers (including Fordham) and
governing boards in the name of efficiency on behalf of well-heeled,
profit-maximizing school operators. The House’s budget would have done away
with any meaningful accountability for school operators just when it seemed
like we might finally move in the right direction.

We
were not the only ones upset by this. The larger charter-school community
rallied around the need for charter quality in Ohio: The National Alliance for
Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,
and the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, among others, denounced the
House bill.

After
much political jockeying and uncertainty, the Senate agreed with the critics
and ultimately purged most of the troubling language from the bill, but not
without conflict, late nights, much sweat, and plenty of spent political
capital.

Ohio’s charter-school
law came out of the budget sausage-maker stronger on some fronts but weaker on
others. Improvements included requiring all charter schools and their
authorizers to be rated by their academic Performance Index (PI) scores. Henceforth,
authorizers with the lowest-achieving 20 percent of students according to the
PI cannot open new schools until they improve or close the ones they have.
Further, the budget allows new charter schools to open in all districts that rank in the bottom 5 percent. (Previously, Ohio confined charter start-ups to just
the Big Eight school districts—the state’s largest eight cities—and those
districts rated Academic Emergency and Academic Watch.)

Unfortunately,
the law also requires the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)
to sponsor directly charter schools once again. (The legislature fired it from
that same role in 2003 after a blistering report from the then-Auditor
of State chronicling the many failings of the department as a sponsor.) There
is no evidence that the department or its board wants the job of authorizing
schools; in fact, they now find themselves facing potential conflicts of
interest, the most bizarre of which is that the agency’s Office of Community
Schools must now hold the same agency’s Office of School Sponsorship accountable
for the performance of its schools and take corrective action against itself as
needed. Far better would be to have the department continue to eschew direct
sponsorship while giving it the resources and mandates to hold all authorizers
accountable for the performance of their schools. One can only assume that ODE
was put back into the role of sponsor because some operators felt they would
authorize schools and not be too demanding or persnickety about performance.

Fordham’s
charter-school portfolio: Improving schools—but not fast enough

In
this uncertain environment, Fordham has continued to operate as a charter-school
authorizer, a role it has performed in Ohio since July 2005. Fordham took on
this responsibility, and continues to embrace it, because we believe there was—and
still is—a dearth of quality authorizers in the state. We also felt that we
could help recruit some decent models to needy neighborhoods and support the
expansion and growth of some of those already here. It has been a tough six
years, which we chronicled last year in Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines.

Since
Fordham first started as an authorizer, our sponsorship portfolio has evolved
considerably. We began with ten schools (all in the Dayton-Cincinnati area)
that collectively served about 2,700 students—all but three of which we
inherited from the Ohio Department of Education after it was
booted from sponsorship in 2003. Most of them were academically troubled. Since
then, 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 successfully birthed two new schools. We currently
sponsor only four of the ten schools that originally signed with Fordham in
2005.

How
did Fordham’s own schools fare in 2010-11? Five of six Fordham-sponsored
schools made academic gains in 2010-11. Three were rated Effective (equivalent
under the Ohio accountability system to a grade of B), two Continuous
Improvement (C), and one Academic Watch (D). Still, while we don’t currently
have any schools in Academic Emergency, 11 percent of the students in our
portfolio were enrolled in a D-rated school (Springfield Academy of
Excellence). Fifty-two percent attended schools rated C while 37 percent
attended schools that earned Bs. This puts us somewhere in the upper-middle of
sponsors in Ohio. Good, but not good enough.

When
it comes to academic value added by schools, 57 percent of students in Fordham
schools made “above expected” growth in 2010-11, using Ohio’s relatively
generous (and rather opaque) system for making such calculations. However, 38
percent did not meet expected growth in 2010-11. Compared to the other nine
largest authorizers (by number of students), Fordham claims the highest
percentage of students making “above expected” growth—but also the third
highest percentage of students falling in the “below expected” category. Again:
good, but not good enough.

In Ohio’s
Big Eight cities, approximately 80 percent of schools (district and charter)
were able to help their students meet or exceed expected value-added gains, but
less than five percent (twenty-five out of 510) hit the state’s PI-score target.

Ohio’s urban
schools have done a decent job of meeting or exceeding value-added growth, but
few are reaching state proficiency expectations. We believe this is in part because
Ohio’s accountability system has been watered down over the years to make it
easier on schools to meet or exceed state expectations and receive decent
ratings. This is in fact a belief shared by state superintendent Stan Heffner
who has, to his credit, been traveling the state and making the case that
Ohio’s current accountability system is plagued by grade
inflation
.  

Sobered
and a bit battered, Fordham continues as an authorizer of Ohio charter schools,
and a vigorous participant in the state’s larger education policy debates.
We’re constantly exploring new options including, at this writing, working to
help some high-quality schools in Ohio expand their efforts (we expect to
authorize two new start-ups in 2012 and two more in 2013). Meanwhile, we’ve
learned a lot about how hard all of this work is to do well, stymied further if
state legislation is poorly written, and we think it critical to share the
lessons along the way—even those lessons we might not really have wanted to
learn.

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