Setting the record straight: The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and charter school sponsorship

There has been a lot of controversy in Ohio in recent weeks around House-proposed legislative changes to the state's charter law that would decimate an already weak charter school accountability system (see here, here, and here). Fordham has not been shy about commenting publicly on what's wrong with the House language, nor have we shied away from arguing for stronger charter accountability and transparency. Those who know us understand our advocacy for strong charter accountability provisions are not new.

In fact, we have been a strong voice for charter school quality for more than a decade and played a critical role in the production of Turning the Corner to Quality: Policy Guidelines for Strengthening Ohio's Charter Schools. This report, released collaboratively with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers in October 2006, recommended a ???housecleaning??? to close down Ohio's poorest performing schools. Partly in response, the General Assembly passed a law in December 2006 to force failing schools to improve or face automatic closure.

Because we have been such outspoken and visible critics of the recent House language, many who disagree with us are raising questions publicly and behind the scenes about our motivations. Some have accused Fordham???in its advocating for a statewide authorizing entity that would merge the portfolios of existing sponsors, including Fordham???of trying to give birth to a ???super- sponsor??? in order to orchestrate some form of a charter school power grab. Still others claim we are motivated by greed and want to build our sponsorship efforts in order to make more money. These accusations are hokum and need to be refuted.

Our charter-school sponsorship philosophy

Sponsors (aka authorizers) are the organizations responsible for helping birth charters, for holding them accountable over time for their performance, for providing technical assistance and guidance when appropriate, and???if necessary???for closing schools that no longer work for children.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring charter schools in the Buckeye State since 2005. Two of our schools are in Columbus (KIPP: Journey Academy and Columbus Collegiate Academy), two in Dayton (Dayton Liberty and Dayton View), one in Cincinnati (Phoenix Community Learning Center), and one in Springfield (Springfield Academy of Excellence). Collectively, these schools serve about 1,850 students; more than 85 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. In July, we will add two new schools to our portfolio (Sciotoville Elementary Academy and Sciotoville Community School, both located outside Portsmouth, in southern Ohio).

We believe quality sponsors provide their schools with maximum flexibility and space for innovation while holding them accountable for performance. If a school performs well it should rarely see or hear from its sponsor beyond basic compliance issues and required school site visits. If, however, the school struggles to deliver academic achievement, faces financial problems, or encounters other serious operational deficiencies then the sponsor has a solemn duty to push hard for needed changes, corrective actions, and improvement. Such pressure under Ohio law includes threats about probation and closure as needed, and quality sponsors carry these threats out if a school simply cannot or won't improve over time. Nothing is worse for children than allowing them to languish in a failed school that lacks the capacity to improve. As a sponsor, Fordham has closed four schools since 2005.

Financing Fordham's sponsorship efforts

In contrast to many sponsors in Ohio, we believe it is inappropriate for sponsors to sell any supplemental services to the schools they authorize. Whether these services take the form of business management, instructional support, special education, professional development, or something else, such an arrangement creates an inherent conflict of interest, invites profiteering by sponsors and their agents, and pressures schools to obtain services from entities that wield enormous power over their very existence. It also creates strong economic incentives for sponsors to turn a blind eye to poor quality.

Fordham doesn't ???make money??? as a sponsor. While Ohio charter law allows a sponsor to charge a sponsorship fee of up to three percent of a school's state funding, Fordham charges just two percent. Fordham invests more than $100,000 a year in its sponsorship operations (money from our endowment or raised from external funders) beyond what we receive in school fees (see annual report here). Further, we reward performance, providing performance rebates based on a school's academic rating and student enrollment.

New statewide sponsor entity

We have sponsored schools in the past, but see no need to do so in the future if there is a better option for our sponsored schools and the children they serve. Fordham's sponsorship efforts are aligned with the National Association of Charter School Authorizer's (NACSA) Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. Other organizations in Ohio embrace these quality principles and standards, including the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, Montgomery County Educational Service Center, Dayton Public Schools, Reynoldsburg City Schools, Loveland City Schools, and the Columbus City Schools. Together???and others who share the same principles may join the effort???these entities are joining forces to form a new sponsor entity that has the scale and resources necessary to advance the improvement of the state's charter program. [quote]

This work is driven by the need for quality in a time of doing more with less. We explained the logic to the State Board of Education in public testimony in May 2010 thusly:

It is no stretch to say that, for most sponsors in Ohio, quality sponsorship costs more than school fees can generate. Consider the numbers for a moment???the state has sixty-seven active sponsors. Two of these???the Lucas County ESC and the Ohio Council of Community Schools (both based in Toledo)???collectively authorize one third of all Ohio charter schools. The state's remaining sixty-five sponsors authorize on average three schools each. Fifty-two sponsors have two or fewer. Yet quality sponsorship costs money to deliver. For example, sponsors need the resources to meet the legal costs of closing a school, which can accrue quickly.

It is because of limited resources for sponsors and the need for scale and shared expertise that the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio (ESCCO) are proposing???with planning-grant support from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers???to launch a new statewide charter school sponsor. Both ESCCO and Fordham have developed the tools, resources, and expertise needed for quality authorizing, in Fordham's case with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are willing to cede these assets to a new entity that we believe can help consolidate and improve Ohio's charter-school sponsorship landscape.

Fordham is committed to advancing educational excellence in Ohio and nationally. We embrace this struggle openly and transparently. Charter schools are an important tool in the reform struggle, and for more than a decade we have put our money, time, and energy where our mouth is.

Not everything we have done in the Buckeye State has worked and we have in fact had plenty of failures as both a sponsor and as a charter advocate. But through it all we have been motivated by trying to improve educational options for the state's neediest children. We are honored to work with lawmakers, policy makers, others in the state's charter sector, and with district educators who are committed to creating, leading, supporting, and sponsoring great charter schools that embrace high standards of excellence. We are proud to call these individuals allies and friends.

???Terry Ryan

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