Traditional districts that serve as charter school sponsors are often glossed over in the debate over Ohio’s charter sector. But given their role in two recent reports, it’s an opportune time to take a closer look at their track record.
First, a Know Your Charter report covered the failings of a number of Buckeye charters receiving federal startup funds (either they closed or never opened). Though the report itself didn’t draw attention to it, we pointed out that school districts sponsored more than 40 percent of these closed schools. Meanwhile, the auditor of state released a review of charter school attendance; among the three schools referred for further action because of extraordinarily low attendance, two had district sponsors (the third was sponsored by an educational service center).
With all of the talk about charters being created to privatize education, it might surprise you to learn that Ohio school districts have long had the authority to sponsor (a.k.a. authorize) charters. In fact, the Buckeye State allows districts to sponsor either conversion or startup charters within certain geographic limitations (e.g., a school must be located within a district’s jurisdiction or in a district nearby). Throughout our eighteen-year charter history, there have been 105 district-sponsored charters—almost one-fifth of Ohio charters ever opened—authorized by sixty-eight districts. Presently, there are forty-two active district sponsors—roughly 7 percent of districts in the state—that together authorize sixty-two schools, the majority of which are dropout recovery schools.
This article takes a closer look at district-sponsored charters along two dimensions: school performance and school closure. Each charter school is linked to the sponsor of record as reported in ODE’s 2014–15 Community Schools Annual Report (Table 2). For closed or suspended schools, the sponsor of record is identified via ODE’s Closed School Directory.
It’s vitally important to examine the academic quality of the schools in sponsors’ portfolios. Interestingly, CREDO’s 2014 study on Ohio charters contains an analysis that linked a school’s impact to its sponsor. In short, the analysis did not find appreciable differences in charter school impact based on sponsor type (e.g., non-district versus district). But the data for that analysis ends with the 2012–13 year, so it might be useful to start by taking a look at the most recently available report card data. Of course, we acknowledge that the following comparisons are not nearly as rigorous as student-level analyses like CREDO.
General education schools (i.e., non-dropout-recovery schools)
Districts only rarely sponsor general education charter schools, meaning that a small number of their schools can be compared to non-district-sponsored ones. Along the value-added measure (i.e., student growth), only seventeen district-sponsored charter schools received a rating in 2013–14 and 2014–15. The majority of these schools were sponsored by either the Cleveland or Reynoldsburg school districts. We elect to use the value-added measure, as opposed to a proficiency-based one, since it is more likely to reflect actual school performance.
With those qualifications in mind, Table 1 displays the distribution of schools’ value-added ratings by sponsor type for 2013–4 and 2014–15. As you can see, district-sponsored schools have a slight edge with respect to the percentage of schools earning A ratings on value-added: Thirty-five percent of their schools received such a rating in both years, versus 25 and 20 percent for non-district sponsored schools. The strong performance for districts can be partly attributed to Cleveland, which sponsors several of the high-performing Breakthrough charters (evidence that districts can and do sponsor excellent charter schools). The results across the other rating categories are generally inconclusive— either very similar (B and D ratings) or inconsistent across the two years (C and F).
Table 1: Charter school performance on Ohio’s value-added measure by sponsor type, 2013–14 and 2014–15
Because districts tend to sponsor dropout-recovery schools, we should take stock of those results as well. In the 2014–15 school year, thirty-five district-sponsored dropout-recovery schools received a progress rating—a measure that is akin to value-added but uses a norm-referenced exam (for more on this measure, see here). As you can see from Table 2, district-sponsored schools somewhat outperform their counterparts: Fifty-one percent received the Meets Standards rating, versus 26 percent of non-district-sponsored schools. However, the fact that only one dropout-recovery school overall received the top rating on this dimension (Exceeds) raises questions about whether any of the dropout-recovery schools—district-sponsored or otherwise—are truly measuring up, or whether there are challenges with the measure that demand closer attention. (The 2014–15 school year was the first year of implementation.) In sum, it is fair to say that the jury is out on the overall quality of district-sponsored dropout-recovery schools, both in absolute terms and in relation to non-district sponsors.
Table 2: Dropout-recovery charter school performance on Ohio’s value-added measure, by sponsor type, 2014–15
Closure is not the only—or even best—way to define sponsorship quality, but it is a useful data point. Sponsors are responsible for vetting and overseeing schools; as such, good sponsors shouldn’t be linked to an overabundance of closed schools. Of course, chronically low-performing charter schools should close—this is an essential though difficult part of responsible authorizing—so some closures are to be expected. Figure 1 shows that over the life of Ohio’s charter sector, slightly more district-sponsored schools have closed than non-district-sponsored ones (45 percent to 32 percent). In other words, almost half of the schools that have been sponsored by districts do not remain in existence today.
Figure 1: Percentage of charters closed: district sponsors versus non-district sponsors, 1998–99 to 2014–15
But perhaps some of these closed schools opened early in the history of Ohio’s charter program and operated for, say, eight or nine years. Another way of slicing the data is to zero in on schools that closed shortly after opening—the infamous “fly-by-night” schools. A school that closes before reaching its fifth anniversary is much more likely to have had flaws that could have been identified during a rigorous application process, and their closure is more likely to indicate an error in the sponsor’s judgment. When using a five-year threshold, district sponsors again appear to lag slightly behind. Figure 2 shows that a greater percentage of district-sponsored schools closed before reaching this mark (30 percent) than those with a non-district sponsor (21 percent). Taken together, Figures 1 and 2 show that district sponsors are not necessarily more successful at authorizing schools that remain open. Many will find this surprising given that school districts have overseen schools for a century.
Figure 2: Percentage of charters closed before reaching five years of operation: district sponsors versus non-district sponsors, 1998–99 to 2014–15
A closer look at district sponsorship reveals some of the same warts as those of the charter sector as a whole. The academic performance of district-sponsored schools varies in much the same way as charters sponsored by other entities. Traditional districts, like their non-district counterparts, have sponsored schools that closed shortly after launch. The struggles of district-sponsored charters shouldn’t be ignored. (Conversely, sponsors of successful schools deserve our praise.) Fortunately, Ohio’s recent charter reforms will force low-capacity sponsors—district and non-district alike—out of the authorizing business. Their exit, along with others, may not be an altogether bad thing.
For better or worse, school districts have played an important role in the development of Ohio’s charter sector. When talking about charter sponsorship, let’s not let districts fly under the radar.
 Generally speaking, a conversion charter school refers to the conversion of an existing district school (fully or partially) into a charter school; a start-up charter is a new school.
 Three schools without sponsors of record in both files were identified through OEDS-R. A school can switch from a district to a non-district sponsor or vice-versa. In cases such as these, the following analysis assumes that a school’s last sponsor of record is the one that should be held accountable.
 The same reasoning applies in the section on dropout-recovery schools.