Charter school accountability--progress has been made, but more to do

Since 2005, Ohio has ramped up its charter school accountability. The General Assembly took the lead here with legislation like H.B. 66 in 2005 and H.B. 79 in late 2006. This legislation increased accountability on charter schools, capped new school start-ups so only those operators with a track record of success can open schools in Ohio, and created an academic death penalty for persistently failing charter schools.

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has followed step with a renewed focus on charter-school quality, as evidenced in its fifth annual report about the condition of the state's charter school program that was submitted to the governor last month. But the march toward quality is not complete, as illustrated in the compliance section of ODE's report. The report's final table, "Sponsor Assignment of Community School Legal Compliance," makes clear that the state has too many lax sponsors. This, if it continues, will result in lawmakers further usurping sponsors' powers through new legislation and increased regulation.

The ODE compliance table, which is truly the most enlightening part of the report, summarizes charter-school compliance in education, finance, governance, and academic assessment and accountability. Sponsors must rate schools as overall compliant, partially compliant, or non-compliant in each area and submit these ratings to ODE each fall. As many as 17 sponsors did not submit an annual report at all, and just five sponsors--our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, among them--rated any school as noncompliant.

Obviously, this table does not paint an accurate picture of the state of Ohio's charters. For example, one school that made headlines last year for being unable to make payroll was rated partially compliant by its sponsor in the finance category. Another school that has languished in academic watch and academic emergency for most of its existence is rated overall compliant in both the education and academic assessment categories.

To its credit, ODE speaks at length in its report about the importance of good sponsorship to the success or failure of charter schools and the charter school initiative. But the bulk of ODE's work toward monitoring sponsors and increasing their capacity to support schools is futile until, as noted in the report Turning the Corner to Quality issued by Fordham, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in late 2006 (see here):

  1. ODE has oversight and authority over all charter school sponsors; and
  2. all sponsors are faithfully reporting on the academic, financial, and operational health of their schools.  

Currently, there are 65 charter school sponsors operating in Ohio. Of those 65 sponsors, only 15 have been approved by ODE and are contractually obliged to perform or face ODE sanctions. The remaining 50 sponsors (many of them traditional school districts that treat charter schools as district programs), which include the two biggest in Ohio, are accountable to ODE in a voluntary fashion alone.

What Ohio and the students in Ohio's charter schools are left with, therefore, are 65 different interpretations across 300+ charter schools of how those schools are faring in the four areas that ODE examines: academic accountability, delivery of a school's education plan to students (for example: mission and curriculum), fiscal health, and organizational viability (governance).

Kudos to ODE for attempting to bring transparency to the performance of charter schools and their sponsors and for shedding light on the continuing need for uniform standards of quality and accountability amongst Ohio's sponsors. Unfortunately, this information was buried deep in the report and is apt to be read by few and considered by fewer.

See: "2006-2007 Community School Annual Governor's Report," Ohio Department of Education, December 31, 2007. To access each sponsor's annual report to ODE, click on the hyperlinked sponsor names in the first column.

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