Setting the record straight: Fordham and charter school sponsorship
Ohio has echoed with controversy in recent weeks regarding House-passed changes to the state’s charter law that would decimate an already weak charter-school accountability system (see here, here, and here). We at Fordham have been outspoken and relentless in commenting on what’s wrong with the House amendments and have forcefully argued for stronger charter accountability and transparency.
That is not a new argument or a new role for us. For more than a decade, we’ve pressed Buckeye policymakers on charter school quality. That included co-authorship (with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) of Turning the Corner to Quality: Policy Guidelines for Strengthening Ohio’s Charter Schools. This 2006 report urged a “housecleaning” that would close down Ohio’s poorest performing schools. Partly in response, the General Assembly passed a law two months later that forced failing schools to improve or face automatic closure.
Because we’ve been so vehement in criticizing the recent House language (currently in conference with the Senate, which stripped that language out of its version of Ohio’s biennial budget), some who disagree with us have questioned our motives. They’ve even charged Fordham with a “power grab” because we’ve pushed the legislature to allow for a new statewide authorizing entity that would allow the voluntary merger of the school portfolios of several existing sponsors, us included. Still others claim we are financially greedy and seek to expand our sponsorship efforts in order to boost our revenues. Such allegations are hokum and need to be refuted.
Our charter-school sponsorship philosophy
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been sponsoring charter schools in Ohio since 2005. Today there are six schools in our sponsorship portfolio. (The all-time peak number was 10.) Two of those schools are in Columbus (KIPP: Journey Academy and Columbus Collegiate Academy), two are in Dayton (Dayton Liberty and Dayton View), one is in Cincinnati (Phoenix Community Learning Center), and one is in Springfield (Springfield Academy of Excellence). Collectively, these schools serve about 1,850 students, more than 85 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Next month, two more charters enter this fold: Sciotoville Elementary Academy and Sciotoville Community School, both located outside Portsmouth, in southern Ohio.
Fordham’s sponsorship efforts are aligned with NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. We believe that quality sponsors provide their schools with maximum flexibility and space for innovation while holding them accountable for performance, fiscal integrity, and sound governance. If a school performs well, it should rarely see or hear from its sponsor beyond basic compliance issues (mandated—sometimes to excess—by state law) and required school site visits. If, however, the school struggles to deliver academic achievement, faces financial problems, or encounters other serious operational deficiencies, the sponsor has a solemn duty to push it hard to make needed changes. Under Ohio law, such pressure may include probation and closure—and threatening to take such actions if remedies are not forthcoming. Quality sponsors carry out these threats if a school fails (or refuses) to improve over time. Nothing is worse for children than to allow them to languish in a failed school. As a sponsor, Fordham has closed four schools since 2005, and fortunately these closures have been done amicably and in partnership with the governing boards of each school involved.
Financing our sponsorship efforts
In contrast to many Ohio charter authorizers, we believe it is inappropriate, unethical, and sometimes immoral 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 school performance.
Fordham doesn’t “make money” as a sponsor. In fact, we’re gradually losing our shirts. While Ohio allows authorizers to levy sponsorship fees of up to three percent of a school’s state funding, Fordham charges just two percent while investing north of $100,000 a year in its sponsorship operations. That’s money taken from our own endowment or raised from external funders. (See details in our sponsorship annual report here.) Further, we reward performance, providing performance rebates based on a school’s academic rating and calibrated to its enrollment.
New statewide sponsor entity
We have no need or desire to sponsor schools in the future if a better option is available for schools and the children they serve. For months we’ve been exploring with six other sponsoring organizations that also subscribe to NACSA’s quality principles the joint creation of a new sponsor entity with the scale and resources necessary to advance the improvement of the state’s charter program. (Those organizations are 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. Others are also considering joining this venture.)
have no need or desire to sponsor schools in the future if a better
option is available for schools and the children they serve.
This undertaking has been driven by the need for stronger quality in a time of tighter resources. We explained our reasoning to the State Board of Education in May 2010 in these words:
For most sponsors in Ohio, quality sponsorship costs more than school fees can generate. Consider the numbers for a moment – the state has 67 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 65 sponsors authorize on average three schools each. 52 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 remains firmly committed to advancing educational excellence in Ohio and nationally. We embrace this struggle openly. 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’ve done in the Buckeye State (or elsewhere) has worked. (We’ve tried to be candid and forthcoming about the misfires, too.) Through it all, however, we’ve been motivated by the need to improve educational options for needy kids. We are honored to work with 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. As the General Assembly winds up its crucial work on the state’s biennial budget, we are proud to call these individuals allies and friends.
 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.
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