How charter operators evade Ohio’s automatic closure law

Policy Matters Ohio issued a report on the failure of Ohio's Charter school accountability laws. The full report can be found at this link. Here's their executive summary.

Ohio law requiring the automatic closure of charter schools that consistently fail to meet academic standards has been showcased by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in its “One Million Lives” campaign, which calls for tougher state laws to close failing charter schools. Key findings

  • Ohio law requires automatic closure of academically failing charter schools.
  • Loopholes in the closure law allow sponsors and charter management organizations (CMOs) to keep failing schools open despite orders to close.
  • Seven of 20 closed schools are still operating, with five run by the same CMOs that first opened them.
  • An eighth school avoided mandated closure by shutting down a year early, but reopened with much of the same staff.

The widespread attention given the NACSA campaign has pushed Ohio’s closure law into the spotlight as a model of accountability. Unfortunately, loopholes weaken Ohio law. Since the charter-closure law went into effect in 2008, 20 schools across the state have met closure criteria, and all are currently listed as closed by the Ohio Department of Education.

But Policy Matters Ohio has documented that of those 20 schools, seven have essentially remained intact, effectively skirting the automatic-closure law. In some cases, charter management organizations (CMOs) have expanded the charters of other schools to incorporate grade levels served by closed schools. In other cases, CMOs replaced schools facing automatic closure with nearly identical schools, managed by the same company with much of the same staff. An eighth school, Hope Academy Canton, was ordered closed by its sponsor a year before it would have been shut down by the state. Our investigation showed that by closing early and opening a new school in the same location with much of the same staff, Hope Academy’s for-profit operator, White Hat Management, bought five additional years of life – and revenue – for a low performing school. In more than half the cases we examined, the new schools’ academic performance remained the same as that of the old schools; five of the eight schools are still ranked in Academic Watch or Emergency, while their management companies and sponsors continue to take in millions of dollars in public funding. For-profit management companies – the Leona Group, White Hat, and Mosaica Education – run six of the schools, the non-profit Summit Academies runs one, and the last is independently operated. The table on the next page provides an overview of these schools.

Automatic closure Ohio’s charter-closure law, which became effective in 2008 and was revised in 2011, calls for automatic closure of schools rated in Academic Emergency for at least two of the three most recent school years. To be subject to the law, charters serving grades four through eight also must show less than one year of academic growth in either reading or math in that time period.

Ohio law holds charter school boards legally responsible for a school’s academic and financial performance, but places no penalty on CMOs when their schools meet closure criteria, even though these companies are often in charge of hiring and firing teachers, assessing academics, contracting vendors, budgeting, developing curriculum, and providing basic classroom materials. This creates a loophole to keep “closed” schools open and to continue to direct public funds to failing schools.

Weak accountability Since the Ohio legislature first established charters, the state has taken a quantity-over-quality approach to approving new schools and allowing troubled schools to continue. The closure law was meant to deal with the glut of ineffective charters that have for too long betrayed the promise of charters in Ohio. But our investigation shows that despite its seemingly strict closure law, Ohio still falls short of the meaningful oversight and accountability needed to improve the state’s charter sector. The repeal in 2011 of Ohio’s “highly qualified operator” provision gives new start-up charter schools the option of contracting with management companies that do not meet performance standards. Similarly, aside from losing revenue, sponsors are not penalized when schools are closed under their watch. Sponsors are coming under increasing oversight, and some are now prohibited from authorizing new schools, but the effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen.

Recommendations Based on this study, Policy Matters Ohio recommends that legislators revamp the closure law, strengthen ODE’s capacity to oversee charter schools, direct ODE to refuse the kind of expansion of charter contracts that has allowed schools and management companies to skirt the law, and hold charter management companies accountable for the academic performance of their schools. Charter law in Ohio remains ineffective and weak. Until Ohio gets serious about quality in the charter sector – both by preventing operators with weak track records from opening new schools, and by creating a more meaningful charter-closure law – Ohio will continue to fall short of the goal of strengthening its public education system so that it can serve everyone.

Cleveland Plan Press Conference

In a downtrodden press conference that broke little new news, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Representative Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland), House Finance and Appropriations Chairman Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster), Senate Minority Whip Nina Turner (D-Cleveland) and Senate Education Chairwoman Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering) spoke about the "Cleveland Plan".

The plan still has no sponsors, nor co-sponsors. The sticking points for the Democrats continues to be the anti-union SB5 like provisions, and the secretive, non democratic nature of the so-called "transformation alliance". For the Republicans the shadow cast by a plan that has many elements of SB5, and some of the charter school accountability measures that are opposed by some of the largest campaign contributors are sticking points.

Some of Jackson's continued rhetoric, for example "those concerned about the Cleveland plan & Senate Bill 5 shouldn't be", are signs that the Mayor still views his plan as a sacred cow, and not a starting place. That's a pity and might doom an enterprise to rescue Cleveland schools from academic and financial crisis that everyone recognizes and wants to deal positively with.

Fordham Exposed Part II

In part I of Fordham Exposed we introduced you to the conservative corporate education reform organization running some Ohio charter schools, and two of its biggest boosters, Terry Ryan and Michael Petrilli. Now let us take a closer look at this Foundation.

You can see the list of Fordham's charter schools here. We knew a short while ago that Fordham was publicly talking a good game, but playing a weak one, when the Ohio Department of Education released the ranking of charter sponsors. Of those 38 ranked sponsors, Fordham was down in a lowly 24th position. You don't rank that low by running quality schools and delivering quality education to students.

This view was further confirmed when ODE released their preliminary school rankings in mid November. The following table is the performance of Fordham's Ohio charter schools from that ODE report, the ranking is out of 3456 schools, and sorted with best first.

1792 Columbus Collegiate Academy Middle School Effective
2661 Sciotoville High School Cont. Improve.
2687 Phoenix Community Learning Ctr Elementary School Effective
2716 Dayton Leadership Academies-Dayton View Campus Elementary School Cont. Improve.
2840 Sciotoville Elementary Academy Elementary School Cont. Improve.
2977 KIPP: Journey Academy Middle School Effective
3052 Springfield Acad Of Excellence Elementary School Academic Watch
3188 Dayton Leadership Academies-Dayton Liberty Campus Elementary School Cont. Improve.

Almost 2,400 students are in Fordham charter schools that rank in the bottom half of all of Ohio's schools. Why hasn't Fordham been able to translate SB5 like tools into educational success in the many years they have been sponsoring these charters?

They are unencumbered by unionized teachers, state mandated regulations, all the things that should add up to a corporate education reformer's brightest dream. Yes their results are poorer than the majority of Ohio's traditional public schools, who allegedly are held back by unions, bad teachers, and outdated rules.

How can Fordham possibly have any credibility on the issue of education reform when their corporate reform ideas when implemented are delivering such real world lackluster results? When their performance is worse than the majority of traditional schoold they would seek to supplant.

It surely cannot be on account of money. The Fordham Foundation spends an inordinate amount of money on education reform. According to the latest publicly available tax return - their 2009 IRS form 990 from Guidestar, Fordham has over $37 million on hand, and spends over $4 million a year on its programs and advocacy.

Indeed, in 2009 alone, according to the same document, Fordham spent $485,000 on management of its Ohio charters, $745,000 on "National reform efforts", $163,000 on Ohio specific education "reform efforts" and a further $571,000 on Ohio legislative lobbying and what even they deem as "provocative analysis".

But lobbying and "provocative analysis" aren't the only largesse that Fordham spend their vast resources on. As employees of Fordham such as Mr. Ryan and Mr. Petrilli rail against education associations and teacher pay they have both been significant recipients of the Foundation's generosity.

Name 2007 (link) 2008 (link) 2009 (link)
Mr. Terry Ryan $73,905 for 20 hours per week $83,700 for 20 hours per week $91,100 for 20 hours per week
Mr. Michael Petrilli $73,905 for 20 hours per week $83,700 for 20 hours per week $91,100 for 20 hours per week

Their annual increases, for this part-time work, represent 13.2% and 8.8% up to 2009. One can only imagine what these two gentlemen are earning in 2011 for the part-time work of railing against teachers and their unions. But when you're earning almost twice that of the average Ohio teacher, and doing so for part-time work, all the while receiving up to double digit increases in pay, year on year, these kinds of comments are hard to swallow.

And to be sure, you can find examples of unions—of police, firefighters, even teachers—who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

They hare hardly the exception to prove any rule, real or as is the case here, imagined. Ohio public employees, especially teachers, have been responsible for saving taxpayers over 1 billion dollars in wage and benefit concessions.

So where does all this leave us? It leaves us wondering why an organization that espouses corporate education reform ideas cannot successfully implement them in their own lackluster schools, and why they biggest and most vocal boosters think the gravy tastes better on their plate than on any others. It is this then, that is the pure essence and purpose of corporate education reform.

If education quality actually mattered to Fordham they would expend more energy figuring out why their schools are under performing so as to use those lessons to actually benefot the debate over educstion reform. Instead what we have is "provocative analysis" to defend failing ideas while attacking public school teachers and their union, who in the majority are producing far high quality results at a fraction of the cost.

Ohio charters are solving the wrong problem

NPR has begun what looks to be a very interesting series of articles on charter schools in Ohio.

In 1998, Ohio opened its first 15 charter schools. There are now more than 300, and they’re enrolling more than 100,000 primary and secondary students. Ohio is paying upwards of $500 million to support those schools. But as charter schools have grown, so have divisions between them and traditional public schools.

The whole piece is worth the time to read. As charter schools are given ever greater license to expand and spread, they are coming under ever greater scrutiny. A handful of charters, with a few failing might be seen by most as no big deal, hundreds of charters with dozens upon dozens failing begins to stand out in sharp relief.

One hundred and twenty charter schools in Ohio have collapsed over the last 13 years. They owe the state millions of dollars in audit findings.

Considering there are only 300 charters in Ohio, that's an astonishing number. When you couple that with terrible academic performance and the catastrophic failure of e-schools in Ohio, maybe greater attention to charter reform is needed.

The great promise of charters was supposed to be their ability to innovate without the shackles of regulation. Instead, charter operators and their sponsors have used the lack of regulation in order to drive down the costs of providing education, which in turn has driven down the quality. Why is it, free from regulation, no charter or sponsor has decided to try and replicate successful education models used in countries like Denmark? Here's Diane Ravitch talking about our race to the bottom, and the alternatives

The corporate influence on the charter movement isn't creating excellence in education through innovation, it is simply driving out quality by drivning down costs. That's decidedly NOT the problem charters were sold to Ohioans as trying to solve.

Bad charter sponsors, bad policy

It comes as little surprise to anyone who follows the development of what some call Ohio education policy to learn that Ohio's charter school laws have serious flaws.

The Ohio Department of Education has just released their charter school sponsor rankings. As StateImpact notes

The sponsor role is different from the role of a charter school operator. Charter school operators, which include both for-profit and non-profit groups, manage schools’ day-to-day operations while sponsors are supposed to play more of an oversight role.

These rankings are important because under HB153, sponsors who fall into the bottom 20% cannot authorize any more charter schools until their schools improve. LSC (page 216):

(New R.C. 3314.016)
The act prohibits a community school sponsor from sponsoring any additional schools, if it (1) is not in compliance with statutory requirements to report data or other information to the Department of Education or (2) is ranked in the lowest 20% of all sponsors on an annual ranking of sponsors by their composite performance index scores. The composite performance index score, which must be developed by the Department, is a measure of the academic performance of students enrolled in community schools sponsored by the same entity. Presumably, if a sponsor is subject to the prohibition due only to its ranking, it may sponsor additional schools if it later raises its ranking above the lowest 20%.

We have published the ranking list below. People who posses the ability to think critically will already have concluded 2 things about this prescriptive law.

  1. Marion City with a performance score of 69.2 is barred from authorizing any more charters, while Lorain City with a performance score of just 69.4 can continue to operate as it just misses the 20% cut.
  2. No matter what performance sponsors have there will always be a bottom 20%

Why didn't the law specify an actual performance measure? The legislature saw fit to do exactly this for teachers under SB5, but not for sponsors of charter schools.

To complicate matters further, the Ohio Department of Education which is tasked by law to create these rankings, will also be getting back into the business of being a charter school sponsor. A task it once had taken away from it because of abysmal performance that made Ohio charter schools the laughing stock of the nation.

Now, under HB153, ODE will not only be responsible for sponsoring charters again - but producing the rankings - including their very own. This doesn't strike us at Join the Future as a very wise situation.

Will ODE be able to exert enough independence between its sponsorship role and its evaluation of sponsors, even if its own performance is substandard as it was in the past? That's an obvious question that should not have to be asked if state education policy was properly thought through and developed in a collaborative manner.

In the meantime, we can take solace in the fact (as the Disptach reports) that Mansfield, Marion, Ridgedale, Rittman, Upper Scioto Valley and Van Wert school districts; the Richland Academy; and the educational service centers in Hardin and Portage counties cannot open any more charter schools.

Ohio Charter School Sponsor Rankings

Education Czar ok with expanding charter failure

Currently Ohio has almost 100,000 students attending 339 charter schools, costing tax payers about $720 million a year. The Governors new budget seeks to significantly privatize public education further.

With so much at stake, there's currently a lot of lobbying going on, and lot of that lobbying is around this issue

In Ohio, a charter school must have a contract with one of 77 approved sponsors (also known as authorizers) who are responsible for overseeing academics and finances. Many are school districts or county educational service centers that sponsor only one or two charter schools, but a few are nonprofit organizations that sponsor dozens.

As introduced, Kasich's budget pins more responsibility on sponsors by forbidding them from adding schools if any of their current schools are in academic watch or academic emergency, the state's two lowest rankings.

Seems reasonable that we would want authorizers to only be sponsoring quality school programs. But there's a hitch, and it's a big one

That disqualifies just about everyone who's a sponsor now because almost all have at least one low-performing school, said Terry Ryan, who heads the Ohio offices of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Its sister foundation sponsors seven charter schools in Ohio, one of which is in academic emergency.

One would think these organizations would want to spend some time fixing their current failing schools, but no, that's not what is being lobbied for in Columbus

Ryan would like to see that changed to allow, say, 20 percent of a sponsor's schools to be low-ranked. But he's quick to add, "We do not want to return to the days when 50, 60, 70 schools were being opened by people who did not have a solid track record. We're still seeing the repercussions from that."

20 percent! That's an awful lot of students being left behind. What does the Governor's education Czar think?

Sommers is amenable to a change.

Well of course he is. This massive expansion of charter schools has nothing to do with improving education quality. It's about the bottom line.