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The Road to Redemption: Ten Policy Recommendations for Ohio's Charter School Sector

Juliet Squire
Kelly Robson
Andy Smarick
Publication

In 1997, the Buckeye State embraced a new approach to public-education delivery, launching a pilot program of community (charter) schools. Since then, the state's community schools sector has grown tremendously. During the 2013-14 school year, 390 schools served approximately 124,000 students—seven percent of students statewide.

Despite its remarkable growth, Ohio's community school sector continues to struggle with performance. A 2013 analysis by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that Ohio's community schools, on average, provided the equivalent of fourteen fewer days of learning in reading and forty-three fewer days of learning in math compared to district-operated schools.

Ohio's community school statute is a big part of the problem. Since 1997, nineteen different laws have altered the charter program. The statute and the sector it governs are now so complex that many provisions work at cross-purposes with others, have misaligned incentives, have unintended consequences, or leave room for troublesome loopholes.

Past changes to Ohio's community school law haven't been able to rein in low-performing sponsors and schools, grow high-performing schools, rehabilitate the sector's reputation, or provide enough disadvantaged students with the high-quality schools they deserve. In order to preserve the promise of high-quality public school choice, Ohio policymakers must reexamine the community school law. What follows are analyses and recommendations regarding ten policy issues that deserve immediate attention from Ohio policymakers and sector leaders. (Click here to read the full report.

 

Policy Issue Key Recommendations

1 & 2: Ensure High-quality Sponsoring Practices

  • The Ohio Department of Education's (ODE) new approval process for entities applying to become community school sponsors is promising; it aligns with the standards set by the field's nationally recognized authority on charter school authorizing.
  • The new sponsor-ranking system (to be implemented in 2015) also has the potential to rein in low-quality sponsors. However, rigorously implementing both processes will require protecting ODE from political pressure and ensuring it has the necessary capacity and expertise.
  • The new sponsor-ranking system will make valuable information on sponsors' practices and effectiveness transparent to the public. However, the statute limits ODE's ability to revoke sponsoring authority to a small number of sponsors. The Ohio legislature should ensure that all sponsors are accountable to the state under this provision.

3: Address Misaligned Incentives in Sponsor Funding

  • State policy should prohibit sponsors from selling services to schools they oversee.
  • State policy should require sponsors to use authorizer fees to solely support oversight functions. Adherence to this rule should be part of the state's sponsor-ranking system.
  • The Ohio legislature should introduce a hybrid funding mechanism in which sponsors receive some line-item funding from the state and a smaller percentage of per-pupil revenue from each sponsored school.

4: Hold CMOs and EMOs Accountable

  • Policy should make final a board's decision to terminate a management agreement.
  • Ohio policymakers should clearly define the responsibilities of sponsors and governing authorities—including those that may be delegated to a management company and those that may not.
  • Given the high proportion of community schools that partner with EMOs or CMOs in Ohio, ODE should provide report cards on operators and include operator accountability as a key principle in the sponsor-ranking system. 

5: Protect the Independence of Governing Authorities 

  • State policy should prohibit members of community school boards from being financially compensated for their service, particularly when the school engages a management organization to operate key elements of the school.
  • State policy should require members of charter school governing authorities to register as public officials with the secretary of state and complete annual conflict-of-interest statements.
  • State policy should ensure that every governing authority has an independent fiscal officer and attorney.
  • Pending an opinion from Ohio's Supreme Court, governing authorities should negotiate ownership of assets and access to school facilities in relevant contracts. Sponsors should build these issues of board independence into their application processes. 

6: Eliminate Sponsor Hopping

  • The statute should be amended to ensure that only schools in good standing are able to seek a new sponsor.

7: Hold All Schools Accountable to High Standards

  • The statute should be amended to close loopholes that dilute accountability for dropout-recovery schools and create an accountability framework for schools serving primarily special-needs students.
  • Policy should include mechanisms to hold e-schools accountable to the operating standards adopted by the General Assembly.

8, 9, & 10: Foster High-quality Schools with Equitable Funding, Transportation, and Facilities Policies

  • State and local dollars should follow students to the schools of their choice.
  • Community schools should be provided equitable transportation funding to enable them to acquire transportation independent of their local districts. Policymakers should explore ways to incentivize cities—not districts—to develop plans that meet the transportation needs of all public school students.
  • Community schools should be provided with additional facilities funding, and the statutory language making un- and under-utilized district facilities available to community schools should be strengthened. Policymakers may consider enlisting the Ohio School Facilities Commission to ensure that excess facilities as well as funding for construction and renovation are distributed to schools based on need, rather than sector.