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For Ohio Charter School Sponsors, the State Counts Financials More than Academics

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Monday, September 12, 2011 at 6:00 AM

After two years, the Ohio Board of Education is ready to take away Ashe Culture Center's ability to sponsor privately run charter schools. Ashe, a Cleveland non-profit, sponsors seven of the schools.

A hallway at Marcus Garvey Academy in Cleveland, an Ashe-sponsored charter school.

After two years, the Ohio Board of Education is ready to take away Ashe Culture Center's ability to sponsor privately run charter schools. Ashe, a Cleveland non-profit, sponsors seven of the schools.

And though all but one of Ashe’s schools rated this year received a “D” or “F” from the state for academics, the case for revocation focuses on financial issues—not on the schools’ performance.

Ashe’s lawyer, Anne Meyers, said ending Ashe’s ability to sponsor charter schools for fiscal reasons alone makes no sense.

“It's the difference between focusing on what's important as opposed to the mechanical issues,” she said.

Serving as sponsor

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Ashe Culture Center
  • Ashe sponsors seven charter schools in Cleveland:
    • Cleveland Lighthouse Community School (State rating: D)
    • Elite Academy of the Arts (State rating: F; required to close by June 30, 2012)
    • The Lion of Judah Academy Community School (State rating: D)
    • Marcus Garvey Academy (State rating: F; required to close by June 30, 2012)
    • Phoenix Village Academy: Primary II (State rating: B)
    • Phoenix Village Academy: Secondary I – (not rated)
    • Villaview Lighthouse Community School (State rating: F)
  • At its Tuesday meeting, the Ohio Board of Education will vote on whether to approve a hearing officer's recommendation that Ashe's sponsorship authority be revoked.
  • If the board does revoke Ashe's sponsorship ability, this would be a state first—and the charter schools Ashe now sponsors will have to either find new sponsors or be sponsored directly by the Ohio Department of Education.
  • For Ashe, the recommendation to revoke its ability to sponsor charter schools is based on a hearing officer’s conclusion that Ashe did not meet the state requirement that charter school sponsors have at least $500,000 in assets and had not acted responsibly in owning a Cleveland building whose value it had used to meet that requirement. (Ashe had acquired the building at no cost and intended to redevelop it, but was unable to do so.)

In Ohio, essentially any non-profit with assets of at least half a million dollars and some connection to education can be a charter school sponsor. Under state law, a charter school sponsor's main job is to provide technical administrative support to a school, including verifying that the school complies with state laws regarding health and safety and insurance. A sponsor is also supposed to "monitor and evaluate its charter" schools' academic and fiscal performance. In return, the sponsor gets up to 3 percent of the money the state sends to the sponsor’s charter schools.

New laws will bring other factors into the mix. They will prevent sponsors not in compliance with Department of Education reporting requirements OR ranked in the lowest 20 percent of all sponsors in an annual ranking based on standardized test scores from sponsoring new charter schools.

But the sponsors can keep their existing schools.

So if a sponsor’s school financial records are up to date and if it can account for taxpayer dollars, then it faces no significant consequences from the state for sponsoring low-performing schools; the sponsor is good to go, and to continue to collect its percentage.

In recent years, there has been a slow shift in Ohio charter school policy, with increasing consequences for low-performing charter schools and for charter school sponsors with many low-performing schools. Some sponsors enter into academic performance contracts with their schools that set out specific performance goals. But there’s a financial disincentive, particularly for smaller sponsor organizations, to shed low-performing schools: Losing a school means losing revenue, something that can be hard for small non-profits to face.

“As Ohio has come to this evolution, this conclusion, that quality does matter, both on the school side and on the sponsor side, so you are seeing public policy having this kind of accountability and tightening effect,” said Bill Sims, president of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization representing about 175 Ohio charter schools. “But the machinery of politics does not move necessarily fast and, as the old expression goes, politics is the art of the possible.”

Grading the schools

Meyers, the Cleveland lawyer who represents Ashe, says that the schools that Ashe sponsors are doing well, considering that many of the students come from traditional public schools that were low-performing.

“Ashe is dealing with kids whose education has been neglected…and so it takes a lot longer to get those kids up to speed than kids who are in better education situation,” she said.

However, Ashe has seen more of its schools closed under the state law that shuts down charter for poor academic performance than any other sponsor.

And compared to other charter schools in Ohio, many of which serve similar populations of low-income students in urban school districts, four of the seven charter schools Ashe sponsors are in the bottom 25 percent, based on a measure of state standardized test performance called the “performance index.” Two are in the top 25 percent. (The performance index is a weighted average that gives schools more credit for students who perform at higher levels on standardized test than for students who perform at lower levels.)

Last month, Terry Ryan, who heads the Ohio operations of the Fordham Institute and Foundation, called Ashe a “true underachiever worthy of being booted from the authorizer business for good.” (The Fordham Institute advocates on a variety of education issues and its associated foundation sponsors Ohio charter schools.)

Educating kids

Ryan and Ashe lawyer Meyers disagree on whether or not Ashe’s schools are doing well by their students. But they agree that charter school sponsors should be held accountable for the academic performance of the schools they oversee—not just their paperwork.

“Frankly, short of there being missing funds, they should be judged strictly on their [academic] performance,” Meyers said. “The fact of the matter is that the sponsor has something to do with maintaining the level of education.”

And while school districts that can’t keep their books straight often have trouble keeping things on track in the classroom, the Fordham Institute’s Ryan said that charter-school authorizers should be responsible for making sure students are learning.

“At the end of the day, schools are about educating kids. If, at the end of the day, they can't do that, then they shouldn't continue,” he said.

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