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How the Ohio Department of Education Hopes to Avoid Another Charter School Sponsorship Debacle

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012 at 5:01 AM

The last time the Ohio Department of Education sponsored charter schools, things ended poorly, with many schools foundering academically and financially. This time things are going to be different, state officials say.

Department of Education staff have set up a metaphorical wall separating the part of the department that oversees charter schools from the part that sponsors charter schools.

This time things are going to be different, says Mark Michael, the director of the Ohio Department of Education’s new office of charter school sponsorship.

The last time the Ohio Department of Education sponsored charter schools, things didn’t end well: State legislators shut down the department’s sponsorship abilities after dozens of schools foundered academically and financially. Now the department is trying again.

But this time, the rules made by Ohio lawmakers don’t necessarily set the department up for success.

The department will be taking applications from schools that other sponsors have rejected, often because of their poor academic or financial performance. And the department must evaluate proposed charter schools on the basis of meeting minimum standards and within weeks of receiving their applications.

We asked Michael: “Are these laws barriers to the state education department sponsoring good charter schools?”

“Yes and no,” he answered. “We may have to pick up some schools that other sponsors have determined are failing … but that doesn't mean that that's a wall or a barrier for us. We will put together the best program we can to make sure a school succeeds.”

What’s a Charter School Sponsor?

Most people know about the companies and nonprofits that actually operate charter schools. But they don’t realize each charter school also has a sponsor. Sponsors are nonprofit organization or other groups (like school districts) in charge of making sure charter schools do what they should – educate kids, follow the laws and not waste taxpayer dollars.

The Bella Academy of Excellence on Cleveland’s east side, for example, is operated by the Imagine Schools company. But its sponsor is Cincinnati-based St. Aloysius Orphanage. While Imagine hires teachers and buys textbooks, St. Al’s makes sure the school is following fire codes, meeting academic goals and so forth.

“If you don’t make good decisions on applications, … you’re going to allow schools to open that won’t be successful. That’s a huge disserve to the public.” But “if you reject applications that should have been approved, you’re denying an option to the community.”—Catherine West, Charter School Specialists

In return, St. Al’s and other charter-school sponsors get up to 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

The Ohio Department of Education used to be the state’s largest charter-school sponsor. But after a state audit found that Ohio charter schools failed at twice the national rate and noted millions of dollars in overpayments to schools, legislators forced the department to hand off sponsorship duties to nonprofits and other groups.

Lawmakers changed their minds last year.

You’re Going to Want to Hire a Lobbyist

Akron-based White Hat Management is one of Ohio’s largest for-profit charter school management companies. During last year’s budget negotiations, it lobbied to expand the number of charter schools in Ohio and to once again give the Ohio Department of Education the ability to sponsor charter schools.

It succeeded: The budget enacted in June allows the Ohio Department of Education to sponsor up to five new charter schools each year for the next five years. And it says the department can take over the sponsorship of up to 15 existing charter schools whose sponsors no longer want them. (When that happens, it’s usually because of a school’s poor academic performance or financial management.)

White Hat is the only applicant for the new Ohio Department of Education-sponsored charter school spots. It’s applied to open six new charter schools.

What You Want to Do Now Is

To authorize good charter schools, there’s a whole series of best practices you should follow, groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers say.

As you get applications from charter-school hopefuls back, you want to have people with expertise in all kinds of areas evaluate them. You want to make sure the proposed school board is dedicated to the school’s mission, and independent of any for-profit company that would operate the school.

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If the proposed school is modeled on existing schools, you want to do your due diligence and see how successful those schools are. And you want time to work through all this and come to a decision.

The Ohio Department of Education is doing many of these things. It’s called on people throughout the department to evaluate applications. It’s asked White Hat to make the schools’ boards it works with more independent. And it’s questioned whether the academic plan for one school was “biting off more than they could chew,” Michael said.

Michael says his office will improve the schools it sponsors. Schools that don’t improve will be shut down.

But the department doesn’t have unlimited leeway in looking at which schools are likely to succeed. The law basically says that, as long as an applicant turns in the right information, the department must sponsor them.

So for example, three of the K-8 schools that White Hat would open would be similar to the Hope Academy charter schools that White Hat already operates. The majority of those schools that have been open for several years received D’s or F’s on their state report cards last year. None was rated higher than a C.

Past performance isn’t included in the application process set out in state law.

But it should be something a charter school sponsor looks at, says William Haft of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. It’s called “due diligence,” he says.

And you’d want to “have a really good reason” to agree to sponsor a new school based on a model with that a record like that of the Hope Academies, he says.

And the 30-day initial time frame to review each application and the first-come, first-served policy lawmakers put in the statute could make it more difficult to do things right, Haft says. Usually, an authorizer would want to have a single application deadline to pick the best candidates from the full pool of hopefuls. And Haft says it usually takes 10-12 weeks to evaluate and rule on an application.

He says the short time frame and rolling application process make it “near impossible to run consistently quality decision making.”

The Big Change

There’s one big mistake that the Ohio Department of Education is definitely not making this time.

Last go-round, the state education division that oversaw charter schools and the one that sponsored the schools directly was one and the same. This time, the two functions are separated both in name and physically.

“We're on different floors,” says Mark Michael, the director of the new sponsorship office and a lawyer who previously worked in the Office of General Counsel. “But I know where they are.”

Walking The Line

Deciding which schools to sponsor isn’t easy, says Catherine West of Charter School Specialists, consultants to one of the state’s largest charter school sponsors, St. Aloysius Orphanage.

“If you don't make good decisions on applications, … you're going to allow schools to open that won't be successful. That's a huge disserve to the public.” But “if you reject applications that should have been approved, you're denying an option to the community.”

The Ohio Department of Education’s sponsorship office is trying to walk that line. Its goal is to help more, good charter schools open, or stay open, Michael says.

“We're going to put 110-percent effort into achieving that goal and I think we will.”

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