With the budget bill speeding to the finish line, the Statehouse rumor mill is cranking into high gear. Among the rumblings is an effort by a few charter advocates to weaken the state’s sponsor evaluation system. One proposal making the rounds would move most sponsors to a “portfolio model,” whereby the academic performance of their schools is ignored and only sponsors’ ability to complete paperwork is taken into account.
As a quick refresher, sponsors (a.k.a. “authorizers”) are directly responsible for holding public charter schools accountable for results. Various entities, including the Fordham Institute’s sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, serve as sponsors. They allow a charter school to open, keep checks on the school’s performance while in operation, and have the authority to close a school should it fail to meet academic benchmarks. Through these oversight roles, charter sponsors act as the gatekeepers for school quality.
Ohio’s current sponsor evaluation system was established to address previously lax accountability policies that resulted in far too many sponsors ignoring best practices and turning a blind eye to low-performing schools. The evaluation consists of three equally weighted components:
- Academics: Based on the report-card performance of a sponsor’s schools.
- Compliance: Based on a review of compliance with state laws and regulations conducted by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).
- Quality practices: Based on an ODE review of sponsor adherence to quality authorizing practices.
Scores on these dimensions are combined to yield an overall sponsor rating of poor, ineffective, effective, or exemplary. Consequences, including the revocation of sponsorship authority, are imposed if entities receive low overall ratings. Since 2016, this system has forced the closure of approximately forty low-capacity sponsors, and contributed to the closure of more than 100 low-performing schools. With stronger accountability mechanisms in place, fewer sponsors remain in operation today, and the overall performance of Ohio’s charter sector has noticeably improved.
It would be massive blunder if Ohio lawmakers weakened the evaluation by removing the academic dimension of the system, as proponents of the portfolio model would like to do. Academics is the most rigorous of the three components and has been a target before of some sponsors seeking a more lenient system. But without academics, sponsors—even those that authorize all low-performing schools—would get a free pass if they simply do their paperwork right. (The compliance and quality practices, however, are administratively burdensome and should be lightened.)
As legislators continue to hear calls for softened academic accountability, they should remember four things.
- An academically focused sponsor evaluation helps drive overall sector quality. Ohio’s current evaluation system incentivizes sponsors to hold schools accountable for results, including closing poor-performing schools that are bad for students and weigh down the sector as a whole. On the other hand, a weakened evaluation system that ignores or discounts performance—such as the proposed portfolio model—allows low-performing schools to escape accountability and even multiply.
- A rigorous evaluation system is especially critical in Ohio’s multi-sponsor environment. Unlike most other states, Ohio permits multiple entities to sponsor charters. While this allows for varying approaches to sponsorship, it can also encourage schools to seek the lowest-accountability sponsor. To prevent a “race to the bottom,” Ohio must hold its sponsors accountable for the performance of their schools. This discourages sponsors from onboarding underperforming schools or opening ones that have little chance of success.
- Accountability is needed to balance sponsors’ financial incentives to expand. Sponsor fees are necessary to support oversight responsibilities. However, policymakers also need to recognize that fees incentivize sponsors to expand the number of schools in their portfolios—without regard to quality—as well as the number of students enrolled in them. Fees also discourage sponsors from closing low-performing schools, as doing so reduces their revenues. To counterbalance these financial incentives, state policymakers need to hold sponsors accountable for authorizing quality schools.
- Sponsors are responsible for the performance of their schools. Some claim that sponsors shouldn’t be held accountable for school performance because they don’t manage day-to-day operations. That argument is bunk. While sponsors don’t operate a school, they still have the ability—and obligation—to intervene if performance is consistently poor. In that case, sponsors need to put pressure on school leadership to make course corrections. If sponsors refuse to take their responsibilities seriously, the state should step in and impose sanctions.
Ohio has made significant progress in holding sponsors accountable for the performance of their schools. Through these higher standards, the charter sector has shaped up and significantly improved in recent years. While the current evaluation model could still use a few tweaks, the answer is not to let Ohio slip back into the dark ages of loose accountability and an anything-goes mentality in the charter sector. Lawmakers should spurn attempts to gut sponsor accountability and instead maintain their commitment to ensuring that student achievement remains at the heart of Ohio’s charter movement.