In a concerted effort to improve sector quality, Ohio has wisely strengthened its charter school laws. The reforms include a rigorous evaluation system for sponsors—the gatekeepers of quality as they authorize and directly oversee public charter schools—and good-governance provisions designed to build confidence in the sector. These reforms have been vigorously implemented, and they’ve helped prod bad actors—both schools and sponsors—to change their ways or take a hike. Evidence from school report cards and a recent evaluation indicate promising signs of improvement in performance after the reforms. And now that there’s a stronger accountability framework in place, policymakers are taking more active steps to narrow longstanding charter funding gaps.

In sum, a lot of good is coming from these efforts. But as with all reforms, course corrections are often needed as implementation issues arise. The House-passed version of the state budget bill addresses a few important problems in the charter accountability framework, but the lower chamber misses the mark by overcompensating in their proposed solutions. They risk turning back the clock to an era of looser standards and less certain quality. As the bill winds through the upper chamber, senators should reconsider the House’s approach on the following issues and tackle them in a more careful way.

Sponsor evaluations

The House proposal would give five-year reprieves from state evaluations to sponsors that receive “Effective” ratings. Some context is needed to understand what’s going on. In fall 2016, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) rolled out a revamped evaluation system that aimed to rein in lax sponsorship practices that many, including us at Fordham, believed were contributing to uneven sector performance. The evaluation consists of three components: (1) the academic performance of sponsors’ schools; (2) compliance with various laws and regulations; and (3) adherence with quality practices. After combining these results, an overall rating of Exemplary, Effective, Ineffective, or Poor is assigned.

The evaluation system has worked largely as intended, driving out low-quality and less-committed sponsors. Sixty-five sponsors were active in 2015–16, compared to only thirty-four in 2017–18. Most of the departed sponsors were school districts that authorized a single school, usually a dropout-recovery charter. The system has also encouraged more attentive sponsorship practices. For instance, more sponsors are now closing chronic low performers by non-renewing or terminating school contracts. They also seem to be pickier about startup applicants. 

But the system has also been a bureaucratic nightmare for sponsors due to the excessive amount of paperwork involved in the compliance and quality practices reviews. In response to these concerns, some legislators seem to have been convinced that giving exemptions from the system is the best solution. The House proposal provides five-year reprieves from evaluations to sponsors that receive three consecutive years of an Effective rating, criteria that would likely exempt a large number of sponsors. For instance, four sponsors (including Fordham) received Effective ratings for the past three years, and another eleven have done so in the past two. Taken together, these fifteen sponsors authorize 81 percent of Ohio charter schools.

I can sympathize with the frustrations of sponsors: No one wants to spend weeks filling out paperwork and uploading documents. It’s not only irritating, it’s also a poor use of time and resources. But the answer isn’t to grant wholesale exemptions that allow sponsors to ignore the academic performance of schools for half a decade. There are other, more nuanced solutions that would maintain a strong accountability mechanism but also reduce the onerous burdens involved in the compliance and quality practices reviews. They include the following options, both of which we at Fordham have suggested before.

  • Option 1: Reduce the burdens of the compliance and quality practices reviews by using audit-like processes. State legislators could require ODE to randomly check compliance with items on the compliance and quality-practices rubrics. Or alternatively, ODE could annually check the most critical items, such as compliance with health and safety laws, while periodically reviewing less essential ones.
  • Option 2: Conduct annual evaluations of sponsors’ academic component but review compliance and quality practices on two- or three-year cycles. This option ensures that sponsors maintain a focus on the academic performance of their schools, but reduces the burdens of the other evaluation components by requiring them less frequently.

Both of these options ensure that sponsors—just like school districts—are held accountable on an annual basis for the academic performance of the schools they oversee. They would also address sponsors’ concerns about the burdens of the compliance and quality practices reviews.

Sponsor assurances

In 2007, Ohio lawmakers enacted provisions that require sponsors, on an annual basis, to verify that their schools meet baseline operational standards before serving students. These “pre-opening assurances,” which sponsors submit to ODE in writing, are a critical check on whether the charter school has, for example, completed a health and safety inspection, conducted criminal background checks, obtained liability insurance, and created a plan for special education. Like an airplane pilot doing a routine check before flying a plane, these basic assurances ensure that schools are operationally sound and children are not put in harm’s way.

The House legislation, however, removes this annual check, and instead requires sponsors to conduct assurances only when a school is brand-new or when it changes buildings. This means that sponsors would not need to conduct pre-opening assurances in the vast majority of their schools. One possible motivation for this proposal is that, over the years, ODE has piled on some likely unnecessary assurances that have made the process more laborious. For instance, ODE now asks questions around budget forecasts, which are not explicitly mentioned in statute. But as with sponsor evaluations, the solution isn’t to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than simply excusing sponsors from this important duty, legislators should make sure that the assurances provisions require sponsors to check the most critical basic protocols needed each year to safely open a school—the original intention of the law.

Accountability for dropout-recovery charter schools

Dropout recovery schools are specially designated charters that have been held accountable via alternative school report cards since 2014–15. Dropout-recovery report cards include less conventional metrics, such as a growth measure from a national exam and extended cohort graduation rates (e.g., an eight-year rate). They also exclude more traditional measures, like the state’s performance index and indicators of readiness for post-secondary success (ACT/SAT scores or career-tech credentials). Overall, their use has been controversial. Some people, myself included, think they expect less of dropout-recovery schools. Others argue that they are fair—or even too demanding—given the backgrounds of the students they serve.

But a House provision would stop—for an indeterminate time period—the release of any report cards. Specifically, the bill calls for a study committee tasked with examining the “classification, authorization, and report card ratings” of certain dropout-recovery schools. That’s probably a good idea given the disagreements surrounding their report cards. But there’s a twist: The state is prohibited from issuing dropout-recovery report cards until the committee releases its report and the legislature acts in some manner to revise the report cards. This is almost certain to give dropout-recovery schools a reprieve from 2018–19 report cards and likely well into the future. If the legislature chooses not to do anything, it would end dropout-recovery report cards—a clear abdication of the state’s responsibility to hold all schools accountable for pupil results.

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There is one House proposal that merits support: the modification of the automatic closure criteria for charter schools, something I’ve written about at length elsewhere. While it may appear to be another blow to charter accountability, the provision would actually ensure that this mechanism works as originally intended—forcing closure of the very lowest-performing schools. Instead of basing mandatory closure on two poor school ratings in three years, the House would require closure upon three consecutive years of poor ratings. Due to the increased rigor of the overall state accountability framework, a three-year timetable is justified.  

The Senate should approve the adjustments on automatic closure. But it should rethink the way the House handles issues regarding sponsors and dropout-recovery charter schools. Ohio has made significant progress in recent years on charter-school accountability. It’s prudent to fine-tune sponsor regulations—but, as written, the House changes go way too far and risks slipping back into old habits.  

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Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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