December 17, 2014

Ohio’s Chain of Charter Accountability

By Bellwether

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In a report released earlier this week, my colleagues and I tackle the troubled track-record of Ohio’s charter school sector. Our analysis unearthed numerous problematic policies, many of which overlap or interact with one another in dynamic and complex ways. However, one thing stands out unequivocally: too many poorly-performing schools are allowed to remain open.
Anyone who has been part of or affected by the closure of a charter school can attest that “unpleasant” hardly does it justice. It can be a legal and financial mess and, by definition, disrupts a school community. When students are not receiving the education they deserve, it can also be the lesser of two evils.
A high-quality charter sector requires strong accountability, both in policy and in practice. Ohio policymakers must address weaknesses in law and regulation. Importantly, practitioners at every level of the accountability chain must also own their role.
CaptureThe chart above illustrates the accountability chain for Ohio’s charter schools. The Ohio Department of Education oversees authorizers (called “sponsors” in Ohio).  My colleague Kelly Robson describes what this looks like. Sponsors oversee school boards (called “governing authorities”). School boards oversee the individual or entity responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school—a principal in the case of an independently operated school, a management organization in the case of a school that is part of a network. Each step in the chain of accountability is defined through a legal document which, ideally, outlines expectations for each party and avenues for recourse should either side fail to live up to their commitments.

If a school is not providing students with a high-quality education, these avenues for recourse should activate in ascending order.   
The board addresses the quality concern with the principal and/or the management organization. If deficiencies are not adequately remedied, the board may terminate the employment contract with the school leader or terminate the agreement with the management organization.
If the board does not act to address school quality: 
The authorizer addresses the quality concern with the board. The authorizer and board may negotiate a corrective action plan to remedy shortcomings. If necessary, an authorizer may place the school on probation, decide not to renew the school’s charter, or—usually in the case of severe issues—terminate the charter prior to its expiration.
If the sponsor does not act to address school quality:
Ohio statute empowers the Ohio Department of Education to address quality concerns with authorizers. Beginning in January 2015, ODE will implement a sponsor ranking system, through which it can prevent an authorizer from opening new schools or revoke its authority to oversee community schools altogether.
Unfortunately, Ohio’s chain of accountability has weak links at each level. Boards too rarely take the lead in addressing poor school performance. But even if a board chooses to terminate its contract with a management organization, Ohio law allows the management organization to appeal that decision to the sponsor and, with the sponsor’s approval, appoint a new, more-amenable board.
Too few sponsors have proved willing to close low-performing schools.  Even when sponsors move to take this difficult step, low-performing schools can often avoid closure by switching to a different sponsor.
Finally, recent legislation that created a ranking system for authorizers. While the law gives ODE the power to prevent any ineffective authorizer from approving new schools, it may only close authorizers with which it has contracts (13 out of nearly 70 authorizers statewide).
Our report suggests how policymakers can address issues in statute and regulation that undermine charter school accountability, but this is an “all-hands-on-deck” moment for the Buckeye State. Every player in Ohio’s accountability chain has an important role to play in building a high-quality charter school sector.

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