July 25, 2014

Court Deals Blow to Ohio’s Authorizer Autonomy

By Bellwether

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To have a high-quality charter school sector, a state needs high-quality authorizing. This depends mostly on getting the right policies and practices in place. But a recent ruling by Ohio’s Hamilton County Common Pleas Court demonstrates how the judicial branch can frustrate the efforts of legislators and practitioners.

Cincinnati’s VLT Academy (VLT) serves approximately 650 students in grades K-12, 98 percent of whom are African American and 99 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. In 2013 VLT earned a D on its state report card. While 62 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher on the state’s 2012-2013 reading assessment (compared to 75 percent of district students), just 15 percent did so in math (compared to 65 percent of students in Cincinnati City Schools). Only 46 percent of VLT’s class of 2013 graduated in four years, compared to 74 percent in Cincinnati’s district schools.

Charter school authorizers, or “sponsors” as they’re called in Ohio, are charged with holding schools accountable, and this includes closing schools that persistently fail to live up to expectations. Because of the school’s ongoing academic and financial troubles, VLT’s sponsor, the Education Resource Consultants of Ohio, chose not to renew the school’s contract. VLT sought a new sponsor, which is permitted under Ohio’s charter school law. However, all sponsors to which VLT applied—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—declined.

The authorizing community was sending a message, loud and clear. Nevertheless, VLT appealed ODE’s rejection—again as permitted under Ohio law. Judge Nadine Allen upheld VLT’s appeal, forcing ODE to both sponsor the school and give VLT nearly $300,000 to ensure the school’s teachers and staff continue to be paid. Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals has since issued a stay of Judge Allen’s ruling.

There are more than 60 sponsors in Ohio; the levels of oversight and support they provide vary greatly.  A new sponsor report card will go into effect January 1, 2015 and rank all of Ohio’s sponsors on three metrics: the academic performance of the students enrolled in the schools they authorize; adherence to “quality practices” outlined by ODE; and compliance with applicable laws regarding sponsorship.

Holding sponsors accountable for the performance of the schools they authorize is intended to incentivize the adoption of quality authorizing practices, including a rigorous screening process for the schools they choose to authorize and a willingness to close schools that underperform persistently.

If the VLT ruling is upheld, it may compromise the ability of sponsors to hold their schools accountable for results. Closing any school—even a poorly performing one—is terribly difficult, so authorizers have a tough job even under the best of circumstances. This precedent would make it even tougher.

– Kelly Robson

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