A Think Tank Takes the Plunge
Long a font of opinions about what ails U.S. schools, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is getting a grounding in reality since becoming the authorizer of a mixed bag of charter schools.
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has long had a lot to say about education in the United States—what’s wrong with it and how to fix it.
But now, the outspoken Washington think tank isn’t just talking anymore. It’s parachuted down from the policy stratosphere into the thick of K-12 schooling, taking responsibility for overseeing a batch of charter schools in southwest Ohio.
The nine schools serve some 2,700 students, mostly from low-income and minority families. They run the gamut from two charters operated by the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. to a school started by a Baptist minister.
A national authority on charters and an unabashed champion of the idea, the Fordham Foundation appears to be the only think tank in the country to serve as a charter school authorizer. Called sponsors in Ohio, authorizers are responsible for issuing charters to the independent but publicly funded schools, monitoring them for performance, and deciding whether their charters should be renewed or revoked.
Fordham’s move into charter authorizing comes amid concern about the poor academic performance of many Ohio charters and as advocates nationally are calling for greater attention to the role authorizers play in charter school quality. Fordham officials say they hope the foundation will be a model authorizer, even while acknowledging that the proposition is a risk that could ultimately tarnish the organization’s reputation.
“We were almost dragged into this originally,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., Fordham’s president and an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan. “It’s much easier to talk the talk and write about other people.”
Now that it has taken the plunge, Fordham faces no shortage of difficulties. Some of the schools it assumed oversight for in July of last year face severe challenges, and are well under enrollment capacity. In one of its schools, in fact, the former head has been indicted on charges of stealing money from school coffers and falsifying enrollment records.
Critics, meanwhile, say private organizations, still a rarity in authorizing, are ill suited to provide oversight of public schools, regardless of their intentions. And some analysts suggest that aspects of the Fordham arrangement, such as giving grants to schools it sponsors, pose conflicts of interest that could impede its role as an accountability agent.
“When they’ve invested, then it’s hard to say, ‘We’ve made a mistake,’ ” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charters.
And yet, Fordham is also earning plaudits for taking on its unusual role.
“The Fordham Foundation has over the years been highly critical of a lot of education practices, especially related to public education,” said Thomas J. Lasley, the dean of the University of Dayton’s education school. “What Fordham did, which was a real risk, was to say, ‘We’re willing to enter the fray.’ ”
‘Exhausted Every Option’
With consensus building that Ohio’s state education agency had done a poor job as a sponsor, the state’s charter law was amended in 2003 to set a deadline—July 2005—for the state to step down from that role. As a result, many charters risked becoming orphans subject to closure.
The legislation for the first time permitted private nonprofit groups such as Fordham to apply to the state to become sponsors. School districts, public universities, and regional educational service centers can also serve as sponsors in the state.
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“Our first impulse was to recruit and train other sponsors,” Mr. Finn said. But when that effort brought disappointing results, Fordham officials decided to step forward.
“We’ve exhausted every option,” Mr. Finn wrote in a 2004 memo to Fordham’s board of trustees. “Can we do it well? No guarantees. But we have a fighting chance.”
The board backed the move, but not every member liked the idea. “I was against it,” said the education historian Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and a longtime professional collaborator of Mr. Finn’s. “I don’t think think tanks should run schools, but I was outvoted.”
Referring to Mr. Finn by his nickname, she added: “Checker is a controversial figure, and I told him he would have a target on his back.”
In September 2004, Fordham was approved as the state’s first private nonprofit sponsor. Minnesota is the only other state with a charter law that explicitly permits private nonprofit groups to be authorizers.
The Dayton area was a logical place for Fordham to get started. Although the foundation has its headquarters in Washington, its roots are here and it has long had an active presence in the community.
Some analysts say the foundation has played a big part in making Dayton—a city with a history of low-performing public schools—a hotbed of public school choice. Charters hold a larger market share here than in any other city but New Orleans. Nearly 30 percent of the city’s 23,000 public school students attended charters last school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
Given its national profile, the Fordham Foundation has access to resources many charter authorizers would envy. Last year, for example, it secured a three-year, $1.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to underwrite its charter sponsoring work. It also can easily tap leading experts for help.
Fordham itself has a modest grantmaking arm, too. In 2005, it paid out $553,000 in grants, with about half of that spent in Ohio. It has provided grants to Ohio charter schools, including ones it now sponsors.
Amid serious concerns about the quality of Ohio’s charter schools, top state leaders recently asked the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the sister organization of the Fordham Foundation, along with two national charter groups, to devise proposals to remedy the situation.
In an October report, the groups said the state should:
• Initiate a “housecleaning” process that requires the poorest-performing charter schools to obtain reapproval or close;
• Deter “sponsor hopping” by banning any closed school or school on probation from seeking a new sponsor, the term in Ohio for a charter authorizer;
• Implement a mandatory performance-based “sponsor-evaluation system” that clearly spells out the responsibilities of sponsors and contains progressive penalties for poorly performing sponsors;
• Conduct a study of actual sponsorship costs, and use state money to pay for sponsoring work;
• Reduce the reporting and compliance burden on charters by conducting a top-to-bottom review of all such demands;
• Provide charter operators with better access to facilities financing;
• Make other changes to ensure “reasonable parity” in funding between charter schools and regular public schools;
• Remove state-level caps on charter schools; and
• Eliminate geographic restrictions on where new charter schools can be located.
The foundation runs its sponsorship operation out of a small second-story office in the historic Oregon district of Dayton.
Fordham officials say they prefer to interfere little with schools’ work. “If they’re organizationally strong and they’re delivering the goods, our approach is to, as much as possible, stay out of their way and encourage their development and improvement,” said Terry Ryan, Fordham’s vice president for Ohio programs and policy, who spends about half his time on sponsorship.
But Fordham officials say they are serious about strong academic expectations and public transparency. Taking a cue from authorizers it admires, the foundation in late November published the first of what it calls an annual accountability report on its sponsorship. The 144-page document describes Fordham’s role and provides detailed information about the schools it oversees, including academic benchmarks they made or missed.
The heart of the sponsorship operation, the report says, is the accountability plan agreed to by each school. It sets measurable goals, most of which relate to performance on state assessments and other tests. The foundation executes oversight through site visits and an online document-housing database it’s using.
Fordham also has volunteered for a pilot evaluation system for charter school authorizers the state launched this year to promote better-quality sponsorship.
And it’s taken to heart Ohio’s requirement that sponsors provide technical assistance to the schools they oversee. For instance, it paid for the Englewood, Colo.-based Center for Performance Assessment to help schools use test data to improve instruction. It also brought in a national charter expert to conduct evaluations at schools with low state ratings.
Fordham’s grants to charters typically are about $5,000 or $10,000, but it recently dug deeper into its pocket to help out the Omega School of Excellence, a school to which it has long-standing ties. Founded by a minister at the Omega Baptist church in Dayton, the charter has seen a backward slide over the past couple of years in academics, finances, and enrollment. With encouragement from Fordham, the school has put in place a new teaching staff and principal. The foundation this year gave it a $100,000 matching grant to help it stay afloat.
At the same time, Fordham recently took steps to crack down on the W.E.B. DuBois Academy and its two sister schools in Cincinnati. The former superintendent for the DuBois Academy was indicted in October. Fordham last month placed the schools on probation, citing numerous violations of their charter contracts.
Board members for several schools describe the foundation as more engaged sponsor than the Ohio Department of Education was. “Fordham has asked us to raise the bar,” said Donald B. Jentleson, the board president for the East End Accelerated Community School in Dayton. “Having them push us, having them provide us with technical assistance, has been a very positive relationship.”
As a leading critic of charter schools in the state, the Ohio affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has often butted heads with Fordham and opposed allowing nonpublic groups to become authorizers. But Tom Mooney, the Ohio Federation of Teachers’ late president, said in an interview last month, shortly before his death, that while he still opposed that policy, he thought Fordham officials were “sincere in what they’re trying to do.”
“Fordham wants to be a responsible sponsor, and impose higher standards of quality,” he said.
Mr. Ryan, who has worked at Fordham since 2001, said the experience of being a charter authorizer had led him to better appreciate the tremendous challenge of educating disadvantaged students in urban communities.
“I’m amazed at some of the really, really painful stories that 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds are bringing to school, and the efforts of schools to deal with these things,” he said. “I’ve gained more respect for traditional educators.”
Vol. 26, Issue 16, Pages 26-29
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