For years, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been a good friend to the Omega School of Excellence. Recently, though, it became the Dayton charter school’s authorizer. And some analysts worry that the foundation’s old supporting role may clash with its new supervisory one.
Through its philanthropic arm, the Washington-based think tank has given grants to Omega and other charter schools, and still does. It also helped create the nonprofit Keys to Improving Dayton Schools Inc., or KIDS, which offers back-office support to many small, independent charter schools. KIDS last spring became the operator of the Omega school.
Fordham officials say they favor strong accountability, but also want to help the charter schools for which they became the authorizer in July 2005. In fact, Ohio law requires authorizers to provide technical assistance.
Researcher Henry M. Levin praises the foundation for advocating improvements in how charters are held accountable for performance, but argues that its ties to schools such as Omega could impede its role as an accountability agent.
“There are a lot of interlocking relationships here, and entanglements,” said Mr. Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Without impugning motives, just institutionally, it doesn’t sound proper to me. … You simply don’t commingle public stewardship with private commitments.”
The Omega school, launched in 1999 by a minister at a large African-American church in Dayton, seemed to do fairly well until about two years ago. That’s when a family illness took the Rev. Vanessa Oliver Ward, the school’s main founder and board president, away from day-to-day involvement.
Student performance and enrollment plummeted. Fordham Foundation and school officials agreed that dramatic changes were needed. The school’s board last spring hired KIDS, which had been handling the school’s accounting, as the operator. KIDS helped bring in a new principal and teaching staff.
‘You Have to Separate That’
Concerned that the school was going broke, Fordham just recently gave Omega a $100,000 matching grant, well above the foundation’s usual school grants. The foundation sees the large turnaround grant for Omega as a one-time deal. Still, some observers question the arrangement.
“If they’re giving grants, … they’re partisan, so you have to separate that,” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charters
Greg Richmond, the president of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, sees matters differently. “If anything, it makes them more invested and more attentive,” he said. He also noted that state and district authorizers routinely give schools grants.
Chester E. Finn Jr., the foundation’s president, said he sees no need to halt grants to schools simply because Fordham sponsors them.
Meanwhile, Fordham’s ties to KIDS, Omega’s new operator, have also raised eyebrows.
Mr. Finn said the foundation has taken steps to limit the ties. It also established a policy that makes clear to schools it sponsors that “we will never tell you whom to hire and will not let you hire us, Fordham, to provide services,” he said.
“We are precisely an independent accountability agent because we spun off the service-providing function to an independent organization,” Mr. Finn said, referring to KIDS. But Mr. Finn and another Fordham official still serve on the KIDS board, and it shares office space with Fordham in Dayton.
Mr. Richmond said he’s not troubled by the link, as long as KIDS operates the Omega school only for a short time. “If it were an ongoing activity, it would really start to complicate the lines of authority,” he said.
To Mr. Finn, the Omega case illustrates the absence of black and white when it comes to closing schools. “If an important community organization sets out to run a charter school, and the school runs into trouble, my instinct is first to see if we can help them make it succeed,” he said.
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Fordham’s Connections to School That It Sponsors Spark Concerns