A Bi-Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 4, Number 2. January 13, 2010

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News & Analysis

Capital Matters

Flypaper's Finest

Short Reviews

Editor's Extras

About Us



Top non-profit charter school models leave Ohio behind

Both Lighthouse Academies and Building Excellent Schools -- two national, top-flight, nonprofit charter-school management organizations -- never wanted to come to Ohio, but both did and both regret the decision.

"It's unlikely we would come back to Ohio in the near future," said Lighthouse President Michael Ronan, citing severe structural issues and a hostile political environment. Lighthouse is headquartered in Framingham, Massachusetts. Linda Brown, executive director of the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools organization, is even sourer on Ohio. There is no way her organization will ever open another school in the state.

"We never thought Ohio was going to be a good fit. We were encouraged by several people and funders," Brown said. "We were sweet talked into working [in] Cleveland."

The organization opened two schools in Cleveland -- Entrepreneurship Prep in 2006 and Village Prep in 2009. It founded the Columbus Collegiate Academy in Columbus in 2008 (one of six schools that the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation authorizes).

Ohio has about 330 charter schools enrolling more than 89,000 students. As charter schools spread nationally, there are more than 1.5 million students attending over 4,900 public charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia, the Buckeye State seems intent on making it hard for these schools to open and operate successfully. During the state budget battle in 2009, charters would have been all but eliminated by the governor and House of Representatives but were saved in the Ohio Senate.

A new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says the state's limits on new charters endanger its chances of being awarded federal Race to the Top dollars. The report compares state charter laws across the nation with the Alliance's model law and ranks Ohio 26th among 39 states and the District of Columbia (11 states do not have charter laws). Ohio earned 97 of 208 possible points in the analysis. Ohio law seems to hit most of the Alliance's concerns, just not as forcefully as the Alliance would like. Further, Ohio is one of 11 states that cap charter-school growth. Alliance Vice President for Policy Todd Ziebarth said Ohio could lose as much as $400 million in federal assistance under the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant competition because of the state's charter caps.

The report, How State Charter Laws Rank Against The New Model Public Charter School Law, evaluates states in 20 categories such as quality and accountability, funding equity, facilities support, autonomy, and growth and choice. The report includes the District of Columbia. Minnesota is the most charter-friendly state with 152 points, followed by the District of Columbia (131), California (130), Georgia (130), Colorado (128), Massachusetts (125), Utah (123), New York (121), Louisiana (120), and Arizona (120). Kansas (62), Rhode Island (58), Iowa (56), Alaska (54), and Maryland (41) are at the bottom.

Despite the rapid growth of charters after Ohio first approved a charter law in 1997, Ronan said Lighthouse decided to expand in Ohio because inner city students remained in dire need of quality school-choice options. These students often suffered from family poverty and chronic low academic performance in the traditional district schools. Ronan thought that winds of political change were blowing more positively and that the state's tolerance of choice was improving. The question was, how much? And for how long?

Ohio had become charter friendly under Ohio's GOP-controlled General Assembly and two Republican governors. "We saw the great need. We got lots of encouragement from people that the state was interested in trying to meet the need with charters," Ronan said. "The climate seemed positive and there were options for growth. It wasn't the most favorable climate at the time. It was probably marginal in terms of what we were looking for. But we thought the political support was there."

After making the decision to open Lighthouse charter schools in Cleveland, Ronan said, he had no second thoughts until the General Assembly decided, in its 2005 budget bill, to slow charter growth by decreeing that only 30 new charters would be opened in each of the next two years and that those schools would be chosen by lottery. Lighthouse needed to win a lottery slot to open.

It was an odd way to select something as important as a school, Ronan observed. "That was the first sign to us that this was a changing political situation," Ronan said. Lighthouse was picked to open one school in the 2005 lottery. The problem was it had to open its school almost immediately. Lighthouse had one month to open; normally it takes a year. It was the same situation the next year. "There was never a lot of notice; that was a real out-of-the-ordinary situation," he said.

By 2009, however, in the (third) year of Democrat Gov. Ted Strickland's term, the political pendulum had swung even further. "Gov. Strickland has a different vision of what would lead to higher quality education in Ohio. We respect that.... [but] we think [in the governor's view] charters play a lesser roll."

The state's troubled economy and the financial cost of state regulation also were making matters tougher for new school operators. Ohio is a costly state in which to run a school, let alone the cluster of three that is always Lighthouse's goal for a city, Ronan said.

"Ohio has high employment costs. We offer 401(k) plans to employees [while the state requires employers to contribute 14 percent of salary to the State Teachers Retirement System]. We believe in yellow bus transportation. The yellow bus transportation is very expensive with insurance. School bus drivers are in the state retirement system. Quality buildings are expensive," Ronan said. "I don't think we ever ran across a good district building in Cleveland." Finally, given Lighthouse's intense academic program, the state's per-pupil support of about $7,000 made it difficult financially, he said.

To make its model work, Lighthouse needs either lower-cost facilities or higher per-pupil funding. In Ohio, it had neither.

Finding great staff was also a persistent challenge. Trying to attract high quality teachers to Cleveland from out of the state was hard. Ronan said there were highly qualified local teachers but the pool was never large enough to meet demand.

More Teach For America alumni would have helped. Ohio public schools do not participate in Teach For America so there is no ready supply of TFAers in the state looking to move on to other schools in Ohio.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District also proved a roadblock. There was no mechanism in the state to encourage or force districts to cooperate effectively with charters, especially for buildings and transportation, he said.

"Without a real transportation plan, how does an impoverished family have access to choice?" Ronan said.

The negatives accumulated. "We came to the conclusion a year ago it was unlikely we could execute a long-term plan in Ohio and looked at how we could get another operator to take over the schools," he said. Both schools remain open but with new operators. Lighthouse has withdrawn from both and has left Ohio behind.

Ronan said Ohio could learn from New York City, Arkansas (15th in the NAPCS report), Chicago, and Indianapolis where, he believes, the climate for charters is better, and support much greater. New York City, for example, has a political environment that includes a commitment of the mayor and school superintendent to quality choice programs, solid efforts to provide facilities for successful charters, and district assistance for special education, food service, and transportation. Plus, the New York state charter statute is relatively stable, unlike Ohio's, which has been frequently changed as different political interests injected themselves into the law.

"[In New York City] there's this laser-like focus on supporting schools, to getting quality choices for children," he said. Even the local teachers union operates a couple of charter schools.

While Lighthouse is out of Ohio, the Building Excellent Schools organization is still here, although reluctantly. Building Excellent Schools fellows founded two schools in Cleveland and another in Columbus. Even though both schools recruited good leaders it was still a "very complex and unsure road to charterdom" in Ohio, Brown said.

BES's Columbus Collegiate Academy came very close to not opening at all even though it spent 18 months to roll out its school.

The school had problems locating a suitable building and, even when it did, eleventh-hour problems with city zoning officials nearly killed it.

"Who would have thought Columbus, Ohio, was not going to have any buildings?" Brown said.

Although more than 300 charter schools had opened in Ohio by 2008, Brown said, the environment for charters was still lacking. Lots of charters, she said, don't make it an easy place to work.

Ohio's chartering system, with its plethora of charter authorizers also was a drag. "It was like a maze," she said. "I don't understand the role of sponsorship. It slows down the process," she said.

CCA had the added disadvantage of opening at the same time as a nearby KIPP school, the KIPP Journey Academy (which is also sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation). The better-known and larger KIPP organization garnered most of the local media attention and public support. "It was a disaster. Everywhere [we] went KIPP had been there just before. That's not to put KIPP down but it shows how slight the window [for success] was."

Enrollment was a problem, and once students were enrolled, getting them bused to the school was a challenge. The struggle to attract and keep students has cut operating income for the schools. Despite the struggles, CCA was one of the top-performing middle schools in Columbus its inaugural year, and BES-founded E-Prep has been rated "Effective" by the state each of the last two years.

Meanwhile, BES is looking elsewhere. By autumn, the organization plans to add another 10 schools to the 40 its fellows operate. Ohio, however, is out for good.

by Mike Lafferty

Editorial note:Just this week, the Ohio Department of Education announced that both the Columbus Collegiate Academy and the KIPP Journey Academy will receive an additional $200,000 each in federal start-up funds (16 school statewide will receive additional support of roughly $3.5 million). These resources came at a critical juncture in these schools' lives. Unfortunately, the additional funding doesn't address the areas of most urgent need: operating expenses and facilities. Still, the optimists in us hope this may be a newfound signal that Ohio will seriously support quality charter school operators in the future. It may also be evidence that the Obama administration's support for charters, and encouragement for them through the Race to the Top competition, is having a positive catalytic effect in the Buckeye State. This is all good if it ends up helping kids.


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News & Analysis

Keeping Cleveland from going the way of Detroit

Last week Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eugene Sanders released his long-awaited district transformation plan. It is an ambitious proposal that seeks a substantial reorganization of CMSD and looks to spur innovation for the long-suffering urban district.

One hardly needs to make a case for reform in Cleveland's public schools. A dwindling manufacturing base, high rate of home foreclosures, abandoned neighborhoods, and the current economic recession put the city at risk of becoming the next Detroit. Its population and student enrollment have declined exponentially over the last decades, and as a result many school buildings remained under-utilized or empty. Cleveland's academic performance is arguably one of the worst in the nation. As we noted previously (see here and here), the district's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (aka, the Nation's Report Card) has been alarmingly low and remained stagnant. For example, Cleveland is the only urban district in NAEP's Trial of Urban Districts that has not seen academic achievement gains in reading or math since 2003. Graduation rates have not exceeded 62 percent in the past decade, and the city has been rated "Academic Watch" (a D) by the state or below by the state for nine of the last 10 years.

The transformation plan's primary goal is ambitious -- within five years no district school will be rated below "Continuous Improvement" (a C) by the state and at least half of the district's schools will be rated "Excellent" (an A) or "Effective" (a B).

The district is seeking a broad array of changes. Most notable is a mass consolidation of its facilities. A third of its 110 buildings will stand to be "repurposed" or closed. While academic performance does play a role in scheduled closures, the primary motivator seems to be unused capacity. The district's approach to turnarounds (which it refers to as "repurposing" is interesting as it seeks multiple approaches such as total closure, restarts, and charter conversions.

The plan calls for strong K-8 neighborhood schools with enhanced social services, and replacing large comprehensive high schools with smaller academies of choice that have an emphasis on ninth-grade retention.

There are some significant top-down changes outlined, among them a shake-up of the central office. The district's offices will be reorganized to more efficiently serve schools and promote innovation. The district is seeking to establish more of a building-based management approach that allows principals greater latitude in administrative decisions. (This decentralization effort seems to be based on the efforts of reform-minded districts like New York City, but unlike in NYC the money in Cleveland won't follow the child to the school and be managed by school leaders.)

The district also includes language that seems to get tough with teachers whose students are not performing academically. The plan touches briefly on linking student performance with teacher evaluation, and hints at removing teachers who do not deliver results.

While this reform proposal is incredibly detailed in some areas, it is vague in others. It continually mentions strengthening a system of accountability. However, it includes only broad proposals in this regard and does not provide substantive examples of accountability benchmarks.

Additionally, it goes into few specifics on development of curriculum and pedagogy, pushing their development down the road. The document talks about a mishmash of "common core" curriculum and 21st century skills jargon.

There are quite a few hurdles that the district will need to clear for these efforts to be successful. It is predicting a serious deficit for the next school year, and it will cost approximately $20-25 million annually to implement all of the proposed reforms. CEO Sanders seeks to cover the costs through a combination of Race to the Top funds, private and corporate philanthropy, and cost cutting. Both the Cleveland and Gund Foundations have provided substantial financial support for the thinking behind the district's reform strategy.

Stakeholder buy-in is essential, particularly when dealing with school closures. Many in the community are upset about the proposed closures, and the city council and teachers union have expressed anger over their lack of input in the plan.

Union acceptance of the reform package is sure to be a major sticking point, as the district and its union have had strained relations in the past. However, as Ohio's only district under mayoral control, Sanders may have the leverage needed to push the reforms through.

Overall it seems as though CMSD did its homework before releasing this substantial reform package, and it presents a comprehensive strategy for moving itself forward. While the transformation strategy is light on pedagogy and curriculum changes, its structural and organizational changes are sorely needed. The main challenge for CMSD will be in the heavy lifting of implementation and actually carrying out the sweeping change for which it aims. This is a step in the right direction for the district, and hopefully a sign of turnaround not only for Cleveland's school system, but also for the city itself.

by Eric Ulas


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Capital Matters

If Ohio wins $200 to $400 million in Race to the Top dollars, who will benefit?

To be eligible for a portion of $200 to $400 million in Race to the Top money (should Ohio win), Local Education Agencies (LEAs) -- school districts and charter schools -- were required to submit memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to the Ohio Department of Education by last week.

We previously speculated on Flypaper that Ohio, unlike states with more contentious applications, might see hundreds of LEAs signing up. This, in turn, might threaten to diminish the intention of Race to the Top, as spreading funds far and wide across the state would result in very few dollars with which districts could make any real changes.

Indeed, over a third (250) of Ohio's 613 districts signed the MOU, including many large urban districts -- Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Akron. (It's a shame that Dayton [facing a $5 million hole in its budget] and Youngstown [the state's lowest performing school district] decided to sit this one out.) Of 332 charter schools, 187 signed on to the provisions of Race to the Top.

In terms of student enrollment, the discrepancy between districts and charter schools is stark. If Ohio wins a portion of Race to the Top funding, 46 percent of students enrolled in district public schools attend a school eligible for the money, compared to 72 percent of students enrolled in charter schools.

by Jamie Davies O'Leary and Eric Ulas


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ODE sets charter accountability sights on district conversion schools

Enrollment in Buckeye State charter schools was up eight percent last year, to 89,000 students statewide, according to the Ohio Department of Education's annual report to the governor about the state's community schools.

The report and accompanying tables include demographic and historical academic performance data for all charter schools, a map of charter school locations, school enrollment numbers, information about sponsors, analysis of charter school performance, and a recap of legislation (from the past year and previous years) impacting charter schools. This year's report also features a section examining district conversion schools.

Conversion charter schools are those in which all or part of an existing traditional public school has been transformed into a charter school. These schools may be sponsored by any public school district in the state. Fifty-two of the 332 charter schools operating last school year were conversion schools.

ODE staff visited 36 conversion schools last year to gain information ranging from the schools' educational programs, admissions processes, and staffing to their independence from their sponsoring districts. The department found that many conversion charter schools do not operate as independent, autonomous entities and instead operate more like district programs.

Independent governance of the school and integrity of the sponsor's fiscal monitoring functions could not be assured for 34 of the 36 schools visited. Likewise, independent operation of the school could not be assured for nearly half of the schools. Smaller numbers of schools had other problems, including not providing instruction in core subjects in classrooms dedicated to charter students, having insufficient staffing because charter teachers performed similar functions at one or more of the sponsoring district's schools, and not having evident, adequate space dedicated to the charter school.

The report does not speculate why conversion schools don't operate in consistency with state charter laws and regulations. In practice, though, this generally happens for one of two reasons: 1) savvy administrators see starting a conversion charter as a simple way to bring additional money (through federal charter school start-up grants) into their district coffers, or 2) well-meaning district leaders don't fully understand the charter school model and the autonomy requirements that go with it. In any case, ODE intends to work with conversion schools and their sponsoring districts over the next year to ensure that they comply with state and federal law and that each school operates as a separate and unique entity.

by Emmy Partin


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Flypaper's Finest
A selection of the best offerings from Flypaper, Fordham's blog.

Bankrupt of logic: Dayton's teachers union rejects Race to the Top, despite $5 million deficit, by Terry Ryan

The Dayton Public Schools, in Fordham's hometown, rang out 2009 with an announcement that it faces a $5 million budget shortfall caused by rising home foreclosures and delinquent property taxes. A mere two weeks later the head of the Dayton Education Association announced that she couldn't support the district's participation in the state's "Race to the Top" application. Her logic, "The requirements of the grant itself ask for too much....Too many strings." ...This is like a starving man refusing a steak because he is asked to cook it for himself. Read the full post here.

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If Duncan hosted Race to the Top "show-and-tell" for states, Ohio would be embarrassed, by Jamie Davies O'Leary

The news coverage around Race to the Top and the efforts states are making to become more competitive seems to now dominate much of the conversation around education. With so many state leaders moving into action (or at least using aggressive reform rhetoric), Ohio is like the kid in show-and-tell who forgets to bring something cool and shows off a piece of pocket lint while classmates hold up crystal geodes, model airplanes, and Indian arrowheads. Read more here.

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News of the weird: Paranoia and espionage in Ohio urban education, by Emmy Partin

Ohio Auditor of State Mary Taylor recently released special audits as part of an investigation into Daniel Burns, a former district administrator at the Toledo and Cleveland school districts who is accused of stealing $820,000 from the two districts over the course of eight years.... One can't help but wonder if there is a "Deep Throat" somewhere lurking in the shadows of Cleveland or Toledo waiting to tell all. If you are out there, Gadfly would love to hear from you. Read the full post here.

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Short Reviews

Issue Brief: Common Standards: The Time is Now

Alliance For Excellent Education
Bob Rothman
December 2009

This brief provides a summary of why America's public schools need not just higher academic standards, but common ("national" standards. A mere six pages in length, the brief is worth a read if only to remind you why Ohio's recent decision to fully adopt the Common Core standards in mathematics and English language arts is so significant.

The Time is Now points out that between 2005 and 2007, seven states lowered their standards for eighth-grade reading; nine states also lowered their standards for eighth-grade math proficiency. This trend could not come at a worse time. Changes to the American economy have led to a vanishing of low-skill jobs; students increasingly must possess a college degree in order to acquire prosperity. In fact, the nation's future depends on the college readiness of our students; to remain globally competitive, America's workforce must be prepared to work with their minds -- not with their backs.

Yet state-by-state improvements to academic standards will be insufficient, as allowing states to set their own proficiency bar leads to variations in academic content, quality, and college readiness among graduates. A 2009 Fordham report found that schools' ability to make federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress depended entirely on the state within which they were located. That's why the Common Core State Standards initiative, led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, is so critical. Common Core promises to create an unprecedented collaboration between states in defining academic expectations, enable comparisons across states in a meaningful way, and eventually lead to shared curriculum and assessments for use at the classroom level.

Ohio is on board for adopting the Common Core and will benefit greatly from this overhaul. Besides providing Ohio's students and teachers with a clear idea of what they are expected to know, teach, and improve upon, implementing common standards is a main criterion for winning federal Race to the Top money (for Ohio, a confection worth $200-400 million). If nothing else, common standards may end up being the only of Sec. Duncan's reforms that Ohio fully embraces and that holds potential to improve education for students across the Buckeye State. Read it here.

by Mark LeBoeuf


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Charter School Performance in New York City

Center for Research on Education Outcomes
January 2010

This brief report supplements CREDO's June 2009 national study on charter performance in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The January 2010 report focuses on the school years 2003-04 through 2008-09, and looks at roughly 20,000 students in grades 3-8 across 49 New York City charter schools.

The results of the New York City report show significantly better results for most students and student subgroups in math (with the exception of students with disabilities, Limited English Proficient students, retained students, and students in poverty) and better results for students in reading (students enrolled for 1 year, students with disabilities, Limited English Proficient students, and retained students).

Although there are a number of differences between the national study and the NYC study -- including vastly different results in mathematics, wherein more than half of the NYC charter schools showed statistically significant growth in math, as compared to just seventeen percent in the national study -- one common theme is that students enrolled in charters seem to perform better over time. Specifically, the New York City report indicates that after three years in a NYC charter school, students showed a four point advantage in reading and 15 point advantage in math as compared with students in traditional public schools. Copies of both the New York City and national reports are available here.

by Kathryn Mullen Upton


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Editor's Extras

This week's extras

Welcome to Ohio Education Gadfly's newest section, "Editor's Extras," where you can catch up on important education news that you might have missed over the past two weeks.

Compiled by Tim Hoffine and Mark LeBoeuf


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About Us

The Ohio Education Gadfly is published bi-weekly (ordinarily on Wednesdays, with occasional breaks, and in special editions) by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Have something to say? Email the editor at [email protected]. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email [email protected] with "unsubscribe gadfly" in the text of your message. You are welcome to forward the Gadfly to others, and from our website you can even email individual articles. If you have been forwarded a copy of Gadfly and would like to subscribe, you may email [email protected] with "subscribe gadfly" in the text of the message. To read archived issues, go to our website and click on the Ohio Education Gadfly link. Aching for still more education news and analysis? Check out the original Education Gadfly.

Nationally and in Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with its sister organization the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, strives to close America's vexing achievement gaps by raising standards, strengthening accountability, and expanding high-quality education options for parents and families. As a charter-school sponsor in Ohio, the Foundation joins with schools to affirm a relentless commitment to high expectations for all children, accountability for academic results, and transparency and organizational integrity, while freeing the schools to operate with minimal red tape. The Foundation and Institute are neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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