Helping Mom-and-Pop Charter Schools

Michael Petrilli at Education Next has a very interesting video interview with Chester Finn and Terry Ryan about the new book they’ve written with Michael B. Lafferty. All three are from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The book– Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Front Lines–chronicles Fordham’s attempts to help what they refer to as mom-and-pop charter schools in Ohio.

One of the most important lessons learned, according to Finn and Ryan, is that there is a shortage of good administrative personnel for charter schools in the Rust Belt states. For instance, when an excellent administrator was called away from the Omega School of Excellence because of family and church obligations, the Fordham folks were unable to find a suitable replacement for her despite a nationwide search. Their one promising candidate was snatched up by the nationally respected KIPP charter school. It’s a reminder, I’d argue, that it’s the talent and commitment of individual teachers and principals that make the difference in student achievement.

There’s an excerpt of the book’s first chapter here that explains how charter schools are set up and run in Ohio and the sometimes-insurmountable problems they face.

A big problem is money:

Sponsors weren’t the only ones on the Ohio charter scene that faced financial challenges. We also came to realize that independent charter schools faced almost insurmountable hurdles in delivering high-quality academic instruction while running these small businesses on tight margins. Consider the Omega School of Excellence, one of the ODE “orphans” that Fordham came to sponsor in Dayton and a school that in 2005 enrolled just 184 students. It received about $1.4 million a year from state and federal sources, which worked out to about $7,610 per pupil. In contrast, the Dayton Public Schools were at the time operating at about $13,000 a child. That difference was the result of some $5,500 per student in local tax dollars going to district schools that charters such as Omega did not receive—all this in addition to money for facilities and other outlays that were also denied to Ohio charters.

From its meager per-pupil allocation, Omega had to pay for all staffing, food services, special education, facilities, instructional materials (books, computers, etc.), and other expenses associated with running a school. Omega spent about $120,000 annually on facilities and utilities alone, and another $75,000 on food services, leaving about $1.2 million for instruction and operations. It was required to contribute to the state retirement system some 14 percent of salaries for every employee. Omega also offered basic health insurance and met the cost of federal Medicare payments. That meant the school paid about $645,000 in salaries and $175,000 in benefits. The result was that the average Omega administrator earned about $36,500 in 2005 while the average teacher made about $38,350. By contrast, Dayton’s district-school administrators earned about $68,500 and teachers about $50,550.

Starting in July 2005, charter schools also had to pay fees to their sponsors, which cut further into their operating margins and was seen by many in the charter community as a harsh tax. It certainly created animosity between new sponsors and schools. More than once we heard complaints that “under ODE we received free sponsorship, and now we’re paying you for sponsorship and you actually scrutinize our efforts far more than the state ever did.” This was another reason for us to keep our sponsorship fees as low as possible, but it made for an unsustainable situation over the long run.

Quality sponsorship costs money that somebody has to pay. Other states have realized this and fund their authorizers in more rational (and less tight-fisted) ways. For example, Florida provides sponsoring agencies 5 percent of revenue, as do Colorado and Oklahoma. These dollars come directly from the state to the sponsors, not out of the schools’ operating funds. In fact, the average payment structure for U.S. sponsors falls in the range of 3 percent to 5 percent of a school’s per-pupil allotment.

Besides keeping charter schools on short fiscal rations and “taxing” them for sponsorship, Ohio imposed onerous and disruptive reporting requirements. For example, charters had to report their student counts to the state every month while districts did so only twice a year. A charter school’s monthly revenue could suddenly drop by several thousand dollars if, for example, a mother lost her job and moved her five children to another school. Districts also feel the pain of losing students but they adjust their spending annually, not monthly. This becomes significant as teachers and other staff sign yearlong employment contracts, meaning that the charter school is on the hook for these costs whether pupils stay or leave.

Districts, of course, can also seek operating levies from local taxpayers to boost revenues beyond what the state affords them, while charters depend entirely on state and federal per-pupil allocations and whatever they can raise from philanthropy (see Figure 1 for current spending estimates). Some states—but not Ohio—provide charter schools with extra dollars in an effort to partially compensate for the absence of local dollars. Many now assist their charters with facility costs, too.

Some schools, like one in Moraine, didn’t make student achievement their priority:

In hindsight, we were naïve about the Moraine school and our ability to turn it around through tough love. No matter how much we wanted the school to succeed academically, those in charge—the school leadership and teachers—did not have the capacity to make it perform at a high level. Even more important, we gradually realized that the school’s leadership did not see their primary mission as delivering academic success to children.

For them, the goal was to provide a place that cared for the community’s children with love, respect, and understanding. If learning also occurred, well and good, but the school’s very existence was a sufficient end in itself for both the board and many parents. It was, quite simply, “their” school. Our efforts to inject a sense of urgency and focus on academic results just did not fly. That we didn’t share the same values should have been obvious from the start. But we failed to see it.

Some schools failed to take responsibility for student learning:

After visiting the schools,[charter-school evaluation team leader Joey] Gustafson reported that all four—each an independent “mom-and-pop” operation with no links to national groups—faced a host of challenges, including strained budgets, low enrollments, curriculum problems, inexperienced staff, weak professional development for teachers, and board members ignorant of testing and other academic essentials. She also found a widespread belief that their academic setbacks were not the schools’ responsibility but, rather, the result of too many students from poor families with “home life” issues.

According to Gustafson, “These kids cannot” was the start of far too many conversations. She urged Fordham to take school leaders to visit high-performing charters in other states so they could see how such institutions worked. The result was a trip to Washington, D.C., where the heads of Fordham-sponsored schools spent time in a high-performing Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) school and the excellent charter boarding school called SEED Academy.

Fordham’s goal is to help community-based charters succeed:

There are, to be sure, several national charter outfits—e.g., Edison Learning, National Heritage Academies, Building Excellent Schools, KIPP—operating in Ohio and some of them do good work. But what this approach neglects, and what Ohio (and many other places) still needs, are mechanisms for strengthening the “mom-and-pop” schools like Omega that have deep roots in their communities yet lack the educational and management capacity necessary to sustain success.

It will be interesting to see how they proceed now that they’ve reflected on what they’ve learned at the front lines of charter schooling and education reform. We wish them well.

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