Standing Under the Arch: Authorizer Accountability in Ohio

In “The Road to Redemption: 10 Policy Recommendations for Ohio’s Charter School Sector,” my colleagues and I show why authorizers must be accountable for the schools they oversee. Without adequate accountability in place, authorizers may have weak incentives to implement high-quality authorizing practices. This can result in too many schools opening that lack the elements necessary for success, and too many low-performing schools remaining open long after they should be shut down.

Ohio offers a case study in the importance of holding authorizers accountable. Nearly 70 entities sponsor (authorize) charter schools, including state universities, regional education service centers, education-focused nonprofit organizations, local school districts, and the state department of education. On the whole, the schools these entities sponsor are struggling, and far too many low-potential schools are approved to open (many of which subsequently close partway through their first year). Yet only one sponsor has ever faced any real consequences.

Until recently, there has been little incentive for sponsors to make significant changes to the way they screen schools or hold them accountable for their performance. But this will soon change, as the state has put in place two promising policies to hold sponsors accountable.

The first is a new, rigorous application process for any new entity wishing to become an authorizer. This application will evaluate entities on their commitment and ability to execute NACSA’s principles and standards for quality authorizing.

The second is a new authorizer accountability framework that the state will begin implementing in January 2015. This framework will hold existing sponsors accountable for their policies and school portfolios, based on three measures: 1) the academic performance of the students enrolled in the schools they have authorized; 2) adherence to “quality practices” outlined by ODE and aligned to NACSA’s standards; and 3) compliance with applicable laws regarding sponsorship. Sponsors will be rated annually as exemplary, effective, or ineffective. Any sponsor ranked ineffective through this process will be prohibited from sponsoring additional schools. ODE can also revoke authorizing authority from any ineffective sponsor with which it has a contract (although this currently applies to only 13 sponsors).

On paper these two policies are huge steps in the right direction. However, their ultimate success relies on the fidelity with which they are implemented. Further, Ohio policymakers must make some important legislative changes so that all sponsors (not just the 13 with which ODE has a contract) are held to high standards and real consequences.

Ultimately, charter schools in Ohio and elsewhere will only be truly held accountable if the entities that oversee them are called to account. Michael Armstrong, author of several books on human capital and performance management, is quoted as saying, “The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.” While I can’t speak to the veracity of this ancient Roman practice, it offers a vivid illustration of accountability. Authorizers must be accountable for their decisions about schools they open and allow to continue operating. They must be willing to stand under the arch.