The Era of Super Sponsors

Consolidation puts ODE in charge of all Ohio Charter Schools

By Connor Brown

Ohio charter schools are entering uncharted waters as sponsorship begins to consolidate under the Ohio Department of Education. As recently reported by Third Rail, ODE has set in motion their systematic consolidation of charter sponsorship to just a handful of sponsors. Sources close to ODE revealed that ODE is specifically looking to manage just eight charter school sponsors, forcing schools outside of those to either close or find a “super sponsor” willing to pick up their school.

But the idea that charter schools or even sponsors have any choice in their fate is just about as fleeting as the “choice” Ohio families will soon have to exercise their right to school choice. ODE power-enriching rules (which they attained by hijacking the rule-making process of House Bill 2), give them complete authority from end-to-end. Any charter school not currently sponsored through one of those eight will inevitably fall under ODE direct or indirect control.

To better illustrate, we’ll use a hypothetical: You are a highly-rated charter school doing well in academics, but you are sponsored by an Education Service Center (ESC) or school district. You must decide if you should take action now and attempt to “sponsor hop” to what you hope is one a “chosen” sponsor or wait for ODE to become your sponsor by default once they revoke your current sponsor’s rights. Not a terrific set of options. But here’s the catch, House Bill 2 also cracked down on “sponsor hopping” as well, and guess who now has the final sign off on your attempt to sponsor hop? The Ohio Department of Education. If ODE says yes, then you are safe and will be allowed to stay open. If they decline, then you remain with your doomed sponsor until ODE takes over that role, allowing them to close down your school if and when they chose.

The Rule of The Eight:

So who are these eight sponsors? As proved by the Ohio State Board of Education at their December meeting, the eight sponsoring entities will NOT be school districts nor ESCs. And while there isn’t a clear consensus among which of the remaining non-profits are among the eight, three sponsors seem to have consensus: The Ohio Council for Community Schools, Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, and of course, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. This consolidation allows these sponsors to take on more schools and expand their own charter business in the state. Dayton-based Fordham Foundation is no doubt included in this list due to its strong ties with Senate Education Chairwoman Peggy Lehner. As outlined extensively by Third Rail, the connection between the two runs deep on multiple levels, most notably that Senator Lehner and Kate Walsh, president of a Fordham Foundation sub-group, are sisters.

These chosen “super sponsors” will soon dominate charter schools in Ohio, but they will do so only with the blessing of an empowered ODE. After all, ODE has shown a willingness to manipulate the rules to gain power outside of legislative intent, so it is reasonable to expect that they would use those powers to keep the “super sponsors” in line with the will and intentions of ODE bureaucrats. Thus, charter schools will soon have little choice in sponsorship, and sponsors will have no choice other than to follow the instructions of ODE.

Of note is the decidedly un-democratic process at work here. ESCs and Districts are accountable to taxpayers as legal entities under Ohio law, they are either composed of directly elected officials themselves, or appointees of elected officials, with all the scrutiny that goes with elected governance. Not for profit institutions, such as Fordham, are not accountable to voters or taxpayers in any way.  All the while “accountability” was supposed to define the reforms of H.B. 2.

In this era of “super sponsors” where all control leads back to ODE, charter schools and the families they serve will only have the illusion of choice.