Fordham Survey Polls Top Charter Principals on Growth, Facilities, Regulation, Talent

January 27, 2016

A new survey commissioned by the Fordham Institute and released Wednesday gives a perspective on Ohio’s charter school sector from the viewpoint of building leaders in the top third of charters by academic performance. Many principals responding to the survey say tighter oversight and regulation are needed to boost the sector’s reputation and quality, while they also identify funding inequities and teacher recruitment as barriers. 

The report on the survey results, “Quality in Adversity: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools,” was born from an observation in an earlier Fordham report released a little more than year ago, said Chad Aldis, head of the organization’s Ohio operations. At that December 2014 report release, national charter school expert Andy Smarick had observed that Ohio was out of the ordinary in that its better performing charters were no more likely to expand or replicate than laggard schools. “We thought, well, that’s an interesting observation from a national person. Let’s figure out why,” Aldis said.

Farkas Duffett Research Group conducted the survey, which garnered 76 responses out of 109 leaders whose schools met the cutoff for academic performance: a C or better on the performance index or B or better on value-added for both the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 state report cards. The survey was conducted in April and May. About 350 charter schools operate in Ohio.

The report divided questions and responses into four categories addressing quality, challenges to growth, the importance and difficulty of finding great teachers, and keys to starting and sustaining a successful school.

In the quality section, 52 percent of respondents said tighter oversight and regulation are necessary to “improve charter school quality and strengthen the overall sector,” while 35 percent said such tightening would be counterproductive because it undermines the idea of charter schools and their freedom to innovate; 13 percent were unsure. 

Eighty percent of respondents say Ohio could use more charters, but only if they’re high performing; 4 percent said Ohio doesn’t need any more charters, while 8 percent said the more, the better.

“They want the sector to grow, but not at the expense of quality,” said researcher Ann Duffett.

Asked what policies would be “very effective” in improving Ohio’s charter sector, strong majorities identified access to local property tax funding, enforcement of the requirement that districts offer vacant buildings to charters, and making it easier for high performing schools to replicate.

In the growth section, about three quarters of respondents said they definitely or probably will expand student enrollment or grade levels offered, while just under 40 percent said they definitely or probably will open an additional school at another site. Respondents were split nearly down the middle when asked if they’re at capacity or have room for greater enrollment.

Lack of funding, pressure from state tests and ratings, and lack of building space were identified by majorities of respondents as very or somewhat serious challenges for charter schools this year.

Forty nine percent said their local districts were “generally uncooperative” in making facilities available, while 27 percent deemed districts “neutral” and 11 percent called them “generally cooperative.” 

More than half of respondents say Ohio is “mostly unsupportive” of charter schools, and majorities said that negative images of charter schools hinder teacher and student recruitment, and that criticism of charter schools tends to be unfair and exaggerated. 

In the section on teacher quality, 61 percent or respondents said they generally struggle to find good candidates, while 53 percent identified traditional public schools, rather than fellow charters, as their main competition for talent. In terms of pay, 71 percent of respondents said they’ll always be at a disadvantage because of their significantly lower salaries compared to districts. 

In terms of starting and sustaining charter schools, the vast majority of respondents said effective principals, solid financial plans, quality teacher recruitment, building trust with families and communities and careful planning were critical elements. 

Strong majorities identified sponsors, governing boards and management organizations as helpful to their schools’ successes; local school districts and fellow charter schools were least likely to be identified as helpful by respondents. 

At an event to release the report Wedneday, the research group’s Steve Farkas moderated a focus group of leaders from three standout charters: Andrew Boy of United Schools Network, Hannah Powell of KIPP Columbus, and David Taylor of Dayton Early College Academy.

Farkas asked the school leaders what they know now that they wish they’d known at the outset when starting their schools. Developing talent pipelines, including grooming internal candidates for advancement, was a common response. 

“It would have saved us a lot of heartache and pain from the beginning if we had learned to invest in our own people,” said Taylor.

Boy also underlined the report’s message about charter leaders finding Ohio unsupportive. 

“I think we would likely be serving more students if we were in a different state or a different city,” he said. “I love Columbus, this is my home … but if your goal in 2008 was to have the greatest impact and serve the greatest number of students, I would have done it somewhere else.” 

The school leaders said finding candidates who fit the mission and culture of their schools is a big challenge. 

Powell said she can train a teacher on pedagogy or other professional topics, but “if you fundamentally don’t believe that all kids can and will learn, it’s not going to work.”

Boy said applicants’ intelligence levels play a big role in his selection process for new teachers. 

“They take the Ohio assessment, which they would give to their class. You should get 100 percent of those questions right. The unfortunate thing is people don’t always get them all right,” he said. “Each year about 90 percent rule themselves out from the very beginning, largely because they can’t write.” 

The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools applauded Fordham’s study for focusing attention on upper-tier charter schools. “These are voices of the practitioners and it is time that the experiences of those who do the work leading the state’s best charter schools be visible. Their ‘lessons learned’ amplifies the necessity of equitable funding and facilities support to successfully replicate and expand high-performing schools,” said alliance President Darlene Chambers in a statement. “Their consensus is that they prevail in a state environment unsupportive of charter schools, with persistent negative criticism and image issues speaks to the dedication and tenacity required to start a quality school and sustain models that work.”

The full report is available at Story originally published in The Hannah Report on January 27, 2016.  Copyright 2016 Hannah News Service, Inc.