Kathryn Mullen Upton is the Director of Sponsorship for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. She is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of Fordham's sponsorship operation, which consists of providing monitoring, oversight, and technical assistance to charter schools. From 1996 to 1998, Ms. Mullen Upton worked as a teacher in the Dayton Public Schools in Dayton, Ohio. She subsequently worked as law clerk to the Hon. Maxine A. White and then as a legal researcher in the private sector. Ms. Mullen Upton earned a Bachelor's degree from the University of Dayton in 1996, and a J.D. from Marquette University Law School in 2001. A native of Maryland, Ms. Mullen Upton and her family currently reside in Kettering, Ohio.
1. What does it mean for a charter school operator to be "for-profit"? In other words, how does the operator profit financially by running a charter school? Without getting too deep into the weeds, a charter school operator (i.e., an entity that is a management company/contractor that provides various services) is “for-profit” if the profits of the operator are distributed to the operator’s owners and/or shareholders. Operators may also profit from related business arrangements.
2. Do for-profit charter schools have a place in Ohio charter law? Currently, there’s no such thing as a for-profit charter school in Ohio. Charter schools are public schools funded by public dollars. If individuals or organizations want to start a for-profit school, they should examine the private school option.
3. Many charter school advocates believe in the freedom of parents and students to choose their education. If parents continue to choose failing for-profit charter schools, should Ohio continue to support these schools? Should it continue to support failing non-profit charter schools? Again, there’s no such thing as a for-profit charter school in Ohio; rather, there are for-profit organizations that manage or provide services to charter schools. A point of clarification is necessary: charter schools organized prior to April 8, 2003 must be non-profit corporations; charter schools organized after April 8, 2003 must be public benefit corporations – charter schools themselves cannot be for-profit entities.
Also important to point out is that one can have equally good and bad charter schools that aren’t managed by for-profit operators and equally good and bad charter schools that are managed by for-profit operators. An entity’s corporate designation does not determine whether a charter school will do a good job educating kids. We can all point to non-profits and for-profit operations that have excellent schools, and non-profits and for-profits that have botched the job horribly. Hence, the reason the role of the charter school authorizer is so critical. (The term “sponsor” and “authorizer” are the same – Ohio uses the term “sponsor” but most other states use “authorizer”.) Charter school authorizers are the entities responsible for monitoring charter schools and holding them accountable for their results. Strong authorizers will take action against failing schools thus removing the question of whether Ohio should support failing charter schools in perpetuity.
Note, too, that Ohio has an automatic closure law for failing charter schools. There are waivers for specialized programs (e.g., dropout recovery); however, all other charter schools can be automatically closed after a certain period of time if the school fails to meet performance minimums (and if the authorizer doesn’t close it first).
4. What systems of accountability are needed in order to ensure all charter schools operate with fiscal integrity? Checks and balances are critical. Regarding fiscal integrity, Ohio needs strong charter school governing authorities that are capable of holding operators accountable and ensuring that financial transactions and processes are transparent. In addition to that, Ohio needs strong authorizers who do not have a financial interest in their schools other than the (up to) 3% sponsorship fee that they can collect under state law. And of course, the authorizers need to be monitoring the fiscal (and academic and governance) health of the schools on a continuous basis.
5. How would you rate Ohio 's current systems of accountability? Ohio’s current systems of accountability could use some improvement, but there are mechanisms in place to hold charter schools and their governing authorities accountable for results. The issue is partially the current accountability systems and mechanisms themselves, and partially that enforcement also needs improvement. Authorizers need to do a better job holding schools accountable, and the Ohio Department of Education needs to do a better job holding authorizers accountable.
6. Why do we need charter schools in Ohio? The question is really why do we need high-quality charter schools. We don't need more public schools that simply have a charter and aren't performing any better than their failing counterparts - be they charter or district - because we have plenty of those. Until high-quality public schools are the norm throughout the state, Ohio needs high-performing public charter schools.