A Think Tank Gets Real: Fordham’s Experience as a Charter-School Authorizer

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has deep roots in Dayton, Ohio, where Thomas B. Fordham lived and made his fortune more than sixty years ago. We have long been immersed in Ohio education policy, particularly as it relates to charter schools.

Debates around charter schools – their role, their efficacy, even their right to exist – remain hot and contentious in the Buckeye State, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the nation. But Fordham hasn’t merely weighed in from the lens of think tank and choice advocate; we have also worked directly with schools as a grant maker, launched and supported a Dayton-based charter management organization, and for the last five years served as a charter school authorizer (aka “sponsor” in Ohio).

To recount and draw lessons from this experience, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Mike Lafferty, and I authored Ohio Education Reform Challenges: Lesson from the Frontlines. The book, published by Palgrave-MacMillan, chronicles what former Massachusetts education commissioner David Driscoll aptly describes as the “collision of theory and practice.”

It hasn’t been an easy road – from the dismal academic state of most of the ten schools we initially took on, to financial turmoil and scandal – the likes of which sent a leader of one of our former schools to prison – to failing schools eschewing our tough love and “sponsor hopping” to avoid consequences.

Authorizing has left us battered and bruised at moments, and humbled about how difficult this work truly is – a good lesson to temper our think tank perspective and ivory tower ideals about school choice surely. But it has also made us more committed than ever before to education reform and improving schools for Ohio’s and the nation’s most under-served children.

This book tells a candid story of our Ohio experience and offers 18 lessons we’ve learned along the way. Read excerpts of Fordham’s Ohio highs and lows in this Education Next article.

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