Choice Words

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley today signed into law his state’s first private school choice program—a K–12 tuition tax credit—avoiding what was perhaps the most ridiculous attempt yet to thwart efforts to enact a voucher or tax-credit plan anywhere.

Bentley put his signature on the Alabama Accountability Act one day after the state’s Supreme Court lifted a restraining order that prevented him from even getting the bill, which passed two weeks ago along party lines. The Alabama Education Association had convinced a state judge last week to block legislative staffers from sending the bill to the governor, arguing that too many Republican lawmakers privately discussed rewriting a separate measure to include the tax credit without calling a public meeting.

The Alabama Supreme Court sensibly determined that the restraining order issued by Judge Charles Price was “premature.” The bill hadn’t even become law, and according to the top justices, there was no “existing case or controversy” that needed adjudicating.

In other words, there was no one harmed. As political scientist Joshua Dunn noted, courts don’t typically intrude in the internal workings of a state legislature, as a matter of separation of powers. The notion that the teacher union might have suffered “irreparable harm” without the restraining order (Judge Price’s words) was ludicrous.

Now that the bill is law, Bentley and others who supported the tax credit can expect a lawsuit. And families whose children are zoned to a failing public school and who are hoping for the private school...

Joshua Dunn

Farce has been standard fare in litigation over school choice since the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upholding the constitutionality of vouchers. At the time of Zelman, chief counsel for the National Education Association (NEA) said the organization would rely on “Mickey-Mouse provisions” in state constitutions to attack choice programs. No claim was too ridiculous. But farce doesn’t seem to capture what happened last week in Alabama.

Theater of the Absurd
Farce does not seem to capture what happened last week in Alabama.

Two weeks ago, the Alabama House and Senate passed the Alabama Accountability Act, giving parents with children in failing schools a tax credit for tuition at a private school. The bill passed by 2-1 margins in both houses of the Republican-controlled legislature. Naturally, organizations such as the Alabama Education Association (AEA), opposed as they are to letting students escape miserably failing schools, howled that the measure violated state law. But this time, rather than at least having the decency to sue once the legislation was signed, the AEA decided to lawyer up before it even reached the governor’s desk.

Initially, the act was called the School Flexibility Act and did not include tax credits. After the House and Senate passed different versions of the act, the conference committee added the tax-credit provision and changed the name....

It’s not often a piece of legislation is challenged in court before it becomes law. But since Alabama teacher unions and school boards are so intent on quashing any alternative to the traditional school district, they have marshaled every resource to defeat what should be the state’s first private school choice plan.

When Republicans passed a tuition tax credit late last week, the Alabama Education Association cried foul and took the GOP to court, claiming that legislative leaders violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by privately discussing the measure and tacking it on at the last minute to an entirely different education bill. This afternoon, a state judge gave the union a temporary victory and forbade the governor from signing the bill until next week when a hearing determines what will happen next.

Not to be sidelined, the Alabama Association of Schools Boards and the School Superintendents of Alabama have sent Governor Robert Bentley a joint letter urging him to reject the measure, using faulty assumptions to claim that such a law would reduce education funding by tens of millions of dollars.

The harm done to these parties is real only if one assumes that every education dollar is theirs to begin with. And to the state’s public education establishment, that has been the assumption. Whether lawmakers or school-choice advocates are proposing tax credit scholarships or charter schools, they can expect a fight—not just from the unions and the school boards, but from the Alabama Department of Education,...

The latest study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has profound implications for the artificial cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. According to the report (released today), the typical charter school student gains about one and a half more months of learning in a year in reading than students in a typical district school and two and a half more months of learning in math. The gains in Boston were even more pronounced: twelve months of additional learning in a year in reading for charter students and thirteen months more in math.

Yet there remain 45,000 students in Massachusetts waiting for a seat in a charter school, thanks mostly to a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in Boston and other low-performing districts. State education officials have been authorizing schools where they can, approving five new charter schools this week and expanding eleven others, but there still isn’t enough supply; the new openings are expected to serve just 3,100 students, half of them in Boston.

“The more schools we open, the longer the waiting list gets,” Massachusetts Charter Public School Association director Marc Kenen told the Boston Globe this week.

The absurdity of the cap becomes more apparent with the achievement gains Bay State charters are showing. Eighty-three percent of Boston charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their district-school peers in reading and math, and no Boston charters had significantly lower gains, according to...

This extensive evaluation of KIPP charter schools, conducted by Mathematica, will impress even the staunchest KIPP skeptics. The study employed two study designs: The researchers compared the cohorts of forty-one KIPP middle schools (more than half of the total KIPP schools) to students in local non-KIPP schools. They also compared KIPP lottery winners in thirteen oversubscribed schools to non-winners. The upshot? Over a three- to four-year span, KIPP students achieved between eight and fourteen months of additional learning growth compared to their non-KIPP-attending peers. These findings hold across all four core subjects for both state tests and a nationally normed, low-stakes exam (meant to test higher-order thinking skills). What’s more, the researchers included students who left their KIPP schools prior to eighth grade, making these effects a valid measure of anyone who has ever enrolled in these middle schools. But while the academic gains of KIPPsters are unimpeachable, the schools’ affects on student attitudes may not be. Apparently, KIPP increases students’ likelihood of arguing, lying to their parents, and losing their temper, according to student surveys—though one has to wonder if KIPP students are simply more likely than non-KIPPsters to own up to such behaviors.

SOURCE: Christina Clark Tuttle, et al., KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, February 2013)....

Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio released an ambitious federal school-choice plan on Tuesday night.
Photo from Speaker Boehner's Flickr account.

The nation was perhaps too preoccupied with Marco Rubio’s gulp heard ‘round the world to notice that the senator, immediately after his Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday, released a far-reaching federal school-choice plan. And that’s too bad, for what has emerged this week is the most sweeping congressional idea to empower disadvantaged kids with private school alternatives since the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Just as many states now make available tax credit scholarships—cousins to school vouchers—Rubio would empower individuals or corporations to contribute money to nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” in return for a tax credit—anywhere in the nation.  Those scholarship groups would, in turn, help low-income kids cover the tuition at a private school of their choice.

This is an ambitious plan, but one that would surely face resistance in a Democratically controlled senate that has repeatedly dogged the D.C. voucher program. And while that would not be surprising, it would surely be disappointing, for it would further widen the gulf between the national Democratic Party and a growing number of state Democrats on this issue.

A lot of those state Democrats are in Florida, where Rubio served as House Speaker from 2007...

Hurrah for Scott Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Charter School Board, for pointing out the guile of several Washington, D.C., leaders who want to “manage” the accelerating charter school growth in the city under the guise of collaboration. Joint efforts between city, district, and charter leaders are good if they lead to more and better options for all students, but some key city officials sound more like they’re trying to put a brake on the charter momentum.

When the latest figures from D.C. showed that the number of charter school students increased by 10 percent to 34,673 students, it brought the charter school market share of public education in the city to 43 percent. This led David A. Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s new education committee, to tell the Washington Post on Sunday that there ought to be a way to help charter schools and district schools learn to co-exist, even if that means “a momentary pause” on charter growth. Similarly, Mayor Vincent C. Gray wants his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education” in the city.

Pearson was right to challenge statements like these, telling Post reporter Emma Brown, “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters.”

Indeed, any hint that charter growth should slow or “pause” in the spirit of collaboration ignores a fundamental reality: D.C. charters are building enough leverage to lead any conversation on collaboration...

Quality education
Nurturing quality charters takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest.
Photo by woodleywonderworks.

The One Million Lives Campaign launched in the fall by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has captured popular (and media) attention, mostly for its call to shutter the worst-performing charter schools. But that’s only half of its purpose. The point of “One Million Lives,” as its name suggests, is to create the conditions that allow a million kids a seat in at least 3,000 high-performing schools.

So let’s take a moment to consider the other half of this worthy effort. Parker Baxter, NACSA’s Director of Knowledge and one of the charter movement’s smarter thinkers on growth and accountability, has taken to the Dell Foundation’s blog to encourage authorizers and policy makers to find ways to replace bad charter schools with good charter schools.

As hard as it’s been to close bad schools, nurturing high-flying charters is at least as tricky: It takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest, or at least the adoption of laws and practices that provide an easier path for high-flying charters to prosper. Baxter recognizes this and points out some more obvious steps to quality (approving new schools carefully and establishing high standards for performance), while urging states to consider more relatively difficult ideas to...

This report from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (widely known as CREDO) investigates, among other questions, whether it’s possible to predict the long-term academic success (or failure) of a charter school during its early years. The authors examined five years’ worth of data from more than 1,300 schools run by 167 charter-management organizations (CMOs) and 410 schools run by education-management organizations (EMOs). (Per CREDO, a CMO directly operates the schools in its network; an EMO contracts with a governing authority to operate the school.) To assess the quality of these outfits, CREDO paired charter-going students with “virtual twins” from their neighborhood district school. The analysts offer four key findings. First, initial signs of school quality are predictive of later performance: Roughly 80 percent of charter schools in the bottom quintile of performance during its first year of operation remain low performers through their fifth year. And 94 percent of schools that begin in the top quintile stay there over time. (Of course, we know from our experience as an Ohio charter authorizer that there are exceptions to this rule.) Second—as we’ve heard before—CMO quality varies greatly: Across the management organizations that were examined, 43 percent outpace the learning gains of their local district schools in reading and 37 percent do so in math. Yet a third have average gains that are worse in reading, and half do worse in math. Third, the quality of a replica charter is roughly the same as the flagship school—two-thirds of CMOs...

No single philanthropic organization has put more effort and money into the advancement and improvement of school choice—both public and private—than the Walton Family Foundation, which just announced total education-reform outlays in 2012 totaling $158 million. That represents about 37 percent of Walton’s total philanthropic investment during the year. (In second place are freshwater conservation and other environmental concerns.).

While Walton is frequently lauded (and attacked) for its contributions to efforts that shape education policy (contributions that totaled $61 million last year, a bit of that to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute), far more went to foster quality schooling.

For instance, nearly $15 million went to the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture-capital group that works to expand the number of seats in high-performing charter networks (a mission the fund has executed with notable success, as attested in the new CREDO report on charter school growth and quality).  About $8.4 million went to the acclaimed KIPP Foundation and $3.2 million to the highly regarded school-leadership group called Building Excellent Schools. A whopping $24 million went to groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and various state-level charter associations to improve existing schools. So while it’s true that the foundation has, through its largesse, advanced our public policies in ways that enhance parental choice, it has also focused its ambitions and its very substantial checkbook on quality choice, particularly for underserved children.

Much of this, other large philanthropies would shun as too...

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