Choice Words

Next month, Georgia voters will head to the polls to decide whether their state can establish an independent commission to authorize and oversee some of its charter schools. Such a panel once existed in the Peach State and authorized sixteen schools before the state Supreme Court voted 4-3 last year to dissolve it on grounds that it was “palpably unconstitutional.” The original commission had authorized charters over the objections of local school boards, which brought the suit against the state and which remain the most fervent opponents of the current referendum. (Districts, of course, would compete with the schools operating under the commission’s direction.)

Unfortunately, the press and interest groups are largely on the school boards’ side, bemoaning the potential loss of “local control” and the prospect that the state would authorize schools unanswerable to local communities. According to a pre-election poll, however, at least half of Georgia’s voters appear to feel differently. Not surprising, considering that twenty years of charter schooling have highlighted the dysfunction of Georgia-style “local control” and the extent to which school boards and superintendents will go to preserve their near-monopolies. Ten other states have independent panels of this sort to authorize charter schools, precisely so that promising charter providers don’t have to depend on the whims of recalcitrant school boards. Georgia should rejoin them....

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Advocates for choice and competition in American education have for years encountered the straw-man argument that charters, vouchers, and the like are ineffective because standardized-test performance in these sectors is mostly indistinguishable from that in public schools (the reality is, of course, more nuanced, but more on that later). But Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy has taken a more extreme path: He has made the bogus claim that no evidence supports the theory that school choice has any merit at all.

The claim that choice and competition have produced no evidence of success is, at best, disingenuous.

In Tucker’s world, school choice and market-based incentives do nothing to raise student achievement or lower costs for public education—two of the most common claims of choice advocates. Moreover, he wrote in a post for the Education Week blog Top Performers, school choice has done little to close bad schools; parents tend to choose safe and comforting environments where they find responsive principals, he claims, not schools with records of high standardized test scores.

This not only is patronizing, it’s wrong. It’s true that parents don’t always choose schools in order to maximize their child’s achievement in the here and now, but enough research has shown that they generally want schools that push kids to succeed and go on to college. And this conviction has informed a lot of school choice research that has yielded the evidence Tucker said doesn’t exist.

Specifically:

  • Multiple studies of
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A moratorium on charter schools in New Hampshire may end well after all. The state Board of Education, which is the only active charter authorizer in the Granite State, said about a week ago that it would stop creating new charters until the legislature would adequately fund them. The eight schools the board had approved during the last two years had consumed an additional $5 million in state aid, the board’s chairman argued. There was no money left to fund any more.

This is the second time this month that we’ve seen a public board charged with authorizing charters flouting the law.

Fifteen charters had applied to the board at the time. Seeing the urgency, legislative leaders acted to assure the Board of Education that they would free up money necessary to meet the costs of new schools. That could end the moratorium later this fall, but that still leaves a problem unresolved, one that an editorial today in the Nashua Telegraph pointed out: “We always thought it was the responsibility of the state Board of Education to approve or reject new applications for charter schools based on their merits …”

That is exactly what New Hampshire law says the board must do. No charter authorizer in New Hampshire can set aside its responsibilities to consider an application because it thinks the legislature will ultimately shortchange the school. But this is the second time this month that we’ve seen a public board charged with authorizing charters flouting...

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The first union to ever organize a Massachusetts charter school has disbanded. What was once hailed as a “historic organizing victory” by the American Federation of Teachers has dissolved after what yesterday’s Boston Globe described as “a long stretch of diminished activity.”

Unions are a poor fit for charters anywhere.

But conditions at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts, have never been good for the union, and they highlight why unions are a poor fit for charters anywhere.

When teachers first organized at the Brighton school four years ago, Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said that he doubted unionization would work. “Generally, charter school teachers join charter schools because they don’t want to work in a unionized atmosphere,” he told the Globe.

Indeed, nearly all of the teachers who established the union left after just a few years, and the Globe reported last year that newer faculty members debated whether to dissolve it. Some said they saw the merit in having a contract but thought the American Federation of Teachers, with whom they were affiliated, cared more about its own agenda than the needs of the charter school.

Even the contract itself was unique: It contained not only a provision on merit pay but secured an active role for teachers to help design the curriculum. These are elements, however, that make charters special without the unions. The best charters work because management and faculty work in a collaborative, not...

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The redefinED blog has put together its annual calculation of Florida students that take advantage of the state’s many public education alternatives. These include district choice programs such as magnet schools, open enrollment, and International Baccalaureate, as well as charter schools and the Florida Virtual School. Jon East, a former editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times, relied largely on state Department of Education surveys required of Florida’s sixty-seven school districts to help determine that, in 2011-12, 43 percent of students in Florida public education opted for something other than their zoned school.

With a minor exception, only local school boards are allowed to authorize charter schools in Florida.

Not surprisingly, the state scored high on the Center for Education Reform’s newly released Parent Power Index, which aims to show parents in one state how much power they have over their children’s education compared with those in other states. School choice is a big part of that measurement (teacher quality and transparency are others). Florida landed in second place—1 percentage point on the index behind Indiana. The center remarked, “[Florida] ranks consistently in the top ten for its charter laws. [It] also has been a leader in providing educational options for children with broad school choice programs.”

But one factor in particular stands out that may help explain why the Sunshine State, which does well to accommodate the demand for school choice, couldn’t finish at the top of a parent power measurement: With a minor exception, only local...

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Los Angeles was the first American city to claim 100 charter schools, a milestone it reached in 2006. The California Charter Schools Association embraced the moment by telling reporters that “Los Angeles Unified has quickly become the nationwide leader in promoting innovative public school options, like charter schools, to tackle the challenges of low student achievement and overcrowding.”

The Los Angeles school board can’t simply set aside its legal obligation to consider a charter application.

In the years since, the district has grown more antagonistic towards a burgeoning charter sector that presently serves about 15 percent of the city’s public school students. And the state charter association has become increasingly frustrated. Now that a board member has proposed a moratorium on new charters, the association has responded by calling the move “blatantly illegal.”

It’s right. The Los Angeles school board can’t simply set aside its legal obligation to consider a charter application. But school board member Steve Zimmer has proposed doing exactly that, supposedly to better examine how charters are complying with state law and district policies. Specifically, Zimmer wants the district to create an oversight panel to more aggressively monitor charters; board members collectively have sought additional student data from charters and they’re concerned about the low number of special-needs children enrolled in the schools. The moratorium would give such a commission time to craft new policies, Zimmer said.

But if Zimmer and the school board are serious about quality control, they’re only doing half their job...

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An op-ed that appeared in today’s Chicago Sun-Times from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis contained a hint of panic. Not on the resolution of the teachers strike, now in its fifth day, but on Rahm Emanuel’s rumored plan to close 80 to 120 low-performing and poorly attended schools.

Lewis took aim at the city’s charter schools, and it’s not surprising. The waiting list for high-demand charters in the city has reached 19,000 names, and the mayor and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, want more charters to serve more students as they contemplate the closure of dozens of schools. The strike has accomplished two things: 1.) It has given Emanuel more political cover to enhance the charter sector, and 2.) it has given the charter movement more soldiers.

This week alone, the number of phone calls to Chicago charters from interested parents has tripled from the normal rate, said Andrew Broy, the president if the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. While most the city’s 119 charter schools can’t accommodate new families, Broy said his network is adding many of the callers to its list of active supporters and he’s touting that 5,000 parents may show up to the group’s own rally on October 3.

Lewis relies on an old canard to draw public support for her cause: The mayor and his “hedge-fund allies” want to privatize public schools. But then she turns to the absurd and writes, “As a parent, do you really want your child wearing a three-piece...

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Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson knew there would be attempts to undermine their finding that a New York City voucher program had a positive impact on the college attendance of black students. When the Brookings Institution released the Chingos/Peterson study last month, many news reports unfortunately focused on the fact that only black students seemed to benefit significantly from the small, privately funded program (the voucher was worth just $1,400 annually when it was offered to low-income kids in 1997). Still, while frustrating, the media coverage never cast aspersions on the most significant claims in the study.

While frustrating, the media coverage never cast aspersions on the most significant claims in the study.

That task has now fallen to an academic review from the National Education Policy Center, a group that could never be confused for a friend to school choice. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison makes the preposterous claim that an “unmentioned” measurement error in the dependent variables (college attendance rates) suggests that there really are no statistically significant differences between the voucher’s impact on black students than on other students. Further, Goldrick-Rab argues that Chingos and Peterson fail to account for any negative effects from the voucher program that could explain the overall impact.

At Education Next, Chingos appropriately responds:

  • The “unmentioned” measurement error already appears in the standard error for the study. Indeed, Chingos writes, college attendance is imperfect as a measurement because the process used to match students to college-enrollment records
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When Andrew Broy addressed reporters in advance of the Chicago teachers’ strike to say the work stoppage would have no impact on the city’s charter schools, he was doing more than just assuring current charter families that schools would remain open (12 percent of the city’s public school population of 400,000 is enrolled at charters). The president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools was also engaged in public relations, knowing the strike would force tens of thousands of parents to alter work schedules or scramble for day care.

“I just see charter options and opportunities growing in any event [but] if there’s a strike the pace might accelerate,” Broy told the Chicago Tribune.

This puts into practice Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum to never let a serious crisis go to waste, but it also gives the charter school movement a reason to reflect on its attributes after twenty years. 

Leaders in the movement have been focused during the past several years on charter school quality, looking to scale up the best models and proffering the standards by which all charters and their authorizers should live by. This has been necessary for the vitality of the movement, but it’s an agenda that has, at times, disregarded the idea that parents have a fundamental right to choose their child’s school.

When thousands gathered at last June’s National Alliance for Public Charter Schools conference in Minneapolis, there was lots of talk about accountability and replication, but little about the moral...

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The 2012 Democratic Party platform released this week calls for the expansion of “public school options for low-income youth,” a position that has appeared in varying language in every Democratic platform since 1992. But as Marc Fisher of the Washington Post reported this week, the Democratic platform historically has been “a jagged series of experiments” that once made room for more than just public-school choice.

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The Democratic Party's thinking on private-school choice has changed significantly over time.
Photo by DonkeyHotey.

Today, the national party fervently rejects vouchers for private and parochial schools, but that wasn’t the case thirty years ago. In 1972, Democrats sought to “channel financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools,” a position that reflected not only the influence of the Catholic Church at the time but also the drive, the values and the persistence of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Moynihan, who also crafted education planks for the Democratic platforms of 1964 and 1976, followed the party’s (and his own) guidance. Soon after his election to the U.S. Senate in 1976, he proposed a tuition tax credit for families with children in private and parochial schools. That bill was co-sponsored by an almost even number of Republicans and Democrats, and, as...

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