Choice Words

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the last week about whether charter schools are doing enough to enroll students with disabilities. But are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

Are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

The GAO’s report on charter schools and special education found that students with learning disabilities were the largest group benefitting from special services at the charter or district schools the government studied. That’s not surprising, given that learning-disabled students represented 38 percent of all students who received special education services in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest were categorized with having varying disabilities, but autism and developmental disabilities made up just 12 percent of all students who received special services.

Education Sector interim chief John Chubb made a good case yesterday for why the best schools—district or charter—overcome learning disabilities with strong schooling and that it’s a mistake to presume there is a fixed percentage of special-needs students that ought to be enrolled at charter schools. But he doesn’t have a lot of company. Instead, charter critics and commentators have made this an issue of social justice, demanding that either charter schools do more to enroll high-needs students or at least acknowledge that they’re largely ignoring kids with special needs.

When education journalist John Merrow moderated the opening panel at last week’s conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis, he repeatedly tried to...

Louisiana schools Superintendent John White has plenty of freedom to write the rules that will govern what may become the most sweeping voucher program in the nation, but he has little time to do the job. The legislature has given White until August 1 to figure out how to hold private schools accountable for their voucher students, but the more dogged critics of the superintendent and the voucher program want assurances now that no student will leave a lousy public school for a lousy private school.

In many ways, White is entering uncharted territory.

In many ways, White is entering uncharted territory. At least fifteen states have passed laws establishing vouchers or tax credit scholarships, but just a handful  now assess the academic or financial health of the private schools that participate. So it’s helpful to reflect first on what already sets Louisiana apart before suggesting more ways to make the voucher program accountable.

First, any private school accepting voucher students will have to submit an independent financial audit to the Louisiana Department of Education. Until now, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program had some of the most stringent fiscal regulations, requiring independent audits of private schools that received more than $250,000 in scholarship revenue. Few other state programs have anything of the sort.

Second, lawmakers put Louisiana in small company (currently consisting of Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin) when they required private schools to administer the same standardized test given to public school students.

But the law specifies...

Success Academy Charter Schools chief Eva Moskowitz has a good reason to vilify quotas designed to get New York charter schools to enroll more high-needs students. The Success Academy already teaches English language learners and other students with special needs. They just work harder to get them into general education. What good is a law that ultimately interferes with what Moskowitz and her team do well?

What good is a law that ultimately interferes with what Moskowitz and her team do well?

New York City charter schools serve fewer English language learners and students with special needs  than district schools, but the Success Academy and other charters are less likely to label—and more likely to de-label—students as “high needs.” In her letter to the charter authorizers that drafted the enrollment plan, Moskowitz said the quotas would institutionalize the same “perverse incentives” that drive district schools to “over-identify” students who need special education (and the extra funding that goes with it).

Authorizers developed the quotas to execute a 2010 law in New York that required charter schools to enroll a higher share of English language learners and students with disabilities. Here we have a legislature swayed by the rhetoric of critics who say charter schools either discriminate against children with special needs or fail to do enough to enroll them.

But consider New York City public schools. Moskowitz writes that it takes the school district five years to get the average English language learner into the general education...

Imagine, for a moment, a policy that allows learning-disabled students to take their share of federal IDEA funds to the public or private schools of their choice, just as Mitt Romney has proposed. It’s outlandish to suppose that we would discontinue the use of state assessments given to most of these students. But that’s the reality in Florida, home to the nation’s largest special education voucher program, and the group that oversees the program wants to keep the status quo.

To embrace a publicly funded private school choice program and argue against any move toward results-based accountability is an unsustainable position today.

Robyn Rennick, who sits on the board that manages the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, wrote on the redefinED blog Tuesday that it’s wrong to require standardized testing of “a unique group of students” whose individual disabilities vary widely. Test scores are, of course, a muddy measure for students with severe cognitive or developmental disabilities, and that’s how Rennick builds her case. But as much as 82 percent of the 22,200 students who took a McKay Scholarship to a private school last year required only moderate interventions and testing accommodations in the public schools they left.

In fact, most of the students with special needs in Florida graduate high school with a standard diploma. In 2010, there were 340,000 Florida students with an Individualized Education Plan (a requirement for the McKay Scholarship) and they graduated with a standard diploma at a rate of 53 percent....

As Bobby Jindal learned last week, upending teacher tenure and emancipating thousands of students with private school vouchers will get you sued by adult interests hostile to this kind of disruption. But what if you’re a fledgling virtual charter school that plays by the rules established by your legislature? Should you have to turn to the courts to get launched? And should you expect the fury of most of the school districts in your state? How much disruption can one school cause?

This one school has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance.

A lot, according to sixty of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, which have joined a lawsuit that aims to stop the North Carolina Virtual Academy from opening this fall. One school board member in Wake County, which has signed on to the fight, said districts are incensed that the virtual charter could enroll students from any county in the Tar Heel State. What’s worse, say the plaintiffs, the school will be managed by the for-profit K12 Inc.

In other words, this one school, which would be North Carolina’s first online charter academy, has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance. That’s the sort of disruption that’s arguably more threatening to the status quo than school vouchers, for it’s a disruption that leads to a re-definition of “local control” and school choice.

In this case, the school board in Cabarrus County gave permission to a nonprofit group called NC Learns Inc. to base the...

We’ve known anecdotally that our current slate of private school choice programs have done little to encourage new and innovative models of private education to flourish. Now a new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice backs up those assertions with evidence. In short: voucher and tax credit scholarship programs have yet to create new models of private schooling as successful charter school networks have for public education.

Our current slate of private school choice programs have done little to encourage new and innovative models of private education to flourish.

For researchers Greg Forster and James L. Woodworth, this justifies a move toward universal school choice. By encouraging larger numbers of students of all income levels, rather than just those who are poor or disabled, to take their public dollars to private schools states will create the conditions that entrepreneurs need to “innovate beyond the confines of the ‘default’ public school model,” Forster and Woodworth write in their study, The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice.

The term “greenfield” here is borrowed from Rick Hess’ portrayal of environments “where there are unobstructed, wide-open opportunities to invent or build.” Greenfield schooling, Hess argues, requires “scrubbing away our assumptions” about the traditional schoolhouse, but Forster and Woodworth would take this further and, in their rendering, “rethink how schools are designed from the ground up.”

But it’s little wonder why voucher and tax credit scholarship programs today haven’t ushered in an era of greenfield schooling in the private sector. As...

Now that charter school enrollment has grown to include more than a half-million public school students in the South, the Southern Regional Education Board wants to make sure that state laws are addressing “meaningful measures of academic performance.” But among the calls for higher standards and rigorous oversight in the board’s newest report comes a welcome plea for a fair system of funding for charters.

The Southern Regional Education Board's newest report includes a welcome plea for a fair system of funding for charters.

“Because states have not yet adequately addressed funding disparities between charter schools and traditional public schools, policy-makers need to address this issue if they want viable charter schools in their states,” the board writes in its report, Charter Schools in SREB States: Critical Questions and Next Steps for States.

This isn’t the first foundation in the South to highlight these funding inequities (a government watchdog in Florida recently found that charters in the state run on seventy cents of the public school dollar) but it adds another layer to a conversation that has gone better in some states than it has in others.

The Florida Legislature, for instance, ended its recent session this spring without passing a bill that would have directed $140 million in local tax revenue to charter school building and renovations. Its Republican sponsor in the Senate said that “all public school kids” should get “their fair share of things they need,” but superintendents, school boards, and newspaper editorial pages were...

I have spent years working in both Catholic and charter schools—I am Catholic, and a huge proponent and supporter of Catholic education. And I am deeply saddened by the loss of urban Catholic schools. And I certainly welcome a national conversation about how we can save them and have always appreciated Diane Ravitch's support for these critical schools.

Several factors began draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

But, to suggest, as Ravitch did in a recent post, that there is a direct, causal relationship between the proliferation of charters and the closing of urban Catholic schools seems to me to ignore the impact of several things that have been draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

For starters, it’s a well-known fact that the decline in the number of religious (nuns, priests, etc.) who are available to teach in Catholic schools is a major problem. Catholic schools long relied on the cheap labor that was supplied by nuns in particular, and now that schools have to increasingly rely on lay faculty, parishes that serve our most disadvantaged students have had a very difficult time making ends meet. This problem is obviously particular acute in urban areas where the number of Catholic families supporting the parishes has declined and where the financial need of the students served by the schools has grown considerably.

To make matters worse, though, the support for urban Catholic schools among diocesan leaders is often far too...

Rick Hess made some fair points when he argued yesterday that I was wrong to “lecture” Louisiana’s Zachary Community School District for not participating in Governor Bobby Jindal’s school choice plan. It’s certainly true that suburban parents and taxpayers have legitimate concerns when they worry about opening the floodgates to disadvantaged students coming into their schools. Even in rich suburbs, resources aren’t unlimited, and working with extreme academic diversity is no easy task.

It just looks callous to reverse an effort that would have placed no financial burden on the district.

What Hess probably doesn’t know is that the situation in Zachary is more complex. There the superintendent and school board embraced a plan to take in just thirty low-income and low-achieving students from other districts under the state’s new voucher program before the school community told them to back down. A flood of new students this was not.

Zachary schools are Louisiana’s best. And Republican Governor Bobby Jindal had schools like that in mind when he pushed for legislation awarding more public and private options to low-income kids in schools rated C, D, or F. In late April, Zachary schools Superintendent Warren Drake said his district could “make a difference” for these kids and devised a plan to accept fifteen kindergarteners and fifteen first-graders using vouchers. That would have come to just 4 percent of the district’s current kindergarten and first-grade enrollment of 769.

Drake scrapped that plan less than two weeks later, citing a need...

First, Louisiana’s top-rated school district opted to participate in the state’s new school voucher program. Then, less than two weeks later, it opted out.

school fence 2
We are left with a community that has chosen to erect a fence around its public schools.
 Photo by Martin Magdalene.

Why the quick reversal? Once Zachary schools Superintendent Warren Drake announced the district’s intent to “make a difference” for children coming from C-, D-, or F-rated schools, his community told him to back off.

In a written statement, Drake scrapped his original plan with a declaration that illustrates the challenges school choice advocates face even after their hard-won legislative victories:

We recognize the sacrifices many of our own families make to provide their students with a first-rate education and appreciate the community’s continued financial support of our district.

As with many private school choice plans, Louisiana’s voucher allows students from poor-performing public schools to switch to high-performing public schools. And the best-performing public schools in the Pelican State are found in Zachary.

But, as with many plans that allow cross-district school choice, sometimes those who make “sacrifices” for the best want to keep their investment exclusive.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder learned that lesson after he proposed making the voluntary cross-district choice policy in his state mandatory. Most of the districts in Michigan that...