Choice Words

Maybe now’s not the time for charter schools in Florida to
ask for parity in funding, but it’s unlikely that a move to seek local revenues
from school districts would be welcome in even the best of times.

The passions stirred by a
legislative effort in the Sunshine State
to direct local tax revenues to
charter schools show just how hard it is for charters to find equity in school
systems that rely on property taxes to fund most of their needs. A Florida
senate bill would make it mandatory for districts to share as much as $140
million in local tax revenues with charters on a per-pupil basis for
construction and renovation. State law currently allows districts to
voluntarily share that money. Not surprisingly, few volunteer.

A senate education committee passed the bill recently along
party lines, and the reaction from school districts and newspaper editorial
boards was apoplectic. “Wait. Rewind,” read the Orlando Sentinel editorial page.
“Didn’t charter school prophets pledge to do more with less? Wasn’t less
regulation supposed to deliver greater efficiency?”

The charter school must pledge to do more
while others determine how much less it’ll get.

Yet it’s the charter school that must pledge to do more
while others determine how much less it’ll get. A
report released last week from Florida TaxWatch
, an independent think tank
and government watchdog, found that...

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Last
year’s budget compromise between Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner—the
one that resurrected the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—was quashed
Monday in a single paragraph deep
in the president’s proposed 2013 budget
.

The
president would provide no new funding for the OSP, proposing instead to use
the money available in the program to provide vouchers to currently enrolled
students through the 2013-14 school year—effectively capping the number of
scholarships available at a time when demand is spiking. He then would redirect
$60 million and divvy it among Washington’s
charter schools as well as “the District’s efforts to transform its public
education system.”

Obama’s
proposal shamefully sends the voucher movement back to familiar territory during an election
year.

Despite
the president’s long-held opposition to a scholarship program that has provided
private school tuition assistance to more than 1,600 of D.C.’s most
disadvantaged students, Obama found common ground with Boehner in April in
order to avert a government shutdown and to preserve education initiatives
favored by Democrats. “Life has been breathed into the voucher movement,” the
Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst said at the time.

Obama’s
proposal shamefully sends it back to familiar territory during an election
year.

Not
long after he took office, Obama and Congressional Democrats shut down the
voucher program to new students and as recently as last year argued that the OSP
...

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The struggles between the Catholic
Church and the Obama Administration go beyond the recent fight over mandated
contraceptive services, and each scrap reveals the fault lines that inevitably
surface when Washington
tries to tinker with the complex machinery that administers our health,
education, and social services.  

His attempt to find common ground
with adult interests in public education has led Obama to policy positions that
oppose school vouchers.

President Obama has historically understood that it’s the
diversity of our communities that strengthens the greater good, but
as New York Times columnist David
Brooks noted this week
, Obama has governed with a “technocratic
rationalism” in his presidency that strives for uniformity and common effort.
Thus, his attempt to engender comprehensive healthcare has roiled Catholic
hospitals and social agencies that must support health insurance coverage that
violates a fundamental doctrine of faith. And his attempt to find common ground
with adult interests in public education has led Obama to policy positions that
oppose school vouchers in general and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship in
particular.

Let’s leave aside the polarizing nature of voucher programs
for a moment and consider a
report released this week from our friends at the Hoover Institution
that
ably recognizes the fault lines and appreciates what Washington does well, and what it does not.
The Koret Task Force on K-12 Education has called for a...

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In the emotionally charged story of the Chester Upland
School District in Pennsylvania, several observers have seen
the bogeyman with great clarity. Critics from Dennis
Van Roekel
to Valerie
Strauss
have set aside the history of financial troubles that took root in
the district a generation ago and have asserted that “privatization” and the
emergence of the Keystone State’s largest charter school have quickened the
district’s pending death.

No storybook ending is imminent. The school district says
it’s broke and can’t pay its teachers past the end of the month. Gov. Tom
Corbett has assured students they will be able to finish the year at Chester
Upland, but no one knows where the money is coming from. And the New York Times has identified
another problem
: the Chester
Community Charter
School, which claims it’s
owed nearly $7 million in past-due payments from the district and the state.

One shouldn’t expect a state judiciary to demand budget cuts from the charter
before it can expect to get paid the money it’s owed.

Chester
Community Charter
School has grown to
enroll 45 percent of the district’s students, and its presence has led
commentators to declare that the school choice policies of the Corbett
administration, and the governor’s relationship with the charter school owners,
are to blame for Chester Upland’s financial woes. That’s to be expected. But
one...

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Greater collaboration between school districts and charter
schools is worthwhile so long as the one-size-fits-all approach of a school
board doesn’t dampen the unique characteristics of a charter. Washington D.C.
would seem to have fertile ground for collaboration, done right, given that
D.C. has built a “portfolio” approach to public education in which charters
claim 40 percent of the public school enrollment. But the excitement over a new
report urging the district and charter boards to work together to increase the
supply of high-performing schools can obscure the elements that made D.C. a
proving ground for school choice.

Will the one-size-fits-all approach of a school
board dampen the unique characteristics of a charter?

The report from Midwestern-based
consultant IFF
to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray identifies a need to invest in
more high-performing schools in a cluster of underserved neighborhoods, and it
suggests that D.C.
Public Schools and the
Public Charter School Board can play an equal and complementary role in
fulfilling the task. Despite the release of creative energy in the District in
the last several years, just 1 of 3 public school students is enrolled in what
IFF labels the highest-performing of four “tiers” of schools. To turn that
around, the report recommends filling the capacity in the top tier, investing
in the second and third tiers, and upending or closing the bottom dwellers.

IFF has,...

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One critique of school vouchers and tax credit scholarships
that persists is that they direct public money to private schools that
cherry-pick the best students, even if the vouchers target a low-income
population. Now the
redefinED blog has given us a sneak peek
into a soon-to-be-published study
that examines which students select a means-tested private school option, and
why.

Cassandra Hart, an education professor at the University of California,
Davis, conducted
a study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
for low-income students to
take a deeper look at the characteristics of the participants and the public
schools they left. With help from Northwestern
University economist
David Figlio, Hart finds that scholarship recipients not only are among the
lowest performing students who are economically disadvantaged, they came from
public schools that are, she writes, “troubled along a number of dimensions.” (Full disclosure: From 2009 to 2011, I helped
to develop the policy and communications initiatives for the nonprofit that
administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
.)

Significantly, Hart says the students might have been less
likely to use the voucher if they had better public school options to begin
with: “Where they have a greater ability to exercise public choice, they are
more likely to do so even if they are also offered a private school voucher.”

As for the cherry-picking, the students who enrolled in
private schools on the...

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Pedro Noguera’s departure from the State University of New
York charter board isn’t entirely surprising, but it sends another mixed signal
from a self-professed supporter of charter schools who is straining to contain
their expansion.

Just four months ago, Noguera
embraced the complexity of his position
while enduring the jeers of a protest
movement with whom he sorely wanted to find common ground. “I think we need
ways to change and improve our schools, and if charters become one means to do
that, I support it,” he once said. On Wednesday, he
told The New York Times
that the
SUNY board has harbored a political agenda to increase the number of charter
schools and has ultimately hastened inequities between charter and traditional
schools.

Noguera has muddied a debate painfully in need of clarity.

Noguera didn’t contradict his earlier statements as much as
he deserted the complexity of his convictions all too quickly. In doing so, he
has muddied a debate painfully in need of clarity. His resignation highlights
how support for charter school initiatives can weaken when advocates fail to
agree on why school choice has value to begin with.

Similarly, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, another self-professed charter school supporter,
twisted this knot further by
disparaging a consultant’s report for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray
that
called for, among other things, investing in seats at higher performing...

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Adam Emerson

Whenever a legislative measure is aimed at the imbalance of
power between parents and public school interests, it’s often the poorest
families who suffer the greatest indignity in the debate.

After Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed a sweeping
voucher program for low-income students, the head of the state’s teachers
union, Michael Walker Jones, told
the New Orleans Times-Picayune

that parents living just out of poverty’s reach would have neither the time nor
the knowledge to make the right educational decisions. In another case, an
Orlando Sentinel editorial
panned
a proposed “parent trigger” bill working its way through the Florida
legislature by asserting that parents in the worst performing schools would be
unable “to face a steep and brief learning curve in making such a game-changing
call.”

So what can a sample of relatively poor families in Mexico
do to inform the conversation? That’s
what a team of researchers set out to explore in several rural Mexican states

participating in a decentralized government education program we might consider
almost revolutionary in the United States.

Paul Gertler, Harry Patrinos, and Marta Rubio-Codina
examined an initiative that directly involved parents in the management of
schools located in disadvantaged communities. The program, Apoyo a la Gestiόn Escolar (School Management Support), gives
seed money to parent associations so that they can make improvements to a
school’s resources and materials. In return, the parents...

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Adam Emerson

Are we doing enough to ensure that the charter schools we
open today won’t be the ones we’ll be closing later? Some may argue, as Andy
Rotherham did in the fall
, that we need to embrace risk-taking and consider
that establishing great charter schools means occasionally creating bad ones. Taking
the safe route too often welcomes mediocrity. But that might make greater sense
if charter school authorizers were adopting best practices in the first place.

Taking
the safe route too often welcomes mediocrity.

Many are not, as a report
released today by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers
makes evident.
And widely varying practices means that too many authorizers aren’t making the
right decisions to keep good schools open and bad schools closed, NACSA
president and CEO Greg Richmond said.

Just 6.2 percent of the nation’s charter schools up for
renewal in 2010-11 were closed, down from 8.8 percent the year before and 12.6
percent in 2008-09, according to the report. While the association attributes
the decline to any number of factors – stronger policies regulating charter
oversight, better quality among charters, or even political pressure to keep
bad schools open – it believes that trend is heading in the wrong direction.
“Our experience suggests that authorizing agencies should be closing more,
rather than fewer, poor-performing schools,” Richmond said in a written
statement.

Authorizers with a larger portfolio of...

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Adam Emerson

ALECs_17th_Report_Card-1.jpgWhen the Wall Street Journal blessed 2011 as
the Year of School Choice, few advocates for public and private school options
passed up the chance to celebrate the benediction. But the American Legislative
Exchange Council knows that rhapsody will take the education reformer only so
far. ALEC’s latest annual report card on American K-12 education,
released this week, doubles as guidebook for the reformer who prefers “broad,
rather than incremental, reform,” as authors Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips write.
It’s a brazen assignment, but the Journal was right. It’s been a brazen
year.

Moves to enhance tenure reform, merit pay, and transparency
in public school performance all receive praise from ALEC, but it’s the
“roaring comeback of parental choice” that signals the promise for academic
gains. When Ladner and Lips note that low-income students in Washington, D.C.,
have made outsized leaps on the fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP reading and math
exams, they point to an expanded public and private school market, combined
with an audacious array of policy changes that recognized district teachers by
their merit and eliminated administrative blockades to innovation. “Hall of
Shame members ought to rethink their improvement strategies,” the authors
conclude, referring to the bottom-dwelling states that have stumbled in their
NAEP gains and, which incidentally, have done little to enhance choice,...

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