Choice Words

Adam Emerson

have generally embraced the premise that choice is good in education, but we
are engaged in a long-lasting war over how to deliver it. This war has many
fronts: We fight over the expansion of charter schools and talk past each other
on questions of their freedom and funding; we enhance the growth of online
education while doing little to change a model of public school governance that
remains rooted in the 19th century; we linger over the political
divide that insists on drawing lines separating “public” and “private,” even as
those words have become less relevant in evolving education systems that defy
traditional labels.

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student?

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student? And how do we enhance the debate to rethink how we administer
a public education? The resistance to customized forms of schooling is not new.
Many a well-meaning principal and superintendent fought back-to-basics schools
and International Baccalaureate programs and gifted education for fear they
would dilute other public schools. But too many of today’s well-meaning school
leaders and policymakers remain stuck in those old conversations.

our dialogue remains muddy with assumptions that keep us entangled in old fears
about vouchers, charter schools, virtual education or, more particularly,
homeschooling. And that...

The Education Gadfly

Cooperation between charter and district schools has
potential, but Fordham’s bloggers highlighted a few reasons for concern. On the
Flypaper blog Mike argues that, while collaboration is great in theory,
charters must be careful to negotiate
with districts from a position of strength
, while over at the Ohio Gadfly
Daily Terry worries that the Buckeye
State has managed to “take
a worthy concept and turn it completely on its head.


D.C.—The Thomas B. Fordham
Institute announced today that Adam Emerson will join the organization as the director
of its new policy program on parental choice, effective February 1, 2012. In
this newly-created position, Emerson will coordinate the Institute’s school
choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues including
vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling, and digital learning. Currently
editor of the redefinED blog, Emerson will now edit and write for Fordham’s new

“We’re thrilled to welcome someone with Adam’s abilities and
track record to the Fordham team,” said Fordham Institute President Chester E.
Finn, Jr. “Few commentators combine his experience, expertise and enthusiasm in
this vital realm of education with his talents as a writer.”

Emerson comes to Fordham from Step Up For Students, where he
served as the assistant director for public and policy affairs. In that role,
Emerson developed and executed communications strategies for an organization
that provides private school tuition assistance to more than 37,000 low-income
children throughout Florida.
Previously, he worked as a journalist for more than nine years, including eight
years as an education reporter for the Tampa
and Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.

Media inquiries should be directed to Fordham’s external
relations manager, Ty Eberhardt at (202) 223-5452 or More
information about the Thomas B.Fordham Institute is available online at its
redesigned website:


Adam Emerson

Guest blogger Adam Emerson is editor of the redefinED blog, where this post was first published.

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle rarely discussed
outside the Catholic Church and the European Union, and it’s a shame so few
academics and advocates of school choice in the United States talk about it. It
is a principle that is skeptical about the ability of large bureaucracies to
trump smaller units' capacities to function for the common good. At this past weekend’s
inaugural international school choice conference in Fort Lauderdale, an Italian researcher
introduced the concept to describe why a stubborn region in his country could
not accept the government’s insistence that public education must be centrally
administered. A sympathetic audience nodded in approval, but there was no
obvious sign that the conference understood that its mission was just given
political order.

Subsidiarity is a principle that is skeptical about the ability of large bureaucracies to
trump smaller units' capacities to function for the common good.

If there was, it could have better informed the rhetorical
jousting match that happened minutes later between Stanford University
political scientist and union scourge Terry Moe and United Federation of
Teachers vice president Leo Casey. For Moe, author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, the
problem of public education is one of structure, organization. “Nobody has a
coherent vision of the whole, and no one...


than ten years ago, in what now seems like another life, I lived and studied in
the former Soviet Union. I was an exchange
student in Krasnodar, Russia,
not far from Ukraine and Georgia. Krasnodar is the
heartland of the “red belt,” where nostalgia for the Communist era still runs
high – despite all the dysfunction caused by that system, especially in its
death throes in the 1980s and 90s.

More democracy, not less, is what this movement is about.

my own experiences, I read Deborah Meier’s recent
comparing today’s education reformers in America to Boris Yeltsin (of all
people!) with some trepidation. Meier is right that well-connected “new
Russians” did a bang-up job buying state-owned property for a song in the 90s
(really stealing it), creating billionaires overnight while leaving most
ordinary citizens impoverished. She’s wrong, however, in thinking that “the
people” ever controlled that property in the Soviet era, or that oligarchs and ed
reformers both “smell property like a beast after prey.”

Meier’s claims about Yeltsin doing away with “inconvenient” ownership of the
state’s wealth by “the people,” wealth in the USSR was owned and controlled (in
fact, if not in name) by the nomenklatura who ran industry, agriculture,
and education for the socialist state. It goes without saying that party
officials didn’t suffer from the food shortages that hit...

Adam Emerson
Editor of redefinED

Guest blogger Adam Emerson is editor of the redefinED blog, where this post was first published.

School voucher critics generally approach their job reviewing the research
on school choice with unfair assumptions, and otherwise insightful commentators
risk recycling old canards. This is true with Thomas Toch’s critique
of vouchers in the newest edition of Kappan
, which concludes that voucher
programs haven’t shown enough impact to justify their position in a large-scale
reform effort. Questions of scale can lead to legitimate debate, but we’ll get
nowhere until we acknowledge what’s in the literature.

Questions of scale can lead to legitimate debate, but we’ll get
nowhere until we acknowledge what’s in the literature.

Toch grounds what he calls “the underwhelming record of voucher schools”
first with an anecdotal report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
which determined that America’s first voucher program “is very much like a
teenager: heart-warmingly good at times, disturbingly bad at others.” The
problem is that this newspaper report is nearly seven years old. We’ve learned
so much since then, and at no time has the peer-reviewed science on the subject
shown the back-and-forth swing from good to bad that the Journal Sentinel
implied in 2005.

John Witte and Patrick Wolf, for instance, gave us
a glimpse this year into their evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice
. Among other findings, they conclude that the competitive pressure

The Education Gadfly

Few topics in education polarize policymakers, educators,
parents, and the American people in general as consistently as school choice.
Charter school advocates often shy from vouchers; homeschooling proponents don’t
necessarily support digital learning. Fordham’s new Choice Words blog will
explore America’s diversity of schooling options and the controversies that
often surround them, featuring guest blog posts from experts and commentary
from several Fordham authors. Be sure to check out past articles and keep an
eye on this blog for the introduction of Fordham’s newest voice, our
director of the Program on Parental Choice....


This post originally appeared as an op-ed column in the Columbus Dispatch.

Recent news
that White Hat Management, the big, Ohio-based, profit-seeking
charter-school operator, faces financial problems surely was received as
an early Christmas present by many longtime charter opponents,
particularly within the Buckeye State.

The company’s founder and leader, Akron industrialist David Brennan,
has been a larger-than-life target for school-choice foes since Gov.
George V. Voinovich appointed him in 1992 to head a commission intended
to advance choice in Ohio kindergarten-through-12th grade education.

That commission’s work led to the Cleveland Scholarship Program, the
nation’s first publicly funded voucher program. Its constitutionality
would be debated and litigated until being upheld by the U.S. Supreme
Court in 2002, a decision that has reverberated across the country.

Brennan’s vision, doggedness and political connectedness in the
education-policy sector have not been limited to vouchers. Without him,
Ohio’s charter-school program might have been stillborn, or strangled in
its crib by the outraged forces of the public-school establishment.
From Day One, the teachers unions teamed up with the League of Women
Voters, the PTA, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio AFL-CIO
and others to savage charters at the Statehouse, to challenge them in
the courthouse and to denounce them in every sort of public forum.

The vitriol of these attacks was illustrated in 2003 by
then-Cleveland Teachers Union president Richard DeColibus, who announced

The Education Gadfly

More than two million students nationwide now attend charter schools, with over 500 new charters opening this school year alone. Ensuring a strong supply of talented school leaders to serve this growing sector requires creative solutions, which is why experts from charter incubation organizations across the country came together on Wednesday for a Fordham and CEE-Trust-sponsored discussion of the incubation model and a new policy brief on the topic. Watch the video to catch up on all the conversation from “Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools?

Download the policy brief, “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector,” to learn more.


Guest blogger Robin Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In this post, she responds to “Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector,” a Public Impact-authored policy brief co-released yesterday by Fordham’s Ohio team and CEE-Trust.

Public Impact’s new paper on incubators is a well-needed addition to the conversation about scaling high-quality charter schools. I’ve been saying for some time that CMOs, no matter how good, cannot be the charter sector’s sole answer to new school supply.

For the past five years, most of the private philanthropy to support
new charter schools has gone to CMOs and the feds have increasingly
targeted start-up funding to replication. But CMOs are an expensive path
to scale and one that is yielding uneven quality.
Importantly, CMOs tend to locate in major urban areas with a strong TFA
presence and high per-pupil funding. For cities like Indianapolis,
Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, all the recruiting in the world is unlikely
to attract respected CMOs like Aspire or Achievement First. Also
problematic is the fact that many talented would-be charter founders
want nothing to do with large, highly centralized, and sometimes
bureaucratic CMOs. We need alternatives to CMOs that recognize these
realities and create scale and replication options for small cities and
entrepreneurial leaders.

To be clear, the overall quality of standalone charter schools has