Choice Words

 

It has always puzzled me why the Rev. H.K. Matthews hasn’t drawn more attention for his support for private school choice. His name may not carry the weight of King, Randolph, or Rustin, but it’s doubtful that the civil-rights movement would have quickened in Florida at the pace it did without the sacrifices Matthews made.

Chief among those sacrifices was Matthews’ freedom: When he was president of the Pensacola Council of Ministers in the 1960s, he led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Northwest Florida that led to his arrest—thirty-five times. He was gassed and beaten by police on the march with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, and he was blacklisted from jobs after protesting police brutality in the Florida panhandle. More recently, Matthews helped to lead protesters who bemoaned the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

So when Matthews calls school choice an extension of the civil rights movement, that assertion ought to at least merit a few high-profile headlines.

At least the Birmingham News recognized the allure of Matthews’s position. This week, the News published commentary from Matthews supporting the new Alabama tax-credit-scholarship program and reprimanding the Southern Poverty Law Center for its attempt to sue the program out of existence.

“I’m sure the Southern Poverty Law Center does many good things for low-income families—but they have it wrong on this program,” said Matthews, who presently works as a minister in Brewton, Alabama. “They say: if you can’t help all low-income...

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The Justice Department may be the last major American institution that values racial integration for the sake of integration. Its lawyers have worked to encase aging federal school-desegregation orders in cast iron while families—both white and black—have sought more flexibility, quality schools, and choices as to where their children will attend.

DOJ attorneys may tolerate some flexible plans aimed at voluntary desegregation, such as magnet schools and other forms of public-school choice, but there’s one form of choice it seems the Obama Administration and its legal beagles will not accept: private-school vouchers.

Late last week, lawyers with the department’s Civil Rights Division petitioned a federal judge in Louisiana to stop the Bayou State’s new voucher program from spreading throughout the thirty-plus districts operating under federal desegregation orders.  During the 2012-13 school year, Louisiana awarded vouchers to nearly 600 students from these districts, and DOJ asserts that their exit caused thirty-four public schools in thirteen districts to stray from “the desired degree of student racial diversity.”

To regain that “desired degree,” the department wants vouchers prohibited in court-supervised districts, unless the cognizant judge grants permission. That may be in keeping with the Obama Administration’s hostility to private-school choice, but it sends education policy into a time warp.

For starters, the voucher program is popular with families. Participation in the program’s second year has nearly doubled to about 8,000 students, and it boasts a 93 percent satisfaction rate among first-year participants. It’s hard to find that level of delight...

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Count me among the fans of school choice who looked favorably upon this year’s results of the Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll. (We’re a small group.) Yes, for two decades, the PDK/Gallup folks have all but guaranteed a negative response to the “voucher” question (“Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense;” which makes impoverished families who benefit from today’s voucher and tax credit scholarship programs sound like a special-interest group). But the poll points to an embrace of parental power elsewhere.

Consider:

  • A near super majority of public-school parents (63 percent) want their high school children to have an opportunity to earn credit in virtual school courses;
  • An overwhelming majority of all respondents and public-school parents (75 percent and 80 percent, respectively) favor opportunities for high school students to earn college credit over the Internet;
  • Ninety percent of respondents favor giving homeschooled children with special needs access to public-school services;
  • Eighty-one percent of public-school parents say that homeschooled children should have the opportunity to attend public school part-time; and
  • Eighty percent of all respondents say that homeschoolers should participate in public-school athletic programs and after-school activities (85 percent of public-school parents said the same).

The last point is an important revelation. “Tebow” bills have surfaced in some states, including Virginia, Texas, Indiana that would give homeschoolers a chance to participate in public-school athletics, just as NFL quarterback Tim Tebow had when he was...

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Thirteen months ago, I wrote about the hostility charter-school athletic teams faced across the nation as they sought an equal opportunity to compete against their peers. The impetus for the piece was the story of Friendship Collegiate Academy and their sterling record of winning games and graduating students. While last school year was the first time that schools like Friendship were allowed to compete on an even playing field with their traditional public-school counterparts, this year the schools have received a greater degree of equality and have formed their own league, the Charter School Athletic Association.

This new league, while allowing charters to face one another, will also result in some facing-off against traditional public schools in citywide tournaments and championship games. Some may be quick to dismiss this news as only a sports story, but they ignore the important role sports play within society.

This new league will help D.C.-area charter schools for the following four reasons:

1.       Increased visibility for all charters. This league will undoubtedly raise the profile of all regional charter schools as their students compete with their traditional public school peers in soccer, volleyball, basketball, and softball. (The league formed too late for football.) For schools whose athletic directors have used trash cans as office chairs and whose players warmed up for practice in industrial-style storage bins or used traffic barrels as tackling dummies, this progress is remarkable and has already given Friendship national coverage in the ESPN blog, Grantland.

2.       The...

It’s good news Wisconsin lawmakers are focusing more on the results of the nation’s oldest voucher program. This week, the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly education committees released a plan that, among other things, would rate the performance of private schools enrolling voucher-bearing students and kick the worst schools out of the program.

But, even though this plan has been two years in the making, it needs more time to marinate. It gives state education chief Tony Evers too much control to develop a report card for schools, and Evers has never been shy about his contempt for school vouchers.

The bill, for instance, requires Evers and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop an accountability system that measures schools’ achievement in reading and math, records student growth in those subjects, and judges other matters like college and career readiness and “pupil engagement.” A report card ranges from “significantly exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectations,” and private schools that land in the latter category are kicked out of the voucher program.

Let’s be clear, it’s appropriate for the state to take action against private schools that show consistently poor results in core subjects with their voucher-bearing students. Wisconsin’s neighbor, Indiana, also has passed a voucher law that holds participating private schools to account for their performance and keeps them from enrolling new voucher students if their results are sub-par.

But keep in mind that Evers once called the twenty-two-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program...

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This is why it was important for Georgia voters to create an independent authorizer for charter schools.

This week, Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Erroll Davis asked the district’s Board of Education to stop approving new charter schools. The reason: Georgia’s Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Davis can withhold millions of dollars in tax revenues from charters to help pay off an old pension debt in the district. Until that judgment comes, Davis said he couldn’t “in good conscience” further burden the school system “in order to create new schools that will not pay their share.”

It must be noted that no charter ever approved by the school district is even partly responsible for this pension debt, which has grown to $550 million. And no charter employee benefits from this pension plan today. Rather, as district leaders have argued in court, charters should share this burden “because it keeps the Atlanta Public Schools fiscally sound.”

Those were the words of Charles Burbridge, the school district’s chief financial officer, who also testified in open court that he couldn’t recommend expanding charter schools in Atlanta “because every expansion of the charter school [sic] would be fewer dollars going to the traditional school district simply because of how we allocate pension.”

Fortunately, Atlanta’s Board of Education rejected such an argument this week and approved a new charter, the Atlanta Classical Academy, which had been in a holding pattern throughout this fight. But the fight...

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When the news came Thursday that the latest CREDO report showed outsize learning gains at New Orleans charter schools, I recalled the simplicity that Neerav Kingsland used to define his idea of “relinquishment” in public education. In a recent talk with Andy Smarick that appeared on Flypaper, Kingsland, the chief of New Schools for New Orleans, said that relinquishment was based on three principles: 1) educators should operate schools, 2) families should choose among these schools, and 3) government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

This is relevant to the CREDO report because New Orleans is practically the only city in the United States that adheres to these principles. By the time CREDO finished its analysis of learning gains in Louisiana, and in New Orleans particularly, nearly 80 percent of all public school students in the Crescent City attended a charter school. Arguably, since Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, a redefinition of public schooling, a rush of entrepreneurial activity, and renewed focus on what makes for a successful charter school have all contributed to the following CREDO findings:

  • Black students in New Orleans charter schools had the equivalent of nearly two months of reading gains on their peers in traditional public schools and nearly three months of math gains.
  • Impoverished black students benefitted even more: seventy-two more days of learning in reading and ninety-four more days of learning in math.
  • Special-education students in New Orleans get sixty-five more days of
  • ...
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Harvard EdLabs researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer have plunged more deeply into the Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy, emerging with positive outcomes from this high-performing charter middle school in New York City. Previously, Dobbie and Fryer found that the Promise Academy had closed the black-white achievement gap, as measured by test scores, by the time sixth-grade lottery winners reached the eighth grade. Now the pair has looked to the school’s impact on more “medium-term” outcomes such as high school graduation, college enrollment, teen pregnancy, and incarceration—and they have found that the Promise Academy provides a huge human-capital boost. Six years after winning the admissions lottery, Promise Academy students not only score higher on the nationally normed Woodcock-Johnson math achievement tests than lottery losers, but they are more likely to enroll in college, by 24 percentage points. Additionally, female lottery winners are 12 percentage points less likely to become pregnant in their teens, while males are 4 percentage points less likely to be incarcerated. The Harlem Children’s Zone social and community-building services are well documented, but Dobbie and Fryer attribute Promise Academy’s success to the markers that make it a high-performing school (extended school time, high-quality teachers, data-driven decision making, and heightened expectations). This suggests that high-quality charters may have a bigger impact on a range of outcomes than previously thought. Hear hear! Bring on more research—and on a larger sample of charters.

SOURCE: Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer,...

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Updated on August 8, 2013

As “school choice” laws go, this one is sloppy and coercive. If a school district in Missouri loses its accreditation (which means, more or less, that it’s failing), then its school board must pick an accredited district to which it will send students who want to transfer. Parents may choose a different district, but they’ll be responsible for their own transportation. The receiving district can’t say no. And when the unaccredited school district gets back its accreditation, the students must return.

This is not like other inter-district enrollment policies, such as the Schools of Choice program in Michigan, where students may attend any neighboring district—for any reason—so long as that district chooses to participate. Most Michigan districts are happy to take additional students and the revenue that comes with them, but residents in the Missouri districts poised to receive more students under the transfer law there have revolted.

There are three unaccredited school systems in the state: Kansas City Public Schools and the St. Louis–area districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, all mostly black. Normandy and Riverview Gardens have chosen to bus students to suburban districts, one of which is across the Missouri River in St. Charles County, which for years has been a destination for much of the white flight from St. Louis and its environs.

Normandy chose the high-performing, mostly-white Francis Howell school system, and some Francis Howell parents, according to the New York Times, have since angrily protested the move,...

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Louisiana voters are used to making the hard decisions about public education that divide their lawmakers. With any luck, they’ll have the chance to make those hard decisions again.

After all, it’s the voters and families of the Pelican State who are waiting in line for the public school alternatives that lawmakers have made available but can’t seem to fund adequately. Consider Louisiana’s new Course Choice program, which allows students to shop around for courses—virtual and otherwise—not offered in their zoned school. State schools superintendent John White said earlier this week that there was a wait list of 1,000 students who wanted to take part, with 100 new applications arriving daily.

But White will have to scrounge for dollars if he wants to accommodate everybody. He had to find $2 million to pay for the 2,000 slots he set aside initially, and he figured he’d need to find another $1.5 million just to meet current demand.

Why the funding dilemma? The state Supreme Court declared in May that a constitutionally protected source of public funding is off limits to this decidedly different way of educating the public. The “minimum foundation” for public education in Louisiana—which this year was set at $3.4 billion—must   go only to public schools: district and charter. Lawmakers initially paid for the Course Choice initiative as well as a school-voucher program through this sizable pot of money, but the court said they did so illegally.

That didn’t kill vouchers or course choice, but...

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