Choice Words

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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That charter schools struggle to find and finance adequate building space is a problem that has received well-deserved attention lately, but few reporters and analysts have documented the challenges charters face in entering the multi-trillion-dollar municipal bond market.

So a hat-tip goes to longtime charter and reform leader Nelson Smith for drawing attention to a worthwhile report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which found a lack of consensus among underwriters and investors as to what drives credit strength in the charter sector.

As they expand, more charters are turning to municipal bond markets to finance their building projects. When schools issue bonds, an investor essentially loans them money in return for regular interest payments until the bond “matures,” at which point the school repays the principal. School districts and other government entities issue bonds all the time, but many lenders continue to see charters as risky investments.

That perception has consequences for charters, which end up paying higher rates than schools districts, if they can find investors at all. And it’s a perception that seems to be based on a faulty picture of what makes a charter school viable for the life of a bond, which can last up to thirty years.

The overall financial condition of the charter school sector is sound, LISC analysts Elise Balboni and Wendy Berry report. The notion of credit risk often is fueled by high-profile defaults or potential defaults that imply that schools can lose their students or...

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The perseverance of a mother can bring the shortcomings of many school-choice programs into sharp focus.

Consider a woman named Mary Rehberg from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who knows there’s not much chance she’ll get a voucher for her son in Wisconsin’s newly expanded choice program—but she’s applying for one anyway. The state expanded the Milwaukee and Racine programs to serve all of the Badger State (population 5.5 million), but lawmakers capped the expansion at 500 vouchers.

“The numbers are hopelessly against us getting a voucher,” Rehberg told a reporter last week after attending an information session about the program at a local Catholic school along with 100 other parents. “But by applying we can demonstrate to our state representatives how serious we are about this program.”

History might even be on her side. The Alliance for School Choice has reported that legislatures in six states expanded their voucher and tax-credit scholarship initiatives last year after demand for those programs spiked and waiting lists swelled with thousands of names. But expansion was typically done incrementally. Waiting lists remain high in many cases, including at the nation’s largest private-school-choice program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

New programs aren’t faring much better. Over the weekend, North Carolina lawmakers approved a budget that includes a new school-voucher program, but they budgeted a paltry $10 million to sustain the program. Earlier iterations of the bill called for increasing that amount to $40 million in subsequent years, but...

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For a state in which charter school performance has outpaced student gains at traditional public schools, Tennessee should have a better charter law. The dearth of authorizers and the lack of adequate funding for classrooms and building space led the National Alliance for Public Charters Schools to rank the Volunteer State thirty-third out of forty-three in its analysis of charter laws. Imagine what Tennessee charters could do without one hand tied behind their backs.

That’s the assertion the Tennessee Charter School Incubator (TCSI) should put to lawmakers now that it has direct access to the legislature. This week, TCSI announced that it was merging with the Tennessee Charter School Association to create a first-of-its-kind organization that both lobbies for and establishes quality charter options. If there is a group that can convince Tennessee’s more timid lawmakers to adopt the better policies they have avoided, it’s TCSI.

The Incubator has been busy since 2009 developing “reform ecosystems” in Memphis and Nashville, bringing together charter schools, school districts, venture capitalists, and nonprofit groups that might not ordinarily consort with one another. In addition to recruiting effective charter leaders and providing support for schools, it has been successful in helping to increase charter market share in cities where it’s active; charter enrollment increased last year by 21 percent in Memphis alone.

But it’s working in a state that has been lukewarm to the charter movement. Two years ago, the legislature withdrew a ninety-school cap on the number of charters allowed in...

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The Louisiana voucher program is like a toddler learning to walk in a house set with booby traps. Now one year old, it has been bruised by court defeats, bullied by unions, and mocked for its meager academic accomplishments. Even comedian Bill Maher recently poked fun at the fact that just 40 percent of voucher-bearing students could report grade-level achievements.

Statue of Evangeline, Louisiana
The Louisiana voucher program is like a toddler learning to walk in a house set with booby traps.
Photo by John Horton

With the exception of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, no other school-voucher program has endured so many growing pains. But critics have bludgeoned the Louisiana program because they can. Few private-school-choice initiatives are as transparent as the Pelican State’s; sunshine allows us to see how students are performing in Louisiana, whereas most other voucher and tax credit scholarship programs are opaque.

That kind of openness may, when performance suffers, give critics a lot of grist. But it could eventually yield benefits for students and taxpayers.

Consider the recent news that the state has barred seven schools from enrolling new voucher students, based on their poor showing on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). That means the system is working: These schools happened to enroll a high percentage of voucher kids, and therefore faced...

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The charter school movement has inspired a lot of enthusiasm for multi-school networks and their ability to expand, but now it’s time to talk more about how these networks are governed.

Ben Gamla Charter School Clearwater
Why is the successful Ben Gamla Charter closing its doors after one year?
Photo from the Jewish Press of Pinella County

To be sure, it’s less exciting to talk about the configuration and operation of governing boards than it is to talk about scaling up successful charter school models. But this much is true: It’s no fun dissecting the breakdown in governance that has led to a charter school’s closure.

That’s the current reality in Clearwater, Florida. There, the Ben Gamla Charter School is closing its doors after one year of operation not because it performed poorly (most of its fifty students scored well on the state assessment) or because of financial problems (it was thousands of dollars in the black) but because it wrested too much control from its parent foundation.

The National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation said as much. The South Florida–based foundation has opened eight Hebrew-immersion charter schools throughout the Sunshine State in the last six years, and members of its own board often have overseen the operations and spending at these schools. The foundation installed a board...

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Ohio governor John Kasich has a guest post over at Fordham’s Ohio Gadfly Daily celebrating the state’s newest school-choice initiative, the Income-Based Scholarship Program. And he has good reason to celebrate: This newest effort means that Ohio has more private-school-choice programs than any other state.

School choice has a long history in the Buckeye State, as the governor reminds us. The first program in Ohio (and the second oldest in the nation) was created in Cleveland in 1995 and last year benefitted 6,000 students. Additionally, the state’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program, the Autism Scholarship Program, and the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program collectively helped nearly 20,000 K–12 children last year attend a private school of their choice.

Those may not seem like big student numbers, but with every program that’s added and with every student enrolled, Ohio is laying the bricks to build a mansion of publicly funded alternatives to a traditional education. The newest program will start in the fall for Kindergartners who come from households whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the poverty level, and it will grow by one grade level every year.

“Not every student’s education needs can be met in the same setting with the same instructional approach,” Kasich said. He’s right. And now, Ohio has strengthened its status as one of the nation’s most choice-friendly states....

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In the past year, charter school naysayers have successfully convinced some media outlets to question the actual demand for charters. Take the now-politicized issue of waiting lists. Reporters in Chicago and Boston, for instance, have recently conducted “reviews” of the lists compiled by charter associations or state education departments to determine that some students appear on more than one list. This led to one headline in the Boston Globe that read, “Charter school demand in Mass. disputed.”

Of course these students may appear on multiple waiting lists. Anticipating this skepticism, however, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools this year estimated the number of individual students on waiting lists for the 2012–13 academic year. Its newest survey showed that the names of at least 520,000 kids appeared in nearly one million waiting-list entries across the country.

To put that number in context, consider that 520,000 is nearly double the number of new charter students (276,000) who actually enrolled this year, bringing the total charter sector to 2.3 million pupils.

What else should we expect? There’s been a yawning gap between charter supply and demand a long time coming. In the past five years, the number of charter school students nationwide has grown by 80 percent, while the number of new schools has grown by only 40 percent in that time. Moreover, most charters tell the Alliance they lack the space to adequately meet their current and future enrollment...

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Charter opponents have, with some exception, been quiet over today’s release of the newest CREDO study on charter-school performance. The study determined that, in the aggregate, charter school students gained more than a week’s worth of learning each year in reading on their peers in traditional public schools and performed about the same as their traditional public school peers in math (the now-famous 2009 study showed a loss of learning among charter students in both subjects).

The real test, however, will apply to charter school proponents, at least those who call themselves such. For while the overall news is good for charters, it’s clear that some states are not moving fast enough to adopt the lessons this sector of public education has learned about quality control during the past several years.

States such as Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., all showed outsize academic gains in charter schools while states including Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas performed weakly. It’s not for nothing that most of the states with bigger gains have been less tolerant of bad schools and have passed laws giving charter authorizers more tools to shut down the worst performers; gains from the 2009 study came in part because 8 percent of the worst schools have closed in that time. The states with little to show have, generally speaking, remained content to let the marketplace work itself out, and this has kept many bad schools in business.  

To be sure, Texas...

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It turns out a decision from Ball State University to cut ties with seven badly performing charter schools in Indiana was no death sentence. Four of these seven have been reprieved: Two found new sponsors and two others were born again as campuses of a private Christian school.

All but one of these four previously received F grades on the state’s latest school report card (the fourth received a D), and performance had been getting worse, not better. For eighteen months, Ball State held repeated meetings with these schools but found little hope of a turnaround. In January, the university declined to renew their contracts.

When these schools began to shop around for new sponsors, National Association of Charter School Authorizers president Greg Richmond said they were engaged in a race to the bottom, scouring for patrons with lower standards to stay alive. Two of the schools ultimately found new authorizers in small private colleges that had virtually no experience in authorizing charter schools. Two others operated by Imagine Schools opted to reopen as campuses of the fledgling Horizon Christian Academy and encouraged their families to apply to Indiana’s voucher program.

Their case to stay open calls on arguments that are now familiar: Performance will improve this year; parents are satisfied with their chosen schools; and the neighborhood district schools are worse. Moreover, these schools and their new sponsors say that a statewide one-size-fits-all accountability system insufficiently measures the progress of their...

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