Choice Words

The best thing one can say about Illinois’s new moratorium on virtual charter schools is that it could have been worse. The folks at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools talked lawmakers down from a three-year ban on any new charter with “virtual-schooling components” to a one-year moratorium on new online schools outside of Chicago. The bill the governor signed last week also demands policy recommendations from the state’s charter school commission that could lead to quality and cost-efficient online learning.

Virtual charter school
Did lawmakers want a moratorium to "better understand the effects" of virtual schooling, or was it a power grab?
Photo by wader

But did lawmakers want a moratorium to better understand the effects of virtual schooling, as some explained, or was this the result of a power grab by influential suburban school districts worried about the prospect of losing students to charters they never before had to fear?

The objection to a single virtual charter application from eighteen Chicagoland districts points to the latter. When a nonprofit group named Virtual Learning Solutions asked to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, reactions from superintendents in Aurora, Geneva, and other districts ranged from “no” to “hell no” (the school would have been managed by K12 Inc.). Eventually, a Democratic representative...

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Charter schools have captured nearly half of the public school market in Washington, D.C., but they have struggled to find suitable buildings to carry out their mission. That changed this week when D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that the District would give charter schools the chance to lease as many as sixteen former or soon-to-be-closed public school buildings. Charter advocates were pleased.

This move was long overdue. Charters have been attracting more and more of the public school market share in D.C. every year, but they have been grasping for adequate space to accommodate their burgeoning enrollments. Arguably, the D.C. charter sector would be even larger today if the city hadn’t hoarded vacant properties, prompting even the best charters to scrounge for makeshift facilities and place students on waitlists due to lack of space.

These challenges are familiar to charter schools in most cities. Despite the surge in charter school enrollments and the support the sector receives from both political parties, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has documented that charters still commonly rent or own building space that is much smaller than that occupied by their traditional public school peers or that lack kitchens, gymnasiums, libraries, or science and computer labs.

The same could be said of even the best-performing charters in D.C. Until the high-flying Washington Latin Public Charter Schools got the chance to move into a former district school, it had been operating on three different campuses and forcing older students to walk...

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Private education as we have known it is on its way out, at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels. At the very least, it's headed for dramatic shrinkage, save for a handful of places and circumstances, to be replaced by a very different set of institutional, governance, financing, and education-delivery mechanisms.

The end of private education
Private education as we have known it is on its way out.
Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Consider today's realities. Private K–12 enrollments are shrinking—by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, announced in January that forty-four of its 156 elementary schools will cease operations next month. (A few later won reprieves.) In addition, many independent schools (day schools and especially boarding schools) are having trouble filling their seats—at least, filling them with their customary clientele of tuition-paying American students. Traditional nonprofit private colleges are also challenged to fill their classroom seats and dorms, a situation to which they're responding by heavily discounting their tuitions and fees for more and more students.

Meanwhile, charter school enrollments are booming across the land. The charter share of the primary-secondary population is 5 percent nationally and north of 25 percent in two dozen major cities. "Massive open online...

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Over on the Ohio Gadfly Daily, Fordham’s Jeff Murray has a meditation on what it’s like to lose the school-choice lottery. And it vividly reminds us that despite a flourishing school-choice movement, many families still struggle to access the one school they want for their children—even a public school.

Jeff and his wife have been reaching into their “middle-income pockets” to send their daughters to a “middle-of-the-road” private school because their public school options have been substandard. Until recently. An impressive STEM high school planned to expand to middle grades, and it was just what the Murray family wanted.

So it was for hundreds of others. And so a lottery would pick the lucky few from the many who longed for what Jeff called the Holy Grail, the best possible educational foundation for their kids. “We know we’d found it,” he writes. “And we can’t get in.”

Jeff has left us a lot to ponder, and not just because he has left us a powerful, personal reflection. What happens, he asks, when you don’t have the means or the knowledge of the system? What happens when all your choices are bad?

What happens, indeed?

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The Justice Department has taken school-voucher policy to unstable ground. Last month, three agency attorneys sent a letter to Wisconsin officials declaring that the Badger State hasn’t done enough to protect the rights of students with disabilities who participate in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine. But the prescription contained within that letter would effectively entangle religious schools in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), from which they have largely been exempted.

The trouble started two years ago, when the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin complained to the Justice Department that private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were violating the ADA. They argued that the schools were failing to accommodate disabled students, discouraging some from attending and improperly expelling others. (NB: These groups did not make these claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (i.e., special education); private schools are clearly exempt from its requirements.)

The Justice Department didn’t determine whether Milwaukee’s private schools had violated the ADA, but its civil-rights attorneys did tell the Wisconsin schools superintendent, Tony Evers, that he “must do more to enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements that govern the treatment of students with disabilities who participate in the school choice program.” Evers, according to the letter, must also count all of the disabled students enrolled at voucher schools and determine how many of them end up suspended or expelled. And he must advise these schools about all of their ADA obligations (such as...

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The Louisiana State Supreme Court, in a lopsided 6–1 decision, declared that Governor Jindal and the Legislature illegally diverted money from public schools to fund the state’s voucher expansion. In its apolitical decision, the court said, “we will not per se address the efficacy of the school voucher or similar education programs.” The decision was not on vouchers as a matter of public policy but rather on the constitutionality of how the new vouchers are funded.

The Louisiana school voucher funding decision
The decision was not on vouchers but on the constitutionality of how those vouchers are funded
Photo by Joe Gratz

The legislation in question, Act 2, intended to fund student vouchers with the Louisiana “Minimum Foundation Program” (MFP). But the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 is clear concerning the MFP: It is a funding formula that “shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems.” Further, the constitution says, “the funds appropriated shall be equitably allocated to parish and city school systems.” This is why Justice John Weimer wrote, “state funds approved through the unique MFP process cannot be diverted to nonpublic schools.” Weimer was correct in later describing the constitution’s language...

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After twenty years of charter schooling, the research literature is voluminous, but much of it is contradictory and confusing—not to mention politically motivated. With this in mind, Columbia University professor Priscilla Wohlstetter and her colleagues set out to separate the empirical wheat from the ideological chaff and review more than a decade of charter school literature to show how charters have progressed. While the authors can, through their synthesis of high-quality studies, tell us much about accountability (more schools close due to mismanagement than from their failure in the marketplace) and the unintended consequences of charters (re-segregation, but not widespread, and not unanticipated), the book is important especially for telling readers what we still don’t know about the charter sector. Consider the key issue of performance: Most charter research analyzes student achievement, but it generally consists of student snapshots and is devoid of the large-scale, random-control studies that are the gold standard. As a result, we’re left with contradictory evidence on how well charter students perform and inconclusive findings on how various factors like autonomy affect school outcomes. But by identifying this gap of knowledge, the authors map out new possibilities for research: How are charters using their autonomy, and what keeps them from exercising their freedom? Which academic programs are most successful at raising student achievement, and do they differ much from those offered at traditional schools? Now that charter movement is older and larger (2.3 million children currently being educated), questions such as these will become...

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The Louisiana Supreme Court may have ruled that Governor Bobby Jindal and the Legislature cannot fund the state’s voucher program with the same “minimum foundation” constitutionally reserved for public schools, but that doesn’t mean that Jindal has to scrap his effort. Just after the 6–1 decision Tuesday, Jindal pledged to keep the program alive by funding it elsewhere in the budget. About 8,000 children had already been promised vouchers for next year.

But it’s hard to imagine how the program could grow much more than that if the governor has to find budgetary leftovers to fund it. Every year since 2008, the governor and lawmakers have had to scratch and claw for funds to bankroll the New Orleans voucher program, which was the precursor to the statewide voucher effort. In 2011, the New Orleans program got $9 million from the general budget, which amounted to less than $5,000 per student then.

By contrast, Louisiana’s K–12 public schools received $3.4 billion from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) in 2011, which came to an average $8,763 per pupil.

And that helps explain why Jindal sought funding for the statewide voucher program through the MFP. The governor can’t fund reform adequately if he has to seek out dollars—and struggle annually with state lawmakers—that don’t go into the entitlement spending for school boards.

Moreover, he shouldn’t have to. Students receiving the Louisiana voucher have to take the same standardized tests as those administered at public schools, and the schools they attend can...

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When the Ortonville Montessori charter school outside of Flint, Michigan, offered to buy a vacant building from the Brandon school district for $100,000, district officials weighed whether it made more fiscal sense to take the money now or demolish the building as planned and avoid losing possibly more students—and more state funding per pupil—to the charter. Last week, the Brandon Board of Education opted for demolition.

It didn’t matter that the building has sat empty for years and that the district has tried unsuccessfully to sell it to other buyers. It didn’t want to sell to the Ortonville charter because, as Brandon superintendent Lori McMahon casually told a local reporter, “It would be competition for us.”

While extreme, the challenges facing Ortonville focus attention on the struggles for adequate facilities that still bedevil most charter schools. Now twenty years old, many charter schools still commonly rent or own building space that is much smaller than that occupied by their traditional public school peers or that lack kitchens, gymnasiums, libraries, or science and computer labs.

That’s the assessment of a survey of charters in ten states released last week by the Charter Schools Facilities Initiative, a joint project of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The Initiative has sought to highlight the persistent capital needs of charter schools and their inequitable treatment and has developed policy recommendations to provide long-range and systemic solutions.

Despite the surge in charter school...

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NACSA is out with the fifth edition of its annual report on the state of charter authorizing.

I love this thing—great data on a critically important part of our field. If you’re interested in chartering, school-level accountability, or The Urban School System of the Future, you definitely want to check it out.

Almost a decade ago, NACSA produced the equivalent of industry standards—the stuff a high-quality authorizer ought to do. These relate to assessing charter applications, monitoring school performance, helping grow high-performers, revoking the charters of low-performers, etc.

This report assesses authorizers against what NACSA deems the 12 “essential practices” of the industry.

Overall, authorizers’ scores improved over last year’s, and large authorizers (those with 10+ schools) scored better than small ones.

Continuing a long-term trend, authorizers are increasingly picky shoppers—they approve far fewer applications than they did back in the day. The average approval rate is now 33 percent.

But many authorizers are still falling short on the back end of accountability: 34 percent of authorizers lack a clear, established policy to close underperforming schools.

Some of the report’s most interesting findings relate to the different types of authorizers (there are six kinds nowadays). The vast majority (more than 90 percent) are local school districts, but they generally authorize few schools apiece; their portfolios combine for only 53 percent of all charters.

Districts score lower than non-district authorizers overall, and their policies are far less friendly to replication than non-district authorizers, meaning they...

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