Choice Words

Part of the appeal of National School Choice Week is that it highlights not just our varied (and flourishing) school choice accomplishments but also the need for more—of both the public and private variety. The sobering reality is that, even with burgeoning charter and voucher movements, school choice is largely exercised by families able to afford private school tuition or who move to neighborhoods because of their schools.

There’s no shortage of efforts or ideas to correct this. But now, StudentsFirst, headed up by Michelle Rhee, has proposed some solutions for policy makers who ought to design programs with underserved children in mind while reasonably regulating these programs in the public interest.

In its newest policy brief, StudentsFirst details its support of enhancing quality options for disadvantaged families through charter schools and school vouchers—with an emphasis on quality. While its support for school choice has been established since its founding, StudentsFirst brings to the debate some common sense reforms that would make these efforts more politically sustainable.

Yes, as the brief documents, there remains a persistent funding gap between charter schools and traditional school districts that needs to be addressed, and lawmakers must find ways to enable charters to better access facilities; doing otherwise treats some public school students differently from others. But enhancing these options comes with responsibilities: requiring performance-based contracts for charters as well as greater accountability of charter authorizers and clear triggers for closing low-performing schools (all measures long advanced by the Fordham Institute).


Red Tape or Red Herring?

Will private schools avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs if they’re overregulated? Many friends of private school choice insist that they will, particularly if these schools are required to participate in testing and accountability mandates. But the findings from a new study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute indicate these friends might need an intervention.

In their report, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?, researchers David Stuit and Sy Doan find little evidence that policymakers should avoid testing requirements for fear that private schools will avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs altogether. In fact, in a survey of school leaders who qualify for four existing private school choice programs, just 25 percent said that state assessment rules figured “very importantly” into their decision on whether to participate.

Of greater concern to these school leaders were laws that forced them to revise their admissions criteria or restricted their religious practices, indicating that private schools were allergic to policies that made them less “private.” But, chiefly, just 3 percent of private schools that opted not to participate in these programs cited government regulations as the most important reason. Indeed, more schools opted out because there weren’t enough eligible students in their vicinity to begin with.

This doesn’t imply that policy makers...

Indiana’s Ball State University has delivered on its pledge to end contracts with the worst-performing charter schools in its portfolio, and its action will strengthen the charter movement overall.

For it was Ball State’s charters that erased many of the learning gains Indiana charters made in the past five years, according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Statewide, charter students gained what amounted to an additional month and a half of learning on their district school peers, and CREDO’s Macke Raymond concluded that such strong gains would have been even better were it not for Ball State–authorized schools. “They’re not helping,” Raymond told the Indianapolis Star. “The responsibility is pretty clearly on the authorizer.”

Credit ought to go to Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools for recognizing the problem. Bob Marra, the office’s executive director, has visibly grown frustrated with the performance of the schools the university has authorized. And this week, he and his team opted to end contracts with seven of their schools and offer contract extensions of just three years to seven others, provided they meet certain performance conditions. Two other charters withdrew their own requests for renewals.

All of these schools should have seen this coming. Not only has Ball State worked with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers during the past eighteen months to create a new accountability system for all of its charters, the university has repeatedly told its most troubled schools that they had been falling...

Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy teachers
Two years ago, teachers at the Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy voted to form a union by card check.
Photo from ACTS Michigan.

(Updated January 17, 2013 for the Education Gadfly Weekly)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should be careful what it wishes for. Although a recent case before the National Labor Relations Board was decided in the direction favored by the Alliance, by vacillating opportunistically on the issue of whether charters are public or private the organization has weakened the charter movement’s long game.

Here’s what happened: Two years back, teachers at the Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy voted to form a union via card check—a power granted to public employees under Illinois labor law. In response, the charter school asked the NLRB to intervene, arguing that it was a privately run institution, not a “political subdivision” of the state—and, therefore, that attempts to organize its employees should fall under federal law and be done by secret ballot.

In March 2011, the Alliance, led at the time by Peter Groff, filed a brief supporting the Academy’s position. Charter schools are indeed public schools, the Alliance reasoned, but they’re run by private entities. Hence their employees should be treated like other private-sector employees. “To...

Parent Revolution
Simply the threat of pulling the parent trigger could spur complacent administrators to act.
Photo from Strollerderby.

There is a reason why, after months of resistance, the Adelanto School Board this week voted unanimously to adopt the parent-triggered charter conversion of Desert Trails Elementary: It’s not the same board. Throughout 2012, all five board members had thwarted the efforts of the Desert Trails Parent Union to enact the nation’s first parent trigger, but only two of those board members are serving the district today.

Gone is Carlos Mendoza, the former school board president who went so far as to flout a California judge’s order to accept the parents’ plan to seek a charter operator for the troubled elementary school; in fact, he lost his re-election bid to a member of the Desert Trails Parents Union.  Gone, too, is Jermaine Wright, who vowed to block the schoolhouse door in handcuffs if that’s what it took to prevent a charter conversion. Wright fled the school district as soon as he spotted an opening on the Adelanto City Council.

A third incumbent was voted out in November as well. And the district superintendent left in the fall just as public opinion was mounting against the board and its thuggery. That cleared the way—finally—for...

Ball State University
A quarter of Ball State-authorized charters rank in the bottom 15 percent of Indiana's schools.
Photo from INDelight Photography cc.

Before the holiday break, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes gave the charter school movement more good news, this time from Indiana: Students in the Hoosier State’s charter schools, on average, had greater learning gains than their peers in traditional schools. Statewide, charter students gained what amounted to an additional month and a half of learning in reading and math. And in Indianapolis, charter students had about two months on their district-school counterparts in reading and nearly three months in math.

The findings were released just a couple of weeks after the Stanford-based group found similar results for New Jersey students. But the Indiana story was tempered by a more sobering fact: The findings would have been better if not for the performance of schools overseen by one authorizer—Ball State University.

Bad performance at Ball State–authorized charter schools erased many of the overall learning gains Indiana charters made between 2007 and 2011, CREDO concluded. And that poor performance accelerated after 2009, when Ball State authorized many new charter entrants that turned out to be low-performing.

How low-performing? Just a few days ago, the Indianapolis Star reported that...

A D.C. City Council’s task force looking at neighborhood preferences for the district’s charter schools came out recently with some sensible recommendations that ought to inform similar conversations in other cities.

D.C. charter schools, the task force decided, should remain open to all comers in the city, but charters that move into closed district schools should voluntarily give admissions preference to children who live nearby.

For the District of Columbia, this is a reasonable conclusion that helps to ensure that disadvantaged kids in a given locale have access to a good education while upholding a central tenet of the charter-school idea: that these institutions should be open to all students, regardless of their home address.

But the critical word here is “voluntarily.” Other school districts, such as those in Denver and Chicago, have insisted on neighborhood preference as a condition for handing over public school buildings to charters. That’s a cudgel the D.C. task force has wisely avoided using.

Instead, the task force (which included representatives from D.C. Public Schools, city government, the teacher union, and charter schools) recommended giving D.C. charters that move into district schools the ability to offer a “time-limited” admission preference to families most affected by the closure. “The objective of such a preference would be to ease the transition for students, families and communities impacted by these closures,” task-force members wrote in their report.

Such a preference in other cases, however, might defeat the purpose of school choice. For example, students in Wards...

Rick Scott
Rick Scott is right about Common Core standards.
Photo from Education News.

Just as Tony Bennett was talking to reporters last week about his new job as Florida education commissioner, Governor Rick Scott was getting some attention of his own for suggesting that all schools receiving public funding—including private schools accepting voucher-bearing students—should be held to the same standard.

Or, more specifically, the Common Core State Standards. And on this, reporters pounced, noting (with some jest) that Scott was parting ways with fellow Republicans who want to leave private schools alone and stirring backlash among private school leaders who feared they soon would have to “teach to the test.”

This kind of anxiety calls for a voice of reason, and Bennett is just the guy to provide it. After all, he’s leaving Indiana, where he pushed a voucher program that required students to take the same standardized test as do public schools (and where they also will be taking the Common Core assessments when those standards are implemented in 2014).

And the Hoosier State isn’t alone. Voucher and tax credit scholarship programs in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Louisiana require the same standardized assessments as those used in public schools. This does more than just make these programs more politically sustainable (though it does do...

That the Recovery School District in New Orleans made the top of the Brookings Institution’s second Education Choice and Competition Index shows how the list has improved from its first showing last year. Russ Whitehurst and his team gathered data on 107 school districts this go-around, up from twenty-five in 2011, and at last included New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee—cities that, not surprisingly, all made this year’s top ten for the way they maximize choice for families of all income levels.

Bobby Jindal
Gov. Bobby Jindal giving a speech yesterday at Brookings, which coincided with the report's release.
Photo from TPMDC.

But what makes this year’s index worthwhile is the way that Brookings highlighted the differences between even the best. It’s easy to see what separates the Recovery School District from, for instance, Brownsville, Texas, the worst-scoring district on the list and one that provides few alternatives to a zip-code education. The contrast between the Crescent City and Washington, D.C., is more subtle, but Whitehurst argues that it’s still significant.

He’s right. D.C. garnered the third-highest ranking and scored well on its abundance, and funding, of school alternatives (charters and vouchers included). But it fell short in matching families to the schools of their choice. Individual lotteries determine admission to oversubscribed schools, providing more chance than choice;...

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio received a lot of attention for his speech this week at the Jack Kemp Foundation, mostly for his remarks on how government can play a role in revitalizing the middle class. In addition to more conventional Republican ideas for economic growth and job creation—lighter regulations, tax reform—Rubio outlined several strategies for education investment, some of which would complicate, rather than simplify, the federal tax code.

And that may not be a bad thing, especially if those ideas lead to more educational opportunities for households that cannot afford them otherwise. Consider one of the senator’s more controversial suggestions: a corporate federal tax credit scholarship, one that would help low-income students cover the cost of a K–12 private education. There were few details in Rubio’s brief remarks on this subject, but we have examples in more than a dozen states to show how this might work.

The largest of these is in the senator’s home state of Florida: Corporations with a tax liability in the Sunshine State can receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit by donating to a nonprofit scholarship organization. And that organization, in turn, awards scholarships worth up to $4,335 to children who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. There are nearly 50,000 K–12 students in Florida who now participate in the program, up from 29,000 just three years ago.

Despite its popularity, however, there is a reason that a program like this is controversial: A tax credit scholarship is tantamount to a voucher....