Choice Words

Back in May, Fordham published Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, where we explained the idea of “course access,” a system that greatly expands learning options by allowing students to take courses from a number of organizations at once. The brief also provided options for policymakers to consider, including funding, provider and student eligibility, and accountability.

ExcelinEd has now released a white paper, Leading in an Era of Change, which discusses the recent development of these policies in a number of states and summarizes key design principles for future expansion. Where Fordham’s brief laid out the various specific paths a state might take in policy creation, ExcelinEd’s paper functions as a list of essential dos and don’ts, answering questions about how to ensure quality providers, engagement with stakeholders, and more. Still, the brief rightly leavers the specific design up to states and districts themselves. Taken together, these two reports act as a guidebook for expanding course availability and student choice in local schools.

As Jeb Bush writes in his foreword to the report, “having a high-quality education must no longer depend on location…the international stakes are too high to restrict access to great courses based on ZIP code.” Indeed, the flexibility of course access eliminates, or at least diminishes, limitations of individual schools and enables students to take classes in new subjects and with potentially better teachers. Of course, implementation of any real reform comes with a...

As most states’ legislative sessions wind down for the year, it’s not too early to ask how school choice has been faring, particularly when compared with the remarkable gains around the country during the past several years.

Here’s a rundown, in case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • Since 2011, two states have enacted charter-school laws for the first time (Washington and Maine) and many others have improved their laws (a dozen did so just last year).
  • During that time, twenty private-school choice programs were created in fifteen states, along with a number of others that were expanded or otherwise reformed.
  • A handful of states created new “course choice” programs.
  • In 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program.

Why all of that activity? Much of it can be traced to the Republicans’ wave election in 2010, which made the state-level political environment considerably friendlier to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of parental choice. Republicans gained nearly 700 legislative seats that year, giving them control over more seats than at any time since 1928. They also gained a net of six governors’ offices. Then they maintained most of this edge in the 2012 election, yielding back only about 150 seats.

Nobody knows what the 2014 elections will bring politically, but the early months of the year have seen less impressive progress educationally, at least in terms of education choice. There have been some key missed opportunities. And many legislators...

CJ Szafir

Last week, the Wisconsin Reporter reported that the United States Department of Justice is still conducting an “ongoing investigation” into whether Wisconsin’s private-school choice program discriminates against children with disabilities and, as a result, violates federal disability law.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint with the Justice Department accusing the Wisconsin school-choice program—as well as two private schools in the program—of discriminating against children with disabilities. In April 2013, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department sent a letter and legal memo to the state of Wisconsin accusing the school-choice program of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They concluded that unless Wisconsin drastically changes its choice program, the United States will take legal action.

Among its numerous demands, the Justice Department wants private choice schools to be forced to adjust their programming to accommodate all children with disabilities, so long as the accommodation does not “fundamentally alter” the school (an extremely onerous legal standard). Federal disability law, as traditionally interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education, applies a different, less exacting standard to private schools in the choice program. Private schools must only make “minor adjustments” to accommodate students with disabilities. Given that private schools do not receive the same government funding for special education as public schools and may wish to take distinctive approaches to students with behavioral problems, this is perfectly appropriate.

If the Justice Department gets its way, Wisconsin’s school-choice program...

“Quiet dedication” is the most apt description of the staff and administration of United Schools Network, a group of three (soon to be four) charter schools in Columbus. Dedication to hard work and excellence; dedication to innovation and achievement. And that applies to the adults just as much as it does to the students.

What is now Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main began operation in August 2008 with 57 students in rented space in a church building. Hardly ideal circumstances for fostering a revolution in education, but that inaugural class outperformed every other Columbus middle school (district and charter) in math that year.

CCA’s early success was a harbinger of things to come. Led by Andrew Boy (a prestigious Building Excellent Schools fellow) and his team, the school turned that one initial class of students into a network of schools that is strong and growing. As it has grown, it has maintained its dedication to underserved Columbus neighborhoods and through its success has garnered the support and respect of community leaders and business professionals.

CCA and the United School Network’s recognition and awards include:

A second school – Columbus Collegiate Academy—West – began in...

Mr. Tim Carey leads a class as the STEM teacher for DECA Prep

DECA Prep is a second-year public charter school in Dayton, Ohio, currently serving students in grades K–3 and 6. A grade will be added each year until the school serves grades K–6. It has an open, first-come, first-served enrollment process. Its early results have been impressive: after one year of operations, 97 percent of its third grades are reading at or above grade level.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiences are essential components of DECA Prep’s education curriculum. Its faculty utilizes a continuum of labs and experiments to maximize the relationships between math and science teaching. In class every day, teachers emphasize vocabulary building, informational text, and the use of graphics in observation and lab activities to ease the understanding of complex STEM concepts. In addition, students have access to a science lab classroom.

This commitment to innovation and excellence has not gone unnoticed. The school itself was created with help from a Race to the Top award to its sister school, the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) . And DECA Prep itself was part of a forward-thinking consortium that won a Straight A Fund Innovation grant from the Ohio Department of Education in 2014.

During a recent site visit, we watched as a second graders transitioned from their home classroom to...

Village Preparatory School: Woodland Hills Campus (VPWH) is located in the Kinsman-Woodland Hills area of Cleveland and serves about 300 students in grades K–3. VPWH is a part of the incredibly successful Breakthrough Schools network. Even with its early successes, recent events are pointing VPWH and Breakthrough Schools toward an even brighter future.

First, VPWH has hired Fran Trujillo as the head of school. Fran joined VPWH at the end of 2013, having recently led a pre-K–8 grade charter school in New Orleans. Fran has over thirty years of experience as an educator and over twenty years of experience as a head of school. Drawing from her vast experience, Fran embraces the importance of partnerships in learning. Fran passionately shares the Breakthrough philosophy that scholars grow and learn when their families and the school develop close partnerships.

In addition, the high-performing Breakthrough Network is undertaking an ambitious expansion, known as the “20/20 Plan.”  The plan calls for Breakthrough to open more new schools to bring its network to twenty schools serving over 7,000 students by 2020. The bold plan has plenty of support from various parties, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), the office of Mayor Frank Jackson, and the Cleveland Transformation Alliance. It also has support from a collection of talented and accomplished members of the community through its Friends of Breakthrough group.

Fordham recently profiled the signs of promise emerging from the important work...

Columbus is the proud home to the Buckeye State’s lone KIPP charter school. Serving mainly poor and minority students from neighborhoods on the city’s east side, KIPP has quickly gained notoriety for making a big difference in their students’ lives. In fact, last school year, KIPP was ranked in the top 10 percent of schools in the entire state, with respect to its impact on student academic growth (a.k.a. “value added”). KIPP is helping kids who need help the most to achieve educational success.

Under the guiding leadership of its superb board and executive team, KIPP Columbus has ambitious plans to grow, so that it will educate 2,000 students by 2020. (It presently educates roughly 300 students.) It is building a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility that is set to open in August 2014. The facility is located on the site of a former Columbus State Community College golf course and makes every natural amenity—trees, hills, creeks—an integral part of the learning community. This is a part of Columbus many students rarely see, let alone interact with as part of their science and arts education.

KIPP Columbus is part of the national network of KIPP charter schools, which have 141 schools in twenty states. Rigorous evaluations conducted by Mathematica Policy Research have demonstrated the significant, positive impacts that the KIPP charter model has on their students’ achievement.

During National Charter Schools Week, we salute KIPP Columbus, one of Ohio’s finest charter schools....

Phoenix Community Learning Center is in the midst of a structural renaissance. The school, Fordham’s only sponsored school in Cincinnati, has plans to expand their current school building, which would eventually add three classrooms and a media center. The improvements will be done to the basement level, wherein the total additional square footage will top 14,000 square feet.  The additional space will also allow the lower grades to occupy the lower level of the building, while the upper grades occupy the upper levels of the school building.

Phoenix serves pupils in grades K–8 and is located in the Avondale community of Greater Cincinnati. Founded in 2001, it is a stalwart in its community and has seen its graduates move on to prestigious public and private high schools.

A strong expansion plan supports a growing enrollment trend at the school during the past two years, under the long-standing leadership of Superintendent Dr. Glenda Brown and School Leader Dr. Elaine Wilson. When implemented, the plan also envisions total enrollment well over four hundred pupils. 

Charter school growth is one thing, but growth in a high-performing charter school is a cause for celebration, most notably for the students, their families, and the community. Although Phoenix has no formal timetable for the expansion, the old adage “the sooner, the better” is reflective of the excitement. Phoenix is enthusiastically taking public bids from contractors who may be interested in participating in their visions for the future, a vision which we aptly celebrate during...

As noted in our intro blog to this week’s series on National Charter Schools Week, no two charter schools are alike. An excellent case in point is the two charter schools that Fordham sponsors in the Southern Ohio town of Sciotoville. In 2008, the existing schools in Sciotoville were traditional district schools in an area of the state hit hard by economic decline, but officials at the district took the bold step to convert their entire district into charter schools, severing some historic ties for families but maintaining many others. Sciotoville Elementary Academy is unique in a number of respects and is perhaps most indicative of administrators’ hopes for the future.

Sciotoville Elementary Academy (SEA) was the second-highest-performing school by performance index (a state measure of student proficiency) in Fordham’s portfolio in 2012–13. Led by Principal Foresta Shope and Superintendent Rick Bowman, the school serves grades K–4; over 80 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, similar to many of the historical Ohio River communities. In addition to delivering great academic outcomes for students, this school also offers a wealth of activities for students and parents. These include Junior Madrigals, Spelling Bee, community-service opportunities, an after-school enrichment program, and parent-engagement opportunities.

You can see that while SEA is a charter school in structure and function, the staff has taken great effort to make their school look and feel very much like it did when it was part of a traditional district. The...

President Obama signed a Presidential Proclamation naming May 4 through May 10 “National Charter Schools Week.” This reflects the growing bipartisan support enjoyed by charter schools across the nation. The widespread support shouldn’t be surprising given that there are nearly 6,500 independent charter schools serving more than 2.5 million children—many in our most economically disadvantaged areas.

Ohio’s charter growth has mirrored that of the nation, with 367 charter schools (in the 2012–13 school year) serving more than 115,000 students—6.5 percent of the state’s students. Unfortunately, there have been some high-profile school closures in the Buckeye State that have led some to question the impact of charter schools. And therein lies the problem.

There is a tendency in public discussion of charter schools to lump all charters together—for praise or for tarring—when, in most cases, no two schools are alike and actively resist reduction to “just another charter” with only a little investigation. True to the idea of experimentation and the quest for innovation that were instrumental in their creation, charter schools in Ohio can be almost anything: arts-centric, “no excuses,” STEM-focused, entirely online, or similar to a vocational school.

In honor of National Charter Schools Week, Fordham would like to show readers how varied its own portfolio of schools is, so we’ll be profiling a school each day this week with a snapshot of the staff, administrators, parents, and students who make up these strong and unique learning institutions. We believe these schools, like many other charter schools...

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