Choice Words

The Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after more than a dozen states enacted school-choice legislation that spring. The seeds planted three years ago are now sprouting all over the country in the form of a record student enrollment in publicly funded private-school choice programs. This growth is captured brilliantly in a new publication from the Alliance for School Choice—School Choice Yearbook 2013–14: Hope. Action. Results.

Through its compilation of data and use of graphs, the yearbook shows that the number of students participating in private-school choice programs during the 2013–14 school year is an increase of sixty thousand students—25 percent—from the prior year. This is the single biggest one-year increase in the history of private-school choice programs and brings the total number of participants to more than 308,000 students in eighteen states and the District of Columbia.

While the record number of participating students is the headline grabber in the yearbook, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the content. The yearbook, in its interactive digital version, expertly intermixes compelling personal stories with research, a history of the choice movement, detailed information on every private-school choice program, and charts and graphs comparing programs across states.

The colorful and attractive presentation of the yearbook may lead you to believe that it is data lite, but that would be a mistake. While it provides the information in a format simple enough for novices, it also serves as a great resource for the...

In 2013, there were a shocking number of charter-school failures across Fordham’s home state of Ohio, including seventeen in Columbus alone—most of them first-year startups. In response, the Ohio Department of Education required additional paperwork from six authorizers (often referred to as sponsors) looking to start new schools in the 2014–15 school year. They subjected those sponsors to an additional level of scrutiny with regard to their vetting processes, hoping to zero in on weak structures and poor advance planning before startup funds were released and students began attending the schools.

Last Friday, the department took an unprecedented step and issued a stern warning to three authorizers that they will be “shut down” if they proceeded with plans to open six new community schools due to a number of deficiencies in that paperwork. The deficiencies identified had one thing in common: connections or similarities to other charters that had ceased operation voluntarily or had been shut down.

It’s a shame that this step was necessary, but the recent track record of Ohio’s authorizers and the recent findings both suggest there was a need for additional scrutiny. We applaud this bold step and commend State Superintendent Richard Ross and his team for swift and decisive action.

When we talk about educational choice on these pages, we are mostly speaking of charters, vouchers, digital learning, and the like. But in Fordham’s home state of Ohio, educational choice encompasses several other options, of which many families regularly avail themselves. Two of those “outer-limits” options have been in the news recently.

Opting out

In law, they are called “non-chartered, non-tax-supported” schools—NCNTs. In parlance, they are called “508 schools,” after the part of the Ohio Administrative Code that describes them. In reality, they represent the furthest distance of “schools” from government oversight. Among the “entanglements” with state government: the setting of a minimum length of the school year and school day should be; the reporting of pupil population, withdrawals, and adds; minimum teacher qualifications; health and safety rules; and the requirement that a “regular promotion process” must be in place and followed (although it is clearly up to each school to determine its own process).

NCNT schools are something like homeschooling co-ops but with a structure more closely approximating that of private schools—tuition fees, group classes, social activities, field trips, and even sports. But NCNT schools are truly free to create whatever structures they like—strong religious grounding, classical education models, Montessori methods—as long as no one is concerned about obtaining a diploma backed by the state of Ohio. Luckily, colleges have discretion as to the credentials they’ll accept. To quote the Ohio Department of Education, “Other schools, colleges, universities and employers have discretion over decisions regarding...

Last week President Obama announced a five-year, $200 million charitable initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young African American men. The program seeks to address the many disparities in outcomes for black men, including large gaps with white men regarding high-school graduation rates, college enrollment and completion rates, lifetime earnings, longevity, and the likelihood of incarceration. According to The New York Times, “early-childhood development, school readiness, educational opportunity, discipline, parenting, and the criminal justice system” will be the foci of the initiative. The President also ordered his administration to “determine the best methods to improve the odds for young men of color.”

We should be thrilled that our President has acknowledged publicly the persistent challenges that young African American men face in modern day America and, more importantly, has pledged to encourage concrete actions to address those challenges. The first step Mr. Obama should take is to push for more private-school choice through vouchers or scholarship programs. The President’s own U.S. Department of Education has already determined that such programs significantly improve educational attainment for African Americans.

Three evaluations of private-school choice programs have followed enough students for sufficiently long to determine their effects on the rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, or both. A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered...

As legislative sessions across the country continue to wind down, it's worth keeping tabs on some of the big private-school-choice proposals still under consideration. I've already covered the Mississippi education-savings-account proposal, which has the potential to be only the second such program after Arizona. There are also voucher proposals in Tennessee and Alaska that have been well covered elsewhere and may see passage this year. But one state providing a little bit of a late surprise is New York, where legislators are considering an Education Investment Tax Credit that could mean significant additional funding for public schools and privately run scholarship programs.

The latest version of the bill pending in the Assembly is smartly crafted to provide a little bit for everyone. First, individuals or corporations will be able to donate to eligible organizations in order to claim a portion (up to 75 percent of taxes owed or $1 million per filer, whichever is less) of the up to $300 million in dollar-for-dollar credits. Eligible contributions will be restricted so that they are split evenly between public-school programs and private-school scholarships for students living in households making $300,000 or less. A revised Senate version likely will place the income threshold at $500,000—the same income cutoff as Mayor deBlasio's proposal for tax hikes to fund prekindergarten. Under both versions of the bill, teachers could also receive a credit up to $200 for school supplies.

The proposal is especially interesting, not only because it is in a deep...

Which state ranks last of the fifty in fourth-grade math on the NAEP, last in eighth-grade reading on the NAEP, last in Education Week’s Quality Counts report, and last in readiness for science and engineering?

If you guessed Mississippi each time, either you’re up on your education stats or you read the title of the post and went for broke. I don't mean to pick on Mississippians, but it's clear that leaders there need to make some dramatic changes in order to provide a better educational and economic future for their constituents.

In 1999, Governor Jeb Bush led Florida on a journey to improve educational excellence by focusing on third-grade reading, accountability, choice, and other reforms. As a result, it is far better to be a public-school student in Florida today than it was before those reforms were enacted. The Sunshine State’s story shows the power of innovation and the necessity of federalism in public policy. Many of Florida's changes had not been tried in states before but are now being replicated all over the place. Without bold leadership and the freedom to innovate, Florida would likely still be stuck in neutral. Here’s hoping that nearby Mississippi can both replicate some of those successes and also challenge other states to keep up by enacting some of its own innovations.

While far more than any one reform is needed to ensure such improvement, the Magnolia State may find hope in a policy that has been hardly tried before. In fact, Mississippi has the chance to be...

In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, Bill Murray relived February 2nd day after day. The Ohio charter-school sector is experiencing its own Groundhog Day moment with every struggle seemingly like the one before—with no end in sight.

Last week, the Toledo Blade brought us news of another charter-school closing. Secor Gardens Academy, which first opened last fall, closed abruptly over the weekend of February 8, sending parents scrambling to find a place to send their children. Maddeningly, the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCOESC was characterized in the Blade as defending its own performance as the school’s sponsor.

Yes, this NCOESC is the same one that sponsored two schools infamously closed in October 2013 by State Superintendent Richard Ross for being “an educational travesty.” A couple schools it sponsored, including one with which another sponsor had cut ties due to low performance, closed in December. Meanwhile, the NCOESC has drawn attention for its practice of selling services to schools it sponsors. I’m not sure that this sponsor gets it—but luckily, others are starting to do so.

Fresh off of his comprehensive investigation of the data scandal in Columbus City Schools, Auditor of State Dave Yost announced last week that he plans to take a closer look at charter sponsors, including NCOESC. Yost’s plans currently call for auditing three sponsors (NCOESC, St. Aloysius Orphanage, and Warren County Educational...

Well-meaning people can and do quibble over school-choice issues in our line of work. Sometimes the rhetoric becomes calcified and hardline ideological. But in my neighborhood in central Columbus, where a general dislike for “school choice” as a movement resonates, a small education marketplace has quietly sprung up just the same. And it’s all in the name of keeping young families from moving to the ’burbs.

Clintonville evolved in the early twentieth century along new streetcar lines heading north from downtown Columbus, but it has been politically and geographically part of the larger city for decades. Our neighborhood schools belong to the city district, and we have no autonomous government or ward representation on city council. We have what other neighborhoods here have, which is an Area Commission—elected members from various street-bound jurisdictions for whom we vote by paper ballot at the local barber shop or bank every couple of years. Area commissions exist to advise the Columbus City Council on matters pertaining to their neighborhoods but have no power of their own.

Clintonville is a proud collection of the weird and offbeat, and most of us like it that way. It isn’t flashy, but it feels like home.

For the ninth year in a row, the Clintonville Area Commission sponsored an “education fair,” which is designed to show off the schools that students in the area “traditionally” attend. They include traditional district schools, alternative district schools, charters, private schools (both secular and not), and a standalone...

Efforts at a common, one-stop school-application process, a.k.a. “universal enrollment,” are underway for the first time in Washington, D.C.,  and Newark, New Jersey, and are under consideration in Philadelphia. Universal enrollment is already up and running in New Orleans and Denver, as well. The plans vary in size, scope, and complexity, but they are rational ways to put parents and students first within a dizzying array of educational choices. In fact, it’s clear that there are more school seats in most large cities than there are children to fill them.

Every parent theoretically has a number of choices, but the reality is that the school “marketplace” is often difficult to understand or navigate. Data are absent or inconsistent from school to school, different deadlines require quick decisions, applications can be hard to acquire or for families to complete, and visiting schools can be very difficult when parents and guardians don’t have access to or control over transportation and scheduling. All of these conspire to limit an individual family’s real choices even when quality school seats go begging.

To me, there are three basic components of choice that must work in unison: quality, visibility, and accessibility. If these are in place and functioning at peak, then a vibrant marketplace can exist and parents will likely be empowered with a number of realistic and attainable options for...

With thirty-two cities across the nation placing more than 20 percent of their students in charter schools, it is clear that chartering has changed the face of urban education. But what about students from rural areas? Do charters have the potential to boost their achievement, too? And what obstacles do charters face in rural communities? Andy Smarick explores these questions in a new report. First, he finds that very few rural charters exist; in fact, just 785 of the nation’s 5,000 or so charters were located in rural areas as of 2010—and just 110 in the most remote communities. Meanwhile, the challenges to rural-charter growth are many. Among them are laws that prohibit charters in rural areas, shortages in high-quality teachers, state funding mechanisms that disadvantage charters (often not limited to rural charters), and the logistics of schooling in remote regions. Given the myriad of factors that can stymie rural-charter-school growth, policymakers must enact strong charter policies. To this end, the report offers several policy recommendations, which include undoing policies that restrict growth into rural areas, loosening teacher-certification requirements, ensuring equitable funding, creating opportunities to leverage digital learning, and allowing charters to use vacant, publicly owned facilities. Importantly, the report also discusses the adverse financial impact a single, start-up charter school can have on a sparsely populated school district. The author suggests ways to soften the blow, such as dual district-charter enrollment (and dual per-pupil funding), a pool of state funds to reimburse affected districts, and a legal...