Choice Words

The last thing Detroit families need is for an incompetent school board to regain control of the Motor City’s worst schools, but that may happen now that Michigan voters have repealed the state’s “emergency manager” law. The repeal has emboldened the Detroit Board of Education to undo many of the biggest reforms that emergency managers have put in place in the district during the last four years. Perhaps the worst of these decisions (so far!) was voiding the contract that emergency manager Roy Roberts forged last year with the state’s fledgling Education Achievement Authority, a recovery district modeled on Louisiana’s and run out of Eastern Michigan University. The EAA had taken possession of the lowest-achieving schools in Detroit (and has been praised by Arne Duncan), but it remained an inter-local agreement between the university and the school district. The Detroit school board, which one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence,” now wants to take those schools back under its fold. Eastern Michigan has vowed to fight, but it’s hard to see how kids will benefit from this custody battle if the state doesn’t codify the recovery district into law. Two bills were introduced recently in the legislature to do just that, but their sponsors have met with critics who maintain that the Achievement Authority needs more time to prove itself. That’s an absurd position, considering the thousands of Detroit families who been waiting for an ounce of hope for years.

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Parker Baxter

Last week, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) launched “One Million Lives,” a multi-pronged campaign to provide better schools to one million children by closing failing charter schools and opening many more good ones. 

It might seem odd that an organization that supports charter schools would call for the closure of hundreds of them. But it’s not. It makes perfect sense.

At the heart of the charter school concept is a bargain between schools and the entities that authorize them. Charter schools agree to accept greater accountability, including the possibility of closure, in exchange for greater freedom from bureaucratic rules that can inhibit effective teaching and learning. Charters receive autonomy over inputs in exchange for accountability for outcomes.

The surest way to cripple the charter movement is to let failing charter schools continue to operate.

The possibility of closure is essential to making the charter school bargain work. It is not a coincidence that where charters are working well, the threat of closure is real—and that where they are not, closure is rare. If closure isn’t a real possibility, the charter bargain is out of balance. When the link between autonomy and accountability is broken, quality suffers.

Charter schools are growing rapidly. This rapid growth is powerful evidence that when empowered with school choice, parents will seek out better options for their children. And despite a small but vocal chorus of detractors, charter schools also enjoy broad public support and are one of the very few...

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The Louisiana Constitution allows lawmakers more freedom to design public education than its school boards and teacher unions would have us believe. So it’s no surprise that what is “public” today includes a largely charter school system in New Orleans, four publicly funded private-school-choice programs, a recovery school district, and the emergence of online charter schools.

The consolation for the families who opted for school choice is that this was always going to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court

That’s why it was frustrating to see a state judge declare late Friday that Louisiana’s newest and largest voucher program is illegal because it diverts “vital public dollars” to private schools. According to Judge Timothy Kelley, the state was wrong to fund its new voucher program by the same revenue stream that provides a “minimum foundation” to its public elementary and secondary schools.

That was the same argument put forward by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association when they sued to abolish the voucher program, which presently serves nearly 5,000 children in 113 private schools.

But what is the difference between privately operated charter schools and private schools accepting voucher-bearing students if each are held to account to parents and taxpayers?

Students receiving the Louisiana voucher have to take the same standardized tests as those administered at public schools, and the schools they attend can be ejected from the program if they consistently show poor performance—just like charter schools. But Judge Kelley clumsily asserts...

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We heard a lot about the role school choice can play in education reform this week at Jeb Bush’s National Summit (Bush himself called choice the “catalytic converter” of reform). But while the 900 people in attendance rhapsodized about transforming models of education delivery, there was little talk about how one state is trying to enhance choice by unbundling public education.

Rick Snyder
Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled a draft bill that would institutionalize choice and blended learning.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

To be sure, up until just this month, Michigan governor Rick Snyder has mostly sloganeered about school models that could impact students “any time, any place, any way, any pace.” But two weeks ago, Snyder unveiled a 302-page draft bill that would institutionalize choice and blended learning in ways that chip away at the artificial boundaries that have historically defined public education in Michigan and beyond.

But for some reason, Snyder can’t generate the national buzz that has inspired education reformers the way Mitch Daniels has done in neighboring Indiana or the way Bobby Jindal has done in Louisiana. That’s perplexing, because what Snyder is proposing is perhaps more transformative than what any of his peers have so far established in statute.

Consider what’s in his bill:

  • A high school education in Michigan would be
  • ...
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The Thanksgiving holiday may have drawn attention away from some noteworthy analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which called into question whether states should mandate special-education enrollment targets for charter schools, as New York State has done.

Why? Consider what CRPE found when it compared special-education enrollment patterns at charter schools and traditional schools throughout New York:

  • Enrollment patterns of high-need students at charter middle and high schools are indistinguishable from those at school districts;
  • Whatever discrepancy exists, it’s found mostly between charter schools and district schools at the elementary level;
  • And there is variation among charter authorizers; some authorizers oversee charters whose special education enrollments mirror those at district schools.

In other words, CRPE argues, a statewide difference in charter and district enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison. But even analyzing the variation at each grade level is no easy task. For instance, why would charter elementary schools concerned about their performance marks discriminate against special-education students if state testing doesn’t begin until the third grade? Could it be that charter schools are less likely to identify a student as having special needs (as the New York City Charter School Center has suggested) or that specialized district preschool programs “feed” a greater share of students into district elementary schools?

A statewide difference in charter and district special-education enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison.

The fact that these questions persist implies that the 2010 state legislature rushed these enrollment targets into law without waiting...

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The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program remains perhaps the most scrutinized voucher initiative of its kind, so it’s not surprising that it finally got a “review” from the Washington Post, and not a very positive one at that. The Post team determined that the program is subject to few quality controls and asserted that “the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management,” despite the fact that some schools collect more than 90 percent of their revenues from the voucher program.

Of course, governments have little to no say over the curricula at any private school that participates in any of the voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs that exist presently in fifteen states—as well they shouldn’t. But some state governments have, in recent years, held their voucher programs to account for producing decent results, and that’s where the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has fallen short.

Private schools that participate in the D.C. program must provide parents with the academic progress of their own children along with the aggregate performance of their children’s grade-level peers, but that’s as far as school-level disclosure goes. Students receiving vouchers must take standardized tests every year, but their results are not made public; they go instead to independent evaluators who determine the program’s overall academic impact.

By contrast, Republican-controlled statehouses in Indiana and Louisiana recently enacted voucher legislation that not only requires private schools to administer the same standardized test given at public schools but stops the flow of voucher money to schools that...

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That’s right!  It’s the release of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual “Market Share” report, which shows the percentage of students in major cities that are educated by charters.

I love this thing.  It is chronicling a renaissance in urban public education.

The report is a yearly reminder of the amazing growth of charter schools and, more importantly, the expendability of the urban district.

Anyone who doubts the premise of my new book The Urban School System of the Future (reviewed here by Checker, here by Education Next, here by Sarah Tantillo)—that we can move beyond the failed district structure and create a system of schools based on the principles of chartering—need only spend a couple moments with this document.

In 15 cities, a quarter of public-school-attending students or more are now enrolled in charter schools. See the following examples:

  • Indianapolis: 25%.
  • Cleveland: 28%
  • St. Louis: 31%
  • Kansas City: 37%
  • Washington, D.C.: 41%
  • Detroit: 41%
  • New Orleans: 76%

When charters began 20 years ago, no one imagined that this was possible—that this new way of delivering public education would provide the desperately needed alternative to the dreadful district system.

But before our eyes, chartering is replacing the district in America’s cities, showing that new schools can be started, failing schools can be closed, great schools can be expanded, and parents can exercise choice within public education.

You’ll find lots of other interesting tidbits in the report, including the...

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Charter schools in at least six cities and counties will benefit from local bonds and levies that voters approved on Election Day. Collectively, that means more than $500 million[1] of local tax dollars over the next several years for charter-school facility or operating costs in Cleveland; San Diego; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Metropolitan Denver (including school districts in Denver proper, Aurora, and Jefferson County). Why the sudden generosity in places that (with the exception of Denver) historically have barely tolerated charters, if that? Some charter leaders say school systems might have realized that it’s become harder to ask parents to pay higher taxes only for district schools when so many more of them are choosing charter schools for their children. Indeed, voters in these regions have joined a handful of other cities that, over the past few years, have set aside local dollars for charters by ballot initiative, when most districts and state legislatures still refuse to do so. Of course, voters might have never seen these ballot questions had it not been for legislators (like those in Colorado) who rewrote laws a few years ago, forcing districts to “invite” charters to discuss the needs of all public schools before requesting bonds or levies. But whatever the reason, the response from voters is encouraging: A whopping $350 million share of a $2.8 billion bond in San Diego will aid charter-school facility needs over the next several years; charters in and around Denver may see $150...

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Six days passed after Election Day before news outlets were comfortable reporting that Washington would be the 42nd state to allow charter schools. But a victory is a victory: 50.81 percent voters in the Evergreen State finally said yes to charter schools, after having said no three times before. What’s more, the measure succeeded in spite of the fact that the state’s largest county, which includes Seattle, rejected the initiative 52-48 percent. With such a polarized electorate, advocates and charter operators will have plenty of work ahead to assure voters—especially those in Seattle—that the forty schools they’re empowered to open over the next five years will add quality, innovation, and variety to a public-education landscape that has done little to accommodate a multiplicity of approaches. Given the fact that opponents to the initiative still hadn’t conceded defeat as of Monday night (there were still 237,000 votes to count statewide), and given the fact that supporters of the initiative outspent opponents by $10 million, that job won’t be easy.

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For those who can’t get enough of all things charters and choice, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has assembled the best commentary and analyses from Fordham’s Choice Words blog, as well as select items from Fordham’s popular (and sometimes irreverent) Education Gadfly Weekly, into a single monthly e-mail digest. The Charters & Choice Digest will guide readers through the triumphs, the quarrels, and the political foibles that accompany the growth of school choice and charter schools—and no cows will ever be sacred. Consider the contents of the inaugural issue: Election Day and the prospects of charter schools on both coasts of the country; Andy Smarick on the future of the urban school system; a charter school scandal and its implications for authorizers; and an exploration of how even “No Excuses” charters can improve. There will be essays, reviews of notable books and papers, and must-read stories on school choice nationwide. To sign up for the newsletter, visit here or send an e-mail to editor Adam Emerson, the director of the Fordham Institute’s program on parental choice....

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