Choice Words

The Connecticut General Assembly wisely tabled an aberrant lottery scheme for charter schools when it passed a sweeping education reform bill this week. An earlier version of the legislation that emerged from a caucus between Democratic leaders and union officials would have upended school choice by building enrollment at new charter schools with the names of students drawn from the district. Students would have been forced to opt out of the charter if they preferred their district school.

Charter schools are different by design and they develop their strength when parents, students, and teachers buy into their mission.

Lawmakers now want to study the “feasibility” of such an opt-out plan before rushing into it and ordered the state Department of Education to report back with recommendations in two years. This might be an agile way to retreat from a bad idea, but legislators should have killed the plan before committing state resources to its study.

Charter schools are different by design and they develop their strength when parents, students, and teachers buy into their mission. An opt-out lottery would tailor charters into one-size that tries to meet the needs of every student and turn them into the first schools of assignment. A New Jersey lawmaker who hatched a similar scheme last year realized the lottery would lead to chaos in both district and charter school offices that tried to plan for the school year. He’s no longer pursuing the bill. Connecticut shouldn’t be either.

The legislation the Connecticut...

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker may have been the bookends that roused the assembly at a school choice policy summit last week in Jersey City, but it was a largely unknown corporate representative who provided some sobering perspective.

Policymakers will initiate change quickly if they design their choice policies smartly.

That’s because it was Erika Aaron’s job to talk about what happens after legislatures win the fight to establish vouchers or tax credit scholarships, which Christie said had “the chance to get the most change, the most quickly.” No doubt, Aaron shared the same sense of urgency with others at the American Federation for Children’s annual summit, but she also reminded the participants that they’ll initiate change quickly if they design their choice policies smartly.

Aaron is the community relations director for Waste Management, Inc., which has contributed $16 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program alone as well as millions to similar programs in other states in exchange for a tax credit. But Aaron said the company is particular about where it redirects its tax liability, and a smart private school choice policy to Waste Management may not be the most disruptive.

Unlike voucher programs that receive direct taxpayer support, tax credit scholarship programs in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, just to name a few, need corporate support. While these companies receive a tax credit for their contributions, they do have the views of shareholders and employees to consider. Indeed, Aaron said she...

There is a student whose needs often go unmet by the schoolhouse and the statehouse—high-achieving, but not quite gifted, one who receives less attention from principals and policymakers focused on bringing the bottom up to proficiency.

High Flyers
For more on this issue read Fordham's study, Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.

So a lawmaker in Florida pushed successfully for a law that makes schools focus more attention on students at or near the top.

This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that establishes a minimum number of accelerated learning opportunities while making sure parents and students know how they can take advantage of those options (called Academically Challenging Curriculum to Enhance Learning options, or ACCEL). The measure was championed by state Representative John Legg, who feared that talented students were going through school unchallenged, especially in districts that paid little attention to accelerated learning.

Each of Florida’s sixty-seven school districts largely draft their plans for student progress by stressing expectations for meeting minimum standards, Legg says. Few highlight procedures for enrichment and acceleration. Without being overly prescriptive, Legg’s proposal brings more attention to high-flying opportunities, bringing its own set of uniform standards that serve as a baseline for greater innovation at the school level.

Specifically, the law now says that schools, at...

It’s primary season in statehouses nationwide, and that means that teacher unions will pit Democrat against Democrat by using the support of school vouchers as a wedge.

Teacher unions will pit Democrat against Democrat by using the support of school vouchers as a wedge.

An unexpected reminder of that came last week in the Wisconsin Democratic recall primary campaign for governor. The Wisconsin Education Association recently distributed a mailer claiming that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wanted to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The union supports Barrett’s opponent in the primary, and is now using a story from seven years ago claiming that Mayor Barrett supported raising the enrollment cap on the voucher program.

Barrett said then that he was willing to back the cap increase in exchange for more money for all public schools, and he has since repeatedly expressed alarm over the voucher program’s cost to local taxpayers. But that’s beside the point for the union and enough to force Barrett to spend energy on the campaign trail defending his support for public education.

This strategy has worked before. A Democratic candidate for Florida Senate named Terry Fields spent weeks addressing his past support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before ultimately losing a primary campaign against an opponent backed by the Florida Education Association. Both were seeking to represent an impoverished community in Jacksonville, where thousands of students benefit from the voucher. Before his loss, Fields meekly added that he wouldn’t support expanding the program...

The Philadelphia school district’s plan to lift itself out of financial and academic distress may have overshadowed a profound development this week for Catholic education in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Archdiocese agreed Monday to join a compact with public and charter schools in the city to make sure that kids have access to quality schools.

Two conditions of the agreement make this momentous and should give Catholic leaders throughout the nation something to consider:

  • This so-called Great Schools Compact will add Philadelphia’s Catholic schools to an online clearinghouse being developed that will provide families information on public, charter, and Catholic education in the city, and;
  • The Archdiocese will make its standardized test-score data available for that clearinghouse. Most Philadelphia Catholic schools currently administer the Terra Nova, but the Archdiocese has signed on to the Common Core State Standards.
The Archdiocese also has pledged to do something most Catholic schools have not: open up student performance to public scrutiny.

Finally, a group committed to enhancing urban public education has recognized that the urban Catholic school shares a common purpose, and the Great Schools Compact is doing more than paying lip service. But the Archdiocese also has pledged to do something most Catholic schools have not: open up student performance to public scrutiny.

Most Catholic schools fail to disclose test scores and other key indicators of student achievement. While regulations accompanying voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Florida will soon be changing that practice,...

Imagine a law that forces your family into a charter school lottery, a law that doesn’t care whether you would choose a charter or not. The burden is on you to refuse the seat and a family who does want the seat is waiting for you to act.

Such a law may only be a few legislative steps away in Connecticut. Democratic leaders in the state General Assembly have hitched this “opt-out” lottery to a sweeping omnibus bill that covers reforms that range from teacher quality to school improvement, and where better to bury it? Many provisions in Senate Bill 24 have generated heat over tenure reform and charter school funding, distracting the public from this perversion of parental choice in education.

SB 24 twists the concept of choice and could decimate the progress charters have made in the Nutmeg State.

The lottery would be imposed on all new charter schools and would draw from the names of every student from the district in which the charter operates, leaving it to the family to accept or decline the spot. The provision emerged from a closed-door meeting with union leaders and the Democratic chairs of the state’s joint education committee and follows attempts in at least one other state to get around the issue of “creaming” in school choice.

Indeed, an opt-out scheme may position more English language learners and special education students for entry in charter schools, but it would do so by making charters the first schools...

Before the real estate bubble burst, there was an emerging literature on the link between government regulation of housing and home prices. Heightened zoning restrictions, the conclusions went, drove up the cost of housing. Now the Brookings Institution has added something new to consider: Zoning regulations are segregating cities by income and race and leaving quality schools available to mostly higher income families.

Housing costs are 2.4 times greater near a better performing school.

After surveying 100 metropolitan areas, Brookings analyst Jonathan Rothwell found that housing costs are 2.4 times greater near a better performing school, as judged by state test scores, than near a lower performing school. Zoning, Rothwell told Education Week, “is an underlying problem.”  Exclusionary zoning has priced lower income families out of high-flying schools in higher-flying neighborhoods where population density is low by government design and where fewer people own larger houses and more acres of land.

By loosening or even eliminating restrictive zoning, cities may see housing cost gaps narrow by as much as 63 percentage points and see school achievement gaps narrow as a result, Rothwell writes.

Naturally, Rothwell has an affinity for school choice, including district choice plans, charter schools, and school vouchers, because the practice helps to neutralize the effects of zoning. It’s no surprise that Fort Myers, Florida, shows some of the lowest test score gaps between lower and higher income students in the Brookings report. The Lee County school district has a more robust district choice policy,...

It’s hard to identify the political motivations that drove Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto an expansion of the state’s publicly funded savings accounts to help more disadvantaged students pay for private education. But we do have her explanation, one that pretends the expansion of private school choice would “artificially manipulate” the market to the disadvantage of public schools.

This fear of an “unlevel playing field” is a milder variant on the assertion that school vouchers would “virtually abolish public education,” as the head of the Lousiana teachers union told the Wall Street Journal for a story today. But it’s all the more surprising coming from a Republican governor who has supported school choice for the Grand Canyon State in the past. Does Brewer really agree with voucher opponents who insisted that last year’s adoption of education savings accounts for special education students was really just the camel’s nose in the tent, heralding doom for public education? Her veto suggests this much.

That few Arizona reporters would challenge Brewer’s explanation or express shock that she was the one making it shows how ingrained this narrative has become since the 1970s. At that time, United States senators including Daniel Patrick Moynihan were sponsoring legislation that would award tuition tax credits to parents who opted for private or parochial education. The opposition insisted this would inspire families to flee their neighborhood school.

Moynihan grew more exasperated by August 1978 when he took to the floor of the Senate...

An urban wasteland in the industrial Midwest shows how a portfolio approach to public education can inspire even the most disadvantaged families to “shop” for the right school.

Nearly three-quarters of parents in Detroit have shopped for a school for their child, whether the options included a traditional public school, a magnet school, a charter school, or a private school, according to a think tank in the Wolverine State called Michigan Future Inc. Moreover, fifteen percent of the families the think tank surveyed opted for a public school outside the district.

“Seventy percent are actively shopping rather than letting the government tell them where to go—that’s huge,” Michigan Future President Lou Glazer told The Detroit News.

Glazer says the study represented one of the most aggressive attempts nationally to further explain how families, especially those who are low-income, think about their school options in an urban area. Researchers spent last summer knocking on the doors of 1,073 households to collect data on 1,699 schoolchildren, eighty-five percent of whom were black and sixty-eight percent of whom came from households where incomes that fell below $30,000.

The Detroit school district has lost more than 100,000 students in the past decade, but fifty-five percent of the families interviewed said they sent their children to a district school. Twenty-three percent opted for charter schools. The fifteen percent of families who chose schools outside Detroit took advantage of a state law that allows cross-district enrollment.

Forty percent said they chose their school based...

Louisiana became the latest state to embrace the introduction of school vouchers, but the legislative moxie it showed should stimulate a new conversation about private school choice and accountability.

The legislative moxie Louisiana showed should stimulate a new conversation about private school choice and accountability.

When lawmakers last week approved Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to award vouchers to low-income children, they also ordered state schools Superintendent John White to develop a system that holds participating schools accountable for the performance of their voucher students. Critics say this lacks specificity, but it’s almost revolutionary compared with most voucher regulations nationwide.

Louisiana’s law may be similar to a voucher program Indiana lawmakers approved last year in that it requires participating students to take the same assessments administered at public schools. But even voucher supporters in the Pelican State had a hard time defending against tougher accountability standards in a state known for its low-tolerance of poor-performing schools.

So now that low-income students in schools graded C through F have a greater array of public and private options available, this is a chance for White and the Department of Education to design what my Fordham colleagues have called “accountability, done right.”

The degree of scrutiny and potential consequences for poor performance should be proportional to the number of voucher students each private school accepts. The Fordham Institute in 2009 advocated a sliding scale of accountability, whereby regulations might be heightened for private schools that receive more public revenue.

In our collective...