Choice Words

A juvenile display of rhetoric over a proposed parent
trigger in the Florida Senate last Friday underscored a need to introduce some
clear-headed thinking into a polarizing debate. While senators in the Sunshine State killed
the trigger in their 20-20 split vote
, similar bills remain under
consideration in more than a dozen states. With that in mind, Choice Words has developed some
legislative guidance for more informative inquiry.

I would have done anything to stop the childish dialogue among Florida senators to ask these questions about the trigger.

Really, these are just the questions I’ve had about the
trigger, and I would have done anything to stop the childish dialogue among Florida senators to ask
them. Eight moderate Republicans joined 12 Democrats to vote the trigger down,
and nearly all of them were seized by the threat of “privatization” and
for-profit charter schools. Not a word on whether parents can take on the
burden of running a low-performing school or turning it over to a charter
manager. Not a word on whether it should require more than a simple majority of
parents to make such a drastic change. Legislators missed an opportunity to
bring clarity to a discussion now ruled by passion. For the Senate Democratic
minority leader, Nan Rich, the
trigger did nothing
but lay “the groundwork for the hostile corporate
takeover of public schools across Florida.”

For the legislator who...

Lawmakers in at least 10 states are considering a policy
shift that would bring more educational choices to an especially vulnerable
population of students: the special education voucher.  They are taking inspiration from a pioneering
effort in Florida,
the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, which already is
emulated in six other states. This program has saved taxpayers money while
satisfying participating families. What’s more, teacher unions seem disinclined
to mount a legal challenge to a program that benefits students with special
needs, though they remain eager to fight other voucher programs.

But are happy families and budget savings enough? What about
academic achievement? Do the private schools these kids attend teach them
anything? How does their performance compare with those of special-needs kids
who remain in public schools? Right now, we simply don’t know.

Currently, 28,800 special-education students receive
publicly funded private-school scholarships in seven states. Florida’s McKay program serves nearly 80
percent of those youngsters; according
to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus A. Winters,
it’s “a nearly ideal
template” for policy makers to consider. The Sunshine State’s
Legislature established it 13 years ago with the encouragement of then-governor
Jeb Bush, and today the program enjoys modest bipartisan support of a sort
seldom found with vouchers of any kind. Last year, the McKay program served
about 22,200 students, about 6 percent of the 340,000 young Floridians with
special needs...

Florida
is the next state poised to establish a “parent trigger,” should its
Republican-controlled Senate pass the measure when it reaches the floor during
the final days of a contentious legislative session. Designed largely after California’s model, the
bill adopts all the strengths of the trigger while addressing none of its
shortcomings. While the Golden State is the inspiration for ambitious lawmakers with
itchy trigger fingers, there is no indication they have learned anything from
the awkward and confusing rollout in California.

Instead, Florida legislators are
using taut political muscle
to join California, Mississippi and Texas in
the attempt to empower parents to go so far as to convert a failing school into
a charter—and they’re trying to maneuver the legislation through committee
stops while leaving little time for debate. But if lawmakers try to take this
out of the sunshine, they’re only going to sow the same confusion that has
frustrated Californians.

If lawmakers try to take this
out of the sunshine, they’re only going to sow the same confusion that has
frustrated Californians.

Only the second attempted trigger in California ended in failure two weeks ago.
Organizers at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto had, at one point, convinced
a supermajority of parents to sign a petition to trigger reforms before nearly
100 of them backed out. The Parent Revolution, which organized the Desert
Trails campaign, says
...

It’s almost become flippant for Democratic lawmakers to
disparage a school voucher as “a war on public education,” as Virginia
Senator Henry Marsh declared recently
in opposition to a tax credit scholarship
that
passed the state House of Delegates Wednesday
. But if it’s war Marsh sees, a
look at the numbers shows the conflict is pretty one-sided.

It’s almost become flippant for Democratic lawmakers to
disparage a school voucher as “a war on public education.”

Unlike many existing scholarship programs that award an
attractive dollar tax credit for every dollar in contributions, Virginia would allow
individuals and businesses to write off only 65 cents for every dollar they
donate to a nonprofit scholarship organization. And lawmakers capped state
funding for the program at a paltry $25 million a year. Even with these baby
steps, it took Republican Lt. Governor Bill Bolling to cast a tie-breaking vote
last week in an evenly divided 40-member Senate to pass the bill.

The vote was mostly along party lines, showing that Virginia
Democrats learned nothing from members of their party in Florida, particularly
those in the Black Caucus, who since last
year
have urged their brethren to look at this option differently. A
similar program in Florida awards taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for
their donations to a scholarship organization and is currently capped at $175
million. Even at these numbers, the Florida program has...

The researchers behind the School Choice Demonstration
Project have
given us their last word on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
, and the
news largely is good for the nation’s oldest school voucher enterprise. A
sample of voucher students made larger reading gains than their counterparts in
Milwaukee Public Schools and voucher students continue to show higher
graduation rates. But more significant may be the implication that higher
standards and accountability are partly responsible for the progress.

By the time the
project gathered data during its final year of study, the schools participating
in the voucher program were required to abide by a number of new regulations.
Besides requirements to adopt curriculum, instructional, and graduation
standards, the participating private schools had to test their voucher students
with the same assessments used in public schools, and each school had to report
the results. At a minimum, these new regulations “played a role” in generating
the achievement gains found in the final year of the study, said Patrick J.
Wolf, the project’s principal investigator and professor at the University of Arkansas.

The results show a need to further
explore the right balance between parental choice and state standards.

“We cannot determine conclusively how big a role the
accountability policy played, however, only that the combination of Choice and
accountability left the MPCP students in our study with significantly higher
levels of...

The Georgia House this
week took another step
toward exiling last spring’s state Supreme Court
decision prohibiting the state approval of charter schools to the history
books, where it belongs. If the Georgia Senate follows suit, voters will have
an opportunity in November to test whether Chief Justice Carol Hunstein was
correct in her assertion that Georgia
citizens are happy to secure “the now 134-year-old status quo.”

In May, Georgia’s highest court
disbanded the state’s charter school authorizing commission
, ruling that no
publicly funded educational enterprise is permissible unless first engineered
or christened by a local school board. A resolution that passed a supermajority
vote in the House on Wednesday would ask voters to reinstate the commission by
amending the constitution. This is significant, as Hunstein proclaimed that the
constitution limits authority over public education “to that level of
government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the
children being educated.”

This resolution puts authority squarely in the hands of the
taxpayer.

This resolution puts authority squarely in the hands of the
taxpayer and recognizes that nothing is more responsive or consequential to a
child’s education than the choice the parent makes on his behalf. The
commission created 16 charter schools before the court ruled it did so in
violation of the constitution, but the commission merely provided families the
lever to make the educational...

The failure to enact a parent trigger in Adelanto,
California, shows how difficult it is to campaign for the sweeping reform the
law allows, as it should be. If the parents at Desert Trails Elementary want to
either replace the instructional and administrative staff or convert the school
into a charter, it had better have the support of an overwhelming majority of
parents. The campaign had boasted that 70 percent of Desert Trails parents
supported pulling the trigger, but
the Los Angeles Times reported that
nearly 100 later backed out of the petition,
which the school board on
Tuesday threw out.

It should be difficult to campaign for the sweeping reform parent trigger
laws allow.

The effort may not have divided the school, as
a Times headline asserted earlier
this week
, but it certainly led a community of parents to splinter into
factions, including those who wanted to see change at a troubled school but not
a wholesale charter conversion. As more states like Florida
and Michigan
consider their own trigger laws, they should set the bar high to make sure that
transformational change is capable with only a supermajority of parents.

California’s law demands that a simple majority of parents at a low-performing traditional school
can petition for a charter conversion, and most states with trigger proposals
follow that formula. Ben Austin, the executive director of...

Rick Santorum
The GOP presidential hopeful is both a blessing and a curse for home-schooling advocates.
 Photo by Marc Nozell

The spotlight shining on Rick Santorum’s educational
philosophy is both a blessing and a curse for home-schooling parents and their
advocates. As the Los Angeles Times noted over the
weekend, the Republican presidential hopeful has emerged as the most prominent
home schooler in America, a fact that gives momentum to a movement that is
growing in popularity to include, by some estimates, nearly two million people
nationwide. But the same story also identified Santorum as the GOP leader who
“bashes public schools” and disparages the government’s hand in keeping
education mired in the Industrial Age.  

A greater range of home-school practitioners is making it
harder to draw broad conclusions about the movement, but most commentators and
journalists still see it far enough outside the mainstream to develop anything
more than a caricature. Hence, readers end up with nonsense like
that from Dana Goldstein
, who writes in Slate that liberals who home school
their children are violating their own progressive values by sowing distrust in
public institutions. But however unreasonable it might be for Goldstein to draw
upon extremes, Santorum’s weekend jeremiad only invites...

A high-performing charter network in Chicago cherished by
Mayor Rahm Emanuel got some lowbrow attention this week. The city’s esteemed
Noble Network of Charter Schools has been charging fees of children who rack up
a sizable share of demerits, and a group that would never be confused as a
friend of charters and choice thought
it would bring some attention to the practice
. The Chicago media have
lapped it up, mocking Emanuel’s previous reference to the school’s “secret
sauce” for student success while pointing now to evidence that Noble is
nickel-and-diming poor kids. But a cursory search through any number of
Catholic school codes of conduct shows that Noble’s policies aren’t so
extraordinary.

A cursory search through Catholic school codes of conduct shows that Noble’s policies aren’t so
extraordinary.

Let’s set aside the fees for a moment and consider the
“sauce” that makes up this particular charter network. State achievement test
data show that Noble beats the public school test score average. Families have
lined up for entry and the school has a long waiting list, despite – or maybe
because of – its strict disciplinary policies. It boasts a 90 percent
graduation rate, compared to 54 percent for Chicago Public Schools, and 91
percent of its graduating seniors go on to college.

It also puts a price tag on misbehavior. The student who
collects four demerits in two weeks...

As Adam wrote on Monday, the budget proposal that President Obama released this week zeroes out federal support for the D.C Opportunity Scholarship Program, backtracking on a budget deal the White House made with House Speaker John Boehner last year. Yesterday, the Choice Words editor explained Obama's decision and what it means for school choice in a WSJ.com interview, which you can stream below:

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