Choice Words

President Obama is leaving us on the edge of our seats as to whether he will discuss certain topics in tonight's State of the Union address. But it is a near certainty that he will talk at length about economic mobility and poverty. While we think that's a good thing, we do wish the President would be more open minded toward policies with a proven track record in helping to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty, including school choice.

New legislation released today by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a complementary bill from Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) released earlier this month show that Republicans see education reform as a major part of their strategy to help our least fortunate neighbors.

Of the two proposals, Senator Alexander's Scholarship for Kids Act is the boldest and would fundamentally reshape the federal education-policy landscape in this country. He repeatedly emphasized in remarks today at the American Enterprise Institute that the program would be voluntary for states. Still, states with even limited school-choice programs could feel its impact. Much of the hype deals with the way it would bolster private-school-choice programs, but it would essentially supercharge any school-choice program, including those that allow charter schools or even public-school “open enrollment.” To do this, the bill allows approximately eleven million children to bring an estimated $2,100 scholarship to the school of their choice.

ESEA requirements dealing with assessments and reporting would remain, but many other mandates would be scrapped, as would about eighty programs, funding...

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Whitney Marcavage

The American Federation for Children applauds the folks over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for stirring up debate about academic accountability within private-school-choice programs via the release of their policy “toolkit” last week. It’s an important conversation to have.

As the only national educational-choice organization that works to elect state policymakers who support parental choice, lobbies for high-quality legislation, and ensures that the laws work for kids, we’ve got a pretty good sense of the policy and political questions regarding accountability in private-school-choice programs. 
We support accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs, and our model legislation spells out the very reasonable administrative, financial, and academic accountability measures we believe are necessary to ensure quality, sustainability, and growth in these vitally important programs. Transparency is important for both parents and policymakers, and AFC believes that voucher and scholarship-tax-credit students should take either state assessments or a nationally norm-referenced test and that the results should be reported publicly. It is perfectly reasonable (1) to know whether children enrolled in these programs are making academic progress and (2) to acknowledge and address the issue of whether poor-quality schools should participate in these programs.

It is also important to recognize that the children entering these programs are typically behind their peers academically, regardless of whether they are entering in Kindergarten or higher grades. It is not reasonable to use the snapshot of a voucher student’s first-year test score (state assessment or nationally norm-referenced test) to pass judgment on the school’s performance. It...

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As voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs have expand­ed in recent years, another promising development has been the incorporation into such programs of provisions that hold participating private schools to account for their students’ performance. The newest and largest voucher programs, such as those in Louisiana and Indiana, have gone beyond the familiar “let-parents-vote-with-their-feet-and-judge-the-school-by-whether-anyone-wants-to-attend-it” arguments and are doing more to assure parents and taxpayers that private schools accepting scholarship-bearing stu­dents will meet certain expectations regarding how much those youngsters actually learn.

Yet outcomes-based accountability in private-school-choice pro­grams is hardly a settled matter. Many proponents of such programs dis­agree on how to subject private schools to testing requirements or about how external standards will affect whatever is unique about pri­vate schools and why they’re worth choosing in the first place. Yes, there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that such downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in these choice programs.

We’ve assembled this toolkit to help with that design. The Fordham Institute supports private-school choice, done right. That means that policymakers should provide an array of high-quality choices—and hold providers accountable to parents and taxpayers in ways that are reasonable.

Our key recommendations

We’ve written model statutory language aimed at strengthening outcomes-based accountability in private-school choice. Readers will find it at the end of the toolkit. But there are three objectives that form the core of our proposal. We recommend that states

  • Require that all students
  • ...
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We’ve passed the time for standing by and patiently hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own. Or that the authorizers of such charters will solve this problem on their own. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my New Year’s resolution is to seize the promise of change and resolutely champion the effort to strengthen the quality of the charter sector across the Buckeye State.

I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies won’t likely yield much change. But timing is everything—and now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality schools.

The problem

Charters have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. We’ve been blessed with some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and hundreds other like them around the country, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of at-risk students. Yet too many other charter schools in Ohio (and elsewhere) have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In Fordham’s own recent review of Ohio charter performance, we found the urban schools in this sector overall performing at the same low levels as district schools. That just doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t do the state’s neediest kids nearly enough good.

The challenges in...

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Readers of this blog have come to expect news from around the country, analysis, cogent commentary, and best-practice policy recommendations. All of that has been in large part due to the efforts of Adam Emerson. Sadly for us, Adam has moved on to become the Florida Department of Education’s Director of Charter Schools. We want to congratulate Adam on his new position. We also want to thank him for his insight and leadership on parental-choice issues for Fordham and for getting Choice Words off the ground.

But as they say, the show must go on. We are extremely excited to be taking over the reins of what we’ll call “Choice Words 2.0.” We will continue to provide readers with insight and news, and we will bring our own penchant for data, analysis, deep dives, and a variety of lenses through which to look at all aspects of parental choice.

Please let us know what you want to see us cover and share with us your own insights on topics as we cover them. For those wanting to know a little more about us, we’ve described below the background and experiences that we’ll bring to this work.

Chad and Michael: Who We Are

Michael Brickman is national policy director at Fordham, where he is already a regular contributor to the Flypaper blog and other publications. He served in...

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According to the newest assessment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools regarding the charter sector’s share of the public school market, the number of school districts where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased about 350 percent since 2005. In thirty-two districts, at least one in five public school students is enrolled in a charter.

In New Orleans and Detroit (and, very soon, Washington, D.C.), the majority of public school pupils are charter students. The good news is that the top ten cities in terms of charter market share include some of the nation’s highest-performing charter sectors (New Orleans, D.C., and Indianapolis). The bad news is that some of the worst performers turn up on that list, too (namely, Philadelphia and three districts in Ohio, a state whose laggard charter performance has been well documented by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and my colleagues at the Fordham Institute).

When announcing this growth, NAPCS chief executive Nina Rees protested that nearly one million students are on charter waiting lists. Her lament is justified. But quantity and quality still aren’t matching up the way they should in this growing movement.

Two years ago, my Fordham colleagues Mike Petrilli and Ty Eberhardt also examined the progress of the charter sector but questioned its quality controls and urged charter leaders and policymakers to consider three main areas of reform: a) strengthening charter school authorizing, b) creating “smart caps” and...

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Arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools or charter school students are still bad ideas. At Fordham, we've consistently said so and kept a watchful eye on the fights to remove them. The idea hardly even belongs in conversations about education policy and, instead, represents a kind of education politics that comes about as part of the sometimes-ugly deal making necessary to enact or preserve reform. 

Charter school caps and an unhealthy emphasis on market share go hand in hand. A study out this week from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that a majority of students in both New Orleans (79 percent) and Detroit (51 percent) are in charter schools. Additionally, the District of Columbia continues to inch closer, with 43 percent of its students in charters during the last school year. While this may be seen as good news, especially given that all three cities have charter sectors that outperform their district counterparts, even those cities have individual charter schools that shouldn't be operating. Part of the reason the debate over ideas like school choice can be so contentious is that when one side says charter schools in a given city are great and the other side says they are terrible, both are right—because each sector (traditional, charter, and private) in every city has both strong and weak exemplars.

A cap restricts charter school growth and is blind to quality. While it's pretty straightforward to recognize that a cap might prevent a quality charter school from expanding, the reality is likely even more destructive. If...

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Jay Greene wants school-choice supporters to relax the testing mandates in the newest and largest voucher programs in the nation. Specifically, these programs require participating students to take their state’s public school assessment, which Greene likens to adhering to a “state vision of a good education.”

Let’s hope these supporters reject his appeal. It’s taken quite a push to get where we are now: a level of accountability in relatively few private school choice programs that may be partly responsible for their success and their political support. Hitting the reverse button would only halt the current momentum of the choice movement, while removing one of the few quality-control mechanisms in place for these programs.

To be sure, Professor Greene is not the first to raise concerns about the use of state assessments. His argument is by now familiar: Forcing government test mandates on private schools dilutes what makes these schools private and will force all schools to become cookie-cutter copies. What if families want something other than the state vision of a good education “encapsulated in state standards and testing?” Greene writes.

It’s not an unreasonable concern; Mike Petrilli, for instance, once pondered the conflict between public education’s “two p’s”—parents and the public. Allowing parents to access a multitude of choices—and not forcing them into the Procrustean Bed of public school—is one of the reasons those of us at Fordham support this reform.

But how much of a threat are the state tests in terms of...

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What good is it to offer an abundance of school options if parents don’t know about them?

It may have been heartening this week to see voters in New Jersey and Douglas County, Colorado, elect local and statewide candidates who have campaigned on the need to change the landscape of public education in a way that maximizes school choice. But the reality is that most families who could benefit from these options have no idea they exist. And that is what’s holding back the momentum of the school-choice movement.

Far too many school-choice advocates are still going door to door to promote charter schools, school vouchers, and the like, or they’re putting up billboards and running radio ads to reach their audience. I recently had the pleasure of leading a discussion on marketing school choice at the annual conference of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in San Diego, and I was blessed the insight of leading school-choice advocates who shared their work in the trenches. But it’s clear that the choice movement relies mostly on old-school marketing efforts when what we need is new-school sophistication.

Running billboard and radio ads and going door to door helps, but it’s not enough. Families need more independent information to make good choices, but there are few institutionalized avenues for parents to explore all their options.

To that end, I propose the following to align with the spread of public and private school options:

Common applications

Districts such as those in New...

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Quick! Name the Ohio school-choice program that has provided students the opportunity to attend a school not operated by their resident school district for the longest period of time. Charter schools? Nope, strike 1. The Cleveland voucher program? Try again, strike 2. Unless you guessed open enrollment, that’s strike 3. Before heading back to the dugout, read on to learn more about this established school-choice program.

Open enrollment, first approved by the legislature in 1989, allows school districts (if they choose) to admit students whose home district is not their own. Perhaps against conventional wisdom, it has become a popular policy for districts. We even analyzed the trend in an April 2013 Gadfly.

According to Ohio Department of Education records, over 80 percent of school districts in the state have opted to participate in some form of open enrollment. There are 432 districts that have opened their doors to students from any other district in the state, and another sixty-two districts have allowed students from adjacent districts to attend their schools.

This year's budget bill (HB 59) created a task force to study open enrollment. The task force is to "review and make recommendations regarding the process by which students may enroll in other school districts under open enrollment and the funding mechanisms associated with open enrollment deductions and credits.” The task force’s findings are to be presented to the Governor and legislature by the end of the year.

In a recent Columbus Dispatch article highlighting the...

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