Choice Words

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...

I’ve been in Asia for other reasons (looking into the education of gifted students), but while on the ground in Tokyo, I learned of a fascinating policy dispute that, in the U.S., would be even more controversial.

Compulsory education in Japan runs through ninth grade, but nearly everyone goes to, and graduates from, high school (twelfth grade). Admission to individual high schools, whether public or private, is competitive, and the competition is intense to get into the best and highest-status of them. (At the one I visited the other day, 90 percent of successful entrants had attended juku—cram school—for multiple years to prep for the school’s demanding three-part entrance exam. Yet only 160 of 1000 applicants made it across the threshold.)

Though private schools play a smallish role at the elementary and junior high levels, they’re a big deal for Japanese high school students. A remarkable 30 percent of pupils nationwide attend them, and in the sprawling Tokyo prefecture, it’s as many as 60 percent.

During the postwar years, total enrollments were soaring, and the government determined that encouraging private schools was a bargain. They absorbed a goodly share of the added students at a low price for taxpayers, because parents and other private sources covered most of the cost of facilities and operation.

Along the way, each prefecture negotiated with its private schools a division of the total enrollment such...

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t care much for parental choice, but they care a lot about the credit-worthiness of school districts. A Moody’s report released this week shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with negative credit prospects due to the students they’ve lost. “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs,” the investor service reports.

Moody’s has its sights set on cities where more than a fifth of public school students are enrolled in charters. Its analysis, however, has several weaknesses and flimsy assumptions. The first has already been handily countered by Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who correctly notes that cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia were distressed long before charters enrolled a significant share of public school students. Charters may not have made their job easier, but these school systems have been creeping toward insolvency and negative credit ratings on their own just fine.

More troubling is the underlying message from this reputable and ubiquitous credit-rating agency: It tells policymakers that their interest in charters and other alternative measures of public schooling has severe consequences. Moreover, it assumes the only way for districts to deal with growing charter enrollments is to get or maintain higher revenues (the better...

It’s not a radical statement to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students. Virtually no significant research has found that they have academically harmed children.

That makes the popular narrative about school choice all the more frustrating. It says vouchers have done little good because the students who take public money to private schools don’t outperform their peers left behind in school districts. The mainstream press has advanced this story line, asserting that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.” The latest contribution to this comes from Politico, which concluded in a 1,600-word story this weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Such a declaration, however, distorts the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which are decidedly not mixed—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results. In that sense, the verdict on charter schools is mixed, but the judgment on vouchers is not.

The empirical record on vouchers reports either positive gains for scholarship recipients or no difference between voucher students and their public school peers, using a variety of student outcomes as an indicator (test scores, high school graduation, and college-going rates) and usually for a variety of student subgroups. Stephanie Simon of Politico correctly points to snapshots of voucher test results in...

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the gap that persists between charter schools and school districts when it comes to educating students with special needs. Today, CRPE has released a new report that challenges the assertion that charters are “pushing” away special-education students and questions laws that ultimately force charters to enroll more students with learning disabilities.

CRPE asked Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from the New York City Department of Education and from New York City charter schools to help explain why there are fewer special-education students enrolled at charters. New York charters are important because the state legislature three years ago passed a law that required charters to enroll a higher share of special-education children—or at least mirror the special-education enrollments at district schools.

Just as CRPE before found more nuance in the special-education gap between charters and school districts, Winters unearthed facts that should prompt New York lawmakers to reconsider their rash decision to rush enrollment quotas into law.

Specifically, Winters found the following:

  • Parents of Kindergarten-age students with disabilities—especially those with autism and speech impairments—are less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. This is the primary driver of the gap, Winter says. Perhaps these families see better opportunities for their young, learning-disabled children in school districts. Regardless, Winters concludes aptly, “It is difficult to hold [charter schools] accountable for the free choice of individuals deciding
  • ...

The conclusion seems so obvious: In a unanimous decision this week, Georgia’s Supreme Court said that the Atlanta school system cannot withhold funds from the charter schools it authorizes to help pay down an old pension debt that’s been building for decades.

But despite the good news for Atlanta’s charter schools, the fact remains that a major school district has shown how hostile it can be toward the charters it sponsors. Last year, Atlanta schools Superintendent Erroll Davis took $3 million from the revenues of eleven city charter schools so that charters could share the burden of an aging pension obligation that has grown to $550 million.

When lower courts told him he couldn’t do that (no charter employee benefits from this pension plan) Davis took his case to the state’s highest court and told his school board that it shouldn’t approve any more charters unless the Supreme Court gave him permission to seize the money.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. Charters have taken an increasing share of the public school market in Atlanta (charter enrollment grew 29 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), whereas school-district enrollment has been essentially flat at around 49,000 students during that time. Davis failed to convince the Supreme Court of his argument, but his fight tells us that districts that authorize charter schools sometimes have incentives to acquire revenues bound for charter schools or turn charters away altogether.

So...

Lamar Alexander

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I request that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights immediately withdraw the motion it filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in which it asked the court to bar the state of Louisiana from awarding vouchers that would enable low-income students in many areas of the state to attend private schools.  The motion, filed on August 22, 2013, alleges that the Louisiana Scholarship Program impedes federal court orders to desegregate 34 school districts with a history of legally segregated schooling.

While I acknowledge the Department of Justice’s responsibility to monitor compliance with federal desegregation orders, I believe that this motion constitutes unwarranted interference with an innovative state effort to expand educational opportunity for all students. 

The motion is misguided for two reasons.  First, any impact the voucher program has had on desegregation has been negligible, as is clear from the only two examples offered to the court.  In one school serving more than 700 students, 30 percent of whom were black, the departure of six black students with vouchers reduced the share of black students by less than one percentage point.  In the other, the departure of six white students had a similarly minute effect.  In both cases, the departure of students with vouchers caused their previous schools to drift slightly away from the racial composition of the district as a whole, the level of integration court orders use as a target.  Yet the motion alleges,...

This is not a good start for one of the newest states empowered to start up charter schools. The Associated Press has reported that the newly created Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board lacks the money and the leadership to do its job. It’s gotten so bad that the state’s charter association has asked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to contribute seed money to the board.

The worst part is this kind of trouble should have been anticipated. Until this year, Mississippi prohibited start-up charter schools; only low-performing public schools were allowed to seek charter status. But even though the state legislature has since approved the creation of independent charter schools, it budgeted no money for the state board that will authorize them and has demanded that the board’s executive director have a law degree. Mississippi governor Phil Bryant and Republican leaders made a lot of political concessions to get this charter law passed this year (the law allows no virtual schools, and districts with higher grades on the state’s report card can veto charter applications), but this neutering of the state charter authorizer shouldn’t have been one of them.

After twenty-one years of charter schooling, we know what it takes to do authorizing right, and this isn’t it. As a reference, consider what my colleagues Michael Petrilli and Ty Eberhardt wrote on the subject two years ago:

Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of effective...

Harlem Day is one of the oldest charter schools in New York City—and, historically, one of its most troubled. It has had nine principals in the nine years since its founding in 2001, and fewer than 25 percent of its students could read and do math at grade level. This was a case study for closure, but the school’s founder, Ben Lambert, made news when he proposed something radical to his authorizer, the State University of New York: He would step aside and replace his entire governing board just to keep the school alive and give his students a chance at salvation.

This compelling account comes courtesy of Public Impact, which has held up Harlem Day and a few other similarly positioned charter schools as paragons of what it calls the charter school “restart.” The restart is an alternative to closure—an alternative that Daniela Doyle and Tim Field at Public Impact say in their new report ushers in new leadership at problem-plagued charter schools but still manages to serve the same students.

It’s a good concept to promote but one that’s tough to pull off. The reason why Lambert’s move made headlines is because his act of self-sacrifice is so rare. Bad schools manage to survive often because their leaders and their governing boards won’t let go and someone (an authorizer, a friendly power broker) has accommodated their failure.

Doyle and Field aren’t so Pollyannaish that they don’t see that; they concede that one of the most oft-cited...

Eric Holder's Justice Department recently announced it would not target states that had chosen to legalize marijuana due to its "limited prosecutorial resources." The Obama presidency has shown us that "insufficient funds" is an exceedingly unlikely reason for inaction. Instead, this appears to be yet another example of the Administration’s willingness to pick and choose which laws passed by Congress it will enforce. I suppose some will take the DOJ at its word but, nevertheless, it's interesting to note where the nation's chief law enforcement officials are spending our precious tax dollars.

If liberty were the Administration's priority, you sure wouldn't know it by their school-choice policies. Instead of reducing violent crime and keeping what it still classifies—rightly or wrongly—as a dangerous drug off the streets, government lawyers are working feverishly to overturn the will of both parents and their state elected officials by denying educational options to potentially thousands of Louisiana children.

Louisiana’s 2012 school-voucher law allows low-income families with children in failing schools to choose a higher-quality option. The DOJ, relying on decades-old desegregation orders in thirty-four districts, is working to deny parental choice in the name of keeping schools integrated. This is especially puzzling given that studies have shown school choice often improves diversity. Some outstanding recent analysis on Jay Greene’s blog has found the government's argument in this regard to be splitting hairs at best.

Parents have not only a right but also an obligation to take advantage of the resources at their disposal to provide the best...

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