Charters & Choice

Congressional Republicans have promised to overhaul the No Child Left Behind act this year; the big debate so far has been whether to maintain the law’s annual testing requirements. At a hearing on the issue last week, Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), was clearly sympathetic to arguments by several witnesses that Congress should keep the testing mandate but dump the rules that prescribe how states must hold schools accountable for test results. As he summarized it for Time in an interview after the hearing, “You have to have the annual test. You have to disaggregate it. You have to report it, so we know how schools and children and school districts are doing. But after that, it’s up to the states, who spend the money and have the children and take care of them and it’s their responsibility to devise what’s success, what’s failure and [what the] consequences [should be].”

That Uncle Sam might back off of its demands that states intervene in failing schools has some reformers on the left on full alert. Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners—an alumnus of the Obama administration—considers it an abdication of responsibility, especially considering the $15 billion a year the feds spend on our schools via the Title I program. His colleague Anne Hyslop goes even further, saying it “eviscerates the federal role.”

I strongly suspect that these folks are going to lose the...

Today marks the start of National School Choice Week. Across the country, over 11,000 events will take place from the intimate (school open houses and homeschool how-to sessions) to the enormous (Capitol Rallies across the country); from our own gathering to online events. It is one week of the year during which the focus is on the benefits parents and children gain from having the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their needs.

School choice in Ohio comes in many forms, including public charter schools, private schools (and voucher programs that help needy students pay private tuition), open enrollment, STEM schools, vocational centers, post-secondary enrollment options, and home schooling. Among these choice options, charter schools have clearly become the most prominent feature of Ohio’s school-choice environment; they educate over 120,000 students, many of whom come from low-income families.

Given the high profile of charter schools, it is worth pausing on School Choice Week to honor the very best of Ohio’s charter schools. The table below is an honor roll of Ohio charter schools. It displays twenty-two charter schools that were ranked in the top ten percent in either the state’s performance-index score (student achievement) or value-added-index score (student growth over time). One school, Columbus Preparatory Academy, was rated in the top ten percent in both categories. An asterisk next to a school name indicates that the charter school made our top-quality charters list in 2012–13 (fourteen of the twenty-two schools are second-time recipients).

Table:...

If you could redesign a city’s education system from scratch, what would it look like? In New Orleans, a terrible tragedy created the need to do just that. Today, education in the city bears very little resemblance to what existed ten years ago. School types, locations, information systems, and application processes are now almost entirely market-driven to give parents the information they need and the schools they want. The unprecedented landscape change in New Orleans has also given rise to a unique opportunity to study school choice in “revealed preferences”: what schools parents actually choose, and not just what they claim to want in a survey, when they must make a choice. The new report from Education Research Alliance for New Orleans compares choice data from immediately pre-Katrina with data collected two different years post-Katrina, as additional information and options settled into place over time. First the good news: After Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores, average test scores increased across all students in the city, and even school bus transportation systems expanded (there’s no choice if you can’t get there). However, very-low-income families were less likely to choose schools with high test scores—even when those schools are easier to access than in a typical district system. But this is not entirely bad news; it is important, useful, and potentially game-changing for choice advocates.  The New Orleans study shows that a number of non-academic considerations (bus transportation, afterschool care, etc.) were not...

Before Christmas, we gave you the rundown of all the media outlets that focused on charter quality and policy thanks to two Fordham-sponsored reports:  Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) report on Charter School Performance in Ohio and Bellwether Education Partners’ The Road to Redemption: Ten Policy Recommendations for Ohio's Charter School Sector. The holidays are over now and we’re nearly a week into the new year and media outlets are still talking about the reports and largely concur on the need to improve Ohio’s charter sector. In case you missed the rash of editorials over the past two weeks, here’s a quick look at what they say:  

On Christmas Eve, Fordham’s Chad Aldis appeared in the Columbus Dispatch with commentary about the relationship between bad law and bad charter schools. He focused first on the results from the CREDO report, which found that Ohio charter students, on average, lose an equivalent of 14 days of learning in reading and 43 days of learning in math relative to their district peers. Chad pointed out that while these numbers are bad in their own right, they are even more appalling when compared to charter results from across the country. “Michigan charters add 43 extra days of learning in [reading and math]; and in Tennessee, charters provide an eye-popping 86 additional days of learning in reading and 72 days in math,” he said. “Charter schools can and do work in many other places, so why...

It’s been a busy month in the world of Ohio charter schools.

First, on December 9, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report on Charter School Performance in Ohio, supported by Fordham-Ohio. Using test data from 2007–08 through 2012–13, CREDO concluded that Buckeye charters produce mediocre results that haven’t improved much in recent years. In fact, the low academic performance of Ohio charter students is estimated to be the equivalent of fourteen fewer days of learning in reading and forty-three fewer days in math each year compared to traditional district students. Our summary of the findings spelled out the good news and the bad, but more importantly focused on the direction that Ohio’s charter sector needs to take in order to improve. We weren’t the only ones to take this tack.  

The Plain Dealer published two pieces on the CREDO report; the first largely focused on the “big picture” data points as noted above. In the second piece, education reporter Patrick O’Donnell noted that the "grim" results underscore an immediate need to improve charter quality. But he also pointed out that, unlike other areas of the state, Cleveland charters showed positive results—the equivalent of fourteen additional days of learning in both reading and math. The Plain Dealer also noted that CREDO’s research shows equivalent percentages of special education students and English language learners in charters and traditional districts—an important rebuke to charter critics’ claim that the percentage of such students is...

Welcome to a special Fordham-in-the-news edition of Late Bell. On the heels of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)’s study on charter school performance in Ohio, as well as Bellwether Education Partners'  examination of potential changes to Ohio charter law, we’ve assembled some of the relevant local and national news coverage of both publications for your perusal. Enjoy!

THIS MUST BE WHY CHECKER WEARS SPURS AROUND THE OFFICE
Speaking before an audience in Cleveland, CREDO’s director, Macke Raymond, depicted Ohio’s situation as “grim,” though she conceded that the city’s charter schools “are creating a positive result.” In the Plain Dealer’s synopsis of the talk, they recalled a NACSA characterization of the state as “the Wild, Wild West” of charter sectors.

FALL OF BYZANTIUM
The Daily Caller quotes Ohio State Auditor David Yost in its review of official reactions to both reports. In a statement, Yost described the state’s charter regulations as “byzantine” (great SAT word, everyone), asserting that they have given rise to “lax oversight by boards, conflicts of interest, improper spending and even criminal conduct by some rogue schools and operators.”

THE GOOD KIND OF AUDIT
Yost went on to laud the recommendations set forth in the Bellwether study, raising the hope that some could be enacted in the future under recently re-elected Governor John Kasich: “This report does a good job of pointing out where Ohio’s governance of community schools doesn’t work. We can do a lot of good...

Juliet Squire

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at Bellwether Education Partners' Ahead of the Herd blog.

We recently offered ten policy recommendations to address the discouraging performance of Ohio’s charter school sector. We think the building blocks of our recommendations (e.g., strengthening the autonomy/accountability bargain, improving authorizing, creating smart incentives) are relevant to all states, and we suspect the specifics of some recommendations might fit the bill in some states.

But our report was written in response to conditions in Ohio. Several provisions in the Buckeye State’s law are unusual, and after more than fifteen years of charter experience, Ohio can now see the long-term consequences of many of its policy decisions.

For instance, the legislature tasked the Ohio Department of Education with crafting an authorizer-ranking system that will help the state restrict low-quality authorizers’ ability to oversee charters. We believe this accountability boost (importantly, without any new burdens on schools) is necessary in Ohio because the state has so many authorizers, some of which oversee large numbers of persistently low-performing schools. In states with fewer authorizers, stronger authorizing practices, and/or stronger charter school performance, this novel policy is far less critical.

Similarly, in 2006, Ohio passed legislation to automatically close persistently failing charter schools. We call for strengthening that law, which currently has loopholes for schools serving specific student populations. If all Ohio charter schools were successful, or if all Ohio authorizers held their schools accountable, an automatic-closure law would be unnecessary....

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form at the Chartering Quality blog.

Back in 2006, NACSA, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued Turning the Corner to Quality, a tough report on Ohio’s charter sector whose message was summed up in its first major recommendation: “Clean House.”  There were too many failing charters, oversight had gone from bad to worse after the legislature removed chartering authority from the state education department, and the state’s charter cap was effectively shutting out strong operators.

In the intervening eight years, a lot of good things have happened, including successful charter ventures like Cleveland’s Breakthrough Schools;  a default-closure law that has eliminated twenty-four low-performing charters; and most recently, a concerted effort by the state agency’s Quality School Choice office, led by former NACSA staffer David Hansen, to bring accountability to the state’s multitudinous authorizers.

Yet the muck persists. Last week, CREDO at Stanford reported that on the whole, students in Ohio’s charters are getting fourteen fewer days of learning in reading and thirty-six fewer days in math than their counterparts in district-run schools.  There are some bright spots. Cleveland charters outperform the district; performance is better in charters for black students and those in poverty; middle schools do comparatively well; and there seems to be a trend toward improvement among urban charters. But overall performance hasn’t improved since CREDO’s 2009 Ohio study, and is particularly weighed down by woefully deficient results...

This fall, the editorial boards of two of Ohio’s most widely read newspapers issued stinging missives urging legislators to make sweeping changes to the state’s charter school law. In September, the Plain Dealer opined that lawmakers should “work together on a bill to improve charter schools.” One month later, in light of revelations about a questionable charter-facilities deal, the Columbus Dispatch argued that charter reform “should address questionable lease deals along with other loopholes, conflicts and oversights in Ohio’s charter-school system.”

They’re absolutely right: 120,000 Buckeye charter students deserve to attend a school governed by a great charter law—a law that puts the interests of children first. But at the present time, Ohio’s charter law too often fails to protect these students’ best interests; instead, in too many ways, it protects powerful vested interests, smothers schools with red tape, starves even the best schools, and tolerates academic mediocrity.

Predictably, overall charter school performance in Ohio has been lackluster. In the two most extensive evaluations of Ohio charter performance in 2009 and 2014, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that Ohio charter school students, on average, make less academic progress than their district counterparts. The 2014 results, released last week, estimated that charter students received an equivalent of fourteen fewer days of learning in reading and forty-three fewer days of learning in math.

But fixing...

NOTE: On December 16, 2014, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a report researched and written by Bellwether Education Partners with the aim of providing a strong roadmap to guide charter school advocates and policymakers in Ohio when moving forward with a broad rewrite of the state's charter school law. This is the Foreword to that report. The full report can be found here.

This fall, the editorial boards of two Ohio newspapers issued stinging missives urging legislators to make sweeping changes to the state’s charter-school law. In September, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer opined that lawmakers should “work together on a bill to improve charter schools.” One month later, in light of revelations about a questionable charter-facilities deal, the Columbus Dispatch argued that charter reform “should address lease deals along with other loopholes, conflicts and oversights in Ohio’s charter-school system.”

They’re absolutely right: 120,000 Buckeye charter students deserve to attend a school governed by a great charter law—a law that puts the interests of children first. But at the present time, Ohio’s charter law too often fails to protect these students’ best interests; instead, in too many ways, it protects powerful vested interests, smothers schools with red tape, starves even the best schools, and tolerates academic mediocrity.

Predictably, overall charter-school performance in Ohio has been lackluster. In the two most extensive evaluations of Ohio charter performance in 2009 and 2014, Stanford University’s Center for Research on...

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